Archive for the ‘Restaurants’ Category

Along U.S. Highway 82

Thursday, July 7th, 2016

The primary mission on the last Saturday in June was to make it to the Purple Hull Pea Festival and World Championship Rotary Tiller Race in Emerson so Paul Austin and I would have plenty to talk about on our next segment of “Chewing The Fat With Rex And Paul” on 88.3 FM in Little Rock.

Mission accomplished.

Of course, Paul and I couldn’t be satisfied with just that.

Paul had never been to the original Burge’s in Lewisville (an establishment I frequented years ago when I was the sports editor of the Arkadelphia newspaper and would make regular trips south to Louisiana Downs), and neither of us had ever had dinner in Garland (some call it Garland City), the Catfish Capital of Southwest Arkansas.

We headed west on U.S. Highway 82 from Magnolia to Texarkana.

I like this area deep in south Arkansas, having grown up in Arkadelphia while making frequent trips to Magnolia for athletic events at either Magnolia High School or what’s now Southern Arkansas University. Arkadelphia’s Badgers and Magnolia’s Panthers were in the same district. SAU was in the old Arkansas Intercollegiate Conference with Ouachita Baptist University and Henderson State University. So we would drive to Magnolia often for football and basketball games, always stopping just off the downtown square for a meal at the Chatterbox and a warm greeting from the owner, Mr. Duke.

“Relative isolation and transportation difficulties have long been a problem for Columbia County,” my friend Mike McNeill writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “Columbia is the only one of Arkansas’ 75 counties not situated on a river. The county’s creeks and bayous were more of an impediment than an aid to early travelers because they were too narrow and shallow to support water traffic. The swampy conditions of the upper Dorcheat Bayou in Columbia County did not allow for practical use by boats. Rain made travel conditions worse. Only the arrival of railroads made it possible for Columbia County residents to enjoy a dependable year-round transportation option.”

The first railroad to enter the county was the St. Louis, Arkansas & Texas Railroad in the fall of 1882. That railroad led to the creation of the towns of McNeil and Waldo.

“Cut off from the planned railroad, civic leaders in Magnolia resolved to have a spur line built to the city,” McNeill writes. “They pledged $6,000 in cash and property during a single meeting in 1881 and eventually raised more than $20,000 toward this goal. The branch was completed in 1883. Growth of railroads was also responsible for the creation of two Columbia County communities that remain incorporated today, Emerson and Taylor. The Louisiana & North West Railroad was built between Magnolia and points in Louisiana in 1899. The town of Emerson in the southeastern part of the county was created and later incorporated in 1905. There was a post office in Taylor years before the Louisiana & Arkansas Railroad was built through the southwestern portion of the county in the 1880s. The town was incorporated in 1913.”

Cotton and corn were the cash crops in the county. A group of businessmen formed the Magnolia Cotton Mill in 1928, and it was the county’s largest manufacturer for many years. True prosperity, however, came with the discovery of oil and gas fields in the late 1930s.

McNeill notes that the “employment situation had changed so drastically by 1942 that County Judge J.B. McClurkin issued a proclamation saying that all able-bodied men who did not have jobs would be arrested for vagrancy. … Magnolia grew steadily after World War II with the city’s population more than doubling between 1940 and 1960. Housing construction filled in the two miles between downtown Magnolia and the SAU campus to the north. This period also witnessed the construction of Magnolia’s two tallest buildings, the five-story McAlester Building and the five-story Magnolia Inn.”

There was even airline passenger service from 1953-62 from Trans-Texas Airways before production from the oil and gas wells began to decline and population growth slowed.

“While the importance of oil and gas drilling declined, a new natural resources industry arrived in the mid-1960s as chemical companies discovered the high bromine content of brine located thousands of feet beneath the earth’s surface,” McNeill writes. “Bromine is an element used in numerous chemical and manufacturing processes. On Jan. 18, 1966, Dow Chemical Co. broke ground for a bromine plant four miles west of Magnolia. A second plant soon followed (a joint venture of Ethyl Chemical Corp. and Great Lakes Chemical). Both plants were consolidated under the ownership of Albemarle Corp., which owns dozens of brine wells and pipelines that crisscross Columbia and Union counties.”

The timber industry also remains important in the area. We passed Deltic’s sawmill just south of Waldo on U.S. 82 before crossing the Dorcheat Bayou and heading into Lafayette County.

Lafayette is one of the state’s smallest counties from a population standpoint, having fallen from 16,934 residents in the 1930 census to 7,645 residents in the 2010 census. Cotton had once been king here, but pine trees now cover most of the county. Many residents live in either Stamps (1,693) or Lewisville (1,280).

Stamps, the childhood home of Maya Angelou, was a lumber town. Early settlers built a sawmill there soon after the Civil War that later was acquired by the Bodcaw Lumber Co.

“The area did not begin to flourish, though, until the St. Louis Southwestern Railway — commonly known as the Cotton Belt — extended a line across Lafayette County in 1882,” writes Steve Teske for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “Hardy James Stamps came to Lafayette County from Georgia in 1880 to operate the lumber mill. When a post office was established at the settlement surrounding the mill in 1888, it was named for Stamps. The first postmistress at that location was Ella Crowell, Stamps’ daughter. The Louisiana & Arkansas Railroad was incorporated in March 1898 by William Buchanan of the Bodcaw Lumber Co. The town was initially home to the principal shops of the railway. Crossing the Cotton Belt, it extended south to Springhill, La. In 1902, the line was built north to Hope.”

The Bodcaw Lumber Co.’s sawmill was among the largest mills for yellow pine in the world. Its mill pond, Lake June, covered almost 80 acres. There was a company store. The Bodcaw Bank opened in 1903, and a newspaper began in 1905.

“The lumber business played out, and Stamps’ businesses began to relocate,” Teske writes.

When the lumber mill closed, Lake June was donated to the city of Stamps. Surface rights were then leased to the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, which has long managed the lake.

The Game and Fish Commission announced that a substantial renovation of the lake will begin this month. Lake June will be drained in an effort to restore spillway structures, shoreline and fishing habitat. The spillway has been undermined to the point that the lake doesn’t stay full during dry periods. While the lake is empty, biologists will eliminate the aquatic vegetation that has choked the shallow areas of the lake for years.

“This lake has provided great fishing opportunities for the citizens of Lafayette County for 100 years, and we intend to make it even better for the next 100 years,” says Andy Young, the commission’s fisheries biologist supervisor.

A brief boost for the area came when a successful oil well was drilled near Stamps in 1952. That same year, Arkansas Power & Light Co. (now Entergy Arkansas) spent $6 million to add a 135,000-kilowatt generator to its gas-fired electrical generation facility.

Nearby Lewisville was incorporated in 1850. A courthouse had been built there nine years earlier. Cotton was doing well in the area at the time, so much so that black slaves outnumbered free whites in the county in the 1850 and 1860 census.

A new courthouse was built at Lewisville in 1890. Later courthouses were constructed in 1904 and 1940. Lewisville has some beautiful old brick buildings, several of which are on the National Register of Historic Places.

Lafayette County was carved out of  Hempstead County in 1827 with original borders being the Ouachita River on the east, Louisiana to the south, Hempstead County to the north and Texas on the west.

“The post-slavery era resulted in the dissolution of several huge plantations into small-acreage tracts owned and farmed by families,” Glynn McCalman writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “A few former slaves were included among the new landowners, though their share of the land was relatively small. … Land title abstracts of the era demonstrate the efforts of the large planters to retain their holdings with diminishing success. Families eagerly purchased, often with mortgages, small portions of the former plantations and sustained themselves with diversified production. Though cotton was the main cash crop, they also produced edible grains, hay for livestock, cane for sweetening and vegetable gardens.”

McCalman notes that farmers during most of the 1800s had “tried to rely on the Red River for heavy hauling, but they were hampered by the extensive and persistent logjam called the Great Raft. From time to time during the second half of the century, the raft was declared cleared, especially after the work of snagboat engineer Capt. Henry Shreve. But it continued to be a nemesis until the river was mostly replaced as a means of transportation by the railroad. Although the Cotton Belt rail system reduced the need from some retail stores in the county’s towns, better transportation increased the profitability of farming and timber harvesting. It also dramatically reduced travel time to Shreveport, Texarkana and elsewhere. Cotton was brought from the gins to the rails, and impressive sawmills rose by the tracks at Stamps, Frostville, Canfield, Arkana and other communities.”

Despite the county’s population losses, Burge’s in Lewisville is still going strong.

Alden Burge moved to Lewisville from Shreveport in 1953 to work in the oil business. He smoked turkeys in a backyard smokehouse on the weekends. On Friday nights in the fall when there were home football games, he would sell barbecued chickens, baked beans and slaw.

In 1962, Burge purchased a dairy bar near where Arkansas Highway 29 intersects with U.S. Highway 82. Barbecue, burgers and ice cream were on the menu. Barbecued goat, peppermint ice cream and even fireworks were sold for the Fourth of July.

In the 1970s, a Burge’s location was opened in the Heights neighborhood of Little Rock. It’s no longer owned by the Burge family but remains popular.

Here’s how Arkansas food writer Kat Robinson describes the offerings at Burge’s: “That smoked turkey is something that cannot be compared. The brine, the smoke, everything about the preparation of a Burge’s smoked turkey is meticulous — and the meat comes out so flavorful, it bears a resemblance to ham. Indeed many people I know — and I am one of them, imagine that — take their post-Thanksgiving or post-Christmas turkey carcass and utilize it for the seasoning in New Year’s Day peas. Salty, sweet, it’s addictive. … Turkey may be the overwhelming product Burge’s has given us (the website is smokedturkeys.com after all), but there’s so much more on the menu.

“I think the Lewisville location does the better burger, but that comes more from its dairyette roots. Likewise, I think the better ice cream is served in Lewisville. But the Little Rock location does have pimento cheese in its cooler and almost always has fried pies in the heated case.”

In the next installment, we’ll head west into Miller County.

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The 1836 Club

Thursday, February 25th, 2016

The best thing for me when three business partners purchased the historic Packet House on Cantrell Road was that the large wooden RPM sign that misspelled the name of this Little Rock landmark finally came down.

Each morning as I would drive by that sign on the way to work, the old editor in me wanted to scream.

Others with a strong sense of Arkansas history told me that they felt the same way.

Mark Camp is an investment banker who worked as a trader for Crews & Associates of Little Rock until 2014.

Rod Damon is a Little Rock-based mortgage trader for the Bank of Oklahoma.

Jeremy Hutchinson is a state senator, attorney and business investor.

