After an exciting and perhaps successful day in a duck blind, you’re hungry enough to eat a side of beef and you want to talk about the hunting experience you just enjoyed. Some Arkansas hunters are lucky enough to retreat back to their private club for a breakfast, lunch or dinner already prepared and waiting for them. Some, even those who might have a duck club with a kitchen, just want to get out and see some other hunters and experience the tastes of the greasy spoons along the Mississippi Flyway.
Some culinary experiences we’ve heard will rival some hunting tales. Lots of hole-in-the-wall joints from Hoxie to Gillett are but a memory now. Every hunter probably remembers that first truly unbelievable melt-in-the-mouth cheeseburger he chomped down on at some place like the long-gone Irene’s in DeWitt, or maybe he still remembers all the buddies heading into Stuttgart at night for a juicy rib-eye at the private Pam-Pam Club (pay $5 for a member and then eat and party like a king, back in the day), and maybe never going to sleep and catching a quick breakfast at the Highway 13 Café near Humphrey before shooting time.
Hunters no doubt will by habit still glance over the corner of U.S. 79 and Park Avenue in Stuttgart where stood the ol’ Quonset hut housing the Little Chef — a highway overpass was forcing its move in the past year, and then the family closed it down anyway for good.
While we could lament the long-gone favorites, the good news is that plenty more can’t-miss cozy eating holes remain for the hunters along the Flyway. Out-of-staters would stand to stop in just to take in the full Arkansas experience.
While everybody year-round finds their way to such familiar local spots as Nick’s in Carlisle or Craig’s Bar-B-Q in DeValls Bluff, we picked out a few that might be considered off the beaten path but shouldn’t be missed during the duck hunting season.
Even if you don’t have a successful hunt story to offer the other clientele or the restaurant’s owners, you’re going to get a killer meal.
Drive-In is probably a misnomer, at least in the way we picture drive-up-to-and-order spots. This is a dive. A great dive, absolutely THE No. 1 hole-in-the-wall as far as appearance on the outside, with a Schlitz sign stuck atop a pole and above the front door being all that marks the spot or informs you that you’ve arrived.
But inside — uh, well, this one-time pool hall is not all that pretty either. Neither is the original Doe’s in Greenville. Certain places command that kind of ambiance, though. Sportsman’s is such a place.
The food in the Sportsman’s makes up any shortcomings the finicky diner might find in infrastructure.
The menu is enormous compared with the size of the place, too, but for lunch the No. 1 item to order after a long morning of hunting is the cheeseburger.
Five Guys and all those other specialty burger joints have nothing on the Sportman’s.
The burger is 11 ounces before going on the grill. The “real fries” also are the way to go — cut potatoes with the skins on and cooked perfectly.
Teressa and Wayne Pitts bought Sportsman’s in 2006. It’s had a couple of other owners over the past 20 years and dates back to the 1950s. That Schlitz sign outside likely is original. The Pittses moved out the pool tables to allow for a few more tables — there are maybe eight, plus one long one against the far wall.
Teressa worked for Sportsman’s back in 1994 and knew what she was getting into when she and Wayne took over. The previous grill had cracked, so they put in a new one, along with two new large refrigerators.
“We get the same duck hunters that have been coming here for years and years,” she says.
Food choices range from chef salad (Really? For this crowd?) to rib-eyes, hamburger steak, catfish and fried shrimp, and potatoes done any number of ways.
Teressa’s proud of her “real cut” French fries, deservedly so. And she doesn’t hesitate to say what she’d recommend any hunter ordering: “The cheeseburger!” It’s $6.59 with the fries.
They’ll even take your call as early as 10 a.m. and have your burger waiting for you when you arrive. If you’re unsure of the back streets of Stuttgart — Sportsman’s is two blocks west of Main, on Washington — you’ll know it when you’re getting close.
“Look for the pickup trucks,” Teressa said. And the old Schlitz sign. “I might be able to get some Schlitz this season,” she added.
Hours: 10 a.m.-8 p.m.
Note: Check and cash only, no credit cards.
Address: 805 N. Porter, Stuttgart
Phone: (870) 673-7462
Virginia Parker said she always enjoyed cooking and preparing home-cooked meals for others. When Billie’s Cafe on Highway 88 in Reydell closed a few years back, there was literally no restaurant for miles between the north shore of the Arkansas River and DeWitt. So Virginia opened her restaurant in 2001 in a converted mobile home, just a stone’s throw from her house, where Highway 276 takes a hard left turn to the east and the 276 spur heads south.
“I thought this was a thriving little community,” Parker said of her opening up shop in Bayou Meto. Turns out it’s quiet and slow, but people have still found their way to Virginia’s, which truly is off the beaten path. It’s five miles off the nearest U.S. highway (165).
Virginia’s can seat about 30 and serves farmers, fishermen and town folk from DeWitt and the surrounding area for most of the year at lunch, while duck hunters flock in throughout the season from private and commercial hunting clubs and the Bayou Meto WMA for both breakfast and lunch. Parker offers a full breakfast — bacon, eggs, ham, biscuits and gravy, hash browns — during the duck season.
She’s also THE destination in the area for pies, her from-scratch banana pudding and her cobblers. Her peanut-butter pie was described by a friend recently as “to die for,” but we’d also suggest not failing to order coconut pie or strawberry cobbler, which we sampled earlier this summer, as well as peach or chocolate cobbler. Parker almost gets this devilish look on her face describing the latter sweet sensation.
Call her 24 hours in advance to place a pie order. She can even deliver them herself, she said, to some of the close-by lodges.
Parker will have daily specials. Wednesday, for example, is chicken day. “I don’t buy frozen chicken. I prepare chicken from the whole chicken.
