Most folks from Little Rock probably don't think much about Mabelvale. And when they do, they likely lump it in with Baseline Road and the less-than-savory elements that characterize public perceptions of the southwest part of the city.
But what's now just a neighborhood once was its own railroad town, and though Mabelvale long ago was incorporated into Little Rock, it still has its own post office, ZIP code, history and sense of my-town pride.
Walk into Three Sam's BBQ Joint, hard by the railroad tracks where Mann Road meets Mabelvale Main Street, and you'll get a sense of that history. The Mabelvale High School Class of 1954 peers down on the restaurant's largest table. There are pictures of a nearby farm that accompanying text says is now in its seventh generation of family ownership.
Also on the wall is a picture of the 1920 version of the Mabelvale United Methodist Church, the more recent rendition of which still sits across the street. And who collected these and the many other pieces the restaurant displays to document Mabelvale's history? They're family keepsakes, reported one of the two ubiquitous, young, camo-wearing waiters.
Three Sam's is a family-owned restaurant just marking its 10th year in business, and yes there are three people named Sam involved, two males and a female. This is a working-class restaurant; it's closed Saturdays and Sundays, doesn't offer breakfast, and the closest thing you can get to dinner is a late afternoon/early evening meal on Thursday and Friday, when the doors close at 6:30 p.m.
Three Sam's is usually packed at lunch — and with good reason. Most things are homemade, every thing is served in huge quantities, the barbecue is well smoked, the sauce is that perfect mix of sweet and tangy, the burgers are hand-patted, the chili dog is renowned, the onion rings are a delectable mix of crunchy and greasy, and the homemade desserts are well worth saving room for (most of the time).
Barbecue pork and beef sandwiches come small ($5) and large ($6). Proof that all things are relative? The small sandwich is huge. We are diehard pork fans, and this chopped pork is high-quality; we love the sauce, but next time we'll get it on the side because it overwhelmed the meat. But the beef brisket sandwich is the star — over-the-top good; think smoky, tender, lean pot roast, the best we've had in town. These are definitely eat-with-a-fork sammies.
Add two sides to any of the sandwiches for an additional $2.50, and know they're strong too — made-from-scratch baked beans (a hint sweet with shards of pulled pork), coleslaw (creamy and also a hint sweet) and potato salad (skins-on red potato wedges, creamy with mayonnaise with a good kick from herbs we couldn't conclusively identify).
The subhead under the barbecue platters says "you had better be hungry!!!!!!" but we'd change that to "you had better go ahead and get a to-go box!!!!!!" The Little Sam's Favorite ($10.50) includes a regular barbecue sandwich (choice of pork or beef), two meaty, very smoky, almost-fall-off-the-bones ribs dosed nicely with that fabulous sauce, two sides AND a big pile of crispy French fries. There are other mixtures of meats and sides in various combinations. If you want ribs straight up, get a half rack for $10 or a full for $20.
Our burger aficionado friend proclaimed the seven-ounce cheeseburger ($5 with chips) "much better than average," lamenting only that the hand-formed patty could use more salt, pepper or other spice. But as he worked through it, he reneged a bit on the minor complaint. Another friend swears the chili dog ($5.75 or $6.75 with onion, cheese and peppers added to the chili and slaw) is the best in town. We sampled the huge bowl of chili ($6) and found the finely ground beef blend a bit bland — though the cheddar and onions helped it out. We think it would be better as a dog topper than straight up.
Then there are the desserts, which friends had warned us not to miss. The peanut butter ice box pie ($3.50) was jaw-droppingly good — a massive slab of rich-but-light peanut butter cream filling on a moist graham cracker crust topped with whipped cream, salted peanut halves and pieces of mini Reese's Cups. The lemon ice box pie, on the other hand, was rock-solid frozen and a bit too tart. The strawberry ice box was perfect in consistency and taste, including fresh berries garnishing it.
Though we almost never repeat items on a second trip, we had to revisit the peanut butter pie. And this time it was rock-solid frozen — delaying our enjoyment until we could get it home and let it thaw. We asked our camo-clad buddy about this phenomenon and he said it just depends how long the pies have been out of the freezer, which is a function of how busy they are and how quickly they go through them. We're not pie preparers or storers, but a solution needs to be found.
Still, time-released dessert wonderfulness or on-the-spot snarfage —Three Sam's is worth a visit for many culinary and blast-from-Mabelvale's-past reasons.