THERE'S THE RUB: Shugg's dry ribs.
Some years back, there was a restaurant on Old Forge Road in West Little Rock that served good dry ribs. Because wet ribs are very much the norm in this neck of the woods, JR's had a devoted, if small, following up to the time it closed. (Even more years back, before JR's, there'd been a cafe on Main Street that served dry ribs, which it called "St. Louis-style ribs, " but that place, whose name we can't recall, shut down during the period when the lights were going out all over downtown Little Rock.)
Since JR's closed, we've had trouble finding dry ribs at all, much less good dry ribs, without going to Memphis, which is famous for them. Some places in central Arkansas don't even seem to know what dry ribs are — ribs cooked with a dry rub that provides all the seasoning you need, eaten without sauce. There are barbecue establishments whose ribs are pleasurable even when eaten without sauce, but strictly speaking, these are not "dry ribs" unless they have the rub.
Shugg's BBQ Kitchen knows what dry ribs are, and it's got 'em. Shugg's opened recently in the River Market Hall, at 400 President Clinton Avenue, a block or so from the Arkansas Times, thereby assuring itself of at least a few steady customers. They'll probably have a lot more. Even people who aren't crazy about dry ribs can find something to like here.
There are pulled chicken and pulled pork, for example, available either on a sandwich or on a plate. The sandwiches are served either with house-fried potato chips or, for a couple of dollars more, French fries. The chips are the better buy. The pulled meats are meant to be eaten with sauce, and Shugg's has a selection of five, each with a descriptive label on the bottle — "tangy and spicy," "thick and sweet," etc. We had the pulled pork plate one day when no ribs were yet available, and, in all candor, found the meat a little dry, and a little less in quantity than we wanted, dry or no. But a side dish of squash and onions fried together was excellent. The cook said the ingredients were purchased from Farmers Market vendors. Shugg's also has a good baked-potato potato salad, with onions and maybe a bit of sour cream, reminiscent of that at Whole Hog Cafe, and it has a vinegary, peppery cole slaw that we like and that fans of the mayonnaise-y kind probably won't. Some days, Shugg's has smoked chicken breast and smoked chicken-leg quarters cooked with the same dry rub that's on the ribs. You can get a barbecue salad, barbecue potato, and barbecue nachos (tortilla chips, cheese sauce, jalapenos, pulled pork and barbecue sauce). From the sandwich menu hanging above the counter, one of us ordered The Diablo, and found it not especially diabolic. Described as a "huge heap of pulled pork, lettuce, tomato, onion, sour cream, provolone, topped with our TRUE HEAT sauce," The Diablo proved to be neither as huge nor as hot as our companion had hoped for. Burgers are available too, and if we read that menu right, one of them comes with pulled pork atop the beef patty. We didn't try it.
Did we mention the ribs? The first time we tried them, the spicy flavor brought back a flood of pleasant memories, even though the meat was not quite as tender as it might have been. The next time, the ribs were still spicy, and now they were tender and meaty too. We asked a guy behind the counter what went into the dry rub. He wouldn't tell us. Pepper, paprika, cayenne and other things, probably.
Shugg's is now open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday. We were told that it was preparing to experiment with breakfast.
Shugg's BBQ Kitchen
400 President Clinton Ave.
(River Market Hall)
BBQ Salad, BBQ Nachos, BBQ Potato, even a hamburger topped with pulled pork. There are a lot of ways to eat barbecue here, but the dry ribs are the best.
10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday.
Credit cards accepted, no alcohol. Does catering too.