Over drinks at the bar of one of their favorite steakhouses — Arthur’s in west Little Rock — they would discuss how Little Rock needed a private dining club that served dinner. The Little Rock Club on the top floor of the Regions Building downtown serves lunch five days a week, but dinner is only offered about twice a month.

“Every city of significant size has something like this,” Camp says. “I began searching online for a location. At first, they were asking too much for the Packet House for us to make it work. When they lowered the price, we got involved. They spent $1.3 million on renovations back in 2012 so we won’t have to do much beyond some new flooring, painting, new art for the walls and leather furniture.”

The 1836 Club was born.

It’s a nod to history since 1836 was the year Arkansas became a state.

Few structures are more historic in the capital city than the Packet House, one of the 15 oldest buildings in Pulaski County.

“We could go in there and serve dinner tonight if we wanted to,” Hutchinson says. “It has a great kitchen, among the best in the state.”

And it’s about to have a great chef since the three partners hired Donnie Ferneau, who will shut down his Good Food on Main Street in North Little Rock to devote full time to the 1836 Club.

Ferneau will serve meals on the first floor, which will include a private dining room known as the Governor’s Room. The main dining area will be known as the Caucus Room.

The second floor will be the home of the Pilots’ Lounge, which will include large television screens for watching sporting events, pool tables and card tables. Fine cigars will be available upstairs in the Humidor Lounge.

Charter applications are still being accepted with an opening planned for later this spring. The partners make clear that this is not just a club for male Republicans. Both men and women — and people of all political persuasions — are being encouraged to join.

So how did the partners end up with a well-known chef such as Ferneau?

“He heard that we were going to do this and reached out to us,” Camp says. “He will let us worry about the business end of things, so now he will be able to do what he really likes to do — create, cook and cater.”

Hutchinson admits: “I never thought we would have a chance to get him.”

Icing on the cake, to use the cliché.

The house, built in 1869, has 12,000 square feet of space. A proposed menu in the private club application includes seared scallops, seared duck breast with jalapeno corncakes, braised short ribs and the like.

The house was built by Alexander McDonald, who was born in 1832 in Pennsylvania. McDonald was a driven man with a shrewd business sense. He headed west to the Kansas Territory in 1857 to seek his fortune. He and his brother ran a sawmill and later became bankers.

McDonald was living in Fort Scott, Kan., with his wife and two daughters when the Civil War began. He helped organize Union forces in the area but later resigned so he could make money as a supplier for Union troops. It was that effort that brought him to Fort Smith in the fall of 1863. He not only supplied the Union troops there but organized a bank.

Steven Teske picks up the story from there for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture: “Under the reign of McDonald and his partner, Perry Fuller, corruption at the fort was rampant, to the extent that Gen. James G. Blunt was widely regarded as subservient to the company directors. McDonald arrived in Little Rock not long after it had been taken by Union forces and, before the end of the war, McDonald had organized the Merchants National Bank in Little Rock, of which he was president. McDonald worked actively to rebuild the industry and economy of Little Rock and of the state of Arkansas after the Civil War. In addition to his banking efforts, he was also vice president of the Little Rock & Fort Smith Railroad and president of the Arkansas Bridge Co., which was organized to construct a bridge across the Arkansas River at Little Rock. This was one of at least three competing companies seeking both private investments and government funding. Their efforts in 1869-70 led indirectly to the construction of the Baring Cross Bridge in 1873.

“Later, McDonald also served as president of the Little Rock & Fort Towson Railroad. At one point, he was considered the richest man in Arkansas. … McDonald also served in the state’s constitutional convention of 1868. Following this convention, the newly assembled state Legislature named him, along with Benjamin Franklin Rice, to represent Arkansas in the U.S. Senate. McDonald and Rice were sworn in as senators on June 22, 1868, but McDonald’s term was to end at the conclusion of 1871. During his short term, McDonald’s greatest contribution was probably his support for the impeached President Andrew Johnson. Not only did McDonald vote against conviction, but he spoke to persuade other senators to do the same, allowing Johnson to complete his term.

“Although McDonald hoped to be re-elected by the Legislature to a full term in the Senate, politics back in Little Rock intervened. McDonald was associated with the Brindletail faction of the Republican Party, which was resisting the efforts of Gov. Powell Clayton to dominate state politics. When Clayton announced his intention to run for McDonald’s Senate seat, the Brindletails chose to cooperate, hoping to replace Clayton with Lt. Gov. James Johnson, one of their allies in state government. The resulting confusion ended with Clayton as senator, Ozra Hadley as acting governor, Johnson as secretary of state and McDonald outside of the government. Discouraged by his failure to continue in politics, McDonald sold his large house and eventually relocated to the New York area around 1874.

“McDonald continued to pursue his interest in railroads, and he was commissioned by President Chester Arthur in 1885 to examine the finances of the Northern Pacific Railroad. In 1900, McDonald was living in the New York area house of his daughter, Tacie Harper. McDonald died on Dec. 13, 1903, at his daughter’s house and was subsequently buried at Highland Cemetery in Lock Haven, Pa.”

The houses erected by McDonald and others during the Reconstruction period on the north side of Cantrell — then known as Lincoln Avenue — were built by men who had been Union supporters during the war. Because of that, the area became known as Carpetbaggers’ Row and Robbers’ Row.

The home McDonald built later was owned by William Wait, a president of Merchants National Bank, and Ann McHenry Reider, who moved in with her two daughters and their husbands. The husbands were twins, Tom and Robert Newton. The house would serve as the Newton family home for several decades.

In the 1940s, the name was changed to the Packet House as a nod to the packet boats that once plied the Arkansas River.

The house later was converted into apartments and fell into a period of decline.

The Packet House was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978, rehabilitated and used for offices and a restaurant. It later became vacant and began deteriorating again, to the point that it was placed on the Historic Preservation of Arkansas’ (now Preserve Arkansas) list of the most endangered structures in the state in 2011.

The HPAA wrote that year: “The house, which is zoned for commercial use, has been vacant and for sale for several years. Recently, a prospective developer seeking to purchase the house applied for a permit to use the Packet House as a restaurant. This is a positive turn for the Packet House. However, years of vacancy have taken their toll on the house and the future of the building remains uncertain.”

The house was purchased, more than $1 million was spent and chef Wes Ellis opened his Packet House Grill in 2012.

By the spring of 2014, Ellis was out, and it was announced that James Beard Award nominee Lee Richardson would take over as executive chef and owner. Foodies across Arkansas (including yours truly) rejoiced that the New Orleans native would be returning to a Little Rock restaurant kitchen.

Richardson said at the time: “For more than six years, I’ve driven by the Packet House almost daily, and I’ve always felt like it fit my vision for the ultimate in fine dining in Little Rock. I came to Little Rock and took over a well-known and well-respected restaurant at Ashley’s, and that’s exactly what I’m excited to be doing at the Packet House.”

Unfortunately for central Arkansas diners, the deal fell through.

The Packet House Grill closed and the building was put up for sale. And we spent almost two years having to look at that misspelled for-sale sign.

 

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Farewell Sno-White

Friday, February 6th, 2015

I received sad news Friday.

An Arkansas institution, Pine Bluff’s Sno-White Grill, will be closing.

But it was inevitable.

Bobby Garner is well past retirement age. Like so many independently owned Arkansas restaurants — think Shadden’s near Marvell — there’s nobody waiting in the wings when an owner retires or dies (as was the case with Wayne Shadden).

That’s why we need to enjoy these Arkansas classics while we still can.

Below is the story I wrote in 2009 for Roby Brock’s Talk Business magazine. I hope you enjoy it:

The newspaper clipping from the Pine Bluff Commercial is framed on the wall of Pine Bluff’s Sno-White Grill. The story is dated Nov. 29, 1991, and tells of a fire that broke out at Sno-White at 12:26 a.m. on a Thursday. It was Thanksgiving morning.

The article describes a devastating fire that destroyed the business at 310 E. Fifth Ave. downtown, a restaurant that the newspaper said had the reputation of serving the “best hamburgers in the state.”

“I don’t think I’ve gotten over the shock yet,” Sno-White owner Bobby Garner told the newspaper.

Then, he added: “I’m down, but I’m not out.”

Indeed.

Fast forward the clock almost 18 years, and you’ll find Garner behind the counter of a rebuilt Sno-White on a summer Friday morning. He’s serving as the short-order cook and still dishing out what many people consider Arkansas’ best hamburger.

Across this state, there are restaurants where the locals gather to drink coffee, catch up on the town’s gossip, discuss the previous day’s sports events and talk politics. But few of those gathering spots have the longevity of Sno-White, which was founded in 1936, one year before Walt Disney produced his first full-length animated classic, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.”

The chances are that if you’re in Sno-White, so is Bobby Garner.

“I’m the only one who has a key,” he says matter of factly as the ceiling fans whirl overhead.

He’s there six mornings a week at 5:30 a.m. and even comes in on Sunday mornings to clean up. The landmark restaurant is open from 6 a.m. until 3 p.m. on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday and from 6 a.m. until 9 p.m. on Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

And at the age of 73, Garner doesn’t show signs of slowing down.

“I checked with my board, and they said Sno-White doesn’t have a retirement plan,” he says, a sly grin crossing his face.

Of course, Bobby Garner is the board. His wife, Blanche, is still around to offer advice but doesn’t come to the restaurant often. From opening time until closing time, it’s Bobby’s show.

None of the coffee mugs match, which is part of the charm of a place like Sno-White. On the table where Garner sits down to visit there’s a mug that says “Sparkman Sparklers,” the name of a girls’ basketball team from Dallas County that was nationally known in the 1930s. It’s as if Sno-White has become the repository of south Arkansas history.

There used to be quite a few locally owned, full-service restaurants in Pine Bluff like Sno-White. But as the city has lost population and economic vitality through the years, their numbers have declined. Garner rattles off the names of the competitors that are now only memories. There was John Noah’s Restaurant over by the Norton Lumber Mill. There was the Wonderland. The Country Kitchen out on the Dollarway Highway is about the only comparable place to Sno-White these days.

Restaurants aren’t the only things disappearing in southeast Arkansas.

“Most of my friends have either died or moved,” Garner says. “There’s a void there.”

Still, Garner insists that despite the dramatically decreased population, business is good. The prime rib special for $14.95 on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights remains popular, as do the plate lunches. For $6.25 at lunch, you get an entrée and three vegetables. Garner lists main courses off the top of his head. Monday features pork chops or chicken and dressing. On Tuesday, it’s chicken and dumplings or grilled beef liver. The choices on Wednesday are fried chicken, baked ham or spaghetti and meat sauce. On Thursday, it’s chicken fried steak, chicken spaghetti or barbecued pork. Fridays feature salmon croquettes, fried catfish or hamburger steaks.

