We catch grief from time to time on Eat Arkansas for our love of diner food, and I'm willing to admit that I eat and write about diners often enough to wonder if I might need to find some sort of 12-step program related to this addiction. Diners tend to have most of the things I look for in a meal experience, though: they're cheap, usually locally-owned, and normally possessed of a friendly and familiar nature that comes from years and years serving the the same clientele. One of Central Arkansas' best examples of this kind of diner is Ed & Kay's, a family-owned diner that's been serving up hot food and made-from-scratch pies for decades. I've always been amazed that folks will drive right past the home-cooked deliciousness of a place like Ed & Kay's to places like Cracker Barrel and Dixie Cafe that slop a veneer of faux-nostalgia over inferior food and shoddy service. At Ed & Kay's, there's nothing fake about the food or the atmosphere, with pancakes as big as a dinner plate and lighter than air, fresh grown vegetables from the garden plot next door, and pies that they don't call "mile high" for nothing.
Our favorite of those skyscraper pies is the Coconut Cream, although they're all pretty good. The coconut filling of this pie is rich and creamy, with a consistency that walks the line perfectly between being firm enough to stay on a fork without being dry and rubbery. The meringue is a real joy with this pie, because despite the large quantity piled on top, it's whipped so light and airy that there's never any danger of it overpowering the flavor of the pie itself, and the toasted coconut on top adds a nutty, chewy element to the pie that makes for a nice contrast of textures. Holding everything together is the sort of tender, flaky crust that gives just the right hit of buttery savoriness to the entire pie to pull everything together nicely.
Of course, not everybody is a fan of meringue, and while I think that makes you a little crazy, Ed & Kay's has plenty of pies to satisfy your taste. Chocolate fans shouldn't miss the German Chocolate Pie, a chocolate custard pie with a rich, deep flavor and a crunchy top that reminded me of a cross between homemade fudge and a fresh-baked brownie. And of course, the classic Apple Pie is a wonderful choice, because not only is the filling of tender apples heavy with the flavor of cinnamon and all-spice, but the whole thing is enclosed in more of that flaky, buttery crust. The pies at Ed & Kay's rotate periodically, so if there's something you want to try that isn't available on a certain day — well, that's just all the more reason to come back.
There's more to Ed & Kay's than pie, though, with a menu full of sandwiches, burgers, and a wide selection of classic dinner combinations. Not to be missed is the Roast Beef, an ample portion of thin-sliced beef covered with brown gravy. The beef is tender and flavorful, with a nice chewy texture that's complemented perfectly by the gravy. I ordered this plate with a side of creamed potatoes and purple hull peas, but there's a wide selection of side items to choose from at Ed & Kay's, and they're always nice enough to mark which items they're able to provide fresh from their garden in-season. If there's one small complaint I have, it's that the purple hulls could have used a touch more seasoning to them, but it wasn't anything that a visit from the salt shaker and a bottle of pepper sauce didn't make right in a hurry. The potatoes were nice and creamy, and while I don't mind a lump or two in mine, I know that lumpy potatoes are a deal-breaker for a lot of folks — but fear not, lump-haters, Ed & Kay's has you covered with snowy piles of entirely smooth creamed spuds. Add a couple of the diner's excellent yeast rolls to the equation, and this roast beef dinner is as good as any I've ever eaten.
No visit to a diner would be complete without sampling their take on the South's favorite dish: fried catfish. Ed & Kay's periodically runs their catfish as a dinner special, and I highly recommend taking advantage of it every time they do. The special comes with four huge pieces of corn-meal battered fish and your choice of sides. We decided to go with the fresh potato salad along with our peas, and were treated to a hearty mix of fresh potatoes, onions, pickles, and a light dressing that held everything together well without being gloppy. The fish itself was flaky and good, with a light, clean taste and a crunchy batter that came to us steaming hot straight from the fryer. Once again, the endless supply of yeast rolls were a plus, and while I was a bit disappointed that there was only margarine on the table, I understand that the fake stuff is still king in a lot of parts of the South.
When it comes down to it, Ed & Kay's is one of Central Arkansas' most talked-about diners because it's one of the best year after year. The service is friendly, and no matter if you're a regular customer or a tired traveler headed down I-30, you're guaranteed that the folks at the diner will greet you with a smile and an invitation to stay awhile and have a hot meal and some pie. It's the sort of place that is often imitated but rarely ever duplicated, and if it's been awhile since you stopped in — well, that's a mistake you might need to correct.
Ed & Kay's is located at 15228 Interstate 30 N on the south end of Benton. They're open Wednesday-Saturday 7 a.m. - 8 p.m. and Sundays 7 a.m. - 3 p.m.
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