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Speakeasy Cafe is Smoking

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There is no shortage of chain restaurants throughout Saline County, but thankfully, more and more locally-owned spots continue to carve out their own loyal following. And one of these places, Speakeasy Café, has been doing so for almost seven years. The cafe, which combines top-notch coffee offerings with focused breakfast and lunch menus, is owned and operated by Michael and Amanda Carpenter. Before Speakeasy, the husband-and-wife duo originally owned the popular Mugs Café in North Little Rock.

“We started Speakeasy nearly two years before selling Mugs Cafe. The sale of Mugs happened so fast. The story is that my wife, Amanda, who spent a weekend at a motorcycle riders’ class, got into a conversation with another participant over lunch that included the normal niceties of asking what each other does outside of riding motorcycles. She responded by stating she and I own Mugs and Speakeasy. Jokingly, she asked if he wanted to buy them. A couple of weeks later, a friend of this person–the current Mugs owner–made me an offer we couldn’t refuse. Speakeasy wasn’t included in the sale,” says Michael Carpenter.

While the Carpenters do miss their presence in North Little Rock, owning multiple locations during that 2-year period took its toll on the family. Simplifying things was the right decision, as evident by the success of Speakeasy.

The eatery may seem like a coffee shop at first, but I can tell you that the food is every bit as impressive as the java. Popular breakfast items include avocado toast, breakfast tacos, and a fried bologna, egg, and cheese sandwich, along with lunchtime favorites like the Rocket 88 Cuban Sandwich, Grown-Up Grilled Cheese, and grilled ham and cheese with tomato soup leading the pack. The avocado toast is off-the-charts good, with a heavy hand of chunky avocado spread topped with scrambled egg. The lunchtime Cuban? It is just as good, thanks to the house-made pulled pork and ham.

House-smoked meats? At a cafe? Yes, indeed. That is because Michael Carpenter has been operating his barbecue business, Rocket 88 BBQ, with a pit house right in the Speakeasy parking lot for the past two years.

“I entered the Arkansas Times Rhythm and Blues Ribs and Butts Competition in 2019, which was my first competition. Shockingly, I missed first place by only a half-point. This inspired me to start what we called BBQ Pop-Ups once a month at Speakeasy. I had already been smoking our pork for the Cuban, bologna, hams, and turkeys for Speakeasy, but these monthly pop-ups really took off and allowed me to invest in the smoker. I currently dedicate Saturdays to cooking barbecue. At first, I only did pre-orders, but then started a walk-up window on Saturdays about a year ago.”

Carpenter’s barbecue is legit, and he smokes all the standards, from brisket to pork butts to chicken wings, and everything in-between. And as any good pitmaster will tell you, the entire process is a labor of love.

“Those 2 a.m. wake-ups and tending to a fire for 10 hours can get the best of a man if you aren’t taking care of yourself. I’m old school. None of those electric automatic smokers for me. This means every fire is different. So, you have got to stay on your toes all day or you can ruin some food quickly.”

Over time, Carpenter has also found his own style of barbecue. Like anything else, it’s all about trial and error.

“At first, I tried every kind of style of barbecue and had a lot of hits and misses. I mean, I can cook a fine brisket, but I’m no Aaron Franklin and shouldn’t try to be. I do like to get creative, but where I finally landed leans toward Carolina-style pork. That is where, I believe, my barbecue really shines.”

So, whether it’s barbecue at Rocket 88 BBQ or coffee and bites at Speakeasy Cafe, one thing is for certain, the local community has embraced these two businesses and the Carpenters are so appreciative of it.

“The people of Bryant are incredible. I have witnessed business deals made with a handshake over coffee and breakfast and young couples buying their first house. We’ve seen kids graduate and go to college, but who still make a point to come by anytime they are back in town. We’ve also seen children brought into this world and grieved with those who have experienced loss,” says Carpenter. He continues, “We’ve seen some of the same people nearly every day since the day we opened, giving us lifelong friends.”

Cheers to that!

Did You Know?

Keep an eye out for Saturday-only menu items like biscuits and gravy and Speakeasy’s Country Breakfast Skillet.

Speakeasy Cafe
3411 Main St, Suite 6 (Bryant)
Phone: 501-213-0729
Hours: Monday-Saturday 7 a.m.-1 p.m.; Closed Sunday

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Kevin Shalin is a food writer living in Little Rock with his wife, Sara, and two daughters, Natalie (12) and Sydney (7). He started his own blog, The Mighty Rib, seven years ago while living in Houston. Six months later, he began writing for Eating Our Words, a Houston Press food blog. After a year in Boston, he moved to Little Rock, where he’s been for almost five years. During that time, he’s written for Little Rock Soiree, Rock City Eats, Treatsie, and Bourbon and Boots.

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