LITTLE ROCK — In a state that loves its barbecue, the question often comes up: Which town has the best and the most barbecue restaurants? When it comes to quality smoked pork per capita, I would have to proclaim Blytheville as this state’s barbecue capital.
Blytheville has suffered economically in recent decades with the outmigration of thousands of sharecroppers and the closure of Eaker Air Force Base, but barbecue restaurants continue to thrive. It’s a long tradition there.
Food historian Robert Moss of Charleston, S.C., writes, “In Blytheville, Ernest Halsell opened the Rustic Inn in a log cabin in 1923, later moving the restaurant to a rock building, and finally to Sixth Street in the 1950s. . . . It operated as a drive-in with curb service during the 1950s and 1960s but later scaled back to just a regular family-style restaurant.”
Any visit to Blytheville requires a stop at the Dixie Pig, a direct descendant of that log cabin where the Halsell family began serving food in 1923. The Dixie Pig has hundreds of loyal patrons who drive from all over northeast Arkansas, the Missouri Bootheel and Memphis to buy what’s known locally as a “pig sandwich.” It’s also a regular stop for those traveling on Interstate 55.
In 2009, a book with the intriguing title, America’s Best BBQ: 100 Recipes from America’s Best Smokehouses, Pits, Shacks, Rib Joints, Roadhouses and Restaurants, was published. A co-author of that book, Paul Kirk from Kansas City, declared that the Dixie Pig has the best barbecue in the country. Jennifer Biggs, who writes about food for the Commercial Appeal in Memphis, headed to the Dixie Pig soon after the book was released.
“In Memphis, we can passionately discuss the merits of, first, whether to put slaw on your sandwich and second, the merits of mayo-based slaw vs. one of mustard or vinegar,” Biggs wrote. “At the Dixie Pig, that’s no issue. It was just cabbage, dressed with a smidge of vinegar. And I do mean a smidge; it wasn’t even wet. Adding the hot vinegar sauce greatly improved it.”
The thing about Blytheville is that there are choices other than the Dixie Pig. There are a lot of choices, in fact.
There are two locations of Penn’s Barbeque, operated independently by members of the same family. Unfortunately, it appears the original location is about to be replaced by a Dollar General store. One of my Blytheville barbecue correspondents thinks the best barbecue in town can be found at Benny Bob’s on East Main Street.
Others swear by the pork sandwich at the Kream Kastle on North Division Street, a Blytheville institution that serves a variety of other dishes. There’s Yank’s Famous Barbeque on East Main Street and Johnny’s BBQ on South Lake Street. I’m also told of a man who split from Yank’s and now serves barbecue off a grill behind a barber shop. That sounds like a true Delta experience.
“Yes, it’s confusing,” my correspondent admits when asked about the various barbecue joints. “We have a whole bunch of barbecue for a town this size.”
I especially want to try a spot a Blytheville resident describes like this: “There’s a place here that has some of the best barbecued pork I’ve ever tasted. It’s in a travel trailer parked in front of Hays Supermarket. I don’t think the stand has an official name. He has been there for a decade or so, and the locals just refer to it as Old Hays Barbecue.”
Though Blytheville’s population dropped from 20,798 in the 1960 census to 15,620 in the 2010 census, the town is still filled with fascinating places thanks to its rich history. Rigel Keffer writes in the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture that Mississippi County has “long held its place as the No. 1 cotton-producing county in Arkansas, and Blytheville sits near 10 cotton gins. One of the largest cotton gins in North America lies on Blytheville’s western edge. . . . Blytheville lies along Highway 61 of blues music fame. Generations of blues musicians passed through Blytheville as they traveled from Memphis north toward St. Louis and Chicago. The 1932 Greyhound bus station at 109 N. Fifth St. is one of the few surviving art deco Greyhound bus stations in the United States.”
After writing on my Southern Fried blog about barbecue in Blytheville, I discovered that the folks there are passionate about pork.
“I’ve been eating barbecue from Penn’s, Dixie Pig and Kream Kastle for more than 43 years,” one wrote. “Not only have I eaten at these establishments almost all my life, but they are the standard by which I measure all of my barbecue eating. . . . Blytheville has had a hard way to go over the past couple of decades, but if you’ve never tried one of these chopped barbecue sandwiches, you owe it to yourself to make the drive to Blytheville and check them out. I make this 150-mile trip about once a month just for a Penn’s barbecue.”
Another person wrote, “Finally somebody gets it besides the natives.”
And in the words of one enthusiastic native, “The pig sandwich from Blytheville is the best in the world. I grew up on it and have not been able to replicate it anywhere I’ve lived. I’m hoping to visit Blytheville in a few months and will want to eat pig sandwiches for breakfast, dinner and supper.”
Freelance columnist Rex Nelson is the president of Arkansas’ Independent Colleges and Universities. He’s also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.