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Crowds flock to Cheddar's 

For good, cheap grub.

The arrival of the first Cheddar's Casual Cafe in Central Arkansas has been met with the same almost unbelievable rush of curious customers that accompanied the first area Chipotle Grill when it opened its doors this summer. There really has been no safe time to go to Cheddar's and expect to get in and out — or even seated! — in an hour or less.

Going at 3:45 p.m. on a recent Sunday seemed like a good bet — too late for lunch and too early for dinner, right? Not exactly. The parking lot looked like the scene outside Walmart at 5 a.m. on Black Friday — herds of people filling benches and generally milling around. The only thing that saved our party of two from a 45-minute wait was learning high-top tables and bar stools in the adjacent bar area were first-come, first-served. And one opened up pretty quickly. A second visit came at 1:30 p.m. on a rainy Tuesday, and while there still was a 30-minute wait in the dining room, our bar table was empty and waiting on us.

Frustrated and befuddled folks surely are asking the same thing they asked about Chipotle — so what's the big deal about Cheddar's? Because from a distance — or a first glance at the menu — Cheddar's might appear to be nothing better or different than your standard TGI Friday's, Chili's or Applebee's.

But there are notable features that set Cheddar's apart from chains and local restaurants alike, foremost among them: It's cheap!

• A towering stack of 18 large crisp onion rings with stubbornly clinging batter are only $3.99. They are world-class other than needing a bit more salt. The Cajun dipping sauce has a nice peppery kick and is a creative alternative to ketchup.

• A decent Margarita in a huge goblet is $3.50 all the time.

• Homemade queso is $3.99, and you can add ground beef at no charge. It also comes with homemade salsa. Neither is off-the-charts great, but they're solid.

• A mammoth half-pound burger is only $4.59 or $4.79 with cheese. Compare that to the prices at Little Rock's boutique burger joints. We opted for the Smokehouse Burger (a bargain at $4.99), a juicy concoction with bacon, cheddar and a lightly applied tangy barbecue sauce. It's served with lettuce, tomato, pickles and crispy onion straws. We added fries for $1.69, but they were pretty standard, and frankly we would have been plenty full without them.

• We didn't try a steak, but did think $13.99 for a 12-ounce ribeye with a choice of two sides (steamed fresh broccoli, seasoned rice, buttered off-the-cob corn, baby carrots, coleslaw, French fries, mashed potatoes, loaded baked potato, broccoli cheese casserole, green beans and red beans and rice) sounded like a heck of a deal, as did the half-a-rack of baby back ribs, fried or grilled shrimp and two sides for $12.99. Or a full-rack of baby backs for $13.99.

Cheddar's sets itself apart with a clear focus on homemade items as well. "Running a scratch kitchen is the only way we know how to do it!" the menu proclaims, noting the onion rings and chicken tenders are cut and battered in house, the baby back ribs are smoked in house, even the ranch dressing and the fudge sauce used in desserts is homemade.

That focus pays off more on some dishes than others. Among the winners: The Braised Fall-a-Part Roast Beef ($9.99), aka pot roast. The serving is huge, starting with a mountain of perfect homemade mashed potatoes ringed by large, well-browned hunks of cooked-down carrots, celery and onion, topped with shards of excellent, savory roast. Only about four ounces of beef came with our order, probably one way to keep costs down.

The Cheddar's Legendary Monster Cookie ($3.99) is where the homemade touch makes all the difference. A chocolate chip cookie 8 inches in diameter is baked in an iron skillet while you wait (it takes 8-9 minutes), and then the piping hot cookie is topped with vanilla ice cream, that homemade fudge sauce, whipped cream, chopped nuts and a cherry.

Less impressive was the Chicken Pot Pie ($6.69). The crust is flaky, and the vegetables are fine, but the sauce in which all swims, is bland, a little thick and cloying. It also needs a few more hunks of chicken. Not impressed either with the Monte Cristo ($6.99), made with plenty of smoked ham, turkey and cheese, but a batter that's too thick, as is the bread. It ends up doughy.

Cheddar's started in Arlington, Texas, in 1979 and now is in 19 states. Its reception in Little Rock proves it has a winning formula, and one of those is variety. The menu is huge — as are most of the portions — with 11 appetizers, seven meal-sized salads, eight sandwiches, 20 "classic" entrees, nine steaks and combos, six burgers and a good-sized kids menu.

Surely one of these days the new will wear off and people can expect normal wait times. But when you think about it, weeks of overflowing crowds is about the best endorsement a dining public can give a new restaurant.

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