In the early part of 2012, Jones Bar-B-Q in Marianna became the first and only restaurant in Arkansas to receive a prestigious James Beard Award. Jones, which has been in business in Marianna in some fashion since the 1910s, was honored by the Beard Foundation as one of its "American Classics," and praised for its commitment to quality and respect for its heritage. In a statement announcing the prize, the Beard Foundation praised Jones as a "beacon of community pride and continuity."
Your humble reviewer is relatively new to Arkansas, after spending years enjoying barbecue in Texas. So far, we're sorry to say, we've been underwhelmed by the barbecue we've sampled in Central Arkansas. There's some decent meat to be had, even some good options in these parts, but we've yet to find any offering smoked meat that could really put Arkansas on the map where barbecue is concerned. Why expect anything less? Arkansas sits at the crossroads of some of the celebrated barbecue trails in America — Memphis, Texas and Kansas City. Where is Arkansas's version of Franklin Barbecue? Where is our Oklahoma Joe's? Sadly, we've yet to find it.
Because of the Beard award, we decided it was obligatory to make the nearly two-hour journey from Little Rock to Marianna to determine if Jones is truly a beacon of hope for the Arkansas barbecue foodscape.
Walking into Jones, one is immediately immersed in a tiny, antique world of cinderblock, dust and smoke. On the walls, you'll spot ancient photos and newspaper clippings. The shiny silver 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 just pork. Chopped pork by the pound ($6 per) or on a sandwich ($3) with or without slaw.
We settled down, plates teeming with pork, and got right down to business. The sandwich was good. The pork itself was finely chopped, tender and flavorful. It comes with a touch of slightly sweet and tangy vinegar-based red sauce, which gives the meat a wetter texture than other smoked pork shoulder we've eaten. The slaw was the perfect accompaniment, too. This was not the sloppy, mayonnaise-laden version more commonly seen on other such sandwiches. Instead it was a lighter, mustard-based mixture that added a slightly crunchy element to the mix. Our only criticism would be their use of 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.
Does Jones really deserve a James Beard award? As far as this reviewer and party were concerned, the answer is a resounding yes. 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
219 W. Louisiana St.
Here's our best tip: Plan to get there early. Jones' closes whenever they run out of meat, which on a busy weekend day is often by 10:30 a.m. In fact, many customers start to show up at 7 a.m. to ensure they'll get their barbecue for the day. Often bought by the pound, the pork flies out the door on the busiest days. Don't forget to ask for the short tour around back in order to get a look at their cinderblock smoking pits.
7 a.m. until they run out of meat (usually 1 p.m.)