Time for Dinner in Marion, Arkansas

(c)Mark D. Kahler

After a 500-mile drive through sometimes stormy weather, at last I arrived in Marion, Arkansas and my reserved hotel room. With more bad weather on the way, I was not inclined to explore larger nearby cities for restaurant options.

The area surrounding this exit on I-55 offered a number of familiar chain options. These are places that serve up expected, familiar food. They are safe choices. They are meals you can order at home.

But one of the options was a place called Tacker’s Shake Shack, also known as Big John’s Shake Shack, also known as Big John’s Restaurant. Lots of names. No hint of smooth, streamlined branding. Let’s just refer to it here as the Shack.

This is a family-owned restaurant, serving the good citizens of Marion since 1977. It had at least one brush with fame: a 2011 designation in Southern Living magazine’s Off the Eaten Path list.

My thoughts wandered to the Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives television show. I fully expected to see Guy Fieri wandering around with his camera crew. But there isn’t much at first glance to capture the focus of the lens.

No big neon signs or spacious landscaped parking lots at the Shack. But there was evidence of steady business in the early evening, which is always a good sign. I decided to stay for dinner.

The Shack is not noted for health food. In fact, it’s safe to guess that most items on the menu are fried. If there was a corporate motto, which I would guess is unlikely, it would be something like “if we can fry it, you can order it.” It is possible here to order a deep-fried Oreo cookie for dessert.

(c)Mark D. Kahler

There are “Loretta’s Deep-Fried Pies (“as seen on local news stations and in local magazines”) in several flavors. There is a wide selection of burgers (served with either fries or tater tots) and seven flavors of milkshakes. The shake menu says “we only use real strawberries, pineapple …” Diners choose from 38 ice cream flavors. If ice cream and pie aren’t enticing, there is the Shack’s “famous bread pudding.”

I ordered a cheeseburger and one of Loretta’s apple caramel fried pies. Lest you think me a hopeless glutton, the pies are sized to be consumed in about five bites, and I resisted adding ice cream.

The food was hot, cooked to order, and delicious. The decor is heavily influenced by Elvis. Service is short on pretense and long on smiles. I left happy.

Later, when I looked up the restaurant on TripAdvisor.com, I found it “ranked No. 1 of 17 restaurants in Marion.”

(c)Mark D. Kahler

Chances are good that you’ll never travel to Marion, Arkansas, and you’ll never eat at the Shack. But stay with me.

There are places like this in most cities of any size in the United States. The owners have put their hearts and souls into taking care of people. They find their own unique ways to make a burger something special, or fry a pie for your dessert. They’re just different enough from the rest of the pack to draw return business — loyal return business.

Places like this spend little, if any,  advertising money. They don’t have to. They are well-known for catering VFW socials or Sunday School picnics.

So don’t always side with fancy branding and lofty Zagat ratings. Those elements have a place, and they will influence many of us on travel dining decisions.

But a plain storefront and a full parking lot can be very revealing as well. Take a chance.

At the very least, you’ll have a good story to tell when you get home.