Arkansas’ barbecue mecca

What town has more good barbecue restaurants than any other place in the state?

I would say Blytheville.

For quality smoked pork per capita, the Mississippi County city is this state’s barbecue mecca.

Arkansas’ cotton capital has suffered economically with the outmigration of sharecroppers and the closure of Eaker Air Force Base, but barbecue restaurants continue to proliferate.

It’s a tradition in Blytheville.

In a history of barbecue in the Mid-South, food historian Robert Moss of Charleston, S.C., writes: “In Blytheville, Ernest Halsell opened the Rustic Inn in a log cabin in 1923, later moving the restaurant to a rock building, and finally to Sixth Street in the 1950s. … It operated as a drive-in with curb service during the 1950s and 1960s but later scaled back to just a regular family-style restaurant.”

A visit to Blytheville requires a stop at the Dixie Pig, which is a direct descendant of that log cabin where the Halsell family began serving food in 1923. The Dixie Pig has hundreds of loyal patrons who drive in from all over northeast Arkansas, the Missouri Bootheel and Memphis. It’s also a regular stop for people traveling up and down Interstate 55.

Here’s how the Arkansas Times describes it: “The Dixie Pig has been selling barbecue in Blytheville for almost 90 years, and in that time it has come close to perfecting the chopped pork sandwich. They call it the ’pig sandwich’ — also available the ‘large pig’ — and serve it wrapped in wax paper, sans plate, with chopped cabbage and a heap of dry, hickory-smoked chopped pork inside a thin bun.

“The sauce, a fiery, thin blend of pepper and vinegar, is in repurposed ketchup bottles on the table. Don’t miss the holes punched in the cap and twist it off for a pour. The sauce spills out quickly and is best when used in moderation. Fries and onion rings are both homemade and some of the best we’ve ever had, particularly the fries, which tasted double fried.”

Lindsey Millar of the Times writes that in the “interminable drive I’m regularly forced to make up I-55 to visit the in-laws, one stop — geographically positioned just far enough away that, if we leave around 8:30 a.m. or 9 a.m., we hit right when my belly is calling for lunch — makes the trip almost bearable.”

That stop is the Dixie Pig.

“I’ll never drive through Blytheville without stopping again,” Millar writes.

In 2009, a book was published with this intriguing title: “America’s Best BBQ: 100 Recipes from America’s Best Smokehouses, Pits, Shacks, Rib Joints, Roadhouses and Restaurants.”

One of the co-authors of that book, Paul Kirk from the Kansas City area, declared that the Dixie Pig has the best barbecue in the country.

That’s right, in the country.

Jennifer Biggs, who writes about food for The Commercial Appeal at Memphis, headed to the Dixie Pig soon after the book was released. She said she had been told to order the ‘pig salad” with blue cheese dressing.

Here’s part of what she wrote: “I ended up buying a container of the dressing and a container of the hot vinegar sauce to bring home. Folks in Blytheville buy the dressing, which is made in-house and includes chopped green olives, to serve at parties as a dip.

“The salad is simple: Iceberg lettuce, a wedge or two of tomato, dressing on the side. First I doused the chopped meat — smoky, tender, with a few bits of bark — with the hot vinegar sauce and poured on a little blue cheese. Then a lot. Spicy. Tangy. Smoky. Creamy. And all on top of crisp lettuce (don’t even think about arugula or baby mesclun here; iceberg is the perfect foil). That was one fine salad.

“The ‘pig sandwich’ was a bit perplexing, though. The meat, again, was fine. Chopped (I was later told I could have had it sliced, which I would have preferred), sufficiently smoky and with a few bits of bark. It was the slaw that surprised me.

“In Memphis, we can passionately discuss the merits of first, whether to put slaw on your sandwich and second, the merits of a mayo-based slaw vs. one of mustard or vinegar. At the Dixie Pig, that’s no issue. It was just cabbage, dressed with just a smidge of vinegar. And I do mean a smidge; it wasn’t even wet. Adding the hot vinegar sauce greatly improved it.

“The onion rings were about as good as they come, though. Freshly cut, battered and fried in-house, they come to the table crisp and hot. The batter is light without being crumbly — there’s probably a little bit of egg in it – and the onions are sliced medium to thin. I couldn’t resist hitting a few of them with a dash of the vinegar sauce, and I do recommend the combination.”

Biggs also enjoyed the customers in the restaurant.

She wrote: “A table of older men were out to solve the problems of the world, and I’ve always been a sucker for these coffee klatches of ‘wrinkled roosters,’ which is what I call them because the first men’s coffee group I wrote about was officially named The Wrinkled Roosters and met every morning at a now-closed restaurant in Hernando, Miss. … There’s a camaraderie you generally find only in institutions, which is what the Dixie Pig is.”

