Tuesday, June 18, 2013

J. Gumbo's is a spicy success

Posted By on Tue, Jun 18, 2013 at 8:33 AM

Drunken chicken over rice
  • Drunken chicken over rice

Arkansas has seen its fair share of chain restaurants. It’s probably easy to brush them aside when they arrive for the first time—burgers, tacos, sandwiches are all expected offerings at most of these operations. But it’s not every day that you see a Cajun/Creole chain make its way to our state. I don’t know of many such chains in general, so I was intrigued when I heard about the arrival of J. Gumbo’s to West Little Rock, the first branch of this nationwide operation to hit Arkansas. I’m usually a little dubious as to quality and personality of menus at most chains, but I’d passed the roadside signs proclaiming the place to be “Now Open” enough times to sufficiently lure me in this last weekend. Located just off Cantrell Road, this small restaurant is situated in a strip mall just west of the Pleasant Ridge shopping complex. We stopped in for a quick dinner and walked out pleasantly surprised by the wonderful food coming out of that kitchen.

Bourbon Street chicken
  • Bourbon Street chicken
The restaurant is a fast casual joint—the inside in clean and comfortable. Diners walk up to a long counter (much like something you’d find at Chipotle or Subway) housing all the different entrée options simmering under a row of heated metal containers. The nearby wall is plastered with a large menu listing all the various options. You order at one end, they assemble your food in front of you, to-order, as you move down the line, you pick up your food and pay at the opposite end—a quick and seamless system. The menu is a good size, not overly complicated but with a substantial list of diverse options. There’s a list of appetizers on one end, rice based stews, gumbo, and soups under the entrée section, and a list of po’ boys and wraps at the other end. There are also a number of gluten-free and vegetarian dishes for those so inclined to order such a thing.

We passed up the appetizers this visit, though it was hard to do so. These included various dips including a “Crawfish Cheese Dip” with cheddar cheese and red chili served with tortilla chips. “Voodoo Nachos” were another option which came smothered in spicy chicken, cheese, sour cream, and jalapeños.

We elected to sample a few of their more popular entrees based on the recommendations of the kindly staff behind the counter. The majority of these dishes are various forms of stews served over rice with a side of soft French bread. One of the attractive things about their setup is that they’ll literally let you sample every dish available before you decide what to order (so long as the line permits). There was no one else in line as we walked up to the counter, so we were able to sample at least a half dozen options.

Bumblebee Stew
  • Bumblebee Stew
I was most impressed with their “spicier” options, which they’ve arranged down one column of the menu. I was quite tempted by the “Voodoo Chicken,” a shredded chicken mixture cooked in garlic and olive oil and a spicy tomato sauce blend. This was a deep, brownish red, and was as spicy as advertised, really lighting up the tongue, but not to a painful extent. It was lovely, but the “Drunken Chicken” won me over. This was also quite spicy, with a nice steady burn throughout the devouring of the dish. This was also shredded chicken, but this time it had been slowly stewed in beer and a blend of classically Cajun spices including cayenne, oregano, paprika, and black pepper.
The beer imparts a faint sweetness that blended beautifully with the spiced meat. I topped this with a heap of gooey cheddar cheese and cool sour cream—the entire mixture resting on a bed of fluffy, white rice. The whole thing was surprisingly splendid—exciting flavors, served hot and fresh.

We sampled another chicken dish, supposedly one of the most popular items on the menu—the “Bourbon Street Chicken.” This was much milder and sweeter than one might expect based on the reference to the legendarily raucous New Orleans landmark strip of road. The chicken comes soaked in a sweet, almost fruity hoisin-like sauce, tempered by the flavors or butter and a mild, salty seasoning. It honestly wasn’t much to look at, but the taste was fantastic. Once again, we topped this one with sour cream and cheddar and found it to be a completely delightful dish. We were intrigued by the highly recommended “Bumblebee Stew.” This vegetarian-friendly mix of yellow corn, onion, black beans, and stewed tomatoes was wonderful on its own, but it was suggested we grab a little to mix with our other entrees. This was a brilliant decision and we were pleased with the combination of vegetables and sweet corn that went so well with our other chicken dishes.

I've only got good things to report from our experience with J. Gumbo's. The portions are generous and many items are under $7. My only regret is that I didn’t have the stomach space to nab some of their crawfish and shrimp dishes such as their golden-hued etoufee or gumbo with smoked sausage. Truthfully, I’ve been dreaming up a return visit since we walked out of J. Gumbo’s doors. If their quality and consistency remain at this level, I’m afraid they’ve just gained a couple of repeat customers.

J. Gumbo’s: 12911 Cantrell Rd., Ste. 18, Little Rock. Open 11 a.m. - 9 p.m. Monday — Saturday, and 11 a.m. - 8 p.m. Sunday. You can follow their Facebook page here.

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