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Steaks and karaoke - what's not to like about Waldenburg's pride?

Josie's Steakhouse may well be the only dining establishment in the country whose wine list includes both Dom Perignon and Boone's Farm. Laugh if you will - we did - but it's a combination that works, and it says just about all you really need to know about the 2-year-old baby of the lone restaurateur of blink-and-you-miss-it Waldenburg. The decor is pure Boone's, from the cinder-block building Josie's shares with a gas station to the long rows of bare tables set up family-style, no buffers allowed between you and the next folks. The entertainment is low-brow too (and we say this with the utmost affection for low-brow pursuits) - diners singing karaoke from their seats with the aid of a cordless mike and an enthusiastic frizzy-haired waitress who acts as MC. But the food…well, we've never had Dom Perignon, but we've eaten plenty of beef over the years, and Josie's serves a mean steak. No country-cookin' chicken-fried or chopped sirloin here - we ordered the 9-ounce filet ($26) and got a juicy, thick, seasoning-crusted piece of meat that came close to making the two-hour drive through the rain worth it. The properly fattened-up baked potato and bacony green beans on the side were fine as well. The menu isn't just old-school meat and taters, though: You can also choose portabello mushrooms stuffed with steak or shrimp, lobster, catfish, even fried rice. As for the wine list, it's all by the bottle, but there are a dozen or so choices between Boone's and Dom, and another dozen or so beers. Enough to meet the bare-minimum qualifications to justify a road trip? (It's summer, after all. Road trips are just part of the deal.) Our preferred route to Waldenburg from Little Rock takes you up U.S. 67/167 through Bald Knob, prime strawberry country. Go now and you can still stop off and pick a few quarts, then meander on up through Newport and head east on Highway 14 for the last half-hour of the trip. Waldenburg sits at the intersection of Highways 14 and 49, and Josie's is on the south side of 14, impossible to miss. Steve Carpenter, owner of the adjacent gas station and Dairy Shack, started Josie's a couple of years ago because he just wanted a place where he and his friends could get a decent steak, according to one of those friends, Bobby Smith. Since then he's had to more than double the size of the restaurant and has opened a second location in Batesville. Close to a dozen of his friends - all neighbors and classmates from their school days - moonlight at the restaurant. Josie's, named after Carpenter's young granddaughter (that's her giant portrait behind the cash register), is open just three nights a week, Thursday through Saturday, and if you want to stay after 6 or so, you'd be smart to make a reservation (870-579-2277). We arrived at 6:30 on a stormy Friday night, and within half an hour there was nowhere left to sit. Josie's roadhouse side keeps folks there long after they've finished their dinner - it's hard to resist buckets of reasonably priced beer and an atmosphere that, believe it or not, is reasonably kid-friendly. (It's also non-smoking.) The karaoke starts promptly at 8. Waitresses pass out song-list binders and take requests, then deliver the cordless mike when it's your turn to sing. What we heard was a cut or two above your typical karaoke performance. They keep the volume at a level that doesn't render conversation impossible. Smith said regulars come from as far away as West Memphis and Little Rock. It's safe to say most everybody at Josie's on any given night drove there from somewhere outside the greater Waldenburg area, whose population alone wouldn't be enough to support the 225-seat Josie's. (Not everybody we saw was eating. The college-age group next to us seemed to be making a meal out of Bud buckets and a bottle of Boone's, so it is possible to do Josie's on the cheap.) The whole effect is vaguely family-reunion-at-the-VFW, without the cheek-pinching, if your family was really, really big and included a passel of cool cousins your own age. For a road-trip destination on a Saturday night, you could do far worse. Count on spending $20 to $30 a head for dinner. They take credit cards. No hard liquor is sold.
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