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: Carolina BBQ, Spartanburg, S.C.

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I’ve savored barbecue from corner to corner of North Carolina, but South Carolina is a different story. I realized recently that I couldn’t name even one prime barbecue restaurant in South Carolina that I could recommend to a BBQ-loving friend. So, of course, we had to change that.

Earlier this year we came across Carolina BBQ—perhaps the most common name for a barbecue restaurant in either of the Carolinas (seriously, there’s one almost everywhere it seems)—and I added it to my #FoodieScore scouting list for the state of South Carolina. (We receive a lot of “you have to eat here” recommendations, and each one goes on a list that changes almost daily. Thank you for your great suggestions!) Luckily, Carolina BBQ is in Spartanburg, which is about a 90-minute roundtrip from our home in Shelby, N.C. And it just so happens to also carry Southern Living magazine’s endorsement as the best barbecue in the state of South Carolina.

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Normally, I’d classify barbecue restaurants into two categories, legendary dives and modern Q shacks. Carolina BBQ is almost a solid hybrid of the two. From the outside of the place, you almost get the sense you’re about to venture into a decades-old kingdom of delicious meats and sides. When you walk in the door, it feels like a new-age take on the old lunch counter experience, with bar-and-stool and booth seating available.

Then you hit the menu, and you continue to toe the line of old school and new school. Carolina BBQ plates a hearty assortment of Carolinas BBQ favorites. We’re talking pulled pork (always my first meat choice at a Carolinas BBQ establishment, and theirs was a nice mix of meaty and seasoned), sliced pork and half chicken, the stuff you read on the menu of an iconic barbecue spot. But keep reading because there’s also St. Louis ribs, beef brisket and smoked turkey, and that’s just the meat.

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The side dish lineup is strong, including creamy, thick, hearty mac & cheese, the biggest fried squash you’ve seen in your life, creamy and crunchy coleslaw, and quite possibly the best Brunswick stew I’ve ever eaten. For folks not familiar, Brunswick stew is a thick soup that usually contains lima or butter beans, vegetables like potatoes, tomatoes and corn, along with shredded meat and spices for flavor. A cup of Brunswick stew is the perfect warmup on a cold day, and I’ve eaten my share of it from my days living in Eastern North Carolina. Carolina BBQ’s stew will also delight folks who are more familiar with the term “chili” or “chili beans” due to its warmth, richness and spice kick.

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Of course, a restaurant’s barbecue sauce of choice is always a heady question, and that’s one place Carolina BBQ functions as more of a modern Q shack. There’s no one sauce to rule them all. You get three on the table. When I think of South Carolina barbecue as shared by the traveling experts, I think of a mustard sauce, and Carolina BBQ’s is a good one, with a solid influence of mustard but almost a smoky-sweet side to it as well. There’s also a “mild” sauce that, to me, had more of a kick to it. And finally there’s a Cheerwine sauce that tastes more like Cheerwine than any Cheerwine BBQ sauce you’ve ever had in your life. If you love Cheerwine, you have to try it first, especially if you’re not already drinking the soda by the same name, so you can tell the difference. The sauce is a ringer for the taste of the North Carolina-based soda that celebrates 100 years in 2017. I had to sample all three sauces in separate areas of my plate, and I couldn’t pick a clear favorite. They’re all good.

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My pork plate came with two sides AND four hushpuppies (so did my wife Molly’s savory smoked turkey plate, of which there was so much that she took half home), so we had plenty to eat without dessert. But how could we resist either the deep-fried brownie bites or homemade banana pudding? We went with the banana pudding, which is unlike most you’ll find in our part of the South. The pudding is sweet, light and almost airy, not heavy at all, filled with fresh banana slices, and all on top of a crunchy pecan sandie-like cookie base. When you dig in with your spoon, dip all the way to the bottom to get a solid crunchy bite of that cookie as you scoop up through the pudding, the bananas and the whipped cream. For someone who likes to get creative in the kitchen, the Carolina BBQ banana pudding is a delightful new take on the classic Southern dessert.

Carolina BBQ offers both the classics as you’ve come to love them and favorites with new twists—and we loved both angles—so I might have to create a new “hybrid” category to describe similar barbecue restaurants. One thing’s for sure: This Spartanburg Q shop has plenty of choices for you, and they’ll all come at an affordable price. We savored two plates, two drinks and dessert for $23. Not bad at all for a filling Saturday dinner!

Carolina BBQ, 7115 Lone Oak Road, Spartanburg, S.C.

Simple, Versatile Slaw

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I ate many church suppers growing up in the Methodist church. We attended hot dog suppers and poor man’s suppers (usually beans and bread with no meat), often as fundraisers for various ministries. One common food that often found its way onto the menu was slaw. It was a sweet, crunchy slaw, usually made by some of the Methodist Women, and it’s that flavor memory that sticks with me as what the best slaw should taste like today.

In modern kitchens and restaurants, slaws can be some of the more versatile accompaniments to a variety of meals. My wife, Molly, loves slaw with her pinto beans. I love slaw on top of hot dogs and other sandwiches. We both love the crunch and flavor of slaws on creative tacos. I’ve even found that a tasty slaw can serve as a delicious dip with your favorite crackers or chips.

