Foodie Travels: McClard’s Bar-B-Q, Hot Springs, Ark.

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As I’ve traveled this vast food nation of ours, I’ve noticed a striking response from many of the restaurants I’ve shared with other diners. Some folks seem to have a penchant for high-end restaurants in modern, museum-like spaces that serve expensive, “premium” food that barely fills the center of the plate. Others appear to prefer the cliché chain establishments that all have the same menu of good but unmemorable food, served very much in a cookie-cutter style.

McClard’s Bar-B-Q doesn’t fit into either of those categories. And that’s just the kind of spot I’m always seeking when I’m ready to sit down for a good meal anywhere across the country. Yes, McClard’s is part of a class of restaurants that is unique, iconic and customer-focused, all while serving delicious one-of-a-kind plates you can’t get just anywhere else. That’s also the take of a review on the restaurant’s website. Academy Award-winning actor F. Murray Abraham says:

“I am an actor and have made movies all over this great land. I’ve eaten BBQ from Kansas to Missouri to the Carolinas to Alabama, and McClard’s is the best, no doubt about it. I’ve eaten there many times and everything they make is so good, I just don’t understand why there isn’t a McClard’s everywhere I go.”

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I can’t disagree with those sentiments. I’ve enjoyed barbecue of all kinds (pork, ribs, brisket, burnt ends) from Texas to Kansas City to Memphis to Birmingham to the Carolinas, and McClard’s is right there in the mix for the greatest Q out there. We made a planned visit during a day at Hot Springs National Park, and my wife, Molly, and I found just what we were looking for when we scoped out the joint months in advance. (You’ll find McClard’s is listed by Thrillist as the must-visit restaurant in all of Arkansas.)

As we sat down and were about to order, it was a tough choice for me—chopped pork or ribs—until I saw a few plates coming out of the kitchen. I had the plentiful rib plate with beans and slaw. The ribs were incredibly meaty (an issue with other ribs that I’ve previously discussed on other posts), and the sauce had just the smoky-sweet flavor I’m looking for in a wet sauce. (Dry rubs are another ballpark altogether, and I like both.) The beans possessed a meaty taste and just a little bit of spice kick. Everything cooled down with the creamy coleslaw to round out my plate.

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Molly enjoyed a hearty, fresh cheeseburger and decided to add a tamale on the side. Now, it’s the first time in all of our barbecue experiences that we’ve seen a BBQ restaurant serve tamales. We were almost suspect to try them, but we love a good tamale. McClard’s is the spiciest, softest tamale we’ve ever eaten. For those who like a strong punch in the tastebuds, it’s a must-try.

That’s how I’d also categorize McClard’s as a whole. When you drive up and park, you smell the smoky barbecue as soon as your vehicle door opens. You spot the cooking pit out back. You hear the local crowd inside the dining room as the restaurant door opens. Folks around you are wearing Arkansas Razorbacks gear.

Maybe there is one thing on which I disagree with Mr. Abraham. McClard’s Bar-B-Q is certainly among the best I’ve ever had. But the fact that there’s only one location, established in 1928, is just fine with me. If there was a McClard’s on a corner in every town, it just wouldn’t be as unique, as special and as Arkansas. No, I love McClard’s just how and where it is. When it comes to great places to have a meal, it’s just what I’m looking for every time.

McClard’s Bar-B-Q, 505 Albert Pike, Hot Springs, Ark.

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