She quoted Dr. Charles E. Campbell, who was stopping in for a cup of coffee while she was there, as saying: “I can’t make it through a week without a ‘pig sandwich.’ I think it’s the best barbecue you can get anywhere.”

Obviously, Paul Kirk agrees.

The thing about Blytheville, however, is that there are other choices. A lot of choices, in fact.

There are two locations of Penn’s Barbeque, operated independently by brothers. Unfortunately, it appears the original location is about to be replaced by a Dollar General store.

My chief Blytheville barbecue correspondent thinks the best barbecue in town can be found at Benny Bob’s on East Main Street.

Others swear by the pork sandwich at the Kream Kastle on North Division Street, a Blytheville institution that serves a variety of other dishes.

“I grew up in Blytheville, and when I return a barbecue sandwich topped with slaw is always satisfying,” one Little Rock resident says while extolling the virtues of the Kream Kastle. “Solid onion rings as well. Probably your best bet in Blytheville.”

There’s also Yank’s Famous Barbeque on East Main Street and Johnny’s BBQ on South Lake Street.

I’m even told of a man who split from Yank’s and now sells barbecue off a grill behind a barber shop. Now that’s a true Delta experience. I need to give it a try. I think this place is known as Benny’s (not to be confused with Benny Bob’s).

“Yes, it’s confusing,” my correspondent admits. “We have a whole bunch of barbecue for a town this size.”

You’re telling me!

Finally, I want to try this barbecue location as described by the chief correspondent: “There’s a place here that may have some of the best barbecued pork I’ve ever tasted. It’s located in a travel trailer parked in front of Hays Supermarket. I don’t think the stand has an official name. He has been there for a decade or so, and the locals just refer to it as Old Hays Barbecue.”

Though Blytheville’s population has dropped from 20,798 in the 1960 census to 15,620 in the 2010 census, the town is still filled with fascinating places thanks to its rich history.

“Mississippi County has long held its place as the No. 1 cotton-producing county in Arkansas, and Blytheville sits near 10 cotton gins,” Rigel Keffer writes in the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “One of the largest cotton gins in North America lies on Blytheville’s western edge.

“The Ritz, Blytheville’s civic center since 1981, originated in the early 1900s and has seen several owners, fires, name changes, expansions and renovations throughout its decades on Main Street. A popular stop for famous vaudeville performers traveling from Memphis to St. Louis in the early 20th century, the Ritz later became one of the first theaters in Arkansas to present talking pictures. The Ritz was fully renovated in 1950-51 and hosted a television lounge where many Blytheville residents got their first glimpse of the new medium.

“Blytheville lies along Highway 61 of blues music fame. Generations of blues musicians passed through Blytheville as they traveled from Memphis north toward St. Louis and Chicago. The 1932 Greyhound bus station at 109 North Fifth St. is one of the few surviving art deco Greyhound bus stations in the United States.”

I mentioned the barbecue trailer in front of Hays Supermarket. The store has its own colorful history. Russell Hays and his wife Mae Hays opened the store on Jan. 1, 1935.

The company website states: “When employees or others speak of the big store, the flagship store is the one they are referring to, even though it has not been the biggest for many years. Town and country folks from all walks of life filled the aisles, and on Saturdays it was a meeting place for the country people.

“What began as a general mercantile store has evolved into a full self-service supermarket. In the 1950s and 1960s, the ladies’ ready-to-wear was as fine a selection as you could find in a town this size. There were many fashion shows held in the store. One disgruntled competitor told a salesman once, ‘At Hays, you’re likely to find a smoked ham and silk dress hanging on the same rack.’”

A Hays store on the square in nearby Hayti, Mo., opened in 1948. A store was purchased in Caruthersville, Mo., in 1973. There were additions in Wynne in 1977 and West Helena in 1981. A second Wynne store was added in 1986, and a second Blytheville location was added in 1987.

Five more stores were purchased in 2001 — two in Jonesboro, two in Paragould and one in Walnut Ridge.

I need to plan a couple of days in Blytheville soon, eating my way across the city.

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20 Responses to “Arkansas’ barbecue mecca”

  1. Wally says:

    Thanks for writing this article. Let me just say that I have been eating BBQ from the Penn’s BBQ (not Penn), Dixie Pig, Kream Kastle for over 43 years!! Not only have I ate at these establishments almost all my life, but they are the STANDARD by which I measure ALL of my BBQ eating by.

    Also, for as long as I can remember there have been FRIENDLY feuds about which BBQ joint was the best in Arkansas, and while my preference is Penn’s BBQ, I feel safe to say that even the worst BBQ is better than most other BBQ sandwich shops anywhere in the region, state and actually in the United States!

    I have eaten BBQ in Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, Kansas Missouri, Mississippi, Georgia and about 20 other states. I almost always eat a single sandwich at one shop and then go to another so that I can experience more than BBQ joint. I have even done this in Blytheville.

