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Maybe it’s just the hairy old caveman still making laps in our gene pool, but there’s something innately satisfying about gnawing the meat off a rib bone.
It is, when you think about it, the polar opposite of most foods today: preformed, preprocessed, and prepackaged within an inch of their lives. The rib, by contrast, is just the way God made it (until, that is, it reaches the hands of a master ’cuesmith, who perfects it). All that, and it might just be the perfect food: Tasty, filling, with a built in handle and leftovers you can file down on a rock into a spear point, so as to acquire more ribs. That’s what we call “convenience.”
Which brings us to this week’s dining offering: the Rib Crib in Benton. A carnivore’s delight — a place that would probably make your average vegan break out in hives if he ventured any closer than the sidewalk — a stop at the Rib Crib is definitely in order for fans of ribs. Even if you can’t get a beer there (curse you, teetotaling Saline County forefathers of yore!), you can get some mighty fine eatin’.
Situated on Military Road, the town’s main drag, Benton’s Rib Crib is the newest of a chain with outlets in seven states (there’s also one coming to Searcy, and another in Rogers). The decor is chain-y, as well (if that makes any sense): a redneck-friendly sort of rustic theme. Call it “Texas Kitsch,” featuring lots of raw wood and cowboy goodies. Plus, there are TVs all-around the place. If you’ve ever experienced the Southern chain Smokey Bones, a sports-bar-meets-barbecue-joint, the Rib Crib would be exactly like that, minus the full bar and TVs in the middle.
The menu, however, is where it’s at. As befitting a chain, there’s a little something for everyone on the big menu, including salads, spuds and burgers.
Just like we wouldn’t go to a strip club to do our grocery shopping, however, we didn’t come to a place called Rib Crib to eat rabbit food. To that end, we went all out. Companion tried the Bold Coast Shrimp and Baby Back Ribs combo ($15.99), while I — looking to sample the entire span of flesh available — tried the four-meat combo ($11.99).
OK, to tell the truth, I didn’t try EVERY kind of flesh. At the Rib Crib, that would have taken a hollow leg and some serious intestinal remodeling. The combos, for instance, offer a choice of no less than 11 different kinds of meat: brisket (chopped or sliced), chicken (boneless or tenders), pork (Polish sausage, hot links, ham and spare ribs), turkey, and that greatest of all mystery meats, smoked bologna.
Sticking to the basics and looking to hit the high points, we tried the spare ribs, sliced brisket, pulled pork and boneless chicken, with sides of beans and slaw.
The plates that arrived would have sent a nutritionist to an early grave, screaming “No portion control! No portion control!” Companion’s included a half rack of baby backs and the six fried shrimp advertised (sprinkled with barbecue seasoning), plus a few extra. Mine, meanwhile, was prodigious, the kind of plate that makes you check that your insurance is current before you dig in: two huge spare ribs, several slices of brisket, easily a quarter pound of pulled pork, several more slices of smoked chicken, a couple wedges of Texas toast, and side orders served in bowls that seemed to be the size of air-raid helmets. We also shared a plate of barbecue chicken nachos that were cheesy and terrific, brought as an appetizer, but our efficient waitress had the entrees out almost as quickly.
Like reigning barbecue champion Whole Hog, Rib Crib has wisely supplied diners with several sauces at each table: a mustardy Carolina sauce, a sweet molasses-based sauce, and a hot sauce (we thought they could have used a fourth: a tomato-based sauce that is pretty much standard fare around these parts). As we’ve long said, however, good ’cue doesn’t need sauce. Squirt bottles still in the holders, we dug in.
In all, the ribs at Rib Crib — both baby back and spare — were great; meaty, juicy, with a nice pink smoke ring and lots of smoky flavor. Companion said he could have stood for more outside crispiness, but I thought them fine (not Whole Hog fine, but definitely better than most in Central Arkansas). Less impressive were the brisket and pulled pork, which, while tasty enough, seemed a bit dry. The chicken was so-so, though all three of the lesser offerings improved with a squirt of the sweet sauce. The beans and slaw, meanwhile, were also a treat, though we like our slaw with a bit more vinegar bite. Companion’s shrimp, meanwhile, were also fine, though a little too browned.
Tired of shorting you on the dessert end of things in reviews, Companion and I then adjourned to the parking lot, where we did a few dozen jumping jacks to smush everything down. Then it was time for the sweet stuff. Rib Crib offers a number of desserts, including the Oreo crunch sundae and the fudge brownie sundae (both $3.69). Feeling in an old-fashioned mood, however, we went with the apple cobbler ala mode ($2.69), one of three or four cobblers offered.
Like our entrees, we really weren’t prepared for what arrived at the table: a frosted goblet as big as a softball, filled with fruity ’n’ flaky cobbler and two scoops of pale yellow French vanilla ice cream. With a hint of cinnamon and still warm enough to quickly melt the ice cream, the cobbler was a treat (though, given the meal we’d just defiled ourselves with, one we regretted for the rest of the day).
In short, while we wish it was situated in Little Rock so we could have a cold one with our ’cue, the Rib Crib is still a nice place for a meal, with some really great grub. For Little Rockians looking to indulge their inner Neanderthal, it’s well worth the trip.
1600 Military Road
For something completely different, try the Redneck Reuben ($5.59): a quarter pound of sliced smoked brisket on Texas toast with Swiss cheese, Thousand Island dressing and cole slaw. With two sides, it’ll make for a hearty and filling meal, all for a price that fits most any budget.
10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday through Friday, 10:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday.
No alcohol. All credit cards accepted.