FAYETTEVILLE — Since moving to Arkansas from Washington, D.C., I’ve learned that people here are nice. An example: Dudes here make eye contact with one another all the time, and it does not mean they want to fight.
That changes, though, when select topics come up, such as Texas. But also barbecue. When people here talk about barbeque, they not only talk about its flavor but how it compares to such-and-such barbecue. It’s a perpetual contest. Literally. Go look at the trophies at Whole Hog Café. They make the New York Yankees look modest. In short, there is no tougher fight in food than the barbecue fight.
Such is the world The Bar-B-Q Place on Huntsville Road is entering: competitive, crowded and opinionated. I wish it the best of luck, because The Bar-B-Q Place might be a bit too nice for the fight. Owner Gary Alderson is solicitous and earnest, but his menu doesn’t carry the same punch as other local, better known contenders.
The Bar-B-Q Place’s biggest weakness is perhaps its lack of a fryer, which weakens an already small raft of side items. And people who are serious about barbecue are serious about side items. The lack of a fryer means customers who might expect to find fried okra, or fried pickles, or even French fries will be disappointed. The menu also lacks staples such as mac and cheese or a green vegetable.
What’s left are baked beans, coleslaw (which I use more as a condiment than a side) and potato salad. You can also get a bag of chips, but anyone who wants chips with their barbecue should be punched in the face, with or without eye contact.
The Bar-B-Q Place also offers just two sauces: hot and sweet-n-smoky. Both these shortcomings can be overcome if either the restaurant’s sauces or its meats are exceptional. On a recent visit, two friends and I found some good, if not exceptional, flavors at The Bar-B-Q Place, and we found some bad, too.
The Bar-B-Q Place existed for six years as a trailer in a lot. A trailer in a lot is a natural enough setting for Arkansas barbecue, but about four months ago, Alderson settled into a beautiful little barbecue shack just east of Fayetteville. Inside, you’ll find fishing poles and baseball bats mounted on the walls, along with license plates and a photograph of his beloved trailer. Wood paneling and corrugated tin are everywhere. A picnic table has been hauled inside for extra seating. Obviously, Alderson knows ambiance is half the flavor. A beer and wine permit is pending, which will make it all the better.
For an appetizer we ordered barbecue pork nachos for $5.50. Other options included barbecue beef nachos, chicken wings and chips and smoked salsa. The plate came out fast, but our excitement soon ended. The chips tasted right out of a Santitas bag, the cheese was spicy but with the consistency of Velveeta and the pulled pork came without seasoning. It was served trough-style. No individual plates.
I believe I made a similar dish once, when I was drinking and alone in my kitchen. “I’m not impressed,” I said aloud. My friend Matt, who teaches philosophy and can construct far more complicated ideas and sentences, said, “I think the whole concept of the nachos needs to be reconsidered.” My friend Jack, who has taught philosophy even longer than Matt, opined, “Barbecue culture and Mexican culture should not miscegenate.” That is what Plato and Aristotle sounded like when they ate barbecue.
In any case, the nachos tasted better with some barbecue sauce from the table, but after a few bites, we turned our attention back to the nicely decorated walls. I decided I didn’t even care that we weren’t given plates with the appetizer. They wouldn’t have gotten much use anyway.
For entrees, we decided to get three different types of meat in order to sample broadly from the menu. Matt ordered a half rack of baby back ribs – six ribs for $11.50. Jack ordered “The Big Plate,” which included two meats and two sides and bread, which was $8.75. I got the jumbo sized barbecue beef brisket sandwich for $5.50. It came with no sides, which I found surprising. And I had to pay $.75 for coleslaw, to boot.
Because all barbecue is competition, we quickly decided on winners and losers. This time, Aristotle trumped his teacher and took the win. Matt’s ribs were divine, as the Greeks might say. The meat was smoky and tender. “It’s so good I forgot about adding sauce,” said Matt, about half way through his rack. He did remember his good manners and offered them around the table. Jack and I both agreed that The Bar-B-Q Plate has some of the best ribs in town.
Jack also enjoyed his chicken and pulled pork; I found my chipped beef brisket to be only so-so. I thought the sweet-n-smoky barbecue sauce was good and helped out the sandwich. Jack and Matt preferred the hot barbecue sauce. But, Matt thought it wasn’t quite hot enough, which he argued was endemic to Arkansas. Not surprisingly, Matt is from Texas.
The side dishes did not stand out. We all liked the baked beans. Jack felt that the mustard-based potato salad felt a little “church picnicky,” and the coleslaw had little flavor.
For dessert, we ordered chocolate cake and homemade banana pudding. I noticed that the chocolate cake was not described as homemade, and it showed. It tasted processed and store bought. And a little stale. But the banana pudding was terrific: sweet and soft and loaded with whipped cream and great banana flavor.
At the end, Jack ordered a plate of ribs to take home for his wife, which proves that philosophers do have people skills. I had a short conversation with Gary, who was genuinely interested in what we thought of the meals. I praised the ribs. Truly spectacular. But I told him we were less fond of the barbecue pork nachos. He seemed to understand, and said they were a work in progress.
When he gave me the bill, he had removed the charge for the nachos. I was floored by the gesture, which was so very … nice. I hope he’s got enough fire – in his belly and his barbecue – for the food fight in front of him.