Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Wagon Wheel's Comfort Food Sustains in Greenbrier.

Arkansas, if it were to have just one sort of restaurant to represent it, wouldn't be shown as a barbecue joint. Nor would it be an Ark-Mex joint, or a Chinese buffet, a sandwich shop or drive-in.

If you were to pick one restaurant that bears the hallmarks of the overall average of all Arkansas restaurants, it'd look like the Wagon Wheel.

The 25+ year old establishment on the south side of Greenbrier ticks all the boxes when it comes to things our local joints are known for.  Whiteboard of specials? Check. Hearty breakfasts? Check. Burgers? Check.  Fish on Fridays? A half dozen or better vegetables to choose from? Friendly waitresses?  Check, check, check.

The Wagon Wheel is not fancy. It is frequented by the locals, who bring in their families after church on Sundays and who come grab a bite during their lunch hours weekdays.  The local high school kids can be seen packing booths on weeknights.  It is also a common stop for people heading north on US Highway 65 towards region north, a local joint with substance as an option to the few chain restaurants that line the strip through town.  The lot is often packed, especially on Friday nights.

In fact, Wagon Wheel is one of the very few places in town not tied to a chain that operates past two in the afternoon.  And any hour of the day, there are constants -- fresh baked breads in the form of biscuits, rolls, cornbread and toast made from bread baked fresh at the restaurant; hot coffee; daily specials put up and taken down; a cooler full of pie. Owner Michael Lawrence is often in attendance, checking in at tables to make sure folks are doing well. There's never a Sysco truck outside; when something gets low, someone makes a store run or they get some squash or tomatoes from someone growing them nearby.

I've made many, many, many stops in at the Wagon Wheel over the years. Breakfasts are always a thing I have to prepare myself for... after all, my favorite omelet on the menu is the mushroom omelet, which is more molten brick of mushroom-studded Monterrey Jack cheese wrapped in a thin egg crepe than omelet.  Biscuits come with a choice of sausage or chocolate gravy, and the chocolate gravy at the Wagon Wheel is the color of milk chocolate. Hashbrowns, you get two options, shredded or cubed potatoes, and you should get the shredded stuff.
Ask for some onions in your hashbrowns, they're cool with that.

The hamburger steak isn't just a patty out of a frozen bag, it's a hand-patted ground beef slab on the plate.  You should get that with onions too, by the way.

They'll do anything you want with an egg, with the double decade experience of fine diner griddle cooking in that kitchen.

The burgers... well, Wagon Wheel prides itself on good burgers, and they come in so many combinations -- from the Cowboy, a long sesame seed roll filled with plenty of hand patted and seasoned ground beef, Monterrey Jack cheese, sautéed peppers, pickles and onions with mustard; to the Wagon Wheel Delight and its unusual combination of mushrooms, green onions and sour cream; to the
Fresh Mushroom burger with brown gravy and grilled onions; the Razorback with bacon and cheese; and even the Hotty Burger with Pepper Jack and jalapenos.  High quality beef, well chosen combinations and big flat plank fries... easily the best burger in Greenbrier.  The onion rings, hand-battered and nicely seasoned, are always a better choice on the side.

And then there are the fried mushrooms.  You would be hard-pressed to find better fried mushrooms in Arkansas -- hand washed, prepped, sliced and battered when you order them,
somewhat salty, served with ranch dressing.  The crust, the mushrooms themselves, so good.

So the other day, Grav and Hunter and I were on our way back home on a Sunday morning and we decided to stop in.
Somehow, despite all the other hundreds of restaurants Grav and I have experienced, I've never brought him to the Wagon Wheel, but I have rectified that now.  We ordered said mushrooms while we tried to muddle through our hungry brains for what we would stuff ourselves with.  We'd all missed breakfast, and here it was eleven in the morning, and we were famished.  Those mushrooms were succulent, tasty and in a blink of an eye, gone.

The restaurant filled up around us, as local churchgoers came in to have a post-sermon meal.  The board was covered with the specials of the day -- fried fish with slaw and hush puppies (Hunter attempted to order a plate of hush puppies but we stopped her), stuffed chicken breast, country veal, mashed potatoes, pintos, carrots, macaroni and cheese, green beans, yams, squash, corn, slaw and okra.  Service was laid back, Grav's tumbler of Coca-Cola was huge and my coffee was very black and very hot.

Hunter changed her mind about six times on what to eat, going from pancakes to chili with cornbread to a BLT to the previously mentioned plate of hush puppies to salad to what she settled with, the kids plate of chicken and fries, which she wiped out quickly with barbecue sauce.

Grav and I had similar plates.  He wanted chicken and went for the chicken fried chicken, the usual menu item.  Our waitress mentioned we had to come back for the fried bone-in chicken when it was on special.  He selected mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese (which was rather
creamy) and pinto beans.  Before he even dug a fork in he grabbed the Louisiana hot sauce, which he usually adds to beans -- but one taste of his pintos and he put it away.  Didn't need any additional seasoning at all.  The chicken and the potatoes came covered in cream gravy, the same milky gravy I love sopping up with those Wagon Wheel biscuits from breakfast.

Me? I knew what I wanted -- the chicken fried steak, which should be legendary.  Because Wagon Wheel is hand-battering all its battered stuff, you get the same golden crust as what you find on the mushrooms.  The beef is perfectly seasoned, and I still don't really know why they
serve it with a knife, since you can slice it with a spoon.  I also chose mashed potatoes and mac and cheese, and picked up some fried squash too... Hunter loves those and I like to share with her.

That right there did us all in.  The shame comes in the pies.  You get that full, you just don't get the pie... and we were good about this and didn't even take the pie home this time.  After all, sometimes you need to watch your weight.

But it's been haunting me since.  The list on the wall that day included coconut, chocolate, lemon, apple, cherry and banana split, along with strawberry cheesecake and banana pudding.  And those pies are marvelous.  The banana split pie is bananas and pineapples under whipped cream with nuts and a
cherry on top.  The apple and cherry pies are served hot if you like, and the meringue pies are solid, filling and not too sweet.  That chocolate meringue is one of my favorite chocolate meringues, ever.

You can take my mom's word on it, too. She likes it when fish is the special because it's six fillets of catfish, and there's enough for two meals in one.  I have friends that
like the shrimp dinner, and one that's a huge fan of the Trail Blazer, which is roast beef, Jack cheese and grilled onions on one of those long rolls.

Other restaurants may have that white board, make their own biscuits, serve hot coffee or a good burger or a great slice of pie.  Few do most well.  Wagon Wheel does it all well, and that's why it's a quintessential Arkansas restaurant.  The prices won't hurt you too much, either.  Give it a try.

Wagon Wheel Restaurant
166 South Broadview
Greenbrier, AR 72058
(501) 679-5009

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  1. Mmmmhhhhmmmm. That looks tasty! You always find the most interesting places, Kat.

  2. When you think of baked comfort food, what comes to mind? No doubt there are special holiday dishes or those special treats that remind you of home, of childhood, or of the warm and satisfied feeling you get when you indulge.


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