I was sitting alone in the AQ Chicken House at Springdale. My thoughts were of visits 50 years ago.
My father traveled the state selling athletic supplies to high schools and colleges. When I was a boy, I sometimes would accompany him. When those travels took us to northwest Arkansas, he enjoyed nothing more than a meal at AQ. He converted me at an early age. For a time, there were several AQ locations across the state. We would eat at one in Russellville when attending Arkansas Intercollegiate Conference football and basketball games there. AQ is now down to just the original restaurant at Springdale. It still provides a good meal and, for me, a trip back in time.
Last month, AQ was one of 10 finalists for the Arkansas Food Hall of Fame. When a group of us got together to form the Hall of Fame two years ago, we decided to induct just three restaurants per year. Other halls of fame often make the mistake of having 10 to 15 inductees in the inaugural class. Within a few years, things seem watered down. That's not going to happen with the Arkansas Food Hall of Fame. I can think of at least 100 restaurants that deserve to be inducted.
The three inductees in this year's class are Craig's Bar-B-Q of DeValls Bluff, Keeney's Food Market of Malvern and Burge's Hickory Smoked Turkeys & Hams of Lewisville and Little Rock. The other seven finalists will eventually find their way into the Hall of Fame. In addition to AQ, they are the 4-Dice Restaurant of Fordyce, Bruno's Little Italy of Little Rock, Doe's Eat Place of Little Rock, the Kream Kastle of Blytheville, the Ohio Club of Hot Springs, and Star of India of Little Rock. All have rich histories and are still going strong, serving up great food to loyal customers.
In Springdale, Roy Ritter was a pioneer in the poultry industry and among the first to build large commercial chicken houses in the area. He later owned a processing plant. Long before the term "vertical integration" became popular in the business sector, Ritter opened his AQ Chicken House on July 20, 1947, to serve the final product. At the time, U.S. 71 was a two-lane road, and northwest Arkansas was considered a poor, isolated part of the state.
In Malvern, 20-year-old Charles Keeney bought a small building in a residential area in 1956 and turned it into a grocery store. For almost 63 years, Keeney and his wife Maureen have operated the business. In 2000, faced with increased competition from chain supermarkets, the Keeneys decided to put some tables in the back of the store and serve meals. Because it's hidden and doesn't advertise, Keeney's remains a secret to people outside Hot Spring County. Seeing the smiles on the faces of Charles and Maureen Keeney, who still put in long days in their 80s, made the concept of the Hall of Fame seem worthwhile.
Deep in south Arkansas near the Louisiana border at Lewisville, Alden Burge began smoking turkeys at home for friends after moving there from Shreveport in 1953. He worked in the oil industry, and co-workers soon were asking him for turkeys, chickens and hams. That hobby evolved into selling meals to those attending Friday night football games. In 1962, Burge and his wife Margaret took over a dairy bar at the intersection of Arkansas 29 and U.S. 82. In 1977, Burge's opened a location in the Heights neighborhood of Little Rock. Burge's now ships its smoked meats across the country.
In Prairie County, Lawrence Craig decided he was ready to have a restaurant on dry land after having learned to cook on a tugboat on the Mississippi River. He joined forces with his brother Wes in 1947 to open Craig Brothers Cafe. A third generation of family members operates the restaurant, which draws customers from Memphis to Little Rock.
The 4-Dice opened in 1967 and became famous in 1975 when two members of The Rolling Stones, Ron Wood and Keith Richards, stopped for lunch while driving in a rented Chevrolet Impala from Memphis to Dallas. Soon after lunch, Richards was pulled over for reckless driving and was also cited for having an illegal weapon (a hunting knife). Years later, Gov. Mike Huckabee pardoned Richards so he wouldn't have a record in Arkansas.
Bruno's can trace its history back to four Italian immigrant brothers who came to this country through New York's Ellis Island from Naples. The son of one of those men, known in Arkansas as Jimmy Bruno, ended up at Camp Robinson during World War II. After the war, he returned to open his Little Italy Cafe in the Levy neighborhood of North Little Rock. His recipes still are used at Bruno's Little Italy on Main Street in Little Rock. Also in downtown Little Rock, George Eldridge based his Doe's Eat Place in 1988 on the original in Greenville, Miss. When staffers in Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign and national media members began hanging out there, the Little Rock restaurant became better known than the original.
In Blytheville, the Kream Kastle opened in 1952 with hot dogs as the main item on the menu. A barbecue pit was added in 1955, and the Kream Castle in now best known for its pig sandwiches, which is what they call barbecue pork sandwiches in Mississippi County. In Hot Springs, meanwhile, the Ohio Club on Central Avenue dates back to 1905 when it was opened by John "Coffee" Williams and his nephew Sam Watt. And who in central Arkansas doesn't know owner Sami Lal at Star of India? He's the man who never forgets a name or how long it has been since you were last in his restaurant.
Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.
Editorial on 03/16/2019
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