"History is always happening" at Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site
Copeland's, the “Famous New Orleans Restaurant and Bar” chain invented by Popeye's chicken creator Al Copeland, has at last landed in Little Rock after establishing an Arkansas beachhead in Northwest Arkansas years ago.
With barely a whisper of advance publicity, hordes of eaters soon followed. We went early to Sunday brunch and good thing. By noon, with crowds streaming in from nearby megachurches, waits were in the 90-minute range.
For what? Huge portions of food — fried and sauced and dressed and buttered and greased and otherwise shouting for the heart doctor — that's what. Prices aren't particularly cheap. We had a $45 brunch, counting tax and tip, where the beverages were one coffee and one orange juice and we had no dessert.
If the crowds came looking for New Orleans, they found only theme-park-style echoes.
The place is cavernous and busier than the Atlanta airport. The team service puts so many servers on the floor that the bustle becomes a distraction. The premium seems to be on diner contact more than thoughtfulness. We must have been asked five times if we were enjoying our food or if we needed more water. We hate this trained oversolicitousness. But we hate even more having to ask for the shrimp we'd ordered with a salad and being charged for a drink we didn't receive. These omissions, we're convinced, came not from sloth or malice but from the team service. I think a single server, attentive to an order from start to finish, would be less prone to such oversights.
The speedy service comes at a cost — forget leisurely dining. The speed didn't seem to help food prep. Too often, we were served food cold or tepid.
Copeland's is kind of a cross between the Cheesecake Factory, Ruth's Chris, Popeye's and a back-of-the-Quarter N'awlins plate lunch joint. The late Copeland, whose out-sized Christmas decorations in a New Orleans suburb were just one of the manifestations of an excessive lifestyle, is well represented just inside the front door. There, in a refrigerated display case, are the enormous desserts, from cheesecake to Brobdingnagian double portions of chocolate and carrot layer cakes. Soon after, you must run an obstacle course between racing waiters, toting thick crockery piled with mammoth servings of fried food, some of it further drenched by cream sauce.
It's enough to gross out even a heavy eater. Consider stuffed shrimp, a neglected and occasionally wonderful dish. Here they start with jumbo shrimp. They surround them with a creditable crab and breadcrumb stuffing and then deep fry them, a little too brown, but better than not crisp enough. Alone, the shrimp are a meal. But they come atop a lake of buttery cream sauce studded with chunks of tasso (highly seasoned smoked pork). Not greasy enough for you? There's also French fries, a mound of them. And also a biscuit, a dead ringer for those that Popeye's does so well. Our fries were stone cold.
Meal-sized salads are refreshing options, even if the server initially forgot the grilled shrimp ($4.99 surcharge) that went with the Penthouse salad, a toss of lettuce, tomato, egg, cheese, bacon and croutons served with (undercooked) brioche cheese toast. The shrimp were reasonably well grilled, but unpleasant looking — black on the sides, grayish on the thick middle that didn't touch the grill surface.
Even the appetizer-sized salads are meal-sized. The chop salad, which includes olives, bacon, eggs and hearts of palm, may have been the best dish we had at Copeland's ($5.99). It was lightly dressed with vinaigrette and crowned with a few, but not too many, crisply fried slender onion rings.
The frying touch was right, too, on the nine oysters piled on a po-boy ($10.99). But the supposed New Orleans-style French bread was gummy and undertoasted and about twice the length necessary for this many oysters. It, again, came with cold fries. Finally, the oyster breading was overdosed with an overherbed seasoning akin to a seafood boil mixture. Salt and pepper is sufficient flavoring for a mild oyster.
Brunch, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday, offers appealing choices of eggs Benedict in various permutations; omelets with eight fillings, including andouille sausage; eggs and meat, and deep-fried brioche French toast, thick slabs of rich bread that turns nice and crusty outside, with a creamy interior. We topped ours with bananas Foster, sliced bananas in caramel sauce ($10.49). Like most main dishes here, two could easily split it. A generous order of bacon was badly undercooked. And if the orange juice was “fresh squeezed,” as the menu said, they filtered out the pulp and used some of the least flavorful oranges imaginable, no bargain for $3. And how, we wondered, could you be “out” of “fresh-squeezed grapefruit juice”?
Others around us seemed happy. And why not? The sound system pumps New Orleans blues, Dixieland, funk and Cajun chanky-chank, including from speakers in the flowerbeds outside. The staff is friendly. There's plenty of wood, wrought iron, gallery doors, and New Orleans murals.
Drinks include oversized martinis, a short standard wine list and enough specialty drinks to fuel a Bourbon-Street-worthy puke. The $16.99 Crash and Burn contains seven liquors and serves two.
The fried and stuffed appetizers range from a whole onion, to wings, popcorn shrimp and crabcakes. Soup includes “Cajun Gumbo Ya Ya.” Ours was stone cold, had a bitter roux and included scallops in a stingy portion of seafood. The only way a scallop ever got to Louisiana was in a refrigerated truck.
There's more, yeah. Burgers (around $10); pasta; fished fried, broiled and stuffed and including one described as “lite fish”; ribs; grilled chicken; shrimp creole; red beans and rice; a $23 seafood platter of stunning proportion and steaks cooked in a superhot broiler, up to $37.99 for a bone-in ribeye.
Think you can still handle dessert? As with main courses, there are many choices of add-ons — 22 $2 toppings are available for cheesecake, which itself comes in four varieties. We kept it simple and found the plain cheesecake first-rate, not as thick and sticky as New York-style cheesecake, but plenty rich.
Add Copeland's to our list of places that we'll patronize on road trips as a known quantity. In town, we'll stick with Faded Rose. Or Popeye's, whose spicy chicken, red beans and dirty rice remain authentic, cheap and unadorned by cream sauce. Plus nobody keeps asking you how you like your food.
For another take on Copeland's, visit our food blog, Eat Arkansas, at arktimes.com/blogs/eatarkansas.
2602 S. Shackleford Road
Dependable fried seafood. Ridiculously huge desserts. Recommended: bananas Foster French toast at Sunday brunch. Have four or five Hurricanes and pretend you're on Bourbon Street.
11 a.m.-10 p.m. Mon.-Thur., 11-11 Fri.-Sat., 10-9 Sun.
Full bar, moderate to expensive prices, credit cards.
$1 for tacos that are actually fabulous? $1.99 margaritas (bet they're good, too) and $5…