Updated: Jan 27, 2021
Every Wednesday we’ll publish a brief story about great road-trip food, the kind you’ll discover along two-lane roads in small towns. In today’s installment, we visit Heth, Arkansas (pop. 431)
After an eye-opening morning at Sun Studio in Memphis (a story for another day!), I drove into Arkansas with hopes of reaching Oklahoma City by midnight. I knew where I was headed, but wasn’t exactly sure where I was going along the way. Little Rock? Fort Smith? Some town I’d never heard of?
With 450 miles left to cover, I had an ideal opportunity to ditch Interstate 40 and cruise along US Route 70 instead. That “blue highway” has a two-lane stretch that runs westward for around 125 miles beyond Memphis. Even though such highways usually run parallel to the newer interstates, they traverse an entirely different world filled with small towns, main streets, abandoned buildings, and absolutely wonderful places to find a meal.
So my expectations were neutral when, some 20 miles west of Memphis, I parked at the side of the road and walked up to a small store called J&S Grocery Grill & Bait Shop. The plan was simple enough: order something from the menu and then cobble together specific ideas for stops along the way to OKC. In the worst case, I could load up on snacks and get an early dinner somewhere near Little Rock.
The first thing I noticed at J&S was that low-key but intense buzz that permeates rooms where everyone has a purpose. No one is hurrying, but no one is dawdling either. It was a place that welcomes its guests, but you have a strong sense that smiles are earned and people have little tolerance for unnecessary questions.
The menu board - the kind with food in black capital letters and prices in red numbers – had some intriguing choices. By the time I placed my order, the grill was busy and the tables were all full, so I spent several minutes wandering the aisles trying not to look antsy or impatient. Eventually someone behind the counter handed me a heavy hot sandwich wrapped in foil.
Back at the car, I put it on the passenger seat and headed west, stopping again a few minutes later to take a picture of an abandoned gas station. In that parking lot just off the highway, I opened the foil and almost fainted. Mouth-watering brisket. A thick sliced of Pepperjack cheese. Barbecue sauce. All on thick bread, seared on both sides. I smiled because I realized right away that an irresistible aroma would permeate the car for a few hundred miles.
As hard as it is to believe, the sandwich tasted even better than it looked and smelled. An inner voice said “small bites” so I savored every little taste, trying to ensure that each bite included as many of the ingredients as possible.
I no longer recall exactly how long that meal took to finish. But after the initial wait at J&S, the indulgence, and a few moments to absorb what just happened, I decided to skip the temptations of US70 after all in order to make better time toward OKC. Except for a couple of breaks to snap pictures of thunderstorms and a sunset, I would spend most of the remaining trip on I-40 after all. But it was a small price to pay for that heavenly surprise.
When I pulled over earlier that afternoon, there was no way to know that I would soon enjoy what might be the best sandwich I bought in all of 2018, a meal so good that savoring it altered the course of my day. The next time I’m near Memphis, I will make the time to revisit J&S and try something else.
Frank Luby has road-tripped for over 25,000 miles in the United States. Despite all those miles, he keeps going because he knows he has still only scratched the surface of what this great country has to offer.