A barbecue restaurant serving vegan dishes. The heck you say.
Yes. It’s true. I found it in Fayetteville, at this joint called Girls Gone BBQ. And it’s pretty dang good.
We’re not talking about smoked barbecue “meats” — at least not yet. We’re talking about an honest to goodness barbecue joint that just happens to offer vegan dishes alongside brisket, smoked chicken, pulled pork and sausages.
Dana Neely has recently taken Girls Gone BBQ to a brick-and-mortar in the Kantz Center shopping arena on Fayetteville’s east side. The typical strip-mall exterior conceals the 1970s era Arkansas grandmother’s house decor hidden within, but you can smell the smoke that wafts up from behind the operation, and that’s about as good a sign as any.
Girls Gone BBQ promotes itself as an Arkansas Delta restaurant while it sits there on prime Northwest Arkansas property. That’s a rather bold claim, but when I entered and caught a whiff of fine sauce with notes of black pepper, celery, honey and whiskey in the air, I went with it. I placed my order at the counter, took a yellow flower-bedecked cup and filled it with tea, and was recommended to check out the bathrooms while I waited. How often do you hear something like that?
And yes, the unisex, oversized bathroom lounge with its velvet paintings, curio cabinets and the exact triple set of owls my maternal grandmother once hung on her wood-paneled walls was a real trip.
The sparse but thoughtful design elements in the dining room were well noted — paneling, a highway sign, an old cola clock from the 1970s, a hand-colored-by-county Arkansas map from 1974, an ancient cabinet TV now sitting like a sideboard by the counter, circular overhead vents that would only have been more authentic if streaked with nicotine. I collected myself a handful of silverware and a couple paper towels and grabbed a barbecue sauce caddy from another table and sat my butt down.
Being a place where the dishes are smoked and served until gone rather than to-order (don’t get me into people who throw fits at barbecue joints when dishes run out, I’ll be here a week), it did not take long to assemble my two-meat Pink Plate. The plate … was not pink. It was yellow, a melamine oval with sections like a mod cafeteria plate, each item in its own spot, vegetables segregated from the meats and a thick chunk of suspiciously fluffy cornbread perched on the end. The yellow echoed the flowers on my tea glass, and, against the woodgrain tabletop, the essence of 1970s Arkansas farmhouse was strong — some chosen, the proprietor would tell me, to mimic the decor at the famed Craig Bros. Cafe in DeValls Bluff.
Dana Neely, the proprietor in question, has worked her way from Des Arc to Fayetteville via Seattle, Washington, where she opened Girls Gone BBQ in 2008. A decade or so later, she came back to Arkansas, with some of those Northwest United States ideas tucked into her Northwest Arkansas shop.
We compared notes. I mentioned the Sno White Dairy Bar and the well-known Dondie’s White River Princess, the two restaurants in her hometown of which I have the most experience, and she noted some influences of hers from the area. Then she encouraged me to eat, which I was there to do.
The chicken. Okay, y’all, this chicken. I’m going to go out here and say, most barbecue chicken I have around Arkansas comes somewhat naked — smoked but not sauced, usually either whole bird, quarter bird or chicken breast. This marvelous combination of meat in sauce was succulent at the edge and just as much so in the center of each bite, delectable dark meat with a tender bite, thoughtful and saucy but not overwhelming. I’d be happy with just the chicken, thank you, with the bit of sweetness in its glaze.
The brisket was another story. Here were five slices, smoked but unsauced, barky on one edge, with a couple of pieces on the fattier side, butter-soft. The other three pieces were stouter stuff, firm brisket slices that didn’t quite fall apart, not quite needing the teeth of a steak knife but a bit of pressure from the tiny teeth of a butter knife. I liked the smoke. I liked the variance in texture. I was alright with the level of seasoning.
Put some of Girls Gone BBQ’s Cache River sauce on it? You have an entirely different flavor there, which was good, with notes of celery salt and black pepper. This was the scent I’d picked up coming in. I like a bite on my beef, and that was what I was looking for. The Original was pretty good with it, too, but maybe a little sweeter than I cared for on the beef.
I was grateful for the vegan baked beans. They had that nostalgic mouthfeel from my youth, with the soft Navy beans and a little hint of tomato sauce. The true contender for making that flavor: caramelized onions, so soft and sweet, kind of reminding me of my mom’s Settlers Beans she’d make every fall. (Girls Gone BBQ does offer a traditional baked bean side with pulled pork in it as well).
Them collard greens, though. I mean, technically, they’re collard greens and (don’t @ me on this) kale. Yes, you heard me right. Girls Gone BBQ takes cleaned greens and smokes them in a pan in the pit. They have no meat in them at all and are just dandy, particularly with some cornbread crumbled in and some Trappey’s pepper sauce sprinkled on top. I am particular about my greens, and have to have some turnip greens with a smoked turkey leg in from time to time, but these? These are saucy and crisp, and what they lack in potlikker they make up for with just a beautiful smoky edge to them.
