Editor’s note: The Ohio Club chef Michael Dampier, aka The Burger Chef, is a true Arkansas foodie, a road warrior and an award-winning chef. He’s also a certified food judge with Kansas City Barbecue Society, the Steak Cook Off Association and World Food Championships. Last October, when Arkansas Times released The Arkansas Barbecue Passport, 40 of the best barbecue joints in the state divided amongst the six natural regions and Little Rock metro, Dampier passed out hundreds of passports at a Steak Off Association event in Hot Springs and hit the trail himself, collecting stamps from the restaurants to earn a prize from sponsor PK Grills. Dampier has been updating the The Arkansas Barbecue Passport public Facebook group with pictures from his experience on the road, where he battled ice storms and unexpected closures en route to earning his new PK Go. Even though he’s earned his prize, he continues on with his decommissioned passport. We thought it was the perfect time for an Arkansas Barbecue Trail food diary from The Burger Chef himself.
Whenever I travel I always try to find the off-the-beaten-path, where-the-locals-go kind of places, so this was right up my alley. Being here in Hot Springs, it was pretty easy. First place I went to was McClard’s. I grew up in Hot Springs, and I didn’t start out eating McClard’s like some folks. I was probably 18 before I remember eating McClard’s. It was a tamale spread. There were several other barbecue places back then. My grandparents were Purity Bar-B-Que people, it was a place that used to be on Malvern Avenue. When I would go visit my dad’s parents, they were real big on Stubby’s. I didn’t immediately get to Smokin’ In Style, that was a little later.
I went to Jones Bar-B-Q in Marianna for my third stop. Jones is one of my favorite places, even though it’s simple. You’re gonna get pulled pork on white bread and it’s gonna either be sauce or no sauce or slaw or no slaw, and that’s it. Or you can get it by the pound. I’ve been visiting with Mr. Jones for probably 15 to 20 years. I’ve taken my whole kitchen crew, loaded them up in my van and taken them to Jones Bar-B-Q to eat, and he fussed at me because I didn’t call ahead of time. Kim Williams, her dad is the mayor of Marianna, she knew I was coming, and he met me down there so I had lunch with Mayor Williams and Mr. Jones. Mr. Jones opens, I believe, at 7:30 a.m., he closes about noon or 12:30 at the latest. Sometimes he’s sold out by 10:30 or 11:00, and you’ve got to get there early or call ahead. That gentleman is a James Beard award winner, he’s a food hall of famer, the oldest African-American business west of the Mississippi. He always calls me “Hot Springs.”
I hadn’t been to Cypress Corner (Lexa, Phillips County). It was just down the highway, and I literally drove past it. It was like a crossroad with no stop signs in corn fields or soybean fields or something, and it looked like a rundown shack. I went back and a feed truck pulled in and I said, “Is this Cypress Corner,” and he said “Yeah, they got some good pork sandwiches in here.”
Some of those places that have no bling, no advertising, no nothing, they’ll sneak up on you and surprise you. It was real good, the meat didn’t really need sauce, it was moist, juicy, tender. It was a pretty good sandwich. There was about three elderly ladies in there working, and I sat down and visited with them. Then I made my way to Smokin’ In Style to close out my Ouachita region. That was November.
When it got into December there were still some places that were struggling with staffing, then you had weather. I raised my 15-year-old daughter by myself, and she’s usually on some of my food adventures. She had a traveling volleyball tournament up in the Fayetteville area. She’s a big pulled pork girl, so she tried the pulled pork at Penguin Ed’s and Wright’s BBQ and Lucky Luke’s. She really loved Wright’s BBQ. They have this mac and cheese smothered in BBQ that’s just amazing.
I drove over to Harrison, thinking I could knock out another because their Facebook page said they were open. That was some of the problems I ran into, some of the places didn’t update their hours, so I went by Sugar Boogers and they were closed for the season. I’ve got ’em on my list to check them out if I’m back in that area.
After Christmas I had some downtime at work and I took a whole day. There’s eight locations in the Little Rock metro area, I did my research, I found out what time all of them opened and closed, made notes and I took off to Little Rock. First it was fog, then I got into Little Rock and it was like a monsoon/downpour/flood, couldn’t see the windshield wipers, and I’m like “Man I must be pretty damn either stupid or dedicated.”
H.B.’s there in Little Rock is at the end of a neighborhood subdivision. Pulled in, they kind of laughed about me coming in the rain. I visited with them and got a pulled pork sandwich to go, and then I drove all the way across town because once again there wasn’t a page updated and Terri-Lynn’s was closed due to staffing. Luckily the owner was there. We visited, he went ahead and stamped my passport and gave me a coupon. He was deep cleaning his kitchen and we talked about the restaurant business. And of course I had to go over to good old Sims Bar-B-Que for a smoked bologna sandwich. He [Sims owner Ron Settlers] was just sitting over there doing his paperwork, so I sat and visited with him for about an hour, just hearing the stories of how long the family had the business.
Made my way over to the North Little Rock area to Whole Hog NLR and got me a brisket platter and got my daughter a jumbo pork sandwich. I had to bring her back one. And then Pig ’N Chik, I went in there and sat down and visited with some of the locals, and they talked me into getting the catfish. It was real good, cut just right. It always sounds funny when you tell people who don’t eat much fish that it didn’t have the fishy or muddy taste like some catfish do. It was real good, clean catfish, and a real nice platter full of food.
