On the road to Toad Suck

A string of convertibles – all with tops down — left last Saturday morning for a leisurely road trip from Hot Springs Village to Toad Suck, a little town in Arkansas with a name that invariably makes people laugh or shake their heads in disbelief. The excursion was a fall event for members of the loosely organized convertible-owners group “Escape the Gate.”

There may be a few “wannabe convertible owners” among the 190 names on the email list of this group, but on this day 52 people gathered in a parking lot just outside this planned, gated community. We departed in 26 shiny automobiles on an hour-long drive through scenic byways and fall foliage.

The planned destination was lunch at Toad Suck Bucks, a riverfront steakhouse with its own unique story, situated on a bluff overlooking the Arkansas River not far from the lock and dam that share the name.

The eatery is a lively place from Thursday through Sunday, featuring comfort food and good service, cold beer and good bourbon, as well as pool tables and shuffleboard inside and live music on the patio Friday and Saturday evenings. It’s lively and informal, and everyone there seems to know their neighbors.

Toad Suck Bucks has been drawing a crowd for 23 years. Except for a few more dollar bills stapled to the walls and columns today, it probably hasn’t changed much since it first opened. Toads – what else? – are a décor element.

The owner doesn’t normally fire up the grill until 2 p.m. on Saturday and at 4 p.m. Thursday and Friday.

However, owner Ted Buck agreed to be there early to accommodate the convertible crowd on this Saturday. He was in the kitchen turning out burgers and fries, catfish sandwiches and fried bologna sliders, grilled shrimp and pork tamale bites, assisted by his wife and regular crew who pitched in to assure that the people-pleasing quality of this country-favorite diner was intact. Buck still found time to shake hands and explain the history of this quirky Arkansas treasure.

It’s a unique find, but it’s not at all unknown. Toad Suck Bucks boasts a Facebook following of 7.4K, with nearly as many likes! The interior is as quirky as the name, filled with mismatched tables and chairs that can be reconfigured at will to fill any need. There is a sign that proclaims: “No profanity, please,” and another hand-lettered sign hangs from the ceiling near the kitchen as the dessert menu. I’ll bet it changes often, based on what’s in season, or maybe just at the whim of the baker.

Parking isn’t a problem, and it’s obvious that when the weather allows, the “party” naturally spills onto a patio that’s filled with picnic tables and comfortable lawn chairs! Open bulbs are strung for evening illumination and there are no posted closing hours!

Buck returned to his native Arkansas following military service in both the U.S. Navy and Air Force – he laughingly agrees that’s unusual, and he eventually settled on this quiet spot in this peaceful part of the state. A couple of homes and several outbuildings exist on the property today, and a single sign at the head of a long driveway leads newcomers to the site.

He says he operated a flea market in the building that now houses the restaurant, then he bought a pool table to pass the time with friends. One pool table wasn’t enough, so he bought several more, and more friends arrived. Buck once served simple snacks, with BYOB get-togethers the norm. Then, he adds, “Someone suggested we grill some steaks.”

Toad Suck Bucks was born.

Getting there isn’t always easy. No billboards proclaim its existence. There was a several-mile stretch of dirt road that had drivers wondering if we had all taken a wrong turn. Our colorful convoy prompted other drivers to stop, wave, and let us pass as we made our way through small towns and turned across lanes of traffic. I’ll wager we could have asked directions from any one of the residents had we actually thought to do so. Despite the dust, our group arrived intact, and later Buck shared the “easy way” to keep us all on pavement on the way home.

All in all, it was a perfect autumn day for a top-down drive along country roads, an excursion that makes for fond memories. Ken Buck has surely been doing something right for the past couple of decades, and many of our group vowed to return. Add 52 more “likes” to the total!

Pizza — the ultimate comfort food?

My January/February issue of Food Network magazine arrived recently. Looking at the cover, I had to smile. Prominently displayed in mouthwatering color is a pizza with what appears to be some distinctly non-traditional toppings. I was eager to sit down with this new issue and explore ideas presented by some of my favorite television chefs.

And as I did just that on a chilly day when it was prudent to stay indoors, I was reminded of the pizzas I have ordered and consumed in faraway places . . . Here are some of my favorites from the previous few years of sampling good food in unique places! Pizza does indeed seem to have universal appeal!

Pizza, whether shared with friends, prepared at home, or ordered by the slice as a quick snack, always seems appropriate. The fact that it’s so versatile — and so varied — is a large part of its appeal. No matter how you enjoy your pizza, at home or abroad, with a soda, a glass of wine or a beer, chances are good that others will share your opinion and be willing to join you for a slice of goodness.

Because it’s still impossible to take to the skies, the seas or the highways across the globe, the next best thing — for me and for many others this year — has been to spend time in the kitchen, savoring new taste treats inspired by our globetrotting of the past. That has taken me, at least, on some unexpected journeys — recalling previous trips and wonderful food experiences — as well as into past times when life was at least as difficult as it is today and good food was hard to come by. I have become captivated by some of the dog-eared recipes in my grandmother’s recipe box.

More about those in coming days — It has been an insightful few weeks, and I’m eager to share some thoughts.

I realize how lucky I am to be alive today, in these times, as hard as it has been to be at home and not on the road during this pandemic. There’s a reason I chose to write about good food and far away places. Cooking and travel are both art forms in their individual ways. Each brings joy.

One of the travel realities that continues to surprise me is that it’s possible to find pizza on a menu almost anywhere on the globe. The “pandemic hours” that I spent organizing photos and notes of my travels have confirmed that good pizza is not confined by geography or defined by a particular culture, that the love of pizza transcends borders, and that it can be both a satisfying “street food” consumed on the run and a full meal elegantly presented. Or anything in between! Also, almost anything can become a pizza topping! From the delightfully simple basil and mozzarella-topped classic in a tiny Neapolitan trattoria to an oversize and overloaded game day pizza delivered direct to my doorstep, pizza is a beloved tradition, and a treat that only seems to gain favor with each passing year.

One shouldn’t miss the classic Pizza Margherita when visiting Naples! But there are many other pizza choices in other places. On our European trip in late 2019, we enjoyed pizza several times in distinctive locations, from a seaside restaurant with a stunning view of the Adriatic to a cozy small-town eatery tucked into a centuries-old building in Pula, Croatia. Pizza is a staple at airports across the globe, and during this summer’s pandemic shutdown, a required motel stay in Texas brought us “no contact” pizza delivery from a local take-out-only chain pizza parlor. It was our only option, and we were happy to have it!

I also found among my photos a shot of the familiar Domino’s sign in Barcelona, with a crowd of people awaiting their own orders, testimony to pizza’s universality!

Dessert pizzas have also become popular, and they are definitely worth a try. In addition, I have discovered how much fun it can be to make pizza at home; not only is it a great way to introduce kitchen skills to younger children, but there is nothing quite like the sense of accomplishment that comes from creating a hot and satisfying meal out of leftovers and “refrigerator finds!”

No matter how you slice it, it’s entirely possible to enjoy pizza wherever you may roam. By the way, the magazine photo that attracted my attention was of a non-traditional Brussels Sprouts Pizza Carbonara by Chef Ina Garten. Instead of red sauce, it features a white Bechamel sauce, ricotta cheese, Italian pancetta and thinly-sliced Brussels sprouts. Here’s the recipe. It’s one I’m going to have to try.