Tailgating with the master

photo(38)Arkansas is a quirky place, and one of those quirks is our flagship university and sports team, which isn’t anywhere near the populous central part of the state, being tucked away instead way up in the Northwest Corner — closer to Oklahoma than to Little Rock. And while that section of the state has grown by leaps and bounds over the years, there was a time when Fayetteville, Arkansas, home to the University of Arkansas Razorbacks, was a small place up in the Ozarks that was a real pain in the neck to get to. Even when I first attended the U of A back in the 90s, there was no functioning interstate highway that would get you into Fayetteville — every bit of traffic had to run along a two lane highway that curved through hills. That all changed during my junior year when I-540 opened, and now Fayetteville is a pretty easy trip — but it’s still a long way from the rest of the state.

Because of this quirk of geography, the Arkansas Razorback football teams have traditionally split their home games between Razorback Stadium on campus and War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock. They’ve been doing this since 1948, and all the first games I ever saw were at the Markham street stadium here in the Rock. As the University has grown, and as the Northwest part of the state has become an economic powerhouse, Razorback stadium has grown to seat over 70,000 people, while the aging War Memorial still only seats around 50,000. When I was a kid, games were split evenly between the two sites, 3 and 3, which changed to 4 and 2 some years back. The latest blow to Little Rock games was the moving of the marquee Arkansas-LSU matchup to Fayetteville, leaving us with second tier opponents in central Arkansas. Little Rock games are a tradition that is something of an anachronism, and one which is probably on its way out. But you’d never know that by the tailgate party.

photo(37)Here’s how tailgating works in Little Rock: people from all over the state descend on the golf course that is right next to War Memorial stadium. Packed bumper to bumper to bumper, these tens of thousands of people light up their grills, crack open any number of cold ones, and proceed to party for an entire day. We had our first Little Rock game just yesterday, a night game against Samford, and while the game itself wasn’t as good as it should of been (although we still won), the party beforehand was fantastic.

This year, Jess and I were lucky enough to have been invited to the tailgate party thrown by Kelly and Erika Gee, a couple of friends who are known for their ability to throw a barbecue party. I knew Kelly had skills after attending a pig roast he held last fall in North Little Rock, but yesterday’s event was even more exciting due to one thing: Kelly just recently purchased a beautiful, custom made smoker that he funded through Kickstarter. That’s right — while the rest of the internet was getting worked up over Zach Braff and Amanda Palmer, we here in Arkansas knew where our money was going. It was going to the House of Gee.

We live within walking distance of the stadium, and they were pulling ribs from the fire right as we arrived. Three types of ribs yielded three excellent results, with meat that was firm, juicy, and still fall-off-the-bone tender. I’ve eaten ribs a lot of places, and these were easily some of the best I’ve ever had. A pan full of sliced pork tenderloin was flavorful and tasty, and we got there just before the wings ran out — and thank goodness we did, because the smoked wings were out of control good. Other highlights of the party were some of the strongest and tastiest Jello shots I’ve ever had courtesy of Erin Robinson. We weren’t able to stay long, and we missed what was said to be a tremendous pork shoulder, but I’m still happy to have been a part of the first tailgate of the Beastmaster (the consensus name for the smoker) era.

Thanks again to Kelly and Erika for hosting us — we like you guys even more than your barbecue. And we like the barbecue a whole bunch.

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Grill master Kelly Gee

Drunken Beans

IMG_9092I know this might surprise some of you, but there are times when I do really stupid things. Sometimes those things are forgivable, like eating a bag of Famous Amos cookies and a Diet Coke for lunch, but sometimes I pull some really egregious shenanigans that embarrass even me (and I’m a guy known to order pig intestines in restaurants). My most recent bone-headed move was buying a growler of Josiah Moody’s fantastic Scotch Ale yesterday at Vino’s…and then just letting it sit. By the time I got around to cracking that bad boy open, a lot of the carbonation had escaped, and I was left with the knowledge that I had committed quite a sin against one of God’s gifts to mankind: beer. And not just any beer, but a beer that I’ve waited around to be brewed since last year, from my favorite brewery on the face of this great earth. Something had to be done, something that could live up to the quality of the beer I had so carelessly mistreated. There was but one answer: a big pot of drunken beans.

