Winter is the perfect time to explore the natural stone shelters where native Arkansans once lived
Before we dive in here, a quick word about what some might call biases but we've long held as truths: 1. With few exceptions (like Craig's in DeValls Bluff and Dixie Pig in Blytheville), once you get outside of North Little Rock and Little Rock — or, more specifically, beyond Rose City and the White Pig Inn in the north and Sims on Geyer Springs in the south — Arkansas barbecue usually just isn't as good. 2. Restaurants who use cartoon pigs in their logos serve substandard 'cue. Why? The ghost of Porky Pig haunts those who take his image in vain? No one likes to eat anything that's smiling at him? We can't say, but we've got a substantial list going.
With those barbecue truths (barbetruths?) in mind, we reluctantly entered Smokin' Buns in the Bayou Meto community in north Pulaski County recently, beckoned inside by the fat ass of a smiling porker in a chef's hat.
Over the years, the restaurant's developed a sizeable following in the Jacksonville area, first for slinging 'cue and catfish from the window of a trailer and now, for the last two and a half years, serving out of an always-crowded sit-down spot the size of a small barn. On weekend nights, expect to wait if you show up much past 6 p.m.
Inside, it looks and sounds like a lot of Arkansas restaurants: Rusted farm implements and taxidermied bucks with big antlers share wall space with landscape paintings on handsaws. A nearly life-sized cardboard cutout of John Wayne stands in one corner. Contemporary country music plays loud enough to be heard over the chatter of a full house, but not so loud that you have to shout to the person seated across the table.
The menu is broader than at many barbecue joints, with not only a full range of smoked meats, but also options for catfish, shrimp, chicken, burgers, prime rib and a Frito chili pie. But since barbecue and catfish feature in big letters on the menu, our table of five ordered every possible combination of those staples. The combination plates ($8.95 for two meats, $11.95 for three) offer options for sliced beef brisket, pulled pork, smoked sausage, ribs, chicken tenders or fried catfish; plus a choice of two sides, including the likes of fries, onion rings, fried okra, cole slaw, corn on the cob, green beans and barbecue baked beans.
Portions for all were generous. On this reviewer's plate came a pile of battered fries too large to finish, a heavy scoop of mayo-based sweet cole slaw and mounds of super-sized meat: thick catfish filets, 8- to 10-inch ribs and wide cuts of brisket around the same length. Only with a massive appetite could you leave without a to-go box.
But you'll be tempted by gluttony. Because everything we sampled defied our barbetruths. The sliced smoked pork sausage had a welcome kick to it. The chopped pork was plenty lean. The catfish was sweet and nicely breaded. But the real standouts? The ribs and brisket. The latter, smoked just right and terrifically tender, might be the best we've found in Arkansas. One companion, a former Texan and something of a beef barbecue aficionado, said it compared favorably to the famous Snow's outside of Austin. The ribs were meaty and coated in slightly piquant rub, so flavorful that they didn't need wet sauce. But the accompanying sauce made everything better. Billed as hot — sweet and vinegar-based were also available — it merely tasted like red pepper was one of many spices in the mix; only the most sensitive to heat would be bothered by it.
For dessert, there's cheesecake, pecan pie, chocolate cake or a selection of fried pies. Confident our appetite would reemerge in several hours, we got the blackberry fried pie ($1.99) to go and found it to be a fine balance of flakiness and gooey sweetness, even three hours after it came out of the fryer.
25401 Hwy. 107
Though entree portions are plenty filling, the appetizer menu includes fried pickles ($4.95), crab legs (1/2 lb. $7.95, 1 lb. $14.95) and cheese dip ($4.95 for small, $6.95 for large). The cheese dip brought to mind Mexico Chiquito's classic recipe and, in the large portion, was more than five hungry adults could finish.
10:45 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday
Credit cards accepted, no alcohol.