Thursday June 28, 2012
Almost every great barbecue joint comes with a great origin story. There's usually a secret technique or recipe transcribed in an ancient rural dialect and handed down by a grizzled great uncle who never slept for tending the pit. McClard's Bar-B-Q in Hot Springs, AR proves to be no exception. A hotbed of illegal gambling in the late 19th century and a favorite hangout of Al Capone and other gangsters in the '30s and '40s, Hot Springs was not a place unfamiliar with shady deals and unorthodox business transactions. Though the origins of McClard's were by no means criminal, they were certainly unusual. Alex and Gladys McClard weren't in the food business at the time. Rather, they ran a small hotel near Hot Springs National Park. As the story goes, a traveler who was unable to pay the $10 for his two-month stay offered the McClards alternative compensation: a recipe for the "the world's greatest barbecue sauce." The rest is history. They transformed the hotel into a barbecue restaurant in 1928 - goat was the centerpiece of the menu - and moved to their current location in 1942. While passing through Hot Springs on scenic highway 7, I couldn't resist stopping in for some of their legendary barbecue.
A full parking lot at 11 am on a Friday afternoon came as no surprise. As my dining companions and I entered what was likely the incorrect door, we were greeted by all sorts of Clinton-related paraphernalia - Bill and Hillary always made it a point to stop in McClard's when in the area (that is, before Slick Willy surprised us all by going vegan). The bustling restaurant had no available tables, and we definitely drew a few "y'all ain't from around here, are ya?" looks as we stood awkwardly, attempting to decipher the seating system, which is somewhat non-existent. Turnover is pretty quick at McClard's, so it wasn't before long until our party of five was seated in a huge booth, after a friendly elderly couple offered to give up their sizeable table and sit at a smaller one (Arkansas friendliness is a special thing).
As for the barbecue, the menu offered a wide variety of options, from ribs and sandwiches to pork and beef, both available chopped and sliced. I've long held that Arkansas is somewhat of a barbecue no-man's-land. It's not far from Memphis where pork is king, and it shares a border with Texas, where the cow dominates the 'cue scene. Even St. Louis is only a few hours away. This might explain why I grew up eating soiee-moiee sandwiches -- that's both pork and beef bbq on the same bun --at a barbecue restaurant in my grandparents' home town in Northwest Arkansas, but I digress. We decided to try a little of everything and were not disappointed with the results. I opted for the rib and fry plate, which is about what it sounds like: a pound of ribs absolutely covered in French fries. I eventually needed an additional plate to pile fries upon just so I could get to the ribs unimpeded. Generally, I'd prefer a dry rub, but since the sauce is the specialty at McClard's (the recipe currently resides in a safety deposit box elsewhere) I opted for sauce on the ribs. This was not a regrettable decision: the thin, peppery vinegar sauce with a touch of sweetness and a late spicy kick absolutely lived up to the hype. As for the ribs themselves, they were heavily seasoned, tender and quite meaty, albeit slightly fatty - not that I'm complaining about this.
Perhaps the most unique item available at McClard's however, is the Tamale Spread. This monstrous creation consists of two open-faced tamales covered with Fritos, beans, chopped beef bbq, and a ton of cheese and onions. Somewhat akin to a Frito pie, but from a barbecue angle, it carries an intense combinations of flavors. Strange as it may sound, it's an absolute must try at McClard's.
As we staggered back to the car after our heavy meal -- with "lard" in the title, we weren't expecting a light lunch -- I couldn't help being impressed and relieved that a place with such a colorful history and reputation was keeping the quality at such a high level. Some spots coast on their name and know they'll draw enough tourists so that it doesn't matter. But as is often the case with barbecue, it's a matter of pride. And shortcuts are not taken by the country's best pitmasters. For further reading, take a look at our selection of the country's 20 best barbecue restaurants.