“We have to keep the Catholics happy on Friday,” Garner says of the two fish entrees.

He estimates that he sells between 150 and 180 plate lunches each day.

“I cooked 75 chicken fried steaks yesterday and sold them all,” he says on this Friday morning. “We have a lot of people come in on Tuesdays just for the liver. That’s hard to find in restaurants these days, and folks won’t fix that for themselves at home.”

Garner claims that he doesn’t have a favorite dish, though he’s quick to mention the cornbread salad: “You make it like you would make tuna salad. But instead of using tuna, you use cornbread.”

Mornings belong to the coffee-drinking regulars. There’s a 6 a.m., 7 a.m., 8 a.m., 9 a.m. and even a 10 a.m. shift.

Upon entering Sno-White, look immediately to your left and to the back of the room. You’ll see the famed Back Booth. It’s the one with political posters covering the walls behind it. There are posters for familiar Arkansas politicians — “I’m for Arkansas and Faubus,” “John McClellan for Senate,” “Dale Bumpers for Senate,” and even “Monroe A. Schwarzlose, Democratic Candidate for Governor, The Law and Order Candidate.”

Schwarzlose hailed from nearby Kingsland and ran for governor in the Democratic primaries of 1978, 1980, 1982 and 1984.

Of course, there’s a poster for Pine Bluff’s own Joe Holmes, who ran for governor in the Democratic primaries of 1990 and 2002. Holmes is among the regular coffee drinkers, usually a part of the 9 a.m. shift.

There are also local political signs such as “Buck Fikes for Municipal Judge” and “Dub Koenig for Justice of the Peace.” Fikes and Koenig are among the coffee drinkers.

“This is where the decisions are made,” Koenig says on his way out the door. “I’ve been coming in here for 30 years and have seen all of the famous Arkansas politicians in here at one time or another.”

Bill Clinton even came in as president to have one of Bobby Garner’s hamburgers.

“When I left the night before, there was a car across the street with two guys in it,” Garner says. “They were watching the restaurant. I came back early the next morning, and these two guys were still in the car. The police later began blocking the streets several blocks away in every direction. If you were already in here, you could stay. But nobody else could come in. There was one guy over in a booth that the Secret Service thought might be with the media. I asked him, and he said he was. He gave me no problems when I told him the president’s visit was closed to the media. He left.”

Garner doesn’t remember which hamburger the president had.

There’s the Hutt Special, named after the owners of the Hutt Building Material Co. over on Alabama Street.

There’s also the Perdue Special, named after the owners of the Perdue Co., which was Pine Bluff’s largest office products and commercial printing company before being sold.

Garner, who grew up 18 miles to the west of Pine Bluff at Grapevine in Grant County, jokes: “When I was coming up in Grapevine, I thought I might be president. I never thought I would cook a hamburger for one.”

Garner purchased the Sno-White Grill on Feb. 15, 1970, from Roy Marshall, who had owned the restaurant the previous 27 years. Garner never dreamed he would own the place so long.

“It just sort of happened,” says Garner, who also served on the Jefferson County Quorum Court for 14 years.

A number of former Pine Bluff residents make it a point to stop by Sno-White when they’re back in town. They include Paul Greenberg, who won a Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing at the Commercial and raised his family in Pine Bluff before moving to Little Rock and the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in 1992. Greenberg has described Sno-White in print as “my favorite diner.”

In June 1996, when “The NewsHour” on PBS wanted to discuss the felony conviction and impending resignation of then-Gov. Jim Guy Tucker and its effect on average Arkansans, Bobby Garner was among the first people interviewed.

Garner doesn’t know how the restaurant got the name Sno-White, but he once had figures representing Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs attached to the outside of the building. Those came off the day Garner received a visit from a local lawyer who had been hired by the Walt Disney Co. to ask for royalty payments.

Among the notable things in the restaurant these days is what might be one of the few remaining Lou Holtz dolls. There’s also a cardboard cutout of John Wayne that looks out over the dining room.

“I haven’t been broken into since I hired him,” Garner says of the Wayne cutout.

Behind the Wayne cutout is a framed ad for the Sno-White from 1939.

Plate lunches were 20, 25 and 30 cents.

The phone number was four digits — 1320.

And the owner must have just hired the most popular waitress in town since the ad proclaimed: “Martha Mae Foust has joined our staff and will welcome her friends here.”

Garner has seven employees these days. One of his waitresses has been with him almost a quarter of a century. He has a cook who has been working there almost 30 years. Garner picks her up shortly after 5 a.m. each day on his way to the restaurant.

James Sapp first visited Sno-White for breakfast in 1958, just after he had moved to Pine Bluff as a 19-year-old from Mobile, Ala., in order to take a job with International Paper. After 51 years in Pine Bluff, Sapp is moving to Mayflower to be near his children. He finishes his breakfast and says he will miss Sno-White.

And what about that Thanksgiving Day fire back in 1991?

Garner began work the next morning rebuilding the restaurant.

“We took Christmas morning off,” he says. “We worked that afternoon.”

The restaurant reopened Feb. 14, 1992. This Arkansas institution hasn’t missed a beat since.

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The great Arkansas Delta food tour

Wednesday, April 23rd, 2014

The troops gathered at 8 a.m. on Good Friday in the parking lot of the Clinton Presidential Center along the banks of the Arkansas River in Little Rock.

The goal: To sample as much Delta barbecue as possible in one day with some catfish and tamales thrown in for good measure.

I was joined by Denver Peacock, Gabe Holmstrom, Jordan Johnson and Jason Parker for an excursion that would take us more than 400 miles and allow us to eat at 10 places before dusk. Yes, we did it all in one day.

We began with the fried catfish at the Wilson Café in the unique Arkansas community of Wilson in southern Mississippi County.

We warmed up for the barbecue part of the agenda at the Hog Pen along the Great River Road — U.S. Highway 61 — a couple of miles south of Osceola.

We then headed to Blytheville, the barbecue capital of Arkansas, to sample pig sandwiches (that’s what they call them in Blytheville) from five places — the Dixie Pig, the Kream Kastle, Penn’s, the trailer in the parking lot of the Hays store (that’s how everyone in Blytheville refers to it — I don’t think it has a formal name) and the Razorback carryout trailer.

The next barbecue sandwich was from Woody’s at the intersection of Arkansas Highway 14 and U.S. Highway 49 at Waldenburg, another east Arkansas dining hot spot.

We made our way from there to The Tamale Factory at Gregory in Woodruff County to visit with George Eldridge (best known as the owner of Doe’s in downtown Little Rock) while sampling tamales, fried shrimp and boiled shrimp. We had no room left for George’s steaks at that point.

Our final stop was at the legendary Bulldog in Bald Knob for strawberry shortcake, which is only served in the spring. Cars were lined up onto the highway that Friday night as people from all over White County waited to purchase shortcake.

In between all of the eating, we managed to:

— Walk around the former company town of Wilson

—  Read the historic markers and drop by the museum on the courthouse square at Osceola

— Head out to the banks of the Mississippi River at Armorel

— Visit Dyess to check on the restoration work being done there by Arkansas State University

— Check out the beautiful Poinsett County Courthouse at Harrisburg

Back in January, the town of Wilson was featured in The New York Times due to the efforts of Gaylon Lawrence Jr. to restore it to its past glory.

“The little farm towns here in Delta cotton country spin by, each rusting grain silo and boarded-up discount store fading into the next,” Kim Severson wrote. “Then, seemingly out of nowhere, comes Wilson, a collection of Tudor-style buildings with Carrara marble on the bank counter, a French provincial house with Impressionist paintings hanging on the walls and air-conditioned doghouses in the yards. Wilson was once the most important company town in the South. It sits amid 62 square miles of rich farmland, most of which was once controlled by Lee Wilson, a man almost everyone called Boss Lee. He built his fortune off the backs of sharecroppers and brought Southern agriculture into the modern age.

“For 125 years, the Wilson family owned this town. It ran the store, the bank, the schools and the cotton gin. For a time, the Wilsons even minted their own currency to pay the thousands of workers who lived on their land. Bags of coins still sit in the company vault. After the town incorporated in the 1950s, a Wilson was always mayor. But now the town — home to 905 people — is under new management, which plans to transform the civic anachronism into a beacon of art, culture and education in one of the poorest regions of the state.”

Lawrence, a native of nearby Sikeston in the Missouri Bootheel, owns more than 165,000 acres of land in Arkansas, Mississippi, Missouri and Illinois.

He owns citrus groves in Florida.

He owns five banks.

He has the largest privately owned air conditioning distributor in the world.

In other words, Gaylon Lawrence Jr. has the wherewithal to make Wilson as good as he wants it to be.

Lawrence, who was described by Severson as a “can-do kind of man who prefers to check his fields and watch the sunset than speak with reporters,” bought the land from the Wilson family for an estimated $110 million in 2010.

Of the town of Wilson, he told the Times: “At first you are thinking, ‘How can I get this off my back?’ But then you look around and think how can you be a catalyst? I can’t really say I am the boss. I say I am here to help. This town has so much character we don’t have to make it up.”

The buildings on the Wilson square have been repainted, and the majestic hardwood groves (which include some of the largest cottonwood trees in Arkansas) have been cleaned up. A private school is planned along with a new building to house the Hampson collection of pre-Columbian pottery and other artifacts. Wilson will host British car shows and art shows in an attempt to attract visitors from Memphis, the Bootheel and northeast Arkansas.

In addition to sampling the excellent catfish at the Wilson Café, we visited with chef Joe Cartwright, whose food is attracting people from miles around. The recently reopened restaurant on the square serves lunch from Tuesday through Sunday from 11 a.m. until 2 p.m. and serves dinner on Friday and Saturday nights. Friday nights feature fried catfish, shrimp, frog legs and oysters. Saturday is prime rib night.

Cartwright grew up at West Memphis and attended college at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro, where he worked at Lazzari Italian Oven.

“I was in college for music education, and I started washing dishes at Lazzari,” Cartwright told an interviewer several years ago. “And then one night we were a man down on the line or something. This chef put me up on the line and one thing led to another, and I never really looked back. It got ahold of me, and it’s what I’ve been doing ever since.”

Cartwright later moved to Memphis, where he became the chef at Spindini on South Main Street and The Elegant Farmer.

The restaurant in Wilson reopened on Dec. 20.

