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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