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No offense to the advertisers that keep the lights on around here, but no amount of purchased ad space is ever going to beat out a great, word-of-mouth reputation. Car's broke? Ask your neighbor down the street — the guy who somehow keeps that wheezing, Reagan-era Volvo on the road — where he takes his. Want to know which bookstore is best? Talk to that friend who always has her nose stuck in a novel. And so on.
Which is why, when this writer heard that Kent's Downtown was opening in the River Market, I sent everyone I knew an e-mail. See, Kent's is a second branch of The Meat Shoppe in Gravel Ridge. I've got people up in that neck of the woods, so I've stopped in with them a time or three. And I can tell you: While Gravel Ridge is a bit of a haul for a canyon dweller from Little Rock, The Meat Shoppe is definitely worth the trip. Here is my unsolicited, unpaid testimonial: A few years back, I went to a friend's backyard cookout, where T-bone steaks from The Meat Shoppe were on the menu. My understanding is that owner Kent Berry and Co. put their steaks in a bag, fill the bag with marinade, then vacuum pack the whole shebang so that the good stuff really soaks in there. Even though my friend was none too expert at the grill, the steak I had that day was the best steak I have ever had in my life, anywhere, even in a restaurant, at any price. You can't do much better than that.
Sorry, I lost my train of thought for a second.
The question is not whether the Meat Shoppe turns out good stuff. We've established that. The question is whether Country Mouse's citified cousin can do the same. The answer is a resounding yes. Kent's Downtown handily fills the smoky spot in the River Market (and this reviewer's heart) held lo these many years by Shaka Smoke Lounge. Featuring great barbecue, plate lunches, side items and an honest-to-goodness meat counter, Kent's is a real standout for those looking to lunch.
We're within strolling distance of the River Market, so I've eaten at Kent's a good 10 times by now. With the exception of some smothered pork chops that, while incredibly tender, in a good brown gravy, were a bit overdone, everything I've had there over the past month has been uniformly fine.
The subject of several of my early foraging sessions was the barbecue. Every day at lunchtime, Kent's serves a fine chopped pork as the bedrock of its noon offerings ($7.50 for jumbo plate, $5.95 for regular), along with ribs ($5.95), sliced beef ($7.95 for jumbo), chicken quarters ($6.95) and Henry VIII-sized smoked turkey legs ($6.95). Kent's sauce might be a little sweet, especially for someone who believes Sims' mustard-'n'-vinegar might be the Holy Grail, but the good news is that the pork is great with or without. Though Kent's goes a little overboard with the mincing for my taste, every sandwich features a generous helping of darkly smoked, perfectly flavored meat. The sides — baked beans, slaw, a really nice potato salad, and some out-of-the-park greens swimming in fragrant pot likker — are always a treat as well.
Once we'd satisfied ourselves that Kent's could do 'cue, we tried out some of its plate lunches. The best turned out to be the tried-and-true meatloaf plate ($6.95). Though the meatloaf at most places is a sure ticket to Maalox City, Kent's is great: firm, not too greasy, with a nice mix of spice, ground beef and veggies. Portion size is prodigious, even at lunch. With sides and a roll, it's almost too much to handle when the prospect of afternoon labor looms.
We're hoping Kent's Downtown sticks around. Featuring good barbecue, great plate lunches, friendly service and reasonable prices, it's definitely our idea of a good time.
Ottenheimer Hall in the River Market
400 President Clinton Ave.
If you're into that sort of thing, Kent's features some old school Southern tamales. They're nicely textured, with just enough spice to give them some kick, $3.95 for a half dozen, or $6.95 for a dozen. Pro: They're pretty dang good. Con: They're frozen, but if you call ahead, they'll pop them in the steamer for you.
Breakfast, 7 a.m. to 10 a.m.; lunch/dinner 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday through Saturday.
Credit card accepted, full meat counter featuring hams, steaks, poultry, and sausage.