Sweet, simple and southern, nothing says “welcome to the South,” like a good, old – fashioned plate full of the delicacies that lie within southern comfort meals. Whether it’s fried chicken or mac and cheese – there is a whole wide world full of classic comfort meals to satisfy any craving. There’s also several places where guests can enjoy Southern comfort food in the Natural State, with McClard’s & DownHome being one of the many eateries to choose from. 


Let’s just call it like it is, folks – it’s been a hell of a decade so far. 


From global conflict to political backbiting to runaway inflation to that dadgum COVID popping up like crabgrass in the lawn of life. It makes you wonder who dusted off the ol’ Ouija board and cracked open some portal they shouldn’t have. 


In times as complicated, discombobulated and just downright weird as these, the simplest things in life become the most sacred. Take a walk through Arkansas’ silent woods sometime – your phone won’t work, forcing you to contemplate life in tranquil, unplugged surroundings. It will blow your mind. Or personally reconnect with a long-lost classmate, your next-door neighbor or your spouse, for that matter. Sometimes the longest distances are found within the shortest proximity. 


These, and a hundred other simple things, can strip away the noise and madness of modern life and get you to the essence of what makes you happy. And it might lead you, as it often does, to a tasty plate, besides.


Times like these are what comfort food was made for. Your Mama and Nana were onto something when they healed your teenage broken heart with pie, warmed you inside and out with chicken soup and greased your soul with fried chicken and greens. And what that didn’t fix, a second helping usually did.


“Home cooking, it’s not frilly, it’s not white-linen table service,” says Tori Morehart, who founded Little Rock’s DownHome Catering nearly 20 years ago. “It’s meatloaf, country-fried chicken, fried chicken, mashed potatoes, that kind of stuff. It’s not fancy; it’s just Arkansas, home-cooked like your mom and your grandma cooked.”


Morehart holds as close to a comfort food Ph.D. as one can get, having learned in the kitchen at the elbow of her mother and alongside her sister. She recently conjoining her longtime catering outfit with the legendary McClard’s Bar-B-Q of Hot Springs. The resulting company – McClard’s & DownHome Catering – cut the ribbon last month, christening their spacious eatery on Stagecoach Road. 


“People have been coming in here asking, ‘When is McClard’s going to be here?’” Morehart says. “I’m like, ‘It’s coming. It’s coming. It’ll be here in three weeks; it’ll be here in two weeks; it’ll be here in a week. We’re working on it.’ When it finally did get here, we realized we had some big shoes to fill.”


Comfort food can vary widely from one region of the country to another, as generations of self-taught cooks prepared whatever was at hand and in season. In colder parts of the country, where the growing season is shorter, you’ll find different home cooking than you do closer to the water or out west. 


Comfort food in the South, while not immune to these regional influences, is more cohesive and, for many people’s money, done better than anywhere else on the planet. McClard’s & DownHome’s menu is Arkansas to the bone with a lineup that stands as a cultural touchpoint for Southern food, almost as if someone cut the state in half to show off its culinary rings.


“My customers, these are all regular people,” Morehart notes. “We know their names, know their kids and their grandkids. We walk around here and hug and kiss on all of them. We’ve always made it like a family-oriented thing. McClard’s is so like that, too. My gosh, it’s 94 years old! So, it’s kind of the perfect little marriage of two really good things.”


At this, Lee Beasley nods his head in agreement. Hot Springs born and bred, Beasley bought the McClard’s assets when the latest generation of the family decided they wanted live life at an easier pace than what a restaurant demands. The sale preserved the iconic Spa City original location, a move that let barbecue fanatics the world over heave a collective sigh of relief. 


But Beasley wasn’t content with just curating Arkansas history; he wanted to spread the Book of McClard to smoked meat true believers elsewhere in the state. That meant opening a Rogers location last year, before joining forces with Morehart. 


He says the toughest thing about expanding a three-generations-deep legacy like McClard’s barbecue was consistency. 


“My friends tease me and say, ‘Well, what did you change?’ I say, ‘I didn’t spend X number of dollars so I could put my BBQ in there. I want to keep it exactly the way they did it,’” Beasley explains. “We have added, but not changed things. We want to keep it the same. 


“Now, a great question is how do you replicate something exactly or what do you do when you have something that isn’t broken? That’s my key in barbecue: You don’t want people saying it doesn’t taste the same. We may look for a better way to light the fire or to do this or that, but the recipe, we don’t want to attack that.”


The new space doesn’t yet have that soaked-into-the-woodwork barbecue aroma just yet, but don’t let that sway you; Beasley said the brisket stacks up against anything in Arkansas. In fact, at its grand opening, the place sold out of its signature item, something Beasley chalked up to one of many adjustments needed to translate the fare from the tiny original restaurant to its much bigger sister in Little Rock.


“We’ve already ran out of brisket today. Didn’t cook enough,” he notes. “That’s one of the things we’ll learn; we just don’t know how to gauge yet. But it has to be right; I’m telling you, there are diehard McClard’s fans out there.”


If the slow-smoked side of the menu isn’t your thing (and frankly, friend, that says more about you than it does about the ῾cue), there are plenty of other home-cooked dishes available. Asked for her ultimate plate, Morehart recommended chicken-fried chicken paired with the bacon-forward green beans and either mashed potatoes or macaroni and cheese. Polish it off with a slice of possum pie then, if you can swing it, go home and sleep it off.


“Everything on the menu, I can draw a direct line to someone in the family,” Morehart explains. “We couldn’t do this without those people. It’s everybody’s combined years of experience like, ‘This is my grandma’s recipe, or this is my mom’s recipe, or this is how my dad did it.’”


The essence of comfort food lies in simplicity, but there’s a real art to pulling something so extraordinary out of everyday ingredients. If you’re wondering what kind of voodoo it takes to elevate meat and vegetables to a cultural touchstone, watching Morehart at work reveals a clue. She’s chatting up a table of gal pals; upon entry of a longtime regular, she lets out a squeal of greeting and hands out for a hug. She’s less a woman at work than a neighbor at home with her friends.


And all at once you get it: Comfort food, especially the Southern variety, is much more than the sum of its parts. It’s the fact that everything on the menu comes right out of someone’s recipe box, handwritten index cards or yellowed church cookbook. It’s the pie that’s done to perfection by feel and the vegetables Pawpaw used to take such pride in raising. It’s a hundred Easter dinners and a thousand ordinary Wednesdays. It’s work and joy and loss and faith set out on the good plates, leftovers sent home like love letters, signed, ‘Y’all come back now.’


“We have some big shoes to fill, both of us, because we’ve got to make this right for these people,” Beasley says, scanning the diners hunched over plates or toting to-go orders to the parking lot. “People need comfort food now more than ever. Comfort food at a good price, that’s the formula. Take me, for example; you give me a good brisket, some fries and a piece of pie, and I’m happy.”