Locals refer to the Wilson Café as The Tavern (and indeed Cartwright informed us that he has just received a wine and beer permit).

Cartwright even packs box lunches for farmers and construction crews (he’s hoping the construction of a steel mill just up the road at Osceola will help that part of the business), and he plans to offer fresh vegetables from the Wilson community garden during the summer. This is a quality of food you do not expect in a town this small.

We headed north on U.S. 61 after leaving Wilson. The plan was to begin the barbecue portion of the tour at Blytheville. That’s when we saw the Hog Pen on the right side of the road (the river side, in other words) south of Osceola. We decided to sample its barbecue, which was quite tasty. The piles of hickory out back let us know that this place takes its barbecue seriously. We ate outside on a picnic table. Inside, the walls feature memorabilia from Cortez Kennedy, who played his high school football in Wilson at Rivercrest High School and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame two years ago. Kennedy, who now lives in Florida, eats at the restaurant on visits home.

Kennedy played college football for the University of Miami and spent his entire pro career with the Seattle Seahawks. He participated in the Pro Bowl eight times, earning a spot in the game in just his second NFL season. He was named to the NFL’s All-Decade Team for the 1990s. Kennedy was an iron man, completing seven seasons without missing a game and playing in at least 15 games 10 times during his career. He was just the 14th defensive tackle to make it into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

In the cotton country around Rivercrest High, which has a rich sports tradition, playing football was the thing to do.

“Where I grew up, there was nothing else to do,” Kennedy once said. “We used to throw rocks at each other for fun.”

The next stop was in downtown Osceola for a view of my favorite Arkansas courthouse. Until 1901, Osceola was the only county seat. Blytheville and Osceola then were named as dual county seats. The southern division courthouse at Osceola was built in 1912 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978. It was designed in the classical revival style by John Gainsford and is known for its copper dome, its baked stone tiles and the fact that the first floor has no windows (in case the Mississippi River flooded).

Downtown Osceola was booming at the time of the courthouse’s construction. There were electric and water utilities, two ice plants, two bottling works, a wagon factory and even an opera house. Six passenger trains a day stopped at the St. Louis & San Francisco Railroad depot. The Osceola Times building, constructed in 1901, is still home to a newspaper that first was published in 1870. It’s the oldest weekly newspaper in eastern Arkansas.

We also read all of the downtown historical markers, which tell of famous musicians who once lived in the area and performed in the clubs along U.S. 61 (known as the Cotton Highway). We even went into the Mississippi County Historical Center and Museum. That facility is located in what was the Patterson Dry Goods Store. Fred Patterson purchased the lot that the building sits on for $250 in 1901 and built his store, which opened a year later. He purchased an adjoining lot in 1904 to construct another building for expanded operations. Patterson Dry Goods operated until 1987.

“The store was famous for cotton pick sacks, shoes and hats for men, women and children as well as work clothes,” the museum’s website states. “Through the years, Mr. Patterson’s store was the only place to purchase certain items. Customers came from not only the Osceola area but all of Mississippi County, surrounding counties and the Missouri Bootheel. The trademark of the store was shoes sitting outside at the entrance to announce the store was open. Fred Patterson may have had five or six styles outside at once, but they were never stolen. They were all for the same foot.

“Henry Patterson (Fred’s son) would have only a single shoe sitting out to indicate he was open for business. It is a practice continued today by the museum. The store became the loafing place for Henry’s retired contemporaries with time on their hands. The chairs around the potbellied stove held both men and women who managed to solve the problems of the world.”

The first stop in Blytheville was the Dixie Pig, the only Blytheville restaurant where we actually ate inside.

We picked up sandwiches from the other four establishments and took them out by the river behind the Nucor-Yamato plant at Armorel.  We laid them out on the hood of the vehicle, sampled them and watched the barges move down the Mighty Mississippi while enjoying the nice spring weather.

Armorel was founded in 1899 by R.E.L. Wilson (Boss Lee). The name of the town represents Arkansas, Missouri and the first three initials of Wilson’s name.

The town is the home of the Armorel Planting Co., whose chairman is 82-year-old John Ed Regenold, the current chairman of the powerful Arkansas Highway Commission. Regenold had served on the Arkansas Economic Development Commission before being appointed to the Highway Commission in January 2005 by Gov. Mike Huckabee. Regenold also served for a number of years on the St. Francis Levee Board, which is in seven northeast Arkansas counties. Those familiar with the Delta understand just how powerful levee boards are.

Back in Blytheville, we drove around the downtown business district and the city’s older residential neighborhoods, which were filled with blooming azaleas and dogwood trees. Like many Delta towns, Blytheville has bled population in recent decades. It has gone from 24,752 residents in the 1970 census to 15,620 residents in the 2010 census. At its peak, Eaker Air Force Base employed 3,500 military and 700 civilian personnel. The base closed in 1992. Some of that economic blow was softened by the 1988 opening of Nucor-Yamato Steel (which expanded in 1992) and the 1992 opening of Nucor Steel Arkansas (known locally as Nucor Hickman).

Another bright spot was the 1976 opening by Mary Gay Shipley of the Book Rack. The store’s name was changed in 1994 to That Bookstore in Blytheville. Located in a 1920s building on Main Street, it gained a reputation of being one of the top independently owned bookstores in the country, attracting the likes of John Grisham, Pat Conroy and Bill Clinton to sign books. Shipley retired and sold the store to a young man named Grant Hill, who soon tired of running the business. Enter Blytheville native Chris Crawley.

Crawley had moved from Blytheville after high school, living in Wisconsin and California. He moved back to the city in 2012.

“Mary Gay has been like my big sister for about 30 years,” Crawley told the Courier News at Blytheville. “I kind of got the bug years ago watching Mary Gay. … This was like my playground. I would read whole books while in the store.”

In visiting with Shipley after his return to Blytheville, Crawley found out that she was “still so passionate about the store, and that passion was infectious. Once I came in the space, it was just so welcoming. We believed that the legacy was something that was valuable.”

He and partner Yolanda Harrison purchased the store from Hill late last year.

Leaving Blytheville behind schedule, we made our way to Dyess.

Dyess, Poinsett County, Woodruff County and the strawberries of Bald Knob will have to wait for Part Two.

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The decline and fall of Brennan’s

Monday, July 1st, 2013

My love of New Orleans is such that I had determined at a young age that if I ever got married, the honeymoon would be in the Crescent City.

Fortunately, I was able to convince Melissa of just such a honeymoon in the fall of 1989.

We ate our way across the city for a week. While the restaurant is viewed by some as a place for tourists, the famous breakfast at Brennan’s was de rigueur.

Through the years, I would take Gov. Mike Huckabee and other friends to their first breakfasts at Brennan’s. Melissa and I took our two sons there following Sunday morning mass at St. Louis Cathedral. Hurricane Katrina hit just two weeks later.

It’s hard for me to believe that the restaurant closed last week as a long-running family feud continues to play out.

“The thing that gets me most about it is that when the brothers took over from their aunts and uncles in 1973, Brennan’s was the most profitable restaurant in the world,” Tom Fitzmorris writes in his online New Orleans Menu Daily. “It has never done badly. A waiter told me that the place had a thousand people on the reservation books for this past weekend. At its lofty prices (the highest in town, except perhaps for tasting menus at places like Stella!), open seven days a week from morning through night, Brennan’s was a money machine. What the hell happened?”

The current management of the restaurant was evicted from the Royal Street property at 2:15 p.m. last Thursday by the corporation that had purchased the building at auction in May. The most recent manager of the restaurant was Owen “Pip” Brennan Jr., the son of founder Owen Brennan Sr.

It was learned Friday that one of Pip’s cousins, Ralph Brennan, is a partner in the company that now owns the property.

Ralph Brennan said in a statement: “The closure of Brennan’s restaurant is regrettable and sad but could have been averted many times over the past two years. For the last two years, I have been in repeated contact with my cousins in an effort to help avert the financial crisis that Brennan’s Inc. finds itself in today. Several offers to inject capital into the company were made and rejected.”

Ralph Brennan said that he and business partner Terry White “look forward to bringing the building back into commerce soon.”

Employees weren’t informed of the impending closure. Some arrived late Thursday in uniform to find the doors locked and everything turned off, even the gas light out front.

The restaurant’s roots date back to 1943 when Owen Brennan Sr. bought the Old Absinthe House on Bourbon Street. He opened Owen Brennan’s Vieux Carre three years later. The elder Brennan died suddenly at age 45. Following his death, the family moved the restaurant to 417 Royal St. in the 1950s and renamed it Brennan’s.

Owen Brennan Sr.’s sons — Ted, Pip and Jimmy — would run the restaurant. Jimmy Brennan died in 2010.

In early June, Pip overthrew Ted as manager in a contentious shareholder vote. Ted and daughter Bridget Brennan Tyrrell had run the restaurant since 2006, when they had ousted Pip.

Are you following all of this? It’s, at best, byzantine.

On Friday evening, Ted Brennan issued a statement saying that if he and Bridget had not been ousted, they might have been able to avoid eviction.

“Despite the defamatory statements made by others about my family’s management, we have built this restaurant from the ground up since Katrina, only for their encroachment eight years later,” Ted Brennan said. “Times have been tough, but we always put our employees first. We are sick that the staff was not told of the eviction notice Pip and his sons received. Our efforts to communicate with our employees the past three weeks have been prohibited by Pip and his agents.”

An April 26 board meeting at the restaurant, orchestrated by Pip Brennan to unseat his brother and niece, ended when the police were called.

The shareholder meeting last month at which Pip and his sons — Blake and Clark — took over was held in the courtroom of U.S. District Judge Susie Morgan. The late Jimmy Brennan’s daughters and Pip Brennan combined their votes to unseat Ted Brennan as Brennan Inc.’s board president and restaurant manager.

The Brennan family tree is a large one.

“In the years before all of this legal action, the Brennan brothers were suing their cousin Dickie Brennan over whether he had the right to use his name on his steakhouse,” Fitzmorris writes. “It was another eruption of the long-running feud between the Brennans on Royal Street and the Brennans of all the other restaurants (including, confusingly enough, Brennan’s in Houston).

“The expense of litigating that matter was not insubstantial and that may have triggered the cash issues at Brennan’s. It’s one of many ironies that have come to light.”

And what about cousin Ralph Brennan, who already owns five restaurants in the New Orleans area?

“Ralph’s presence in this mix give a good idea of where all this is headed,” Fitzmorris writes. “Ralph is not only an astute restaurateur but a well-trained businessman. He was a CPA before joining the family’s restaurant business. And unless more surprises come out, there shortly will be a new restaurant in the superb location that has been Brennan’s since 1955.