“People drive here [from surrounding small towns] for the pork chops and the catfish,” she said. “The hunters like that, but they also will say, ‘I heard about your burgers and your sweet tea.’
“I didn’t want to offer anything here that I wouldn’t offer to you if you were in my home as my guest.”
Hours: 7-10 a.m. every day during duck season, 11 a.m.-1:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday (closed Saturdays in July only).
Address: 1087 Highway 276, Bayou Meto.
Phone: (870) 946-1299
Hurley House Cafe
While some of these off-the-beaten-path, hole-in-the-wall eateries aren’t on a main drag, one of our can’t-miss spots has the proverbial and lucky “location, location, location” to attract hunters, and the food to match. That is, when you’re situated right where Highway 63/11 intersects with Highway 70, a mile south off I-40, on the eastern outskirts of Hazen, you’re right smack-dab in duck country and you’re probably going to be noticed, and folks tell others about the good food off the grill.
We’re talking about The Hurley House Cafe, which we guarantee will have mud-covered trucks parked outside and camouflaged hunters sitting inside during duck season — before or after shooting hours. That was the case when this place was known as Carol’s Kitchen, before Joe and Sheila Hurley bought it about seven years ago.
Usual breakfast fixin’s, terrific cheeseburgers, great fried catfish, really good grilled shrimp, diner food, massive foot-longs, noon buffet that changes daily, and other type diner food done right and at an affordable price make this a great place to talk about your fun morning in the blind, or talk about how tough the hunting’s been. Mostly, the people we’ve heard in here talk about good hunts, considering the proximity to some famous Grand Prairie hunting holes and the White and Cache rivers.
“Our hamburgers are fresh, hand-pattied,” says Sheila Hurley. “They’re really good. The fried catfish is awesome. It’s locally farmed raised. We have really good grilled shrimp. Just basically diner food, like foot-long hot dogs. They’re massive.”
But the big deal for hunters is breakfast. “When we first bought the place, we tried opening at 3 a.m. That didn’t work. We open at 6. The hunters we usually have, they like to go out and hunt first and then come in for breakfast,” Sheila said. “We’re packed after 10.”
Hours: 6 a.m.-7 p.m. Monday-Thursday (open Friday until 8, open until 3 Saturday). 6 a.m.-2 p.m. Sunday.
Don’t miss: The Big Plate (pancakes, meat, eggs, hash browns) at breakfast, $6.75
Address: 92 S. Maple St., Hazen
Phone: (870) 255-4679.
Taylor Grocery Gun & Archery
One of our hunting buddies who is familiar with Southeast Arkansas back roads like the back of his hand suggested this place. And if you go for nothing other than the bread pudding, you must make a stop at Chuck Taylor’s if you’re hunting the Dumas/Arkansas City area.
“He makes the best bread pudding I’ve ever tasted,” our field claims.
Taylor Grocery is nothing but a metal building dating back probably 60-plus years. You see these type places every 10 miles or so on Delta country highways. Non-descript might be kind in describing it.
But inside, the food defies description in terms of good quality. Like New Orleans-style bread pudding, the po-boys are not to be missed either.
Address: 14151 Highway 54, Dumas
Phone: (870) 382-5349
The Bulldog was known as the definitive drive-in in Arkansas. Maybe the drive-in to end all drive-ins, but in the recent years Bob Miller expanded the place out. There’s comfortable seating inside, an area for walk-up orders and the drive-through.
And while Bald Knob may offer other good options such as the acclaimed Who Dat’s (Cajun) or Kelley’s (home cooking), a duck hunt around Hurricane WMA and that area wouldn’t be complete without a run into The Bulldog for a burger or barbecue pork sandwich.
If home-cooking is your desire, though, the Bulldog changes its specials every day and are made from scratch, from spaghetti (Tuesday) to chicken and dumplings (Friday). Sunday’s offering is catfish.
But the biggest selling item, we’re told, is the barbecue pork plate.
The Bulldog is a hopping hangout throughout the year; duck hunters don’t overrun the place like some other restaurants might experience. But it’s definitely not to be missed on north-central hunts.
Hours: 8 a.m.-10 p.m. daily
Address: 3614 Highway 367 N, Bald Knob
Phone: (501) 724-5195
More Can’t-Miss Eating Spots
Some of the owners of these places might kick us out the door if we described them as dives, and maybe they don’t fully qualify as drive-ins or diners, either. But they deserve a quick mention if you’re looking for a restaurant choice this duck season in Arkansas and a place that’s likely to have customers with duck tales. These come suggested by a dozen or so avid hunters we surveyed throughout the summer:
Who Dat’s, Bald Knob; Cajun Bistro, Stuttgart.
Josie’s, Waldenburg and Batesville; Traylor’s River Road Bar and Grill, DeWitt.
Kibb’s No 1 and Kibb’s No. 2 (different owners), Stuttgart; Rivertowne BBQ, Ozark; Craig’s, DeValls Bluff; Nick’s, Carlisle; Uncle John’s Place, Crawfordsville (get the rib and spaghetti dinner, we’re told, or else); Bowell’s BBQ and Liquor, Osceola.
El Canaveral, Stuttgart.
Georgetown One-Stop, Georgetown; Antone’s Des Arc.
Arvada’s, Carlisle; Waffle Shack, England.
White River Café, Clarendon; Lackey’s, Newport (tamales are exceptional!); Papa Joe’s, Humnoke; Red Swamp Crawfish Co., England; Hunt and Harvest CafE, Delaplaine; Cotham’s, Scott; New Edinburgh Mercantile, New Edinburgh.