- RACK EM UP: Fort Smith ribs.
We’re torn between recommending Neumeier’s Rib Room for the rock ’n’ roll connoisseur or the rib lover. Both would feel like they’d died and gone to heaven.
For the music fan, there’s an entire wall of this little joint dedicated to the Rolling Stones, with old posters, autographs and the like. Hanging from the ceiling are guitars signed by Hall of Famers such as Carlos Santana and Eric Clapton. The wall opposite the Stones’ shrine is loaded with more rock posters and homages to music stars.
We’re told this makes up about a tenth of the collection owner Bill Neumeier has assembled over the years.
As for the food, of course the ribs star. You don’t call yourself a rib room and let the pulled pork or chicken be the calling card, though the pulled pork and chicken are wonderfully moist, smoky and flavorful too.
We’d been directed toward Neumeier’s long ago with suggestions that this place was equal to Memphis’ famed Rendezvous with its dry ribs (not everybody likes them dry, though, so Neumeier’s will bring them out doused up wet, or half-and-half).
But, we’ll agree, after finally having a reason recently to go to Fort Smith and also wanting to eat downtown, that the dry baby back ribs with their paprika-heavy red rub are at least the equal of the Rendezvous. And the wet ones can stand up with Memphis’ best, too.
In fact, we’re hoping -– just as we hope for a show or event or any other halfway good reason to take us to Memphis so we can make a barbecue detour to the Rendezvous, the original Corky’s or to Interstate BBQ –- for another reason sometime to venture up Fort Smith way. Rarely is barbecue a destination when it’s two or more hours away from the middle of Arkansas, but Memphis has it in quantity, and so does Fort Smith, at least with Neumeier’s.
The place gives music fans a reason to go, too, with regional and national acts that stop in and play the beer garden, which we were surprised to find was all outside and mostly uncovered. And, man, was it hot for Oreo Blue, the band playing that night, with temps topping 100, but they persevered.
The whole music deal, and the fact the restaurant is only open evenings Wednesday through Saturday, might make a barbecue wonder if Neumeier’s is serious about its food. Fear not, you’ve got to have had a serious interest, and probably a contest interest, to make ribs this good. Bill Neumeier did, in fact, win a contest in the early 1990s, and was talked into offering ribs via a restaurant.
The place will shut down, however, when the outdoor music scene cools off and ends in the fall, reopening for evenings in the spring. We talked to the manager and longtime “rib boy,” Todd Clemings, who told us they hope in the cooler days to offer lunch, since Neumeier’s is right in the middle of the historic business district of downtown on Garrison Avenue.
Bill Neumeier also owns Papa’s Pub a couple of blocks westward, and it’s a place that several locals have told us offers the best pizza in town. We stopped in there on this visit, too, and enjoyed Bass and Guinness on tap, and a couple of the bartender’s specialty shots, the names unprintable for a family newspaper, while saving our appetite for the ribs to come. A bar patron wondered aloud why Neumeier’s doesn’t bring some of the ribs down Papa’s way when they aren’t serving them up there in the off months. We’d later concur with that thought.
Back to Neumeier’s, and here’s the deal: The menu’s small and easy to follow. There are combo plates of chicken, pork and such, and rib platters — we chose the half-and-half full rack ($18.95) while our companion had the combo that included a large chicken breast, pulled pork and several ribs ($16.95).
While that was prepared, we almost stuffed ourselves on tamales, which Neumeier’s gets from local tamale man Jerry Presson. If you’re familiar with Doe’s style, these differ in that they’re wrapped in corn husks and are not the orangey-brown color but lighter, and they don’t ooze grease. You can fatten them up all you want, though, with chili and cheese (and diced onions) brought as sides.
Sides for your main courses are all good, too, and not afterthoughts. Companion thought the potato salad had a hint of cheddar cheese to it, but it was actually the addition of Neumeier’s dry rub that gave it a reddish color. The beans appeared to be pinto and were seasoned nicely, and not overly fiery. The cole slaw was as good as we’ve had, not real creamy, not vinegary, just a pleasing complement.
Neumeier’s sauces, a mild and hot, have a sweet, tomatoey taste, and the hot has a nice afterburn.
But, we find the best ribs need no sauce, and that’s true here. Dry rub predominates on the dry style, and these baby backs are meaty, with only a gentle tug needed to separate from the bone. Get plenty of napkins for the wet ones, at least if you devour ribs like we do.
We were also hearing that should Fort Smith bring in riverfront casino gambling in the coming months, look for Neumeier’s to move to the riverfront as well.
In the meantime, enjoy some music memorabilia with your ribs on Garrison. Even better, take in the Fort Smith Blues Festival next month, where Neumeier first started serving up racks of ribs and where he’ll be once again.
Neumeier’s Rib Room
817 Garrison Ave.
You’ll get plenty of food via the entrees, so be careful filling up on any of the tempting appetizers. A combo plate will give you a full range of barbecue favorites besides ribs.
5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Wednesday though Saturday.
Moderate prices. Credit cards accepted. Full bar. Will cater year-round.