That cornbread? I was concerned at its fluffiness because fluffy so often means sweet corn muffin, but Neely knows what she’s doing. The cornbread is moist but not sweet. Never fear, sweet cornbread lovers: It’s served with smoked poblano honey.
So how did a pitmistress who masters chicken and brisket end up offering fare for plant-based eaters? Neely’s customers in Seattle called for vegan offerings, and she obliged. You can tell each of her dishes has been heavily tested and researched. She did not know me from Adam but after coming back over and finding I’d inhaled all of my greens she asked if I’d like to try the coleslaw and the black eyed peas and yes, I did! I loved up on those peas so much — these pliant little pearls with the sort of depth you receive when someone cares enough to put in some dash of this and that, some herbs, smoke, without depending on a ham hock to get there.
And that slaw. It has apples in it! But it wasn’t sweet. It’s not side-dish coleslaw. This was meant to top a pile of meat on a bun. This was Arkansas-sandwich-style coleslaw, a sturdy and creamy condiment.
I snuck back in that Thursday early afternoon for another meal, and to satisfy my curiosity. What I had already tried was lovely, but there was a vegan sandwich on the sandwich menu, and I needed to know, was it good barbecue?
Well, it’s not vegan barbecue anything. This wasn’t a barbecue sandwich. Neely’s working on that, though, experimenting with soy curls. So while a vegan barbecue sandwich is coming, it’s not here. Yet.
What is here is the GG Vegan Sandwich, a handmade sweet potato and quinoa patty with roasted jalapenos and the vegan-friendly barbecue sauce. Yes, I adulterated it by adding the Arkanslaw. I tried the patty and pepper combination separately. This is a dang hearty sandwich. I guess those sweet potatoes just fill you the heck up.
It’s got great mouthfeel, like a really well beaten chicken fried steak, but it doesn’t purport to be something else. This is a vegetable sandwich, and it is pretty dang awesome. I was glad, though, for the slaw addition, just because I was in the mood for a bit more moisture, and I felt the slaw went well against those mellow roasted pepper slices.
It came with a side of pickled okra, and I’d suggest offering that with the rest of the menu’s sandwiches, too. Purists may turn their nose up at barbecue without white bread, but Neely’s bun, a Rockin’ Bakery Brioche, is a good match and stands up well to sauce.
That said, I only made it halfway through that sandwich because Lord have mercy, that mac and cheese. Girls Gone BBQ has its own vegetarian (but not vegan) pepper jack macaroni and cheese made with penne rigate instead of macaroni. Its sauce has the cling and viscosity of a Velveeta, but with a rich jack cheese flavor and just enough spicy notes to bite a little. The sauce sets both inside and out of the noodle well and holds to every forkful. There’s a dish on the menu, the Hot Southern Mess, which is two scoops of mac and cheese topped with your choice of meat, and I think that may end up being my go-to when it’s cold, because this mac and cheese will stick to your ribs (but probably won’t put hair on your chest, to parlay a couple of things my grandmother would have said at the table about food).
I also grabbed a side of the seasonal vegetable, roasted butternut squash, which reminded me of the sweet yams and the sweet potato pie I’ve enjoyed so many times alongside my Delta barbecue adventures. However, this was buttery and not sweet at all, an ample starch that I hoarded to myself and ache to try again.
And for dessert for later on, I picked up banana pudding, intending to try it later. Instead, I stopped twice on my drive back to enjoy a few bites. Banana pudding with barbecue is far more of an Alabama thing (here it’d usually be fried pies) but this was really good — and a large portion, too!
I’ll be bringing my partner, Grav, back with me next time, to dive into the pulled pork sandwich and the sausages. I also want to fork up some salad, since anything named after the extraordinary Sister Rosetta Tharpe better be some level of excellent. The salad touts mixed greens, black eyed peas, red onions, small sweet bell peppers and cornbread croutons with a choice of lemon vinaigrette or creamy poblano dressing. We’ll give it a shot, maybe share a slice of the seasonal cobbler they’d sold out of when I visited.
One more note: There are plenty of local brews on the chalkboard — Lost Forty Brewing Co., Bentonville Brewing, Fossil Cove, Ozark Brewing Company, even a Black Apple Hibiscus Cider and wine as well. Iced tea, both sweet and unsweet, are on the sideboard to fill your cup, alongside fresh squeeze lemonade.
You’ll find Girls Gone BBQ at 2630 East Citizens Drive #20 in the Kantz Center in Fayetteville. It’s open at 11 a.m. every day save Monday, with varying closing times (2 p.m. Tuesday, and early evening the rest of the time). Check out the website or call 479-879-8222. There’s also a Facebook page for updates.