“In order to go on, Pip and Ted Brennan will now have to find a new location pronto or somehow make a deal with the building’s owners. They also have to come to an understanding between themselves. None of this will be easy.”

Fitzmorris, who does a three-hour daily radio show on food (only in New Orleans would that much radio time be devoted to food), says this could be the restaurant story of the decade in New Orleans.

Greg Beuerman, a spokesman for Ralph Brennan, was asked by The Times-Picayune if Ralph planned to reopen Brennan’s.

The spokesman answered: “Not the same restaurant. But it’s safe to say that a new restaurant is high on the list of possibilities.”

He said the eviction gives “the new ownership a clean opportunity to create a profitable, productive enterprise that continues to do justice to that iconic location.”

I head to New Orleans early next month. I had hoped to dine in the famous pink building on Royal Street one morning, enjoying oysters Benedict and bananas Foster.

The courts aren’t known for acting quickly. I have a feeling that breakfast will have to be eaten elsewhere.

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10 must-have dishes before you die

Thursday, May 9th, 2013

You’ll have to pick up the May edition of Soiree magazine for the full story (and photos that will make your mouth water).

But here’s what happened: Jennifer Pyron, the magazine’s editor, called and asked if I would come up with a list of the 10 restaurant dishes in the Little Rock area that you simply must have before you die.

I like a lot of things. And Little Rock has a good restaurant scene. This was not an easy assignment.

Here’s what I decided: I would go with the tried and true, the kinds of food that longtime Little Rock residents find themselves craving as they drive home at night.

There are finer restaurants than the ones I put on my list.

There are fancier dishes.

I decided to stay away from new recipes. No foam. No molecular gastronomy. The restaurants needed to have been around for several decades to prove their staying power.

Look, Little Rock is becoming one of the best places to dine out in the South. The city is now filled with exciting restaurants, food trucks, talented food bloggers and ambitious chefs. It’s quite a food scene.

I’m energized by that.

Yet the list I came up with spoke to my heart; the heart of a country boy who doesn’t want sugar in his cornbread, wants his country ham to be fried, wishes his wife would let him join the Bacon of the Month Club and could stand to lose a few pounds.

Here goes:

1. Ribs at Sims with a side of greens and cornbread — Sims just screams “quintessential Little Rock” to me. Little Rock is a true Southern city, and it doesn’t get more Southern than ribs, greens and cornbread. I miss the old location on 33rd Street, but the fact remains that this is a place that has been around since 1937. In a city that loves its barbecue, Sims is a shrine.

2. Chopped pork plate at the White Pig Inn — Here we go with the barbecue again. There’s a reason that a photo of the White Pig’s sign is at the top of this blog. This restaurant has been around since 1920, when U.S. Highway 70 was one of the main east-west routes in the country. I like family places, and the White Pig has been in the Seaton family for three generations. The current building is fairly new (built in 1984), but take a look at all the history on the walls.

3. Eggplant casserole and egg custard pie at Franke’s — I know, I know. You’re going to order more than just eggplant casserole and egg custard pie as you go through that line. There’s fried chicken, roast beef, chicken livers, fried okra, turnip greens and more to eat. But I consider the above two dishes the ones that most define this Arkansas classic. C.A. Franke opened a doughnut shop in downtown Little Rock in 1919. By 1922, it was a full bakery. In 1924, he opened Franke’s Cafeteria on Capitol Avenue in downtown Little Rock. The original cafeteria closed in 1960, but two Little Rock locations remain. You will find me at the downtown location often.

4. Buffalo ribs at the Lassis Inn — You Yankees think this is a four-legged mammal, right? You’re wrong. You’re the same people who refuse to believe us when we tell you that rice and gravy and macaroni and cheese are classified as vegetables here in the South. This buffalo is the bottom-dwelling fish pulled by commercial fishermen from the slow-moving rivers of east Arkansas. The ribs are about five inches in length. Tell my friend Elihue Washington that I sent you.

5. Tamales at Doe’s — I realize that you’re likely to order a steak if you’re going to Doe’s for dinner. Still, you must have an appetizer of tamales. If it’s lunch, the tamales can be your meal. George Eldridge has been operating the Little Rock location of Doe’s since 1988. Was it Hunter S. Thompson or P.J. O’Rourke who tried to eat a tamale with the shuck still on when they came to Doe’s to interview Bill Clinton in 1992?

6. The hubcap burger at Cotham’s — The Little Rock location will suffice (though I always have a fern bar flashback to TGI Friday’s and my younger days when I’m in there), but it’s better to be out in the 1917 building at Scott, which has been serving food since 1984. Politicians such as the aforementioned Bill Clinton and David Pryor made the Scott location of Cotham’s famous. What’s that? You say you cannot eat an entire hubcap burger? Then you’ve come to the wrong blog.

7. Gumbo at the Oyster Bar — The Oyster Bar has been around since 1975, but it looks like it has been there since 1924, when the building it occupies in Stifft Station was built to house a grocery story. Yes, it’s a dive. I especially like the fact that they saved the old refrigerator door with memorable bumper stickers attached. Check out the one dealing with that pass interfence call against SMU. Some of us still remember that call. The Hogs wuz robbed.

8. Smoked turkey sandwich and a cherry limeade at Burge’s — The original Burge’s in Lewisville is outside the geographic scope of this assignment, but the Heights location in Little Rock will do since it has been around for 36 years. Lots of rich, tanned Heights moms and their spoiled kids will be running around on Saturdays to take part in what’s a family tradition for many Little Rockians. After moving to Lewisville from Shreveport in 1953, Alden Burge began smoking turkeys in the back yard for friends and family members. Soon, he was selling smoked turkey and chicken dinners before Friday night football games. He bought a dairy bar in 1962 at the intersection of Arkansas Highway 29 and U.S. Highway 82 in Lewisville. The folks who work for Burge’s in Little Rock follow Mr. Burge’s 1950s instructions for smoking those turkeys.

9. Pimento cheese at the Capital Bar & Grill — Sometimes a Southerner simply must have pimento cheese, and no one does it better than the folks at the Capital. Get it as an appetizer with those homemade soda crackers, order a pimento cheese sandwich or have it on the burger. I’m craving it right now.

10. The foot-long chili dog at the Buffalo Grill and the chopped steak at the Faded Rose — OK, I cheated. I listed two restaurants. Here’s why: I first moved to Little Rock in late 1981 to work as a sportswriter at the Arkansas Democrat. I moved into the Rebsamen Park Apartments (cheap and already furnished, along with very thin walls). The Buffalo Grill opened just down the street in 1981. The Faded Rose was opened by New Orleans native Ed David the next year. I would work in those days until about 1 a.m., get something to eat at Steak & Egg (where the Red Door is now), go home and read and then sleep until the crack of noon. Then I would go to one of those two restaurants. I often would have that gut bomb they call the Paul’s chili dog at Buffalo Grill with chili, cheddar cheese, mustard, onion and slaw. On the days when I went next door to the Faded Rose, I would start with the Creole soaked salad (mixed lettuce, chopped tomatoes and green olives tossed in a garlic vinaigrette just like the Creole Sicilian joints do it in New Orleans). That would be followed by the chopped sirloin, which comes in a lemon butter sauce with a big slice of grilled onion on top. Of course, there were potato wedges with buttermilk dressing to dip them in.

Like I said, no foam or molecular gastronomy on this list.

What dishes make your list in Pulaski County?

Let me hear from you in the comment section below.

Meanwhile, I’ll see you in Soiree along with the “beautiful people” who are holding wine glasses and forcing a smile in a too-tight tux.

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A trip to The Tamale Factory

Monday, March 4th, 2013

It was, in so many ways, a trip back in time.

We exited Interstate 40 at Hazen on that Friday afternoon and headed north on Arkansas Highway 11 to Des Arc.

How many times had I made the trip on this section of highway through the years to visit my grandparents at Des Arc? It would be impossible to count them.

Dad, who died two years ago yesterday, would be at the wheel of the big Oldsmobile. Mom would be in the passenger seat up front. My sister and I would be in the back. Having been raised in the pine woods of south Arkansas, I was intrigued by the huge fields and the views that seemed to stretch for miles to the horizon.

Then, as now, the Delta and Grand Prairie were places apart.

We knew what awaited us in Des Arc — great cooking by my grandmother, Bess Rex Caskey, in the old family home on Erwin Street; a visit to the chicken yard to gather eggs each morning with my grandfather, W.J. Caskey; a walk across the street to check his post office box, a stop in the Farmers and Merchants Bank and then a stroll down Main Street, where the Caskey Funeral Home and the Caskey Hardware Store had once been located.

If it were summer, we might go down to Haley’s Fish Market to buy catfish that had been hauled that morning out of the White River, frying them for supper that evening. My grandfather would ask if they had any “fiddlers,” small catfish that he liked to fry whole.

If it were winter, Dad might take me along for a duck hunt.

I was in the company of three of Arkansas’ most noted storytellers on that recent Friday afternoon. Don Tilton, Paul Berry and Mary Berry had graciously invited me to tag along for dinner at The Tamale Family, the restaurant that Mary’s cousin George Eldridge has operated since November in a barn on the family farm at Gregory in Woodruff County.

As we headed up Highway 11 between Hazen and Des Arc, we passed the familiar landmarks — the Wattensaw Bayou, where we would sometimes hunt ducks; the Darrell Saul Farm, where I had attended political fundraising events in my earlier life as a politico; the headquarters for the Wattensaw Wildlife Management Area, which had once been a club called Riverwood where we would go to swim; the cemetery where we buried my grandfather on a hot summer day and my grandmother on a cold winter day; the Presbyterian Church, which is being turned into a library; the offices of the White River Journal, one of this state’s best weekly newspapers, which has been in the Walls family for decades; the building my grandfather built to house his hardware store, a structure that still stands and still is home to a hardware store.

My grandfather sold his businesses to Willis Eddins who, in turn, sold them to Billy Garth. They remain in the Garth family.

Just across the street from that building is the Prairie County Courthouse, where my grandfather served terms as county assessor, county clerk and county judge. Though the man I called Pam-Pa had last held elective office in 1941, I loved it when people would still refer to him as Judge Caskey. It made me feel like he was important.

With Don — who’s known by his friends as Tilco — at the wheel, we crossed the White River bridge, looking to our right at that always magnificent view of the courthouse and downtown Des Arc. The current bridge is far safer than its predecessor, but it doesn’t have the character of what was known by locals as the Swinging Bridge. The massive suspension bridge, which was in operation from 1928-70, indeed would sway when trucks crossed it.

