In the early part of 2012, Jones Bar-B-Q in Marianna became the first (and to this day, only) restaurant in Arkansas to receive a prestigious James Beard Award. Jones was honored by the Beard Foundation as one of its “American Classics,” and praised for their commitment to quality and respect for their heritage. In their press release, The Beard Foundation praised Jones as a “beacon of community pride and continuity.”
If I’m being completely honest, I’ve been consistently underwhelmed by the barbecue in central Arkansas. There’s some decent meat to be had, even some “good” options in these parts, but I’ve yet to find any offering smoked meat that could really put Arkansas “on the map” where barbecue is concerned. And why expect anything less? Arkansas sits at the crossroads of some of the celebrated barbeque trails in America—Memphis, Texas, and Kansas City, just to name a few. Where is Arkansas’s version of Franklin Barbecue? Where is our Oklahoma Joe’s? Sadly, I’ve yet to find it.
And so, with the issuance of the aforementioned Beard award, I found it almost obligatory to make the nearly 2-hour journey from Little Rock to Marianna (admittedly, almost 2 years later) to determine if Jones is truly a “beacon” of hope for the Arkansas barbecue foodscape.
Walking into Jones you are immediately immersed in a tiny antique and untouched world of cinderblock, dust, and smoke. On the walls, you’ll spot ancient photos and newspaper clippings. The shiny sliver medallion awarded by the Beard Foundation hangs clumsily on one wall in a small square shadow box. Customers are herded into a small, one room dining area holding two small tables and a few wooden chairs. You walk up to the order window, place your order, and within minutes, your food is brought to the table. The menu is about as simple as it comes—it’s basically just pork. Chopped pork by the pound or on a sandwich with or without slaw.
We settled down, plates teeming with pork and got right down to business. The sandwich was surprisingly good. The pork itself was finely chopped, tender, and flavorful. They flavor it with a touch of slightly sweet and tangy vinegar-based red sauce, giving it a wetter texture than other smoked pork shoulder I’ve eaten in the past. The slaw was the perfect accompaniment, too. This was not the sloppy, mayonnaise-laden version more commonly seen on other such sandwiches. Instead this was a lighter, mustard-based mixture that added a slightly crunchy element to the mix. My only criticism would be their use of a rather flimsy Wonder bread. It’s fine bread, and does not distract from the otherwise exceptional flavor, but it quickly becomes soaked with sauce and could easily turn soggy if the sandwich is not consumed quickly.
The answer to my original question—does Jones really deserve a James Beard award?—is a simple, actually. For me (and for the rest of my dining companions), it’s a resounding “yes.” If nothing else, Jones deserves to be recognized as an “American classic.” Jones' may never become the sort of place people fly from New York City to visit, but I'm not sure that's all that important to the Jones family. From our extraordinarily friendly hosts (Mrs. Jones actually gave each of us a hug on our way out the door), to the hallowed cinderblock pits around the back of the diner that have been in place longer than most Marianna residents can remember—this was an experience to remember.
Jones Bar-B-Q Diner is located at 219 W. Louisianna St., Marianna, AR. (Take note: On weekends, customers start picking up their pork as early as 7 am, and they often sell out by 10 am.)