IMG_9089Michael’s Drunken Beans

  • 1 pound dry beans. Pick your favorites. I like red beans the most with barbecue, so that’s what you see here, but this technique works with pintos, black beans, or navy beans.
  • 1/2 pound bacon
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • Salt and pepper
  • Your favorite barbecue sauce. Make your own, or use a good bottled kind. I’m using a new (to me) brand called “My Uncle’s Sauce” that was given to me by a nice guy I met recently who is trying to open a food truck. It’s good stuff.
  • Beer. If you want to use cheap, horrible beer, that’s fine. A good amber ale works nicely with beans. And since I’ve got some half-flat Scotch Ale at my disposal tonight — I’m using that.

Don’t worry about soaking your beans overnight. Cover them without about an inch of water in a kettle and bring them to a boil on your stove top. When they’ve reached a boil, turn the heat off, cover, and let sit for an hour or two. During this time, cook your bacon. You can either cook the 1/2 pound I called for and retain the meat and fat, or you can admit you are a bacon fiend and cook an entire pound, eating half and leaving yourself with a second half pound for the beans. Up to you — I won’t tell anyone.

Rinse your beans in a colander, returning them to the kettle. Pour a bunch of beer into the beans. If you have enough to cover them, do that. I like to pour in enough to get right to the point of covering them and then add some chicken stock for extra flavor. Crumble up the half pound of bacon you didn’t eat and toss into the pot. Using some of the retained bacon fat, cook the onions until they become translucent and somebody from the next room says, “My GOD what are you making that smells so good?!” When that happens, add the garlic just to tease them and saute for three more minutes. Dump the whole lot — onions, garlic, and bacon fat into the pot. Bring everything to a boil and then reduce heat and simmer for about an hour. Add liquid if needed — more beer, stock, or water.

Once your beans have gotten soft and most of the liquid has been absorbed, add in as much of the barbecue sauce as you’d like, and adjust your salt and pepper to taste. Put the kettle into the oven and cook baked-bean style until the barbecue sauce has darkened and begun to caramelize. If you like sweeter beans, add a touch of brown sugar before baking. If you like hot, add your favorite hot sauce. Use your imagination. You’ll be left with a pan of beans flavored with the rich barley malt flavor of beer and brought to perfection by tangy barbecue sauce. Serve with cole slaw and barbecue chicken — or whatever floats your boat. Enjoy!

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Review: Whole Hog Cafe (Bryant)

There’s a couple of things that might shock all of you that I have to get out of the way right here at the beginning of this post: first, I’d never actually eaten at any Whole Hog Cafe location before we tried their newest location in Bryant; and second, I’m really not that big a fan of barbecue.  I know, I know, how do I dare call myself a Southern food writer and say things like that?  But to me, barbecue is one of those things that is incredibly rare to find done well and very easily found done badly – and I tend to take my charred meat products very seriously. And Whole Hog? Well, I reckon that they aren’t part of that “bad” category by any stretch of the imagination…but I can’t really put call them anything unique or spectacular.  The best thing I can say about Whole Hog Cafe is that this is a barbecue joint made for folks who like a lot of sauce on their meat, and since I’m more of a dry-rub-and-smoke kind of guy, that might be a big reason for my disinterest.

But let’s talk about some things that Whole Hog does right: they serve big sandwiches piled high with meat and topped with a generous portion of tangy cole slaw.  Now I know that some of you folks don’t like slaw on your pulled pork and shredded brisket sandwiches, and I feel real sorry for how wrong you all are.  The slaw at Whole Hog is good – crisp and sweet with just enough salty, vinegary bite to add flavor, texture, and crunch to a sandwich.  As for the meat, it’s tender and moist, and a perfect vehicle for all those different sauces on the table.  Nothing special, but it’s a serviceable sandwich that has one major thing going for it: it’s pretty cheap for the amount of food you get.  Add a side of spicy beans or maybe a few fries and you’ve got yourself a pretty satisfying meal for well under ten dollars.

