You probably think of West Memphis as the place just over the Hernando DeSoto Bridge that taunts you on your way home from road trips because it's not quite Memphis. The stretch of Highway 70 that doubles as West Memphis' main street appears at first glance to be a row of service stations, chain restaurants, and truck stops -- not exactly a utopia of Southern charm.
But wedged between the dollar stores and Krogers, unique spots make West Memphis a quirky neighbor worth visiting.
If nothing else, go for the food. West Memphis offers restaurants such as Pancho's and Cracker Barrel, but to get a taste of down-home cookin', stick to local joints like the T.A.B. Café, which serves up some serious soul food, including hot wings, barbecue, hot tamales, milkshakes, and chitterlings. Ever eaten a jojo? I didn't think so. Head to Dodge's service station at Broadway and 14th Street to try what's basically a giant French fry, served with crispy fried chicken.
If all that spicy goodness makes you thirsty, have no fear. Margaritas Mexican Restaurant & Cantina is famous locally for its frosty margaritas, served with or without salt in three flavors: lime, strawberry, and peach. This festive restaurant also offers an extensive menu of American-friendly yet authentic Mexican fare, from fajitas to chimichangas. "People really like the Mexican-style drinks and culture here," says manager Dulce Salas.
Speaking of culture, one of West Memphis' central attractions is Southland Greyhound Park, one of the top dog tracks in the country. The 50-year-old park is undergoing a $38 million renovation that the owners hope will return it to its original -- pre-Tunica-casinos -- glory. After a long fight with churchgoers and family groups, construction has finally begun on a project that will add a floor of "games of skill" -- gambling that involves making choices. (For example: video poker will be there, slot machines will not.) Revenue from the project will go toward gambling prizes, scholarships, charities, the city, Crittenden County, and the state of Arkansas. And, as always, gamblers can bet on horse and dog races simulcast live from across the country.
Renovation plans also include a new Southland Event Center, which will feature dinner seating for more than 400, three cooking stations, and several buffets. A 150-seat nightclub will have live music on weekends. (This is much-needed, to say the least. If you've ever complained about the nightlife in Memphis, don't go to our western cousin looking for booze or dancing. It's not there. Unless you want to go to the Pig'N'Poke. 'Nuff said?)
For serious greyhound lovers, there's an adoption center for retired racers and their kin. For $250 each, the center adopts out about 200 dogs each year. Though some sell faster than others, all eventually find homes. And take it from an animal-rights activist: These dogs are treated well. Potential adopters must complete extensive questionnaires.
For family-friendly entertainment, try the Hog Pen, an 18-hole mini golf course with a driving range, video arcade, go-kart track, and batting cages.
Nearby, Tom Sawyer's RV Park is a relaxing escape that's only a three-mile drive off I-40 and is a scenic drive at that. For $25 a night, visitors can park an RV or pitch a tent along one of three freshwater lakes stocked with bass, perch, catfish, crappie, and more. Hummingbirds whir around bird-feeders and trails are available for biking and hiking. "It's a great place to get some R&R," says co-manager Ilene Peel, adding that visitors enjoy flying kites and model planes, playing horseshoes and volleyball, and watching the famous barefoot waterskier. The site is surprisingly modern, with free laundry facilities, a bathhouse, an ice supply, and running water. They're often booked, so call in advance.
West Memphis is a city of contrasts. While the thrift shops, hair salons, and tiny grocery stores lining sections of Broadway hearken to a time long past, Tom Sawyer's RV Park offers an amenity I found startling: modem hookups.