Whenever horses crossed the bridge, owners had to put covers over their heads and lead them. They refused to cross otherwise.

Here are a few of the comments posted about the Swinging Bridge on a website about bridges:

— “I lived east of the river and grew up crossing the bridge every day. We called it rattletrap bridge because of the sounds the boards made as the car went across. … It was terrifying to cross on those few boards on a school bus. When I started driving, I drove to school across the bridge every day. One day it was raining, and I lost control on the way up to the center of the bridge. My car fishtailed and hit the rails on the side three times before coming to rest. I remember the feeling of knowing I wasn’t going to make it. I’m now almost 60 years old, and I still dream about it and wake up shivering.”

— “I had such a love-hate relationship with the wonderful Swinging Bridge. One time, my dad had to back down past the huge curve in the bridge to let another car pass. I was so scared I got in the floorboard. As I grew older, my friends and I would walk the bridge on Sunday afternoons. Boards were always missing, and I never got close to the sides.”

— “I grew up in this area and walked and rode across this bridge countless times. It never occurred to me to be scared. It was just the bridge we had to cross to get to Des Arc. I remember riding in trailers filled with cotton, being pulled by a tractor and feeling the swing of the bridge. I’m not sure I would do that today if I could.”

— “I rode in a school bus for 11 years across the bridge every day. Sometimes we had to wait for someone to back down to one of the wide sections, and then sometimes we had to back up in the school bus ourselves. I don’t remember being afraid, but after I married, my husband was terrified to cross it.”

East of the river, there are large fields and pecan orchards. As we head east on Arkansas Highway 38, we pass the road that my dad and I would turn down to fish on Spring Lake and Horn Lake, both White River oxbows.

On the Prairie County-Woodruff County line, we reach the community of Little Dixie and turn left onto Arkansas Highway 33, passing through Dixie on our way to Gregory (yes, there’s both a Dixie and a Little Dixie).

The Eldridge family home, built in 1910, has been beautifully restored.

Also cleaned up and restored is the Eldridge family cemetery, the final resting place of family patriarch Rolfe Eldridge, who was born in November 1807 and died in April 1859. Mary Eldridge Berry gave me a tour of the cemetery just as the sun was setting. Paul went inside the restaurant (the barn is between the family home and the cemetery) to secure a table from George.

Anyone who knows George, the owner of the Little Rock outpost of Doe’s Eat Place, understands that he has the golden touch when it comes to restaurants. It was George who first talked Charles and “Little Doe” Signa in Greenville, Miss., into letting him use the Doe’s name and menu in a location other than the original on Nelson Street in Greenville.

Doe’s Eat Place locations now can been found throughout the region, but George was the first to take the concept out of Greenville. Due to a politician named Bill Clinton, the Little Rock location soon became more famous than the Greenville original. That’s because presidential campaign staffers such as James Carville and George Stephanopoulos would hang out there on a nightly basis.

The national political media followed and began writing about the place. The back room at Doe’s was where P.J. O’Rourke, Hunter S. Thompson and William Greider conducted the interview of Clinton for a September 1992 edition of Rolling Stone.

Was it O’Rourke or Thompson who tried to eat a tamale with the shuck still on?

In November 1992, People published a story on George and his chief cook, Lucille Robinson. The following January, George escorted Robinson to one of the inaugural balls in Washington. An Annie Leibovitz portrait of the pair is among the photos that hang on the walls of the Little Rock restaurant.

If you like the food at Doe’s, you’ll like the food at The Tamale Factory. The menus are similar.

One thing about Delta residents is that they don’t mind driving a long distance for a good meal on a Friday or Saturday. Since it opened in November, The Tamale Factory has been pulling them in from as far away as Little Rock, Memphis and Jonesboro. Reservations are recommended.

On the other side of the barn that houses the restaurant, George keeps his quarter horses in a well-appointed stable. He introduced us to the horses and his three cats (cats are a tradition in horse barns). He also opened a pen that was filled with goats.

There’s also a show ring where George occasionally rolls the dirt, puts down a wooden dance floor and brings in a band from Memphis. Oh how I would love to be back in Gregory on one of those nights.

Roots run deep in this part of Arkansas. Like other east Arkansas counties, Prairie and Woodruff counties have bled population for decades.

Prairie County has only half the population it had in 1920, falling from 17,447 that year to 8,715 in the 2010 census.

Woodruff County has just a third of the population it had in 1920, dropping from 21,527 that year to 7,260 in 2010. Those who remain, though, are a proud people with a strong sense of history and place. They are also people who know how to have a good time, as we saw on this night at The Tamale Factory.

Prairie County has two county seats — Des Arc and DeValls Bluff — and a rich history.

“European exploration of the area began as early as the late 17th century,” Marilyn Hambrick Sickel writes in the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “While the area became occupied by both the Spanish and French, the county remained vital to trade expeditions. … French traders traveled up and down the White River in the early 1700s. Bear oil and skins, abundant in this area at the time, were sought-after commodities in the New Orleans markets. The rivers were the highways of this early era. Early maps identify the White River as Eau Blanche and Riv Blanche. Des Arc was the earliest settlement. Creoles named Watts and East are credited as being Des Arc’s first residents, arriving around 1810.”

Sickel writes that Des Arc was “a flourishing river town prior to the Civil War. Timber for homes was plentiful. Fish and game were abundant, and the population grew rapidly. Selling wood to power the steamboats and rafting timber along the river were viable occupations. The Butterfield Overland Mail route in the late 1850s was key in the development of Des Arc. The city, depending on how wet the roads were or how low the river was, had the fortune of being on the direct route from Memphis to Fort Smith.”

Because it was so swampy, Woodruff County wasn’t settled as early as Prairie County.

Woodruff County was established during the Civil War in November 1862. When Arkansas was no longer part of the Confederacy, it was approved again as a county in 1865. It was named after William Woodruff, the founder of the Arkansas Gazette at Arkansas Post in 1819 (the newspaper moved to Little Rock along with the territorial capital in 1821).

“In the years after the Civil War, Woodruff County prospered with wood and agriculture industries,” Paula Harmon Barnett writes in the online encyclopedia. “Sawmills and woodworking factories thrived, making use of the many acres of timber in the county. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, railroads began to move into the county, and towns sprang up around them, increasing the county’s population each year and greatly improving the economy. Cotton, corn, oats and hay thrved in the fertile, well-watered soil, and the two rivers in the county by which to ship products (the White and Cache) added to the area’s prosperity.”

The county’s population grew each decade from the 1870 census to the 1930 census. It has fallen each decade since then.

There’s a haunting beauty to the Delta and the Grand Prairie in late winter and early spring. History hangs heavily here. Come early to Gregory, taking time to walk through the Eldridge family cemetery and maybe even going to the historic area of Augusta Memorial Park, where there also are Eldridges buried.

Yes, come early and stay late, letting your tamales and steak digest while convincing George to tell stories about the politicians, musicians and other colorful characters he has known.

Spring is beginning in Arkansas, and with it the desire for Friday and Saturday road trips. The drive to Gregory is a trip back in time with good food awaiting at your final destination.

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Arkansas food notes

Tuesday, January 15th, 2013

There’s a lot going on with the Arkansas food scene right now.

Here are some notes on developments that might be of interest:

— I’m anxious to try The Tamale Factory in Woodruff County, a creation of George Eldridge, the man who put the Little Rock location of Doe’s Eat Place on the map.

The Tamale Factory is in George’s old horse barn at Gregory, which is 10 miles south of Augusta on Arkansas Highway 33. It’s only open on Friday and Saturday nights, from 5 p.m. until 10 p.m.

You order just like you would at Doe’s — bring a big group, come hungry, get tamales and shrimp for appetizers and then have steaks for the main course.

Though there are now Doe’s restaurants in several locations, George was the first to come up with the idea of using the name and concept of the original restaurant on Nelson Street in Greenville, Miss. The Little Rock outpost of Doe’s became even more famous than the original when staffers for Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign began hanging out there.

Once the weather warms a bit in March, a Friday or Saturday night road trip to Gregory sounds in order.

— An even shorter Friday night road trip (and one I plan to make) is to Big K’s Fish Barn, which I understand is in a farm equipment shed (my kind of place).

Traveling east on U.S. Highway 70 out of  Carlisle, you should turn north just past Murry’s restaurant onto Anderson Road. After crossing over Interstate 40, Big K’s is the first farm shop on the right.

I’ve heard the catfish is something special there.

— Two of the best meals I had in 2012 — one in the spring and one in the fall — were at the Bohemia on Park Avenue in Hot Springs.

Founded more than half a century ago by Mr. and Mrs. O.E. Duchac, the Bohemia was operated for years by Adolf Thum. I loved his German and Hungarian food, and I enjoyed hearing his heavy accent when he would come over to check on us.

I was saddened when Thum closed his restaurant in 2007. We’ve already lost too many of the Hot Springs classics I grew up enjoying — Coy’s, Mrs. Miller’s and Mollie’s to name three.

In late 2009, the Bohemia was given new life by Fermin Martinez, who was born in Mexico City and raised in Brooklyn. He later worked in France and Italy.

You would never guess from the outside that this is a fine dining establishment. It looks more like a beer joint as you drive down Park Avenue. Don’t let that fool you. Inside is one of the best restaurants in Arkansas.

— My top Arkansas dining “find” of 2012 was in the former Crain Motor Co. building in downtown Siloam Springs. The building, which had housed a restaurant called Emelia’s, underwent extensive renovations after Shelley and Todd Simmons of Siloam Springs joined forces with Chef Miles James.

An open kitchen was installed, the dropped ceiling was removed to expose the beams and historic photos of Siloam Springs were added.

James, known for what he calls Ozark plateau cuisine, created a menu featuring locally sourced foods. The restaurant is named 28 Springs. It opened in May, and I ate there in the fall.

James still operates James at the Mill in Johnson, long recognized as one of the region’s best restaurants.

James, a Fayetteville native, earned a degree from the New England Culinary Institute and then worked at these restaurants: American Seasons in Nantucket; Park Avenue and the Tribeca Grill in New York City; The Coyote Cafe in Santa Fe; Guy Savoy in Paris (not the one in Logan County); and The River Cafe in London (not the one in Pope County).

He was on the list of the “rising star chefs of the 21st century” that was released by the James Beard Foundation. His cookbook “Cuisine of the Creative” received a James Beard nomination back in 1999 for Best Cookbook of the Year.

Southern Living once described James at the Mill as “an architectural and culinary marvel … the peak of fine Ozark dining.”