    What makes Blytheville CHOPPED BBQ sandwiches so good? Several things. First (and speaking of Penn’s right now). They FRESHLY chop their QUE when the sandwich is ordered! The sound is music to my ears. Next, the meat has “bark” throughout the nicely seasoned white meat and gives the sandwich a nice “crunch”. Thirdly (and important)…they TOAST their buns…something so simple can make such a huge difference! And then they use a dry (again crunchy) cole slaw which differentiates the texture and temperature of the meat versus the coolness and crunchiness of the cole slaw. FINALLY, they have a terrific vinegar based sauce that is only slightly thicker than the vinegar itself.

    Now tell me I don’t take my BBQ seriously. As for sandwiches, I would put the chopped BBQ sandwiches from Penn’s, Kream Kastle and Dixie Pig against ANY OTHER IN THE STATE!!!

    Blytheville has had a hard way to go over the past couple of decades…but if you’ve never tried one of these chopped BBQ sandwiches, you OWE IT TO YOURSELF to make the drive to Blytheville and check them out. I make this 150 mile trip about once a month JUST FOR A PENN’S BBQ!!

  2. Gregg Cook says:

    Finally somebody gets it besides us natives. Thank you Rex, and try Penn’s South and ask for one hot and let Ron hurt you for me. You’ll love it.

    Back in the day there was also the Old Hickory on Chickasawba known to us Blythevillians as just Herb’s. And my grandfather’s in his country store in Dell.

    If you spend a week, try Ray Alan Gill’s stand by McDonald”s. That is excellent Que! The one in Hay”s lot is a man named Bryeans. David, if he has not retired. Ask him for a pig salad with bbq and ranch, then go into Hay’s and get a pack of buns, cause it will have enough meat to scrape a pig sandwich off the top and add sauce. Maybe restaurant size buns. Best bbq deal in AR!

  3. Brenda Bahn-Moore says:

    You said it, Gregg. It is good that someone else gets it! The Pig Sandwich from Blytheville is the best in the world! I grew up on it and have not been able to replicate it anywhere I have lived.

    I’m hoping to visit Blytheville in a few months and will want to eat Pig Sandwiches for breakfast, dinner, and supper!!!

    I haven’t been able to figure out why Hog Country, Northwest Arkansas where I live now, can’t fix a Pig Sandwich like Blytheville. Wish someone would teach them.

  4. Barrett Harrison says:

    Great stufF Rex let me know when your here and I’ll buy

  5. David says:

    Great article. Blytheville BBQ is the best with Penn’s BBQ on Division Street being the gold standard!!! No one does it better than Penn’s BBQ.

    I have eaten BBQ in Blytheville for over 40 years & in over 30 states & 12 countries. And Penn’s BBQ is my favorite. My only regret about Penn’s is that I have to drive 2.5 hrs to eat there.

    Penn’s menu is basic…only pork BBQ sandwiches (no ribs, chicken, or beef) with chips or beans & soda. With that simple of a menu the BBQ has to be the fantastic.

  6. Bob Logan says:

    Good article! I would have to say My favorite is Benny Bob’s! It would have been Penn’s but you never know when they will be open!

  7. Liz Smith says:

    Fabulous article, Rex. Thank you for capturing not just our BBQ fame, but the Delta charm often overlooked by its own natives! Blytheville is a unique and intriguing spot on the earth! Thanks for writing about us. Visit the Chamber of Commerce next time you’re here!

  8. Peggy Hancock says:

    Hi Rex,
    I will share this with your friends Ann and John C. when they visit us in Germantown, TN this Wednesday. They are touring Rhodes and Memphis for their daughter AG and bringing Beth as well. Looking forward to seeing them. Jackie and I are from Blytheville. Always nice to hear positive things about the home town!
    Thanks,
    Peggy and Jackie

  9. What an absolutely wonderful tribute to Blytheville & the barbeque from there!!

    Like many others, I grew up there and have eaten at every place mentioned! I love the hamburgers from the Kream Castle, but the only place to get pig sandwiches is the Dixie Pig! Any time we know that someone is “going home”, we request some D.P. Q, when they return! One year I bought 1/2 case of DP sauce and brought it here. I doled it out like liquid gold, to family members. My younger sister, Jo Anne, is going there for a class reunion in May, and we will be placing our orders with her, as she goes home.

    I lived across the street from Buddy & Wanda for many years, so have a long friendship there as well. Many thanks for years of good eating!!

  10. Nancy Hughes says:

    I grew up in Blytheville. My husband and I left in the late fifties, but we go back every once in a while. We always eat at the Kream Kastle. No one has BBQ like they have. We also like the Dixie Pig too. When we were in high school we use to walk from the school down to the Dixie Pig and eat our lunch. After my boyfriend, who is my husband now, got a car, we would drive to the Kream Kastle and eat. Both places had great BBQ. When we go to Blythevill now we always stock up on the Kream Kastle BBQ and bring it home and freeze it and when company comes we bring out the BBQ. Wow, that is good eating.

