Sometimes we choose a place based on the recommendations of friends and family, or because there's buzz in the community. Other times, we just pop into a likely-looking spot based on proximity alone, without a clue as to how the food's going to taste. Such is the case with Mardi Gras Seafood, a sparsely decorated Cajun eatery near Oaklawn Jockey Club in Hot Springs. A fun afternoon at the track left us needing some food, and while none of us had heard anything good or bad about the place (which has only been open a couple of months), we reckoned we'd give it a shot.
The dining room was mostly empty when we entered — a very odd sign given the number of people like us leaving Oaklawn in search of victuals. Normally, post-race dining is a study in patience, but we were able to grab a six-top immediately and get our drinks ordered in no time at all. Worried that the locals maybe knew something we didn't, we contemplated the empty chairs around us and decided to just hope for the best. Then food started coming out, and it was so good that we imagine the empty tables will be a thing of the past as soon as word gets out about Mardi Gras.
We started with an appetizer sampler plate ($12.99) that consisted of one link of crawfish boudin, a pile of golden-fried alligator tail chunks and a fresh dinner roll covered in Mardi Gras' signature gumbo. Every eye at the table went wide at the first bite in an expression of immediately exceeded expectations. The boudin was as good as any we've had in south Louisiana, spicy and rich with a perfect balance of meat and rice that left us thinking we should have ordered more than just one piece. The alligator was tasty (although we've always found it a little chewy), and the remoulade served as a dipping sauce was authentic New Orleans.
The gumbo dinner roll was an entirely different level of great, though, and every gumbo lover in Arkansas needs to get some immediately. A dark, rich broth teeming with chunks of honest-to-God andouille sausage, offering up bite after bite of a deep flavor we've rarely encountered in versions of gumbo we've sampled around the state. We were happy to see that this tasty dish served as a standard side dish for most of Mardi Gras' entrees — one dinner roll's worth wasn't nearly enough.
With appetizers summarily demolished, we moved on to our entrees, putting the kitchen through its paces with a host of Cajun classics. The Cajun Boiled Dinner ($11.99) was a shrimp-lover's dream, with a half-pound of huge Gulf shrimp piled high on a plate that included boiled corn, new potatoes and more of that decadent gumbo. The shrimp were fresh and easy to peel, and the boil was so good that no cocktail sauce was needed. The Cajun Grilled Shrimp Dinner ($13.99), featuring two huge skewers of perfectly grilled shrimp, was another testament to the restaurant's abilities with prawns — and portions.
We were lucky to find out that crawfish ($6.50 per pound; market price) were in season, and ordered a couple of pounds. Like the shrimp, these crawfish were fresh, huge and spiced so perfectly that sucking the heads was a must at our table. The tail meat was firm without being rubbery, and there wasn't a single bite that tasted "off," something that even Louisiana restaurants can't always pull off.
The crowning achievement of the night, however, came with the Cajun Tamale Dinner ($13.99), a massive plate of food that paired a half-pound of delicious boiled shrimp with six of the spiciest, best-tasting Delta-style tamales we've ever had the pleasure to eat. Hot Springs has some famous tamales associated with it — these were better. Like everything else on the menu, the firm tamales were spiced to perfection, not too hot but not shy about being a bit peppery, either.
Full beyond words, we still finished with a massive slab of bread pudding ($2.99), and the meal officially ended without a bad bite. This tasty pudding was redolent of cinnamon and nutmeg, glazed with a perfect sauce that made every bite a delight.
It's a rare meal that has no negatives, but this was one of those. Having eaten Cajun food from Lake Charles to Houma, we feel qualified to say that Mardi Gras is doing some of the most authentic Cajun food the Natural State has ever seen. It's easily one of the best meals we've ever had in the Spa City — or anywhere else in the state, for that matter. The friendly staff and courteous service make things a pleasure, and we're already making plans to get back and get our spice on once more.
Mardi Gras Seafood
200 Higdon Ferry Road
Mardi Gras has Bubba Brew's, an Arkansas beer from Bonnerdale, on tap. When we first tried Bubba a year or so ago, we thought it had promise but needed work — that promise has been realized now with a much-improved lineup.
11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily.
All major credit cards, full bar.