by Kat Robinson
Saturday only, the big day of the year for hungry folks at Oaklawn Racing Park. That’s the day you can pick up one of these for fifty cents and wash it down with a soft drink for a dime.
I ventured down Hot Springs-way early Friday morning to find out more about the legendary Oaklawn Corned Beef Sandwich. Chef Bill Graham gave me the goods on this salty and savory racetrack tradition. Learn more, on the jump.
Corned beef itself dates back to antiquity. There’s no corn in corned beef; the name comes from the process of salting the meat, or “corning,” back in the British Isles in the Middle Ages.
Times change, and the corned beef served up at Oaklawn isn’t salted, it’s pickled.
The beef you get at Oaklawn comes from the Kelly Eisenberg Company in Chicago. It’s a special pickle that’s unlike that I’ve had on corned beef elsewhere.
It’s cooked up in these specialty tubs that hold 150 pounds of beef to boil at a time. Three of these were going when we climbed down into the depths of the Oaklawn kitchens. They’re carefully monitored and stirred.
Over on the other side of the kitchen, a cadre of gentlemen worked to dismantle the briskets and slice them into sandwich-friendly shards. They worked at a frenetic pace. An estimated 70,000 people will come through Oaklawn this weekend -- and on Saturday alone, Chef Graham estimates they’ll go through three to four tons of corned beef.
The sliced beef is put into bins and pots and whatever it takes to get it to the park’s concessions. There are 26 concessions across the park -- 23 in the building, three out in the infield. Some specialize in things like gourmet hot dogs, pretzels and such. There’s the famous Oyster Bar, which serves up oysters on the half shell, jumbo Gulf Shrimp, sea salads and more. But you can get your corned beef fix at several locations along the concourse and at the Sports Tavern.
On the far side of the kitchen I observed ladies packing up sandwiches in take-out boxes. Some of the smaller concessions will use these. But most will be made to order hot on that rye bread.
The corned beef sandwich is usually $5.50. Sauerkraut is a buck more (making it a Reuben, of course). So getting that four ounce pile of hot corned beef for fifty cents is insanely cheap. Chef Graham mentioned that there are usually locals who come out to the track on Corned Beef Day just for the sandwiches. I can believe it.
The racetrack has other signature dishes, such as the bread pudding with whiskey sauce and the Oaklawn Signature Margarita. I watched the first couple of races of the season and the crowds gathered for the proceedings, making mental note of what folks were bringing postside with them. I saw nachos, gigantic pretzels, hot dogs under layer after layer of relish and onions and cheese and chili, bags of pork rinds and peanuts, and lots of beer.
I was even privy to the construction of one of those sandwiches at the Arkansas Sports Tavern, just before the opening of the track. I was expecting some strange ritual, some multi-stepped fascination of procedures to follow. Instead, my eye and even my camera barely caught the quick assembly, as the expert meat wranglers pinched and plopped that mound of meat out of its hot steamy bin and onto the bread, topping it and handing it over effortlessly. Mine? I like with a touch of horseradish sauce, happily provided. There’s also mayo, mustard and ketchup available for those with different tastes.
I have more “bellyaching” to go on about, more culinary news to share. I still have to tell you about Lagniappe’s, the newest restaurant at the track. And I have a few suggestions for what to knosh before and after your track visit, which I’ll share these next few days. For now, scramble up your change and head to Oaklawn. And, by the way, they’re taking plastic at the restaurants now, with the brand new system that’s just gone in. Don’t lose your head and order too many sandwiches…
Or do. I don’t think they’ll run out.