  11. Charlotte Case says:

    The Dixie Pig is a tradition in our family. On a short trip there I may eat at the Pig 2 or 3 times–once with family & a time or two with friends.

  12. Sandra Hrabovsky Bevill says:

    Thanks for a great article! I grew up eating at both the Kream Kastle and the Dixie Pig and love them both. When I go to family reunions, I’m not sure if my family is happier to see me or the barbeque I always bring! :-)

  13. Paul says:

    I grew up in Blytheville and have some of my best memories from there. Nothing compares to the original Pig sandwich from the Dixie Pig. My parents live in North Little Rock now, and fortunately, there is a Dixie Pig there. Sure brings back memories!

  14. George says:

    One of Ernest Halsell’s sons, Johnny, opened the Dixie Pig in North Little Rock, it has the same menu as the original. I gre up in Blythevill with the Dixie Pig, and while in high school Ernest let us name the new dining room in his establishment. Every Friday night there was a high school dance at the legion hut; after, all headed to the Dixie Pig for sandwiches. As in all little towns at the time, driving around was not complete without circling the Pig. See above comment, I am Paul’s dad.

  15. Donna Sue says:

    Nobody does bar-b-que like Blytheville and as well as Blytheville! Thanks, Rex, for this great article. I grew up on those delicious pig sandwiches and still miss them. I remember the Rustic Inn and Ole Hickory Inn, then the opening of the Dixie Pig which brings back high school memories, as cousin George related in his comment above. Now, the Dixie Pig is a first place to visit when in Blytheville. Yes, I agree with (nephew) Paul and all the other comments, nothing compares to the original “Pig” from Blytheville!!!

  16. Donna Bunting Green, AA-Criminal Justice says:

    Wonderful recognition, Rex, for Blytheville. My brother and I used to visit with our Grandparents – Lee and Oma Stiles – every summer of our lives before everyone started to die off. Each time we got to Grammy and Grandpa’s, we were always asked to go get pig sandwiches for everyone. When we did we went to the Ole Hickory Inn run by a gentleman named Herb. His establishment began on Sixth Street and my grandparents home was located right beside the alley that ran between a little grocery store called Hay’s. The alley ran all the way behind the elementary school and there was a short cut to the high school from there.

    Urban Renewal came to the town of Blytheville sometime during the late 50′s, early 60′s and my grandmother had to move over to 800 W. Walnut where she resided until her death. With Urban Renewal, Herb moved the Ole Hickory over to across from the school on Chickasawba. The restaurant is now gone but I would be willing to bet my life on Herb’s barbecue pig sandwiches over any of the others you mentioned in your article. Running in a tie for second place would have to be the Dixie Pig and the Kream Kastle. The Kream Kastle was located beside my Aunt Myrtle Bourland’s house and it still in the same location right along Highway 61.

    Funny how some things change but never go completely away. Some things are never forgotten – especially the pig sandwiches from good ole Blytheville, Arkansas!!

  17. Wanda says:

    I am a native Blytheville-onion.I never miss a visit to the city without a chopped BBQ sandwich. My late Uncle Robert Pollard was a fan too! He told me exactly where to find the best sandwich before passing. He was deemed one of the best cotton classifiers during his tenure in at cotton gin. On another note, you haven’t tasted real BBQ, sandwiches set aside, until you have tasted my step-father’s at home (reserved for special guests) recipe!

  18. Ray Knapp says:

    I grew up in Blytheville too I have eaten BBQ all over the USA and non compares to blytheville. Igraduated high school there in 1957 ,i now live in Kingsport Tn. they think they have good BBQ here, They just don’t know.

  19. I was born in Blytheville, moved to southeast Mo as a child, college in Little Rock and now live in south Florida. I drive 2 hours out of the way (I-75 to I-10-to I-55 instead of through Atlanta & Nashville) just so I can stop at the Dixie Pig. It is undeniably the BEST barbeque anywhere–Blytheville does it best!!! This week I stopped on the way back and bought a whole butt to take back to Florida. Didn’t need to get the sauce, cause I bought plenty the last tine through. Greateest Memorial Day picnic I can think of!!! Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives has yet to realize what great barbeque is. Guy Fieri needs a road trip to Blytheville!

  20. Marcus Gunter says:

    Great article Rex, even better than touch down club predictions!! Yes the Dixie Pig is the best Pig Sandwich anywhere. I have tried for years to get the vinegar sauce recipe from Buddy with no luck. I recently return to Hot Springs from Louisville, Ky and drove out of the way to have a Pig Sandwich, still the best ever. Tried to get the recipe again but Buddy is steadfast.

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