Though we love a night out at the linen tablecloth kinda places with waiters, matching china and polished copper microbreweries stashed in the back, we've also got a soft spot in our heart for the little joints. Arkansas is a great place for a connoisseur of the joint. We've got a million of 'em — little places with nine booths and a kitchen the size of a parking space, tucked away on the twisty two-laners. This is a state of little pretension and friendly people, and if the air conditioning is cool, the coffee is hot and the conversation is lively, a group of regular hangers-on can keep a little place afloat just because there's nothing much else to do in their neck of the woods than go to the diner, grab a bite, and complain about the Razorbacks.
That's definitely the vibe we get from Bird Dog Barbecue, situated in an old dairy bar way out Batesville Pike (basically, just go through Levy and keep going). A clean, homey, friendly little joint, it definitely took this reviewer back to the little town diners of his youth.
From the list of appetizers, we tried the fried green tomatoes ($2.99), while junior wanted to try the cheese sticks ($2.99). The cheese sticks were nothing to write home about — obviously straight-from-the-bag fare you can find at any bar or restaurant in town. Better were the fried tomatoes. Their inclusion on the menu scored some pre-meal bonus points before they ever hit the table, and, hey, actually turned out to be pretty good: piping hot, with a nice, light batter. We're a fan of fried green tomatoes, which might be the ultimate Southern dish other than poke salad, so they disappeared quickly.
From the menu, we tried the chopped pork sandwich ($5.85) with a side of onion rings, while our companion tried the fried catfish with the seasoned fries.
I'd heard from a friend who lives in that ZIP code that the barbecue sauce at Bird Dog might be one of the greatest in Central Arkansas. While we wouldn't go so far as that, we would say that it's dang good: peppery, sweet and dark, with a nice twinge of heat underneath. It went well with the chopped pork, which was nicely moist and with a very pronounced smoke flavor. While we prefer pulled pork to chopped, this was still very good, with a generous amount of meat on a big bun. The onion rings on the side were nice as well — large and flaky.
Our companion, however, wasn't as pleased with her catfish, which she said didn't have much flavor. We confirmed it with a bite. Bird Dog would do well to tinker with their breading formula and maybe kick it up a notch. Catfish ain't the most flavorful fish in the world, so any striking taste to be had has to come from the bottom of a bottle and the cook's imagination. A little lemon pepper or cayenne, for instance, would go a long way. Our companion did, however, brag on the fries, which were very tasty.
We couldn't claim to review a barbecue joint without sampling the ribs, so we dispatched a companion who is a true rib lover. He returned to report that the ribs at Bird Dog hadn't lived up to his standards. While he likes his ribs fall-off-the-bone, he said those at Bird Dog were a bit tough — more of the gnaw-off-the-bone variety. That said, he reported that they had a good flavor, with a nice bit of smoke and a sweet dry rub.
While the barbecue at Bird Dog might be enough to woo you out in that direction, especially if you're a fan of the dark, molasses-y sauce, the real joy of going is just to be part of a small-town scene for a moment. While we were there, a big group of friends sat at the front of the restaurant, sipping Cokes and talking about their kids and friends' kids. A toddler circulated among the tables, smiling at the diners. Out front, an old hound dog (the bird dog of Bird Dog, our waitress told us) lounged in the last of the day's sun. For an hour, it wasn't a half-bad place to be.
Bird Dog Barbecue
17416 Batesville Pike
If you're a big-time carnivore, try the Sampler Platter. For $10.85, you get three ribs, a mound of chopped pork, a couple slices of beef brisket, slaw, beans, potato salad and a roll.
11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Closed Sunday and Monday
Other info: Full bar, $$, all CC accepted.