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Pork Chop Sandwich with Homemade Slaw

In the #FoodieScore kitchen, we’ve concocted slaws with several different base vegetables, most commonly either cabbages or carrots. After some experimenting, we believe we’ve arrived at a recipe we agree has the best flavor with the most applications, and it’s the closest I’ve come to replicating that delicious Methodist supper slaw of my youth.

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Hot Dog with Homemade Slaw and Chili

While we don’t suggest this particular slaw as much for tacos—a slaw for tacos usually works better with longer strips of vegetable to leverage more crunch and flavor against your meat and tortilla—this recipe provides a nice texture and sweetness for your pinto and hot dog style uses. And we love that it’s something you can whip up very quickly, though we suggest letting it sit in the fridge for a few hours to cool and maximally blend the flavors.

Ingredients

½ head of cabbage (2-3 pound cabbage)

¾ cup sugar

¾ cup Duke’s mayonnaise

Directions

  1. Use a food processor to finely chop your cabbage. You don’t want it minced to the point where your slaw will be mushy once it sits, but you’re not looking for long strips here either.
  2. Add the cabbage to a mixing bowl and blend together well with your sugar and your mayo.
  3. Cover in a pop-top container and sit in your fridge for a few hours. While you can add the slaw directly to your food, I’ve found I prefer it chilled. And the more days it sits, the better the flavors blend, even after mixing.

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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Creative Southeast-Style Fish Tacos

The recipe is a missing ingredient when I approach the kitchen. There are very few things I cook that follow an actual tried-and-true recipe with measurements. Something thrills me about looking in the fridge and the pantry and creating a meal. Maybe that’s a trait I developed during my bachelor days. And maybe that’s why many of my posts in this space are restaurant adventures; I cook often, but I rarely use a recipe that’s very shareable.

Cooking is a therapy for me, and there’s very little that’s therapeutic about sweating what expensive ingredients I need to pick up at the store and how carefully I follow someone else’s directions. It’s the creativity that makes the whole experience fun and flavorful.

That’s the case with these “Southeast-Style Fish Tacos” I made up on a recent Sunday afternoon. We cook a lot of homemade Mexican in our house, and we usually keep things incredibly simple. This on-the-fly “recipe” is easy, too.

Here are the basic parts of the plate: Fish, Tortilla, Sugar Slaw, Garlic-Onion Aioli

Molly makes amazing homemade tortillas, but for this “dish” we used store-bought. We always prefer flour.

The fish can be any fish you like. To be truly “Southeast” I’d suggest something like a catfish that you commonly see here in North Carolina. You could also use a flounder or a tilapia. We had fresh-cooked salmon on hand, so that’s what I used, lightly seasoned with a little paprika and fresh-squeezed lime juice. I cooked the salmon on a medium-high heat for about 6-8 minutes on each side, just enough to cook it through and through without losing any of that beautiful flaky texture and light pink color.

For the slaw, I took 2 cups of fresh red cabbage (great for color), 2 teaspoons of white sugar and 2 teaspoons of brown sugar, and a teaspoon of milk to add a little liquid to break down the sugars a bit faster. I mixed the slaw in a bowl and then flash-froze it for about 15 minutes. The combination of two basic sugars in the slaw is one reason I call this “Southeast.” There are many variations of Asian slaw out there that have a sweet ingredient, but the sugar just seemed to place this in the Southeast United States.

The aioli was a combination of a 1/2 cup of mayonnaise, a teaspoon of onion powder, a teaspoon of chopped garlic and a teaspoon of garlic salt. This sauce was intended to give the aioli a bit of a quick kick that would counter the sweetness of the slaw and the citrus spice of the fish. The mayo in this ingredient is another reason I refer to this as “Southeast Style.”

I spread a few lines of the aioli on a warm tortilla, added a few strips of freshly cooked fish (the salmon in our case) and then topped the plate with a healthy pinch of the slaw.

It took about 30 minutes to put this dish together, from the moment I gathered ingredients to the time we took our first bites. Let me know what you think of the concept and the dish if you try it, and feel free to share with me in the comments below what you think about my approach to cooking. Eat well!

Molly’s Take: As a big fan of White Duck Taco in Asheville, I have to say, this is the closest we’ve come at home to replicating the explosion of flavor and fresh ingredients you’ll find in one of their tacos. The three parts of this taco were each incredibly flavorful – the citrus-y, grilled salmon; the crispy, cool slaw; and the salty, saucy aioli. I don’t always rate dishes on our blog, but I give these easy tacos an A+ for originality and taste.

Matthew’s Take: Obviously, I love this approach to cooking, as I said above. But I was also quite pleased with how these tacos came out. We feature beef, chicken, fish and shrimp in tacos at our house on a regular basis, and this particular combination varied from the homemade pico de gallo, rice and beans we normally use to accompany the main ingredients. I really liked the flavor combination of the sweet slaw and the spice of the aioli, along with the hearty lightness of the fish. And I ultimately decided that cabbage holds up much better in a taco than the oft-used lettuce.