Deep in the Arkansas Delta is a barbecue joint whose owner repeatedly attracts national attention, without seeking it out.
Jones Bar-B-Q Diner brings international and close-to-home foodies into Marianna, one of the state’s poorest communities. It’s estimated that at least one-third of the 4,100 residents live in poverty.
More tourists became aware of the diner in 2012, after owner/pitmaster James Jones (“Mr. Harold” to the locals) received an America’s Classics award from the James Beard Foundation. In the culinary world, that’s the equivalent of a lifetime achievement Oscar.
The barbecue king’s trip to New York City to accept the honor was his first airplane ride and first vacation since finishing high school in 1963. He’s the only Beard award winner in Arkansas.
The Food Network as well as Saveur and Food & Wine magazines have added accolades. Former President Bill Clinton has visited. So has former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.
The diner’s history is rich: Food historians say it may be one of the nation’s oldest restaurants owned by a black family. Barbecue sales began in 1910, maybe earlier. Meat was sold from a washtub until the business moved to its present location — a shotgun-style house — in 1964.
The destination is compact: indoor seating for 10, max, with a few homey touches, thanks to Jones’ wife, “Miss Betty.” Orders are placed at an indoor window and delivered in a brown paper bag. Most are carryouts.
The menu is simple: chopped pork barbecue. Buy it by the pound for $7 or by the sandwich for $3.50, with or without housemade coleslaw. Add $3 for a repurposed plastic bottle filled with one pint of the secret-recipe, vinegar-based and cayenne-spiked sauce.
Sandwiches are made with Wonder Bread and wrapped in a thin sheet of foil.
All of it happens off the digital grid. There’s no website, no way to order online and no guarantee of connecting by phone.
So what’s the diner’s barbecue secret?
“What I put in it,” is the owner’s cheeky reply.
He only smolders oak and hickory embers in the barbecue pit. Meat slow roasts at least 10 hours. Jones adds sauce to the chopped pork as it simmers in a slow cooker and douses it with a final squirt when making a sandwich.
That’s as specific as the recipe chatter gets. Jones smokes 10 to 12 pork shoulders at one time, three times a week, and has a sidekick to help ensure the meat isn’t stolen while it roasts. Theophilus “Spanky” Bannon also keeps the pit’s fire stoked and has worked with Jones for more than 30 years.
The renowned diner, long a fixture in the community, is four blocks from the home of Kim Williams, the area’s tourism rep and daughter of the Marianna mayor.
“We all have food memories,” she says. “Many of mine involve this place. You get this barbecue for weddings, for funerals — any special occasion.”
She uses the diner’s sauce to add some zip to spaghetti, chili and other tomato-based recipes.