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At a sharp bend on Albert Pike Road between Mount Ida and the edge of Hot Springs, you will spot Burl’s Country Smokehouse. The Crystal Springs restaurant is a true Arkansas treasure, whether your meal is the destination on a trip or simply comes from a short drive through the front circle route.
Known as a hot spot for anglers on Garland County’s edge, Crystal Springs sits along the tributaries of the Ouachita River. But for in-the-know Arkansans, this area is also home to the tastiest smoked meats in the state.
Burl and Jeanette Roark started Burl’s Smokehouse in the early 1980s with a commitment to meat. This smokehouse is not where you will find some crazy spice blend or special marinade recipe. This place is all about the meat and the smoke. An on-site smokehouse still does the heavy lifting more than 30 years later. That was part of Burl’s goal in building his “Rib Shack;” he wanted people to be able to walk around and see the double smoke process.
The Roarks were on a weekend getaway when they stopped at a popular spot to grab some crackers and slices of summer sausage for an afternoon at the lake. A chance conversation with store owners let them know there was an opportunity to purchase the store. On the way home to Bearden, these two schoolteachers talked about a new life in their favorite vacation spot – on the edge of Crystal Springs.
The two emptied their teacher retirement funds and purchased the store solely focused on smoked meats to feed anglers and weekend vacationers. But Burl wanted more. He grew up in a large family and knew how to make homemade sourdough bread like his mom and grandmother. Jeanette grew up with a general store background from her parents and grandparents. They knew they could make this roadside stop more than a “to-go” meat shop. Together they expanded the footprint by adding eating booths and changing the exterior landscape with oddities to attract curious customers.
(note: photos taken prior to pandemic)
Burl worked with the local electric company, added a waterwheel to the functioning Crystal Spring behind the smokehouse and prepared for self-sufficiency. In the beginning, the Roarks ground their wheat for bread and cake flour with a gristmill powered by the spring water. As a history teacher, Burl was fascinated by his property’s landscape and history and wanted to expand its capacity and self-sufficiency.
Today, Burl’s Smokehouse has an established reputation all its own. Many customers come for nostalgia’s sake on their way to the lake or traveling by on business. Others make a day and use the grounds to play and introduce a new family generation to the goodness that comes from waiting for the perfect, made-to-order sandwich and a bag of beef sticks to go.
Whether it’s on the ladies behind the deli counter, the patrons leaving the store, or the smirk on an observer as they walk around and look at the décor.
Indian artifacts, moonshine barrels, the torture board or antique glass bottles, it’s hard not just to start looking around when you set your first foot in the front door.
Jeanette’s parents were postmasters and interacted with train conductors through a general store on a train route. Trains were always fascinating to them, and they wanted that experience to be part of this story.
A whole room of their store houses unique canned items. Yes, there are the usual things like salsa and jams. But they also aren’t afraid to pickle any vegetable in the garden or the feet from a pig. The options are endless.
One of Burl’s specialties is homemade sourdough bread. You can top it with any meat in the front counter. Favorites include the summer sausage and smoked turkey and swiss. But you can take your pick from ham, pastrami, beef brisket or salami. If you need to keep it simple, choose bologna by the slab, often known as an “angler’s delight.” And, you can eat it inside with a view of the river and train collection or out front with the scent of the smokehouse on their patio deck.
I’m not sure what they put in these addictive sticks, but it’s the reason most visitors stop by. The jerky and beef sticks have a reputation with patrons who don’t tell people about them so they don’t have to share. But the deep smoky flavor is irresistible. And the pop that comes with each bite makes you keep going back for more.
Ironically, Burl’s Smokehouse has a reputation for rolls as much as the meat. People travel from all over the state for a cinnamon roll, and they discover a carnivore’s paradise by default.
I agree with those who sent me to this Crystal Springs gem. It is worth the drive!
Burl’s Smokehouse will follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines for serving guests during the pandemic. But dine-in is still an option as well as eating outside on the patio or picking up to go.
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