We're In the News

Capitol Smokehouse keeps customers queuing up for the ‘cue

Image of a plate of BBQ and sauses


By Shea Stewart
Tuesday, June 29, 2010

LITTLE ROCK — And this is the important part when barbecuing pork butts. Remember this: low and slow. Low is 175 degrees. Slow is 16 hours to 18 hours.

The butts go on the smoker in the late afternoon the day before serving. The meat will not be touched until the next morning. In the end, the pork butts are slippery and shiny with pork juices, and colored a deep reddish brown with caramelized sugars darkening the skin. Inside will be tender, perfectly moist chunks of luscious meat wrapped with dark delicious charred bits and tectonic plates of purplish smoke rings floating underneath. It’s quite beautiful to gaze at; even more beautiful to eat.

There are no really closely guarded trade secrets about how downtown Little Rock’s Capitol Smokehouse and Grill creates its perfect pulled pork. The rub, intended to coat the meat and lock in the juices, contains the usual suspects: brown sugar, paprika and so on. The key is the oft-repeated barbecue cliché, but clichés are predictable because they are true: “The whole key is low and slow,” said Doug Wilkerson, who co-owns Capitol along with his wife, Candy.

The key is that the Wilkersons just know what they are doing. They are barbecue masters, although they never would put on barbecuing airs.

“It’s idiot proof,” said Doug Wilkerson about the restaurant’s smoker. Don’t believe him. That’s barbecue cooking modesty speaking. There’s something special going on at Capitol Smokehouse. Something special and delicious.

It’s special enough that the July issue of Maxim magazine selected Capitol as a destination on its Pork Pilgrimage, calling Capitol “one of the 10 best temples to ’cue in the world.” Top 10? The world? Pretty heady stuff. But, hey, who are we to argue? It’s our No. 1.

Doug and Candy Wilkerson, owners of Lucky 7 restaurant on East Sixth Street in Little Rock from 1987 to 1998, returned to the restaurant business in April 2008 with the purchase of Mr. Mason’s Pit Bar-B-Q. The couple, after a decade of working in the school catering business, bought the restaurant on Capitol Avenue a building short of Chester Street along with its recipes, including the rubs and the four sauces: mild, Pig Trail, Froggy Bottom and hot.

“We still had a lot of connections from our food sales days so we knew this place was up for sale,” Candy Wilkerson said. “The kids had graduated from high school so we were looking for something to do.”

There was a name change. And there was some slight tinkerings with the barbecue ingredients and menu, adding plate lunches, changing the slaw recipe and the like.

The couple know what to do and what not to do. Lucky 7 was known for its plate lunches and catfish. People would wait until the doors opened at 11 a.m. for the couple’s dishes at the boxy restaurant. Why not add them at Capitol?

“You have to offer something more than barbecue because you get customers in here who say, ‘I like barbecue, but I can’t eat it more than once a week,’” Doug Wilkerson said.

The couple entered the restaurant arena in 1987 after years in the food sales business. Candy Wilkerson’s reply when Doug Wilkerson showed her the building that was to become Lucky 7?

“No way,” Candy Wilkerson said.

But it was a success. The couple transformed the deli into a restaurant with a devoted following.

“We just decided to do it,” Doug Wilkerson said. “We hit the right place at the right time. There was really nothing on that side of downtown.”

During the time of Lucky 7 and the school catering business, Doug and Candy Wilkerson were also responsible for catering the barbecue press box meals at War Memorial Stadium for Razorback games. Doug Wilkerson calls it a backyard barbecue operation, but notes Capitol is easier to run. Still, running a barbecue restaurant for the last two years has changed the couple’s appetite.

“We don’t eat too much barbecue,” Doug said.

Doug Wilkerson grew up in a barbecue mecca: Memphis. Perhaps the barbecue got into his blood at an early age. His father owned a couple of restaurants in eastern Arkansas. He remembers the ancient barbecue shrines of his youth, with their pits, offering succulent meats only once or twice a week due to the labor involved. Those operations took time. Took pitmasters. Took an around-the-clock staff.

The Wilkersons and Capitol don’t have that. What they have are a few simple rules for cooking up some righteous barbecue and other dishes, such as Candy Wilkerson’s squash casserole and banana pudding. They purchase food locally when possible. They are welcoming. They have a combination of pecan and hickory for smoking the meat. They don’t use wet or too green wood for their fire. And they have control over the fire. Low and slow.

“The success is being able to get control over what you eat,” Doug Wilkerson said. “We try to mediate and make it as good as we can.

“You got to give people a reason to come through the door. We feel like we give them a reason.”

As written by Shea Stewart in Sync: http://sync.arkansasonline.com/news/2010/jun/29/capitol-smokehouse-keeps-customers-queuing-cue/