10:30 a.m. – 8 p.m., daily
Pork with medium sauce, grilled cheese (seriously) and the slaw.
On the south side of U.S. Highway 70, just before the quarter-mile strip of downtown De Valls Bluff, is Craig’s Bar-B-Q. On the outside, it’s little more than a white-cinder-block shoebox with half a gravel parking lot, but inside, past the dozen tables and faded wallpaper, is a kitchen full of Delta magic. As the kitchen door swings open, the radio and cooking aromas come out, blending sweet smoke, bell pepper and Beyoncé.
“Just up the road in downtown. If you go over the bridge, you’ve gone too far.” The waitress (there’s only one) is telling a guest where the nearest ATM is. It’s a line she’s had to tell a thousand times to the folks who drive in and don’t know to bring cash.
The sauce is the game here—“what we’re known for,” the server says—and it’s for good reason. You can get it over pork or beef, your choice, but pork is most popular. The sauce trades sweet for savory, an herbal concoction. The recipe is a closely held secret, but a close inspection leads to hints of vinegar, bell pepper, cinnamon and sorghum. It’s a blend that’s changed little since the restaurant was opened by Wes and Lawrence Craig, two brothers, in 1947. “Or at least that’s when they started counting,” the server says. Three generations of the Craig family have kept the place running.
Eating at Craig’s, regardless of what you order, be it pork or beef, on a sandwich or on its own, or even, if you must, a simple cheeseburger, is a lesson in defying expectations. Where your mouth expects sweet, it gets savory. Where your tongue thinks sour, it’s met with salt. This isn’t your typical Memphis-style dry rub. The flavors, as they linger on your palate, change directions of their own accord, launching off on tangents, flying away like the pheasants that dot the dining room’s decades-old wallpaper. (Make note: If by some cruel twist of fate, BBQ just isn’t your thing, just know Craig’s has the best grilled-cheese sandwiches for a hundred miles around.)
The holy trinity of Delta barbecue is completed by beans and slaw. The slaw is another secret recipe (is the secret green apples?), another holdover from an era before, just like the beans, but that’s what Craig’s is: a time capsule to the last century, when Lawrence Craig was cooking on riverboats up and down the Mississippi.
Arkansas has always occupied a marginal place in the national barbecue story, being a unique mishmash of influences from Texas and Memphis. But in De Valls Bluff, where sauce is king, Arkansas can finally lay claim to something uniquely its own. Looking to end things on a sweet note? Just a quarter mile from Craig’s is one of the Delta’s sweetest treasures: Ms. Lena’s pies. Ms. Lena sells a range of mile-high meringue pies from her roadside bakery, regularly stocking freshly made coconut, chocolate, pecan and whatever else might be in season. Weekends are for fried pies, and she changes pies regularly, which means you’ll have to keep coming back.
Because down here, good barbecue is religion
The Backyard Bar-B-Q Co. It’s all about the ribs at this southern-Arkansas institution. Well, the ribs and Ms. Glenda’s pies. Be sure to bring a cooler—you’re going to want to take some of both back with you for, you know, later. (Or maybe sooner rather than later. We won’t judge.) (1407 E. Main St., Magnolia; (870) 234-7890)
Dixie Pig There are people who make the haul up Dixie-Pig way just for a bottle of the joint’s pepper-heavy, vinegar-laden sauce. We know, because we are those people. (701 N. Sixth St., Blytheville; (870) 763-4636)
Hoots BBQ & Steaks It’s a big menu, quite literally—a hand-scrawled chalkboard that takes up the better portion of a wall—and you’d be hard-pressed to make an unwise choice when ordering from it. Brisket, smoked chicken, big-as-your-noggin onion rings—take your pick. We doubt you’ll leave unhappy. (2008 U.S. 65 N., McGehee; (870) 222-1234)
Jones Bar-B-Q Diner Yes, it is that good. (You don’t earn a James Beard award and become one of the first inductees into Arkansas’ newly ordained Food Hall of Fame for nothing, after all.) Go early: Mr. Jones is known to sell out before the lunch hour hits. (219 W. Louisiana St., Marianna; (870) 295-3807)