Another cheap option with substantial portions is the Half Chicken dinner.  I love half-chickens at barbecue places because you get it all – white meat, dark meat, and my favorite part, the wing.  The chicken seen over there on the left had a lot going for it – it was juicy, and the skin had a nice, crisp firmness to it that I take as a sign of a well-cooked bird.  The flavor was rather mild, though, and even here it seems that the meat is simply meant as a vessel for a puddle of sauce.  Chicken is a meat that really takes to a good rub and a lot of hickory smoke, and while I liked that the meat here wasn’t dry or stringy in the least, I could have used more smoky goodness.  Again, for the price, this was an excellent deal on a decent meal, perfect for a quick lunch or a take-out dinner.  But my picky self wants the barbecue to sing, to be redolent of spice and smoke, and Whole Hog just doesn’t get there for me.  That’s certainly a matter of preference and not an issue of quality; fans of saucy barbecue will love this stuff, and it’s head and shoulders above similar places like Famous Dave’s.

Whole Hog Cafe is located at 5309 Hwy 5 North in Bryant.  They’re open for lunch and dinner, and have a very reasonable price per pound on take-out barbecue.

Whole Hog Cafe on Urbanspoon

Review: P & C Diner

Update: As of March 2012, P & C Diner has closed.  There’s a “Now Renting” sign up on the front, so we’ll keep you posted.

If there’s one thing we love about living in Saline County, it’s that there’s a lot of great places to choose from for good Southern cooking.  A lot of these places are easy to miss when you’re passing through, but if you talk to the folks that have spent any time here, they’ll tell you where to find the good stuff.  That’s how we first tried P & C Diner in Bryant – a coworker of mine had nothing but good things to say about the food, especially the barbecue.  It had been awhile since we had eaten good barbecue, so we decided to head down to P & C and see what the fuss was about.

On our first trip to the diner, we were met with a something that I took as both a disappointment and a good sign: they were all sold out of barbecue.  I figured it must be pretty good if they were sold out, and contented myself with one of my all-time favorites, a patty melt.  The P & C patty melt was as basic as it gets: a thick, juicy patty of flavorful ground beef between two pieces of buttered Texas toast with grilled onions and American cheese.  Basic, but perfectly made and utterly delicious.  It’s the onions that make or break a patty melt for me, and these were diced medium-small and cooked soft and lightly carmelized on the grill.  It might not have been what I came in wanting, but I was very happy with it.

Jess’ order was just as basic as it comes, too: a hamburger with fresh lettuce, tomato, and onion with an order of Cajun fries; and again, simple meant perfect.  The burger was cooked very well in that way that only a big, industrial strength diner griddle can seem to make them: charred just a touch on the outside and screamingly hot and juicy on the inside.  Her Cajun fries (and my regular flavor fries) were cooked crisp with a good, mealy texture inside.  And since both of our sandwiches, fries, and drinks came to just under $15.00, we really felt like we got a deal.

But what about the barbecue?  We decided that the best way to go about it was for Jess to grab some one afternoon before they had a chance to sell out and bring it home for supper.  We got the “Family Pack” pulled pork, a monstrous helping of smoky shredded pork with two sides (in our case, barbecue beans and cole slaw), plus two types of barbecue sauce (a tangy mild sauce and a red-pepper-spiked hot variety).  The pork was just as good as we had been told, moist and tender with a rich smoked flavor.  I love pulled pork with sauce on the side because it lets you pick how wet or how dry you want your sandwich.  The pork didn’t have one bit of fat or gristle to it, which to me shows that a good bit of care went into its preparation.  The beans and slaw were decent, but not spectacular – but honestly, with pork this good, they really didn’t need to be.  You could easily feed a family of four off of this, and all for about $18.00.  For us, that means two excellent meals, and I don’t think I could even cook myself something this tasty for that cheap.

My best tip for you is to get to P & C Diner early – because this barbecue is seriously good and it’s no surprise they regularly sell out.  Even if they do, though, the burgers and sandwiches are all made fresh to order and so you won’t lack for something tasty to eat.  It’s one of the most reasonably priced places I’ve eaten at in the area, and they serve food just the way we like: hot and fresh, cooked to order and served up humbly but with an obvious pride of ownership.  This is one of those places that I passed by for a couple of years before I ever thought to try it: if you’re doing the same, take my word for it and give the place a try.  P & C Diner is located at 302 South Reynolds Road in Bryant (just after you go over the train tracks overpass), and they’re open seven days a week from 11:00am – 7:00pm.  They’ve got a small dining area inside, or you can pick your order up through the drive through.  Enjoy!

P & C Diner on Urbanspoon