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Pulled pork pros

Capitol Smokehouse and Grill does Arkansas barbecue right.

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Even though it's less than a mile from our office, we've often overlooked Capitol Smokehouse and Grill. That it sits, as the name suggests, near the State Capitol in an area otherwise largely devoid of restaurants might be part of it. That we're partial to Sims, Whole Hog and the White Pig Inn is probably another reason. But surely there's room for another purveyor of smoked meats in our rotation, particularly when it does pulled pork as well as Capitol Smokehouse.

In two visits, we tried all smoked meats available — pulled pork, dry-rub ribs and smoked chicken — and the pulled pork was clearly the star. It comes, as part of a plate ($7.50), either as a mound of meat or as a sandwich. We sampled both. To get a sense of the quality of the meat, we first tried it mostly without sauce, and it was juicy, tender, smoky tasting, awesome. As a sandwich, with a big spoonful of sweet, mayonnaise-based cole slaw on top, it went down even better with samples from Capitol Smokehouse's sauce selection. The hot sauce, which the restaurant's guide describes aptly as "spicy traditional Southern," was a favorite, as was the Froggy Bottom, a mustard and vinegar concoction with more thickness than you'll find at Sims or on Carolina barbecue. Also available: a tangy hickory sauce called Pig Trail that didn't do much for us and Mild and XXX, opposite extremes that we steered clear of for fear of taking away from that tasty meat.

The brisket ($9.99) was pretty much the opposite of the pork. It might just be advisable to avoid ordering brisket outside of Texas if you're not at Smokin' Buns in north Pulaski County. You can only be disappointed so many times before a moratorium must be called, such as on Philly cheese steaks outside of Philadelphia or muffalettas outside southernmost Louisiana.

The half slab of ribs ($10.99) was adequate, with good smoky flavor and a really tasty dry rub being somewhat diminished by fairly dry meat that clung — often tenaciously — to the bone. The smoked chicken quarter ($7.50) was terrifically juicy, but while the rub — heavy on a tang that no one in our party could identify — wasn't bad, it wasn't a flavor combination that came close to contending with the pork.

Capitol Smokehouse operates like a lot of meat and threes. You grab a tray; pick your meat, which includes daily specials like meatloaf and fried chicken, and pick your sides. The jalapeno cornbread was a highlight. It had a great heat level and walked the line perfectly between cornbread that's too dry and crumbly and that which is too greasy. Macaroni and cheese was serviceable, hot and tasty. A squash casserole with a crispy top layer was a nice counterbalance to the saltiness of the other items. The baked beans could've used a little more heat, but were fine; it's mighty hard to mess up baked beans. The homemade chips were better the second time we tried them because they'd clearly just come out of the fryer, but were good enough cold that we can't imagine not getting them again on a return trip.

Capitol Smokehouse is a small place and as such it fits a number of its tables too close together. Sitting comfortably often means nearly blocking the way for traffic to move. That said, on both visits, once during lunch rush and another time well after it was over, we managed. Be warned, though: a table in the southwest corner of the restaurant sits underneath a gap where the ceiling tile has been removed. We got dripped on the first time we went for lunch and noticed that the ceiling still hadn't been repaired two weeks later when we returned recently.


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