Okay, I’ve had some weird things in restaurants, but this one takes the cake. I suppose it’s fitting, since it is fair season.
That there is a fried rib. You heard me right, fried rib. It’s not part of the usual breakfast fare at Fort Smith’s Calico County, but the big signs outside and inside the restaurants promoting the dish got us curious. Grav and I had to check them out. Of course, we got breakfast, too.
Calico County was the 12th breakfast I managed in just over three days on a sweep of western and northwestern Arkansas morning eateries. It was also the last, for good reason. This particular Labor Day morning I was about breakfasted out, and I needed something that was really going to spark my interest and satisfy my breakfast wants.
Of course, you don’t go to Calico County without trying the cinnamon rolls. They just come out with every meal, a fact of life that’s been a standard for the restaurant’s twenty-someodd years.
The breakfasts, by the way, are pretty much what you choose. You can have the Bargain Basement Special ($4.65) and get an egg dish and a bread and a starch, or go a bit more for the Traditional ($5.65) and get a meat, an egg dish and a bread. But I wanted grits. So I had two choices, and since I wasn’t quite hungry enough for the Giant Country Breakfast ($7.20) I went for A Hearty Favorite ($6.35). So did Grav. But what we got was so different… well, here you go.
I chose a Scrambled Country Omelet -- usually a two-egg dish with potatoes, onions, ham and green peppers but which they omitted the peppers for me. I also went with a New York Strip Steak, some biscuits with chocolate gravy and of course grits. Grav chose a couple of eggs over easy, the country fried steak, toast and spicy potatoes. But he also asked our waitress if he could try one of those fried ribs. She said she’d check for us.
Out she came a few moments later with something that looked like a big bar of batter on a small plate with a side of barbecue sauce. We both took pictures of it and then Grav picked it up and bit into it. He had a series of looks that crossed his face: concentration, surprise, relief when he took a drink of soda, and excitement. “You have to write this down,” he told me,
“Let me get my notebook.”
“Okay, hurry, you have got to write this down.”
“Fine, I’m ready.”
“On first bite, this is worthy of a Tie Dye Travels just for this. As my teeth go through this chicken fried steak shell… it’s fried to perfection… immediately through the crust, it feels like my teeth are going through soft butter. But it’s not fat -- it’s meat with a little fat, so tender like biting through gelatin, it’s that tender. The meat is permeated with barbecue sauce, a sweet sauce. The flavor? It’s like chicken fried steak on the outside with a barbecue rib inside. And it just comes completely off the bone.”
She brought us out our breakfasts moments later, and two very different breakfasts they were. Grav’s country fried steak was smaller than I had expected, and he told me the dinner size portion was about three times that size. But it was thick and covered in cream gravy and an excellent breading that held on well to the steak. He let me try a bit, and I tell you, if it’s not the best country fried steak I’ve had in Arkansas, it’s awful close.
For mine? I had that steak, and I’d ordered it medium rare, and for a breakfast steak (which tends to be thinner than a dinner steak) I was pleased at the robust pinkness. The scramble was decent, with a coating of American cheese on top. The grits? Aw yeah. I was craving grits and I got what I deserved, nice soft barely grainy grits with plenty of butter in them already. I ate every bit of those grits.
But I did go after that biscuit with some real butter. In fact, Grav was poking fun at me because I opened packet after packet and smeared it on, ate a layer and repeated. I really wanted that butter and that biscuit was the perfect vehicle. I think I would have really been happy that morning with just a bowl of grits and a couple of biscuits.
It was good food, and it was a lot of food. And it was just what I needed. But when I got up after eating most of that platter and drinking a couple of cups of coffee I found I didn’t want to move.
I’m not sure when Calico County opened, but it has been around since at least the mid-80s and many say it is THE place to have breakfast in Fort Smith. That’s saying something, since Fort Smith is blessed with a higher percentage of locally owned mom and pop style breakfast joints and 24 hour diners than anywhere else I’ve found in Arkansas. I’m glad I dropped in. And I’m really glad I didn’t attempt it on the same day as I tried all those other breakfasts… that story’s still to come.
You’ll find Calico County off Rogers Avenue west of I-540. Don’t fret, there’s a big billboard-type sign with an arrow to get you there. They have a great website or you can call (479) 452-3299.