For whatever reason, whether it’s a restaurant’s small size, out-of-the-way location, or just a lack of publicity, some places tend to fall under the radar with a larger audience. This Rock City Eats series takes a look at these Underrated Places.
The restaurant: To get to Smoke Shack Bar-B-Q, you’re going to have to get out of Little Rock and head to Maumelle. The new-ish exit 142 on Interstate 40 is the quickest way to get there, as it’s less than a quarter mile south of the freeway. Smoke Shack is a quaint-looking addition attached to Razorback Pizza. The rustic wood and white smoke pouring from the vents would let you know that this is a barbecue restaurant even without the signage.
The atmosphere: When you first walk in, you might wonder if there’s anywhere to sit. The counter is just a step inside the door, but off to the right is a deceptively large dining room with red-checkered tablecloths, exposed wood and license plates collected from various states. The dining room has a second section with a large amount of seating, so despite the restaurant’s tiny appearance, you won’t have to fight to find a table. Four windows at the front of the dining room let in plenty of natural light, giving the space an inviting feel.
The service: The people of Smoke Shack are extra nice. The three employees I met were all polite and willing to hold a conversation, if that’s what you want. They also know when you want to be left alone to enjoy your plate of food. Twice in my 30 minutes there I was asked if I wanted a refill. Indeed, the hospitality is just as Southern as the barbecue is.
The food: For those of you looking for a solid barbecue joint in the Little Rock area, the Smoke Shack might just be it. The shredded beef sandwich with coleslaw and spicy barbecue sauce was the highlight, with crunchy slaw and smoked beef both working together to keep the heat from the sauce from taking over. It’s gloriously messy and delicious, and its considerable heft means you might not touch your side items. Though you should certainly go for the baked beans; the smoky sweetness in this side is perfect. The mustard potato salad also gets a nice kick from a generous amount of black pepper, which helped cut through some of the fatty flavors.
Smoke Shack smokes its meat fresh every day, which, in my book, should be required by law if you own a barbecue restaurant. Head pitmaster Raymond Butler puts on the pork and beef the night before and arrives early in the morning to pull it off and start the ribs and chicken going. It shows, too. The ribs I had were perfectly cooked; tender and juicy, but still clinging to the bone until released by your bite. I thought the chicken was a little dry, but the smoke and seasoning were excellent, and I found myself pleased with all of it.
By the way, we need to have a quick word about barbecue sauce. Many ‘que enthusiasts insist that great barbecue doesn’t need sauce. I agree, but I still have to credit the work that Smoke Shack has done with its sauces. The original red, sweet ‘n’ spicy, and the hot barbecue sauces are all beautifully made. The hot never gets too spicy, the sweetness of the original sauce has plenty of vinegar to keep it grounded, and the sweet ‘n’ spicy gets a further kick of vinegar as well as extra black pepper to make it pop. I found all three to be balanced and nuanced, as good a barbecue sauce as you can find in Central Arkansas. Smoke Shack does sell its sauces to go, and I highly recommend you get a few bottles to take home.
The price: This is where things get silly. For a pork sandwich, prices start at $4. A quarter smoked chicken? Just $6. Even the ribs are prices well at $9.49 for a half rack and $18 for a full. But the best value of all is in the lunch special, where $7 gets you a jumbo-sized sandwich, two sides and a drink. It’s hard to imagine value getting too much better than that.
The verdict: There were already people waiting in their cars for the doors to open when I pulled up to Smoke Shack Monday morning. And while we have yet to have Franklin-style lines around the block anywhere here, to see people waiting for barbecue in Arkansas made me smile a bit. Smoke Shack’s blend of exception value, great service and solid smoked meat are a breath of fresh air in a barbecue scene that sometimes struggles to stand out. It’s certainly worth the drive to Maumelle to give Smoke Shack a shot.
20608 Highway 365 N Maumelle, Arkansas
Open: Mon-Sat 11am – 8 pm