When I ate lunch at Big John's Shake Shack in Marion, Ark., I brought back a sack of fried pies to share with my coworkers. (The truth was, we were too full after sampling the sandwiches to even think about pies until we got back to the office!)
My editor sampled and sent me this e-mail: "I'd walk across the bridge to get that fried chocolate pie."
High praise. Hyperbole, too, of course, as she's got a perfectly good automobile. But you get the point.
Big John's has been an institution in Marion for more than 30 years, serving up shakes and burgers to locals and anyone lucky enough to know about the little spot a stone's throw from the freeway.
I happened in there a couple of years ago, ordered a burger and have raved about it since then. Last week, I finally got around to making an official visit.
The line was deep when I went in, but it moved quickly enough. About half the people selected the plate lunch from a small hot bar, which included sweet potatoes cooked with marshmallows on top. That's a dish I particularly dislike, but plenty of Southerners disagree with me and some were happy to get their fill.
I wanted to sink my teeth into that old-fashioned burger again. A burger cooked on a griddle reminds me of the burgers my grandmother cooked in her iron skillet. The griddle burger isn't quite as greasy -- but it's just as good. There's nothing gourmet about it, either. You can get the quarter-pound or half-pound burger and whichever you choose will be well-done. The cheese is sliced American, the lettuce and onions are shredded and the tomato still store-bought.
It's divine, though, all tucked in a toasted bun and liberally smeared with mayo. It's messy and every mouthful tastes like a hamburger you ate when you were 10.
If you get the burger, make sure your dining partner orders the fried bologna so you can share. You can get the sandwich dressed like you want it, but my friend chose hers the way her mother makes it: Bologna, cheese and mayo.
Two thickish slices of bologna are fried until crisp at the edges, sandwiched between layers of the same gooey American cheese, topped with mayo and slapped between the grilled buns. Move over, barbecue bologna -- this is the countrified version. A quarter of the sandwich was enough, as I didn't have my angioplasty kit with me, but it was tempting to continue. I think mustard is the way to go with this, though, to cut through fattiness.
The pimiento cheese was a shock. I try it just about anywhere I see it on a menu, but I expected a too-wet version made with mild cheese and possibly even Miracle Whip. Instead I found a simple mix of sharp cheddar with a bit of pimiento, bound with a light touch of mayonnaise. A touch of pepper would've been nice, but it was good like it was. The egg and olive was too wet, though. Nice flavor, but too loose.
Every day whole pies and fried pies are made fresh, though selections vary. There's a Tang pie that intrigues me, but it wasn't available either time I visited. The fried pies, a real bargain at $1.25, come filled with the standard peaches, apples or cherries, but also with chocolate and coconut.
The coconut and the chocolate filling are both reminiscent of chess pies and well worth the drive.
Big John's is a comfortable, family-owned restaurant. Kids bring food to the table and refill glasses. When folks leave, "see y'all later" follows them out the door.
-- Jennifer Biggs: 529-5223
Big John's Shake Shack
Address: 409 Military Road, Marion, Ark.
Telephone: (870) 739-3943
Hours: Opens at 8 a.m. Monday through Friday. Closes at 7 p.m. Monday, Wednesday and Thursday. Open until 8 p.m. on Friday and until 8 or 9 p.m. on Tuesday, which is bike night.
Handicapped access: Yes
Alcoholic beverages: None
Don't miss: Burgers, fried bologna, fried pies, pimiento cheese