Compared to the rest of the state, Northwest Arkansas was for years deficient in barbecue restaurants, probably for reasons of demography and geography. Even Fayetteville, with its big University of Arkansas student population, did without until 1960.
On June 26 of that year, B and B opened. At the time, it was the only fulltime, full-service barbecue shop in town, according to David Bassett, whose parents, Bill and Betty, were the owners. There were places that had a barbecue sandwich on the menu — drive-ins like Jug Wheeler's, and the Top Hat — “but there was nothing else that could be considered direct competition at the time we opened,” Bassett said.
The original building still stands, hanging off the side of the road in south Fayetteville, and barbecue is still sold there, but now it's called Penguin Ed's B and B, and is one of three barbecue places in Fayetteville under the Penguin Ed's name. The Bassett family sold it to Ed (“Penguin Ed”) Knight in 1998. Bill Bassett had worked for the Caterpillar Tractor Co. in Peoria, but he had family ties to Fayetteville, and moved his family there when he decided to make a career change. “He loved to cook,” David Bassett said, and he'd learned a lot about barbecue from a black friend who owned a restaurant in Peoria. (Although Bill got his sauce from his mother-in-law.) Fayetteville was still largely segregated at the time B and B opened. The Bassetts were white, and both Bill and Betty had grown up in Tulsa. Theirs became the first integrated restaurant in Fayetteville, according to David Bassett. “When we first opened up, black people would come to the back of the restaurant. My father said, ‘Your money's as good as anybody's, come on in.' ”
David Bassett worked in the restaurant when he was growing up and later owned it. He's now a real estate broker, auctioneer and insurance agent in Springdale. His mother, 80, lives there too. His father is deceased.
Ed Knight had worked in the grocery business, including a stint with a barbecue sauce company, before he and his wife, Diane, opened the first Penguin Ed's, in 1993. He'd also done competitive barbecuing with a friend in Kansas City. An associate in the grocery business began calling him “Penguin Ed” because of his fondness for penguins. He has an extensive collection of penguin figurines.
Herman's Ribhouse is another old-timer, by Fayetteville standards, maybe the second oldest barbecue outlet in town. Herman's was opened by Herman Tuck in 1964. Now owned by Shelby Rogers, it's still on College Avenue and still selling barbecue, although it's now known more as a steakhouse.
A man who attended the UA in the late '40s and early '50s recalls no barbecue places in Fayetteville. Nor does Barbara Pryor, who grew up there. The wife of former senator and governor David Pryor said, “We cooked out in the back yard, that's how we got our barbecue. Most of the people we knew did that. My father was a great barbecuer of chicken.”
That brings up the question of what is the meaning of barbecue. (Bill Clinton, another prominent Democratic politician who once lived in Fayetteville, may have pondered that one.) An expert consulted by the Arkansas Times, Jim Huffman of Fayetteville, writes:
“While there is always some animated discussion amongst my friends over what, exactly, constitutes BBQ (some wanting to take smoked meats out of the category — those preferring the wet, slathered and saucy meats). I maintain a wide-ranging latitude in my appreciation for whatever it is that an entrepreneur calls BBQ.”
That said, he lists these as his personal favorites among Northwest Arkansas barbecue providers — Mark Henry's Catering Unlimited, Penguin Ed's, Whole Hog and Lucky Luke's. “In Fayetteville, your best bet, in my opinion, is to cater a big BBQ at your house and have Mark Henry cater it. He has the huge Razorback smoker trailer that you see at the Razorback baseball games.”
“I do wish somebody would come in here with a Delta-style dry rub,” Huffman said wistfully. (Little Rock's not strong in the dry-rib category either.) But he doesn't feel deprived.
“As to South Arkansas, I think we have it just as good here. I ate McClard's BBQ in Hot Springs about a month ago and, while I always enjoy it tremendously, I don't think it's any better than Penguin Ed's or Whole Hog and possibly not as good as my memory says of Mark Henry's.” That should get an argument started.