Some young men may turn their thoughts toward love in the spring, but mine always go straight to horse racing. There's very little that Arkansas has to offer that's more fun than a warm day at Oaklawn, the air filled with excitement and the smells of overpriced track beer and the distinctive tang of cigar smoke. The track has some respectable eats to suit most tastes, too, something I enjoy just as much as losing money on the ponies.
Oaklawn's most famous food item is the corned beef, and no matter if you're a fan of sauerkraut or not, these mammoth sandwiches of cured and thin-sliced beef are a must. Corned beef isn't exactly a traditional Southern food, but it comes pretty close in Hot Springs — they sell literal tons of the stuff annually. There's no easy way to eat one of these monsters, and I've seen people alternate between polite picking and small bites with a fork to pure, elbows-out gluttony. It isn't the best corned beef in the world, but when seasoned with track dirt and a winning ticket, it comes close.
If hot dogs are more your style, you can choose from the traditional bun-wrapped kind or go for one of the track's foot-long corn dogs. The regular dogs are available in both the red-hot and Polish varieties with all the usual condiments: relish, mustard, and ketchup. The corn dogs are a real thing of beauty — a perfect breading-to-dog ratio fried just right to have a firm outer crunch that gives way to a soft, tender middle. Add a bag of the fresh-popped popcorn that can be smelled throughout the concession and betting areas and you've made yourself a very happy (if not very healthy) meal.
For my money, though, the highlight of the Oaklawn concession areas is the Oyster Bar, and I still recall my joy at discovering it years ago during my first trip to the track. The seafood bar has a large selection of fried shrimp, fish, oysters, and fries, but bypass all that and head straight for the fresh stuff: jumbo shrimp bigger than your thumb and some of the largest, freshest oysters on the half-shell I've seen in the state. Some of you may be loathe to trust an oyster served to you in a land-locked state, but I've eaten the things from Florida to Washington state and am more than happy to vouch for Oaklawn's quality. Oysters should be mild and briny, ice cold with just a hint of fresh sea air to the nose — these meet those qualifications well. Grab a cup of horseradish and a few lemon slices and go to town.
While there are some sit-down places to eat at the track, my preference has always been for food that can be carried and eaten while watching the races. Oaklawn is one of our best traditions here in Arkansas, and one that can be a tasty enterprise — no matter how your bets turn out.