The Arkansas Derby is here again, and while I don’t have any betting tips for you, I do have some recommendations for keeping your strength up waiting for the big race. Oaklawn has a variety of edibles to suit almost any taste, and while the drinks they serve to wash it all down might be a touch on the pricey side, everybody’s going to be winning enough that it shouldn’t matter, right?
Of course, Oaklawn’s most famous food item is its corned beef, and no matter if you’re a fan of sauerkraut or not, a sandwich piled high with the thin-sliced brined and cured beef is a must. While nobody would consider corned beef a traditional Southern food, it’s certainly the signature food of the races, and it’s popularity at the track is largely responsible for the number of restaurant menus statewide that include a reuben. There’s no easy way to eat one of these monster sandwiches, with the preferred methods I’ve seen alternating between polite picking at small bites with a fork and pure, elbows-out gluttony. It might not be the best corned beef in the world, but when coupled with the excitement of the crowd it has to come close.
If something in the way of a hot dog is more your thing, you can choose from the traditional bun-wrapped kind or go for one of the track’s foot-long corn dogs. The regular dogs are juicy and available with all the usual suspect condiments: relish, mustard, and ketchup. The corn dogs, however, are a real thing of beauty – a perfect breading-to-dog ratio fried just right to have a firm crunch that gives way to a soft, tender middle. Add a bag of the fresh-popped popcorn that can be smelled throughout the concession and betting area and you’ve made yourself a very happy (if not very healthy) meal.
My favorite area of the track to grab a bite is the Oyster Bar, and I still recall my joy at discovering it on my first visit to Oaklawn. While the Oyster Bar has a large selection of fried shrimp, oysters, and french fries, I always go for the fresh stuff: jumbo shrimp bigger than my thumb and some of the largest, plumpest oysters on the half-shell I’ve seen in the state. Being in a land-locked state, most oysters found around here are small and tasteless, but the ones at Oaklawn are succulent and still have the briny taste of the distant ocean. If you’ve ever been tempted to try a raw oyster, this is one of the best places in the state to do so, preferably with a healthy squeeze of lemon and maybe a dab of horseradish – and no matter how your bets turn out, the taste will make you feel like a winner.