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By Shea Stewart (shea@syncweekly.com)

Wednesday, January 7, 2009
As Published in Sync Weekly http://www.syncweekly.com

LITTLE ROCK — It’s two days before the arrival of 2009 and the Capitol Smokehouse and Grill is out of food. Before 1 p.m. arrives, the cooks at the restaurant are turning people away at the door.

“Sorry, we ran out of food,” said one cook to a customer who just seconds earlier had parked his truck on Capitol Avenue and fed the parking meter.

The customer storms into the kitchen, but luckily he’s a friend of owners Candy and Doug Wilkerson.

“How you doing?” he asked Candy Wilkerson.

“I’m so frazzled I don’t know how I’m doing,” she replied.

Formerly Mr. Mason’s Pit Bar-B-Q, the restaurant within walking distance of the state Capitol building lost the name but kept the barbecue. And it’s good barbecue; good enough they sometimes run out.

Walking into the restaurant at noon, my dining companion and myself were treated to a play-by-play of the dwindling food supply at Capitol Smokehouse. First went the ribs and sausage. Next came the smoked chicken and hamburgers (six-ounce hand-shaped patties). The diminishing supply of barbecue had patrons who had already ordered checking on their food.

“Candy, you’re not gonna run out of pork are you?” said one elderly regular.

“I hope not,” Candy Wilkerson said.

The last of the pulled pork was soon served as well.

“I didn’t think we needed to cook that much, based on yesterday,” Candy Wilkerson told one customer.

“See what happens when you have good food,” he said.

With barbecue as good as what Capitol dishes out it’s easy to see why the restaurant might run out. (And two days before New Year’s Day is usually a slow day so there’s no blame on Capitol over running out of food. At least they were nice about it.)

Ordering is done from a large dry-erase board as soon as you walk in the door, which can lead to small pedestrian jams as diners enter and exit. I’d had my eye on the four bones of baby back ribs ($6.99) before overhearing Capitol was out of ribs (along with sausage at the time of our noon arrival). I chose the pulled pork sandwich plate with sides of baked beans and potato salad ($7.50). My dining companion went with the sliced beef brisket plate with sides of twice baked potato and smoked corn ($7.95 plus $1 extra for adding the twice baked potato as a side).

A small building, with booth seating to the right and table seating to the left, the cramped quarters are brightened with the abundant natural light shining in through the large windows facing Capitol Avenue. The restaurant is decorated with a hodgepodge of Arkansas memorabilia. There’s a framed picture of President Bill Clinton, a sign from Candy Wilkerson’s former restaurant Lucky 7 on East Sixth Street, Arkansas football parking passes and a 1979 Arkansas Razorback football schedule sponsored by Stag Beer. (Imagine a Little Rock schedule that includes Texas, Oklahoma State and Colorado State.)

I was left with the responsibility of creating my sandwich from the mound of pulled pork piled high on my blue plate and the toasted bun. Although a few of the pieces were too dry, Capitol offers four varieties of sauces to dress up their barbecue: Mild, Pig Trail, Froggy Bottom and Hot. I sampled them all, but went with the tangy Froggy Bottom (mustard-base sauce) and the Hot (but not roof-of-mouth scorching hot) to wet my pulled pork. The baked beans received a dousing of Hot to add a little pep to their already tasty step.

What barbecue I couldn’t fit on my sandwich (And there was a lot; perhaps that’s why they ran out of food) winded up as another side dish, once again doused in a mixture of Froggy Bottom and Hot barbecue sauce.

My dining companion enjoyed her brisket and twice-baked potato, but raved about her side dish of smoked corn. After she was finished eating I asked for a bite and immediately understood what all the hype was about. The whole-kernel corn was seasoned with a blend of spices that gave it an extra bite.

And even if Capitol Smokehouse and Grill is out of food when you visit, before you exit inquire if they have some homemade banana pudding at least. At $1.75 for a tummy-pleasing bowl, it’s woo-wee good. Creamy, but not lacking on the banana slices, it’s a bowl of nostalgia made with love, taking me back to my grandmother’s banana pudding.