For those who like James at the Mill, it’s well worth the drive over to Siloam Springs the next time you’re in northwest Arkansas so you can give 28 Springs a try.

— The hiring of Joel Antunes as the executive chef at Ashley’s and the Capital Bar & Grill in Little Rock’s Capital Hotel was a positive sign. It showed that the Stephens family remains committed to world-class dining in the state’s largest city.

Antunes was awarded the James Beard Best Chef of the Southeast Award in 2005 for his work at the restaurant named for him (Joel) in Atlanta.

Citing his disdain for the celebrity chef syndrome, Antunes once told an interviewer: “I don’t wear a tie and walk around talking. I am a cook. Discipline. I learned that in France. I am in the kitchen every day cooking.”

Joel — the restaurant — opened in 2001 and was named one of Esquire’s best new restaurants in the country.

As a youngster, Antunes went to live with his grandparents in the south of France while his father was serving in the military. He learned to cook from his grandmother and discovered it was something he enjoyed.

Antunes began an apprenticeship at the age of 14 at Belle Meuniere in the city of Royat in France, a Michelin two-star restaurant. He went on to work in Michelin-starred restaurants such as Leyoden in Paris, Duquesnoy in Paris and Hotel Negreso in Nice.

Antunes trained under famous chefs such as Paul Bocuse in Lyons and Michel Troisgos in Roanne.

He headed to Bangkok in 1987 at the age of 26 to work at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. In 1991, he became a partner and the executive chef at Les Saveurs on Curzon Street in London. That restaurant earned a Michelin star in 1994, but Antunes’ investors pulled the plug three years later.

The Ritz-Carlton Buckhead in Atlanta was looking for a chef after Guenter Seeger left to open his own restaurant. The likes of Daniel Boulud and Alain Ducasse recommended Antunes for the job. He spent several years at the Ritz-Carlton before opening Joel.

A short stay at the venerable Oak Room in the Plaza Hotel in New York was followed by a return to London and stints at the Park Plaza Westminster Bridge Hotel and the Embassy Mayfair Hotel.

— Near the top of the list of the tastiest things I ate in 2012 were the sausages at the 83rd annual Louie Mancini Sausage Supper, a Knights of Columbus event in Little Rock that drew hundreds of people to the Cathedral of St. Andrew on Dec. 4.

I was honored to be the featured speaker at an event with such a long history. From 1929-78, Council 812 of the Knights of Columbus held the annual supper to raise funds for the Saint Joseph Orphanage in North Little Rock. In the orphanage cafeteria, the orphans would sing Christmas carols while the diners enjoyed the sausage supper.

Saint Joseph’s closed in 1978, but the supper continued, raising money for needy children and their families. It was named for Louie Mancini in 2005 in honor of his decades of support. He helped his father prepare food each year for the supper, followed his father into the Knights of Columbus and continued to devote countless hours each December to the event.

Finally, a few of my dining wishes for 2013:

— That the weather is unseasonably warm on Jan. 25 when I’m standing in the long line waiting to get into the annual Slovak Oyster Supper.

— That the weather is unseasonably cool on Aug. 15 when I’m in the Ned Hardin pecan grove for the annual Grady Fish Fry.

— That the Little Rock restaurant Matt Bell is opening in conjunction with the Oxford American in the old Juanita’s location — South on Main — is as good as I think it’s going to be.

— That the former Capital Hotel chef Lee Richardson opens his own place in Little Rock.

— That someone will use the name The Gar Hole, which was the name of the bar at the Marion Hotel, for a good restaurant in downtown Little Rock.

— That the new restaurant Cache in the River Market District — named after the Cache River in east Arkansas — is a rousing success.

— That chef Matt McClure’s new restaurant in the 21c Hotel at Bentonville, known as The Hive, draws national attention.

— That the new owners of what was The Peabody Hotel in downtown Little Rock will bring in a well-known chef along the lines of Antunes. Since we’re losing the iconic Peabody brand and having it replaced by the boring Marriott brand, they at least owe us that much.

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Bessemer’s Bright Star

Friday, September 14th, 2012

Through the years, I’ve tried to visit as many iconic Southern restaurants as possible.

One place that had long been on my restaurant bucket list was the Bright Star in downtown Bessemer. It’s Alabama’s oldest restaurant.

Last Friday night, I was able to finally eat there. In a previous post, I wrote of how important college football road trips have become to me. Finding great restaurants is an integral part of any football road trip worth its salt.

Realizing months ago that Ouachita Baptist University would be playing a September game in Tuscaloosa, I made it a point of planning a Friday night trip to the Bright Star,  which was founded by Greeks in 1907.

Ouachita athletic director David Sharp and I were staying in nearby Hoover. We headed to Bessemer — just 10 miles away — shortly before 6 p.m. and parked on the street in an old downtown that has seen its better days.

As we approached the Bright Star, a tall gentleman in a suit, who was standing on the sidewalk outside, asked a question.

“Are you coming to dinner?” he said.

“Yes sir,” I quickly replied.

“Is this your first time at the Bright Star?” he asked.

“It sure is,” I said.

Then, without mentioning the next day’s football game (the real reason we were in Alabama), I added: “We drove all the way from Arkansas just to eat here.”

Yes, I used to work in politics.

He opened a door that said “Exit Only” and invited us inside. I looked left toward the lobby and could see that there was a wait. The man took us directly to a booth up front and told us to sit down.

Before a waitress could bring the menus, he had brought us two cups of the best seafood gumbo I’ve ever had outside of Louisiana.

“On the house for our friends from Arkansas,” he said.

I soon learned that the man we had had the good fortune of running into on the sidewalk was none other than Jimmy Koikos, the oldest of the two brothers who now own the Bright Star. We later met his younger brother, Nicky.

Gene Stallings, who was the head football coach at the University of Alabama from 1990-96, wrote this in a book published in 2007 by the University of Alabama Press in honor of the Bright Star’s 100th anniversary: “Every once in a while — possibly only once in a lifetime — if we are really lucky we will run across a restaurant that is truly special. I’ve had the privilege of eating at five-star restaurants in Europe as well as here in the United States, and without question my favorite restaurant in the world is the Bright Star in Bessemer.

“The restaurant stands on its own, but the story of a young man from Greece who had very little money and could not speak English making his way to Alabama and starting a restaurant that has thrived for more than 100 years is a heartwarming one. His struggles, his love for his restaurant and his love for the people of Alabama and his family is one you’ll not soon forget.”

Bill and Pete Koikos immigrated from Greece in 1923 and two years later purchased an ownership interest in the restaurant from its founder, Tom Bonduris. Jimmy and Nicky Koikos have owned and operated the business since 1966.

It started as a 25-seat cafe. It now seats 330 people.

There’s a tradition of quality Greek-owned restaurants in the South. Birmingham natives can run down the list from that area. In addition to the The Bright Star, there’s The Fish Market, Gus’s Hot Dogs, Niki’s Downtown, Niki’s West, Pete’s Famous Hot Dogs, The Smoke House, Yanni’s and Zoe’s.

The Southern Foodways Alliance has devoted a section of its website (www.southernfoodways.org) to interviews with people at these restaurants.

“It is written that the first immigrant from Greece, George Cassimus, arrived in Birmingham in the late 19th century, had a brief stint as a fireman and then turned to the resturant business,” the SFA website notes. “His Fish Lunch House, which opened in 1902, may or may not be the first Greek-owned restaurant in town, but it was certainly a starting point — and perhaps even an inspiration — for the multitude of Greek-owned restaurants that have fed generations of hungry folks in Birmingham since.

“The names of these restaurants create an interesting kind of foodways genealogy. Greek immigration and restaurant history can be traced through a place like Gus’s Hot Dogs, which was started by a man named Gus, then owned by Aleck and now run by George — all Greeks who saw opportunity in the Magic City.

“Whether it’s souvlaki or hot dogs, baklava or peanut butter pie, Greeks in Birmingham have perfectly melded their own food traditions with those of the Deep South.”

Take Niki’s West. Gus Hontzas came to this country from Greece and ended up in Jackson, Miss., where his uncle, John Hontzas, had a restaurant called John’s. The Hontzas family opened Niki’s Downtown in 1951 at Birmingham. Niki’s West opened six years later, and Gus moved to Birmingham to run it. He died in 2001. His sons, Pete and Teddie, took over Niki’s West.

An article at the website www.seriouseats.com noted: “The cafeteria line at Niki’s West is legendary. Mid-morning you can find folks in line, piling their plates high with some of the freshest and most colorful vegetables in Birmingham. And if the cafeteria line isn’t your style, they also have an a la carte menu where you’ll find even more fresh seafood, steaks and a few traditional Greek dishes.”

Jackson, Miss., also has a strong restaurant tradition.

When I was going to Mississippi’s capital on a regular basis as part of my work for the Delta Regional Authority, I loved to eat downtown at the Mayflower Cafe and the Elite.

The Mayflower, long a hangout for Mississippi politicians, has been open since 1935 and is known for its seafood.

The Elite, which has been around since 1947, is also known for seafood along with its yeast rolls. There are also broiled steaks, hamburger steaks smothered in onions, homemade soups and enchiladas.

When dining in Jackson, you must have what’s known locally as comeback sauce. You use it as a salad dressing. You dip your crackers in it. You dip fries and onion rings in it.

Comeback sauce, sort of a mix of thousand island dressing and remoulade sauce, became popular in the 1940s at the Mayflower and the Greek-owned restaurants operated by the Dennery family in Jackson. The Rotisserie, which was owned by Alex Dennery and was in the Five Points area of Jackson, simply called it house dressing. The Mayflower’s comeback sauce has a touch of celery that the others don’t have.

We digress.

Let’s get back east to Bessemer and the Bright Star.

Bessemer, long a steel town, was founded in 1887 by Henry F. Debardeleben. He came to the Birmingham area at age 30 and acquired a controlling interest in the Red Mountain Iron & Coal Co., which was later renamed the Eureka Mining Co.

Bessemer came to life after Debardeleben bought 4,040 acres about 13 miles southwest of Birmingham. He planned to build eight furnaces and add two railroad outlets. The original name of the city was Brooklyn, but Debardeleben renamed it in honor of Sir Henry Bessemer, the British scientist who was a pioneer in the process of making steel.

By 1890, Bessemer was the fourth-largest city in Alabama.

Bessemer had 33,428 residents in the 1970 census. Since then, it has fallen to 27,456. Ore mining ended as supplies were exhausted, leading to economic decline.

Iron ore once was mined in the hills just to the southeast of the city, coal was mined to the north and to the west, and there also were significant deposits of limestone.