Lindsey’s BBQ & Hospitality, they were closed during Christmas/New Year, so I went back in January and spent a good while looking at all their pictures. They have pictures of Reverend Jesse Jackson and some people in the civil rights movement on the wall who had come and eaten there and visited. [Co-owners Donnie and Eleanor Lindsey] came out and I wanted to get a picture with them and visit because they and the Ohio Club were both finalists for the Arkansas Food Hall of Fame.
Count Porkula opened and I went over and visited [with owners Kelly Lovell and Walt Todd]. Those guys are a hoot, they are something else. Sometimes, I don’t think I’m a celebrity, but I walk into places and people know who I am because of Ohio Club and I’m very active on social media with the Burger Chef and everything that I do. I walked up and they hollered out, “Holy shit, the Burger Chef’s here!” We hugged and talked and they had some amazing brisket and once again a pork sandwich that my daughter loved.
Took a break. Had another day off and I heard there was an ice storm coming and was like, “Eh, it ain’t gonna happen.” I had found a grill online down in Ashdown for like $25, these Dutchess Grills that predated PK, they’re the cast aluminum grills, and they sell for $300. I messaged the guy and said I’ll come pick it up, Marketplace kind of deal. I’m like, “I’m going to tie a couple barbecue places into it.”
I’m driving west, all the schools are shutting down, people are calling, big ice storm’s coming, I’m actually driving towards it. I get down to Ashdown, and this guy’s address is off out in the middle of nowhere and he messages me back. He said, “By the way, when you get on the dirt road as you’re coming down the driveway, stay right of the big mud hole.” And I’m like, “I’m gonna die over a $25 dollar grill and trying to get a stamp in a passport thing.”
So literally I’m out in a ranch in a house that’s maybe 1,200 square feet sitting in the back of about 40 acres. I drive way back there. I see the grill on the patio. I’m looking around and I have no cell service. A guy comes to the door.
“Come on in, have a seat.”
I’m like, “The grill’s right here.”
This looks like a scene off “Halloween” or “Friday the 13th” or something.
“Nah, come on in,” he’s kind of hunkered over.
“I’ll come in from a minute,” I said, “but I really need to get back on the road.”
He sits down and he gets to talking, his name’s Cody. I said I worked at the Ohio Club.
“Man I love the Ohio Club, I’ve got something to show you.”
He gets up and goes down the hallway and comes back, and I see something long and dark and he swings it around at me and it is a Tommy gun. But he swings it all the way around where the barrel goes past me to where he’s handing it to me.
I said, “Sir, I’m in the middle of nowhere, I have no cell service, you come down the hall with a gun.” He started laughing. It was a Tommy gun carved out of wood. … We talked a little bit longer and know some of the same people. We’ve become friends on Facebook and talked since. I told him I was going to Big Gilley’s to get a stamp, and I’ve found out by doing this that I’ll say I’m going down the road to this place and people say, “Aw, man, you need to go down here and eat instead.”
Went down to Big Gilley’s food truck and got a couple big old sandwiches. They were real good, super friendly people.
I’m driving right ahead of the ice storm and I pull into Allen’s in Arkadelphia and got a big old platter to go. They had some good barbecue.
My daughter and I went on vacation and I went a different way to Florida and went through DeVall’s Bluff and Brinkley so I could go to Craig’s Barbecue and Depriest BBQ.
I went back down May 18 to the Piney Region and went to Burgess Hickory Smoked and loaded up on some food.
Next at Backyard Barbecue in Magnolia, I was standing outside waiting to go in and there was an older gentleman and another guy that was there to pick up a large to-go order. Going to some of these places has been fun talking to the locals, just visiting with them. They get to telling stories and tell me what to order and what not to order.
I got catfish, pork, brisket and smoked chicken at JJ’s Barbecue in El Dorado. Older gentlemen running the register, him and his wife run the place. There was Miss America from El Dorado, they had her pictures on the wall. Something I’ve enjoyed is slowing down a little bit and visiting with the owners or the workers. Some of them have let me go back in the pits and look around and take pictures.
The very next day I didn’t go into work until later, and I needed one more stamp to close out Little Rock Metro. I’d closed out Ouachita and Piney Region, and I needed Smokin’ Buns. That one’s kind of way out there on the other side of the Air Force Base. I tell you what, those folks do it right there. I had ribs, they talked me into trying their jalapeno smoked sausage and I had catfish. Ribs are real tender and smoked just right, and the sausage had a real good flavor.
I went ahead and called PK and I was like, “I’m leaving Smokin’ Buns. I have all my stamps for the PK Go, put it out on the dock, I’m on my way.” I have a great relationship with those guys, they helped me with my steak cook off. I’m a PK guy, I’ve had two PKs and two of the Dutchess cookers, so I was glad I was able to pick that up.
That’s the type of stuff that I’ve enjoyed, is meeting these people. Some of them don’t know what the stamps are for, and some of them have lost the stamp. Somebody was trying to stamp it with what they stamp invoices with. But it’s been the older folks I’ve been able to visit with and hear the history of their place, what their parents used to do or their brothers and uncles and cousins that have worked there. Going to these small communities is what I’ve enjoyed. I’ve got about 10 more places to go in Northeast and Southeast Arkansas.