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Here's an understatement for you all: there's a lot of barbecue out there. And in addition to the vast landscape of restaurants found in our great state, arguments about preferences in smoke, spice, and sauce can rival the Hatfields and the McCoys in terms of pride and vitriol. For me, the best barbecue is served dry-rubbed and heavily smoked, cooked slow and low until the meat is tender and falling off the bone. It's not that I'm against barbecue sauce, it's just that I like to be able to judge how much (and what flavor) of sauce to add to my meat. Barbecue that's done well needs sauce to serve as a condiment, not as a substitute for flavor. With this in mind, let me sing the praises of Chatz Cafe on Colonel Glenn, a clean and cozy barbecue joint that does it just the way I like it.
Ordering at Chatz is pretty simple: belly up to the counter and take your pick from a wide selection of lunch and dinner plates that range from single sandwiches of chopped beef and pork to massive platters full of riblets, chicken, barbecue beans, and potato salad. This is just what the Three Musketeers of Little Rock Lunch (Daniel Walker, Kevin Shalin, and myself) did on a chilly fall afternoon that had us craving something hot and satisfying. We had heard tales of the big, bountiful burgers that the Chatz crew was serving up, but since all of us (and by your comments, a lot of you) are a bit burned out on burgers, we decided to stick to a selection of smoked meats. And while everything we tried was pretty good, there were a couple of consensus standouts that should make Chatz Cafe a must-try for barbecue fans.
The top two stand outs from the Chatz line-up were the smoked chicken and the rib tips (menu-spelled "rib tipz"). The chicken was smoky and moist, with a nice, taut skin that held the flavor of subtle but effective dry rub. The ample portion was cooked to that perfect rosy color that grilled poultry gets when it spends a good amount of time in the smoker, and while it didn't need any sauce, we were all fans of the mustard-based Carolina Gold flavor available at the counter. Even better than the chicken were those rib tips, little bite-sized pieces of pork rib that were the perfect balance of meat and just a little fat. That excellent smoked flavor was present again, and the pork was meltingly tender and not dry at all. The rib tip is normally considered a waste piece when preparing ribs, but Chatz knows better and puts those succulent little trimmings to good use.
Less successful, but still noteworthy were the chopped beef and pork that Chatz serves up on grilled buns. Once again, the meat is served dry, and while a little sauce is necessary for a touch of moisture, the meat is by no means too dry. The pulled pork won out over the beef as my favorite chopped meat, which may have more to do with my Arkansas pork-based roots than anything, because that beef was mighty fine, too. For anyone that likes to pick up barbecue by the pound, the Chatz beef or pork is a great choice, and I considered buying a pound to take home for later.
Where Chatz ultimately falls short is where a lot of barbecue places do: with their side dishes. While my fried okra was crispy and hot, it was obviously of the pre-breaded variety that can be found in any freezer case. The barbecue beans were tasty enough, prepared Delta-style with ground beef and onions, but we were all a little shocked when the guys in the back told us they were out of coleslaw, a vital ingredient to any loose meat sandwich. Overcooked hushpuppies and a bland potato salad rounded out our side dishes, and the sum total of the experience hammered home the fact that Chatz is about one thing: meat. Everything else is just an afterthought. Luckily, the place knows its business with smoking their various offered proteins, and can easily hold its own with any barbecue joint in town.
Chatz Cafe is located at 8801 Colonel Glenn Road, and they are open 11 a.m. - 8 p.m. Monday-Saturday.