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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Foodie Travels: Charlie Vergos Rendezvous, Memphis, Tenn.

North Carolina has always been my home, but my heart for barbecue has always been in Memphis, Tenn. Unfortunately, until recently that penchant for Memphis-style barbecue only lived through the enabling of national brands that emulate the tradition.

No longer.

img_1183We recently spent a couple days in Memphis, “the pork barbecue mecca of the world,” as the history reads on the website for Charlie Vergos Rendezvous, the location of my first authentic Memphis BBQ experience. And what a baptism in barbecue paradise our dinner at “The Rendezvous” was.

Just a few blocks from iconic Beale Street, The Rendezvous is tucked away, the entrance off an alley in the city’s downtown. You know you’re close to the place when you catch the whiff of the pork aroma in the breeze between the tall buildings surrounding you.

Seeing the crowd, we expected a solid wait to savor the taste that accompanies the fragrance, but that was not the case. Almost as soon as our names went on the wait list, we were called to our table for two and our rendezvous with a barbecue masterpiece.

For me, the type of barbecued meat I order stems from the location where it’s prepared. In Texas, I had to sample the brisket. In North Carolina, it’s the chopped pork. In Memphis, and at Charlie Vergos’ establishment, I had to try the ribs, known for their dry-seasoning rub and signature vinegar wash to seal in the moisture.

Our waiter (more on the wait staff in a moment) smartly urged me to purchase a full order instead of the half size. And it turns out he wasn’t just trying to make a sale. For $3 more, he wanted to make sure I fully immersed myself in the foodie experience that is The Rendezvous’ ribs.

img_1196Pull-apart tender. Cooked to perfect doneness all the way to the bone. A seasoning that delights ALL of the senses. Ten meaty pieces, each more pleasurable than the last, until the final rib that makes you wish you lived in Memphis to visit for dinner at least once a week. That’s how I would describe the ribs at this “mecca” of barbecue.

In addition to sampling one of my ribs, Molly enjoyed an incredibly flavorful barbecue chicken sandwich, with a delicious smoky taste enveloped by a hearty, soft bun. And both of our main courses were accompanied by a side of wonderful baked beans and slaw, which offered a unique mustard base in lieu of the mayonnaise base that we’re accustomed to in our home state of North Carolina.

As heavenly as the food at The Rendezvous is, the price you pay also provides a front-row seat to a unique dining experience. The place has been a Memphis mainstay, just a short distance from the Mississippi River, since the 1940s, and you get the feel of an old-time eatery in the décor of the building and the presentation of the wait staff. Many of the waiters have served at the restaurant for decades, and you can tell from the smiles on their faces that they enjoy their jobs every night.

There are so many places in Memphis, Tenn., to experience “Memphis-style” barbecue, and specifically ribs. From our experience, I don’t see how any of them could top Charlie Vergos Rendezvous.

 

Charlie Vergos Rendezvous

52 S. Second St., Memphis, Tenn.

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