Whenever serious eaters compare notes about America's citadels of culinary excellence, there are sure to be those who champion New Orleans, Santa Fe and San Francisco, maybe even New Haven for pizza and Kansas City for barbecue and fried chicken. But you won't likely hear much ado about De Valls Bluff, Ark., which is a crying shame, because De Valls Bluff happens to be one of this nation's most wonderful places to eat.

There are three great restaurants in this small town just south of I-40 about halfway between Little Rock and Memphis. One is a catfish parlor back in the woods specializing in fried fiddlers and hushpuppies and fine Delta blues. The second superb place to dine is Craig's Bar-B-Q, a small white cafe on Route 70 with a gravel parking lot and a hickory smell that permeates the air for yards around. Craig's is a somewhat disheveled eatery, with a slippery tile floor and air conditioning that barely gets the job done. Its specialty is barbecue sandwiches served to big pink country boys in big blue overalls. My, what glorious barbecue it is: porky-luscious, peppery-sauced, accompanied by heaps of silky-sweet barbecued beans.Across the highway from Craig's is the Family Pie Shop, No. 3 in our small constellation of De Valls Bluff's four-star dining establishments. It is known to Arkansans as Mary's Pie Shop after its owner, Mary Thomas, who for the last dozen or so years has been baking pies and selling them whole to customers who drive from as far away as Little Rock (or in some cases send their chauffeurs) and by the slice to travelers, locals and customers of Craig's who need something sweet and soothing (such as Mary's sublime sweet potato pie) after a bout with Craig's fiery Q.

The Pie Shop isn't really a restaurant. It is more an annex of Thomas' home, built out of a former bicycle shed, filled with garden tools as well as the tools of the baker's art. She starts baking each morning at 6 and by late morning there are half a dozen varieties available, including pineapple, apple, lemon, egg and coconut, all laid out in the most elegant crusts you have ever shattered with a gentle fork. She also makes fried pies (apple or peach) and what she calls Karo Nut Pie - the top-of-the-line, most expensive item on the menu at about a dollar extra per pie. Karo Nut Pie is local nomenclature for what most of the rest of the world knows as pecan pie - a dark, sweet, Southern classic.

Made the way Mary Thomas makes it, a Karo Nut Pie can be hard to slice because of the whole pecans that float to the surface during baking. But this is the pretty way to bake a pecan pie. If you break the pecans up before adding them, you will get a less comely, but easier-to-slice (and equally luscious) pie.

Now available! Nearly 200 of the most-requested recipes from this column, all in one book, "A Taste of America." It includes Jane and Michael Stern's favorite restaurants, as well as photos from their coast-to-coast eating adventures. Available in paperback, it can be ordered by sending $9.95 plus $1 for postage and handling to Taste of America, in care of the Deseret News, P.O. Box 419150, Kansas City, Mo. 64141.1990, Jane and Michael Stern

(Universal Press Syndicate)

Karo Nut Pie

Dough for single-crusted 9-inch pie

3 whole eggs

1 cup dark Karo syrup

2/3 cup dark brown sugar

5 tablespoons butter, melted and cooled

1/2 tablespoon vanilla extract

1 1/3 cups pecan halves

Unsweetened whipped cream as garnish Place pie dough in 9-inch pie pan and crimp or flute edges.

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

Beat eggs until yolks and whites are well-mixed. Add syrup, brown sugar, melted butter and vanilla extract. Mix well. Stir in pecans gently, taking care not to break them. Pour into pie shell.

Bake 15 minutes. Reduce heat to 350 degrees. Bake 20 to 25 minutes more, or until just set (interior is no longer syrupy; knife inserted will come out clean).

Remove from oven and let cool. Serve slightly warm, topped wth unsweetened whipped cream if desired.