By the time the Bright Star was founded, Bessemer was served by five railroads and downtown sidewalks were busy 24 hours a day. The Bright Star started in 1907 as a small cafe with only a horseshoe-shaped bar. It outgrew three locations and moved to its present location in 1914. There are still original ceiling fans, tile floors and marbled walls. There also are murals painted decades ago by an itinerant European artist.

Seafood is brought from the Gulf Coast daily. After our complimentary cups of gumbo, David and I shared the cold shrimp platter as an appetizer. We both decided on a Greek salad followed by the restaurant’s specialty — snapper broiled Greek style. This is a red snapper fillet broiled with olive oil, lemon sauce, oregano and other seasonings.

There’s no state — not even Texas — in which college football consumes a higher percentage of the populace than Alabama. Though the Bright Star has both Alabama and Auburn memorabilia on its walls, Crimson Tide fans far outnumbered Tiger fans. Almost 50 percent of those dining there last Friday night (with an afternoon game scheduled for Tuscaloosa the next afternoon) had on some type of Alabama shirt, jacket or button.

In addition to being Gene Stallings’ favorite restaurant in the world, the Bright Star was a favorite haunt of Paul “Bear” Bryant. Both Nicky and Jimmy Koikos graduated from the University of Alabama and remain Crimson Tide fans.

After dinner, Jimmy took us to the back of the restaurant to see the somewhat hidden “Bryant Booth,” where the coach would hang out, eat, drink and smoke. It features a painting of Bryant and is reserved weeks in advance on game weekends.

The waitresses all wear either Alabama or Auburn jerseys on the night before football games.

The man in the booth next to us, obviously a regular who eats lunch and dinner at the Bright Star several times a week, told us of his plans for a party at his Tuscaloosa condo the next day. He attends both home and road games, meaning he’s likely already in Fayetteville as I write this.

In the book published for the Bright Star’s centennial, Jimmy Koikos had these memories of Bryant: “Daddy wasn’t a big football fan, but I was always interested in the sport. When I was a junior in high school, I remember going to Mobile to see Coach Bryant’s first game. Later, I went to Memphis to see his last game. I followed him through his entire career. The man knew exactly what to say and when to say it. He was a master at motivating people.

“I remember one Monday night in the 1970s before our expansion, I got a telephone call from a man who wanted to make reservations for two for dinner. I told him that since it was a Monday evening, we would not be full. He could just come by at his convenience.

“He again told me that he wanted to reserve a private booth for two people. I told him that our booths are reserved for eight or more guests, but to just come by, ask for Jimmy and I would be glad to accommodate him.

“He proceeded to tell me that he wanted a private booth for two with a television.

“I said, ‘Sir, may I ask who is requesting a private booth for two people with a television?’

“He said, ‘This is Bear Bryant.’

“I said, ‘You got it, Coach.’ I ran home, took my mother’s television set out of her house, returned to the restaurant and set it up in a private booth in the back. Coach Bryant wanted to come for dinner and watch Monday Night Football.

“I also remember driving by one night when I wasn’t working and seeing a huge crowd. I thought, ‘Wow, Nicky’s really got a crowd in there tonight.’ But I wondered why the television was being played so loudly that I could hear it out in the street. I went inside and turned the set down and asked why it was so loud. Someone said it was because Coach Bryant wanted it loud. I walked right back over there and turned it up again. Coach and Mrs. Bryant and several of their friends were eating there that night.

“Another time, I walked out onto the practice field in Tuscaloosa to watch the team work out. Coach was sitting on a golf cart. It was really hot that day. I said, ‘Coach, how are you?’ He looked at me and said, ‘What are you doing here? Every time I see you I get hungry.’

“He was a wonderful coach and a real motivator. It was a real pleasure to talk to a man like that. I came to understand that if you run a business the way he ran a football team, you’d have a pretty successful business.”

After last week’s visit, I can assure you that’s exactly how Jimmy and Nicky Koikos run their business.

Long live the Bright Star.

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Farewell to Georgetown’s One Stop

Friday, July 6th, 2012

The phone calls and emails began coming in several weeks before that final day.

“Do you know that Joanna Taylor is closing the Georgetown One Stop?” everyone asked.

Last week, the One Stop served its final meal near the banks of the White River in White County. The place was packed for nights as the end neared.

Because I’ve written about the Georgetown One Stop before — here on the Southern Fried blog and in my Arkansas Democrat-Gazette column — a Democrat-Gazette reporter called me for a quote.

First, I told her that I understood that Joanna was tired and needed a break from the tough task of running a restaurant. No one should begrudge her the choice of retiring.

Second, I told the reporter that there were a couple of things that set the One Stop apart. One was the fact that Joanna continued to serve river catfish caught by commercial fishermen at a time when most restaurants serve pond-raised fish. Another was the fact that you don’t just pass through Georgetown. It’s literally the end of the road. You have to make an effort to get there. The drive along the Little Red River and then through those lowlands was an integral part of the overall experience.

Third, I said that the loss of the Georgetown One Stop was to catfish eaters what the loss of Shadden’s near Marvell was to barbecue eaters. I’m a catfish and a barbecue eater, so I mourn the demise of both places.

Again, though, I understand.

People die, people retire, towns lose their population base. We can’t expect even the classic places to last forever.

Here’s what we can do: We can patronize those restaurants that are special on a regular basis. We can tip well while we’re there. We can tell our friends about them.

In an increasingly urbanized culture, my hope is that Arkansas doesn’t lose too many of the rural, out-of-the-way spots like Shadden’s and the Georgetown One Stop, the places that make this state what it is.

I had feared the One Stop was history in 2011 following the devastating floods along the White River. But then something amazing happened. Area people pitched in and after extensive remodeling, the restaurant reopened in July 2011.

Earlier this year, I was going with two other men to Searcy to hear former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice speak at Harding University. One of my guests was from Kansas. The other lives here in Little Rock. Neither had ever been to the One Stop.

We pulled out of Little Rock on that third Thursday in April, arriving in Georgetown shortly after 5 p.m. Joanna was smiling and gave her usual friendly greeting. My guests couldn’t stop talking about their meals. She asked to take our photo at the end.

Little did I know that would be my last trip to the One Stop.

Unfortunately, I had come to the One Stop late in life. After having heard about the place for years, I finally made my first trip in April 2010.

I wrote this here on Southern Fried: “Yes, I made it to the Georgetown One Stop, that end-of-the road citadel of fried catfish in the southeast corner of White County. People would constantly ask me if I had partaken of the catfish at the One Stop. Until last Thursday, the answer was ‘no.’ They wondered why. I had no real explanation. Now, I’ve remedied that.

“Just as she has been doing for every customer for more than a decade, Joanna Taylor made sure I was full. The catfish was great. But the trip was even better. Once I left U.S. Highway 67-167, it was like a step back into Arkansas’ past. On that lazy journey down Arkansas Highway 36, you feel enveloped by the past. It happens as soon as you reach downtown Kensett. This was, after all, the home of the A.P. Mills General Store and Wilbur Mills. It was where Mr. Mills was born, and it was where he came home to die.”

Some historians believe that the site of Georgetown was the second settlement established in the state by European explorers, surpassed only by Arkansas Post. That would make Georgetown the oldest exsiting town in the state since Arkansas Post is now a National Park Service site, not an active community.

French explorer Francis Francure received a land grant of 1,361 acres from the Spanish king in 1789 and settled in the area.

Georgetown got its current name in 1909 in honor of three men from Clarendon with the last name of George who purchased, sold and developed land there. The Missouri & North Arkansas Railroad built a bridge over the White River at Georgetown in 1908. The great flood of 1927 damaged the bridge, and it was never properly repaired. The railroad ceased operations to Georgetown in 1946.

In the 2000 census, Georgetown had a population of 126.

Joanna moved to Georgetown from Little Rock. Her sister, Jeannie, had bought the gas station and convenience store there, and Joanna went to work for her. She began serving lunch and later breakfast to area farmers. When word got out about the quality of the catfish she purchased from commercial fishermen on the White River and then trimmed by hand, patrons began demanding she add dinner. So breakfast became a thing of the past, as did the store and the gas pumps. The One Stop became solely a catfish restaurant. There was no menu.

Granted, Joanna would bring some buffalo ribs, also out of the White River, if you asked for them.

It was $9 for all you could eat.

When I was young, restaurants all over Arkansas still advertised “White River catifsh.” It’s hard to find actual White River catfish these days on a restaurant menu.

A month after that April 2010 post on the One Stop, I was writing about the death of Wayne Shadden and the closing of Shadden’s along U.S. Highway 49 in Phillips County.

Here’s part of what I wrote: “As I passed the venerable Shadden’s store west of Marvell, I noticed that one of my favorite places to eat barbecue in the Delta was closed. I remember hoping that nothing was wrong. I had no way of knowing that last Thursday would be barbecue impresario Wayne Shadden’s final day of life.

“Mr. Shadden died the following day at age 77 at his home near Marvell. The obituary in The Daily World at Helena simply said, ‘Wayne was a good cook and well-known for his barbecue. He was a Navy veteran, a member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion.’

“What an understatement. Well-known for his barbecue. Wayne Shadden was much more than that. For true Delta barbecue aficionados, he was one of the masters. People heard about Shadden’s and came from across the country to try the barbecue. If you ate in the store, there was one table in the back you could share with others who were on their own barbecue pilgrimages.

“I hope the store survives. Too many places like this don’t. An owner dies, and in small town after small town across the Delta, all we’re left with are convenience stores selling fried chicken under heat lamps.”

Well, my worst fears were realized after writing that. The store didn’t reopen. Wayne Shadden’s wife was tired, and the kids all lived out of state — a son in Washington state, a son in California, a daughter in Texas and a daughter in Virginia.

The wooden building that housed Shadden’s is almost 100 years old. From the outside, it still looks like it did when it closed more than two years ago. I drive by now and sometimes see folks posing for photos out front.

Sadly, that trend of being left only with convenience stores selling fried chicken under heat lamps is not limited to the Delta. We’re seeing it all over rural Arkansas.

Ms. Joanna has retired, and the One Stop has closed.

Mr. Wayne died, and Shadden’s never reopened.

Like I said, patronize the really special places while they’re still in business. Once they’re gone, you’ll have only the memories.

P.S. The Southern Fried blog will be taking a one-month summer hiatus. I’m about to take a much-needed family vacation that will be followed by business travel and work on a couple of other projects. I’ll be back sometime in August with new posts. Have a wonderful rest of the summer.

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