Winter is the perfect time to explore the natural stone shelters where native Arkansans once lived
After a group of us made a recent lunchtime trip to David Family Kitchen, the neighborhood soul food institution at 23rd and Broadway streets, a dispute arose in the parking lot over the inevitable question: How did the fried chicken hold up to Gus's?
"Maybe the best in town. Way better than Gus's," declared one of our party with conviction. David Family Kitchen serves up chicken with perfectly juicy meat and perfectly crunchy skin, she said, a consequence of frying it super-hot in a light batter. Gus's skin, on the other hand, she characterized as "leathery and chewy."
Another among our number, a Gus's partisan, gave a disbelieving shake of her head but was too polite to argue the point in person. She laid out her grievances with DFK later in writing: "For me flavorful and crisp breading is what makes fried chicken wonderful, and unfortunately the breading here was hit and miss. The seasoning was pleasant, but the crunch was inconsistent — too hard and dry in some places and too moist in others."
A breast and wing plate is $7.25 and can be upgraded to two breasts for $8.50. Like all prices listed in this review, that includes two sides and a yeast roll or cornbread.
The catfish — served on Fridays only — garnered more uniform praise. Arkansas catfish joints tend to smother their fillets in a medieval-thick armor of cornmeal, and though this technique has its virtues, the lighter, flakier batter David Family Kitchen uses on its fish is a welcome departure. Tender and not the least bit stringy, you'd be a fool to get just one fillet when you could get two for a dollar more ($8.99 for two). Ditto on the fried pork chops, which a single contrarian member of our crew insisted on ordering. The verdict? "A little dry." A pause. "Oh, but definitely get two." ($7.25 for one chop, $8.50 for two.)
At David Family Kitchen, the staff is friendly, the walls could use a new coat of paint and the lopsided tabletops are splashed with Jackson Pollack-inspired designs and tagged with small plaques bearing mysterious names ("Voyager," "Black Hole," "Apocalypse"). You get a cafeteria tray and silverware, then choose your meat and vegetables. Besides the chicken and pork chops, other entrees slip on and off the menu throughout the week: When we returned on Sunday, lunch options included turkey and dressing, spaghetti and, for the truly initiated, boiled chitterlings. (We stuck with the chicken.) Oxtails usually appear on Tuesday and Thursday, smoked neckbones on Wednesday. There's also an enticing breakfast menu that we have yet to explore and which is served from 6 a.m. onward, weekdays only.
Let's talk sides. The excellent cabbage, boiled to a pale and silky tenderness, lent the merest suggestion of greenery to our lunch. The mac and cheese was only passable and required Pollack-level application of Louisiana hot sauce to sustain our interest. But don't overlook the pinto beans — humblest of all sides — which actually taste like real home-cooked beans rather than pure ham. In our opinion, overwhelming vegetables with an excess of pork constitutes a misuse of both pig and bean, a conflating of seasoning with the main event. It's a rare thing for a restaurant to make pinto beans right, but David Family Kitchen does.
Also done right are the yams, that Southern solution to refusing to wait for dessert. Yes, pedants, we're actually talking about sweet potatoes, and we know "yams" are properly a starchy tuber of an unrelated plant family, but language is mutable, and candied yams are candied yams. These were perfectly dressed and cooked — not too mushy, and oozing with butter, sugar and pure happiness, in the words of one diner.
When we asked if there was sugar in the cornbread, the woman serving us laughed and said, no, we make cornbread. Meaning that she considers Northern-style cornbread an abomination. We happen to like it both ways, but DFK's — which apparently uses both white and yellow cornmeal — was good, and better with butter. The sweet tea was more sweet than tea, and likely made with the instant stuff. This may explain why the gentleman who brought out the unsweet tea, which is kept behind the counter in a pitcher instead of at the drink stand, called it "the real tea."
Dessert was another highlight. Our table shared bowls of cobbler brimming with lightly cinnamoned peaches and dough that struck just the right proportion of toasted to squishy ($2.50). The sweet potato pie was also superb ($1.75) and was significantly less sweet than the yams, which wasn't hard to do. Unfortunately, it appears only on Sundays as well, but other pies pop up throughout the week.
David Family Kitchen
2301 S. Broadway St.
If not the best fried chicken in town, it's certainly a top contender. DFK features catfish on Fridays, oxtails most Tuesdays and Thursdays, and fried pork chops any day of the week, with a rotating cast of other entrees and sides. Don't miss the peach cobbler and other desserts.
6 a.m. to 9:45 p.m. breakfast, 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. lunch Tuesday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday. Closed Monday and Saturday.
No alcohol, all credit cards accepted.