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Given our proximity to several wide and muddy rivers, it's no surprise that Arkansas is home to a large number of restaurants that know a thing or two about frying catfish. What's rare is to find a place that can also do justice to fare like alligator or fresh oysters, and it's here that Fat Jack's Oyster Sports Bar and Grill in Hot Springs separates itself from the pack.
This new Fat Jack's location is an offshoot of the original Fat Jack's in Texarkana, and it's brought to Hot Springs the same good cooking and hard partying attitude that have been a hallmark of the joint since 1985. It's a place that doesn't take itself too seriously, with graffiti encouraged on the walls and wooden tables, and the general feeling is one of Mardi Gras mixed with a Razorback tailgate party. Its happy "hour" runs from noon until 7 p.m. daily, with plenty of tasty things to soak up all the revelry. While we normally prefer our oysters raw on the half-shell, we decided to try them prepared a different way: wrapped in bacon and covered with melted cheese (Holly's Angels on Horseback, $9.95). After the first bite knew we had made the right decision. The oysters in question were a bit smaller than we would have liked, but their clean, briny flavor worked well with the grilled bacon, and the gooey white cheese brought everything together in a wonderful decadent bite. The cheese was partially melted and partially toasted on the griddle to create an excellent contrast of flavors and textures. Served on the side was a mild horseradish that was a little dried out, but given the overabundance of flavors with the Angels, this was only a small disappointment. For our other starter, we got bowls of the seafood gumbo ($8.95), large helpings of the rich Cajun stew over tender rice. This gumbo was savory and spicy, so rich we wished the weather had been a little colder. Too many places offer poorly-made gumbo out of a sense of obligation; this gumbo was as good as any we've had anywhere. Fans of the fried stuff will find a lot to love on this menu, with the fish basket ($9.95) being one of the best bangs for the buck we've found. It's a meal that's loaded down with six large catfish fillets and a generous portion of crispy hand-cut fries, and for less than a ten-spot, possibly the best deal we've ever encountered for this much fish. The deal got even sweeter when our server accidentally dropped one of the fillets (which were piled sky-high) on the table, and almost immediately brought out two more pieces as a replacement. It was a small gesture that went a long way to winning us over. The fish itself was moist and tender, with a nicely spiced breading that had the good blonde color that comes from being fried in fresh oil. The fries, all too often an afterthought, were crisp and firm on the outside with a good, mealy center — not even needing a dunk in ketchup to reach perfection. We also ordered the Trifecta Basket ($10.25), taking advantage of Fat Jack's substitutions to build a mound of fried oysters, fish and alligator nuggets. The oysters were just as good batter-dipped as they were covered in cheese and bacon, and the alligator was mild-flavored and tender with a flavor somewhere between chicken and frog legs. While we didn't think the gator was outstanding enough to be a dish on its own, it was tasty enough to work as a novelty meat along with the oysters and fish. As with the fish basket, the portions were generous and the fries excellent.
Our final dish, the Shrimp Po' Boy ($9.95), was the least successful. The shrimp were cooked well, with a light, crisp batter and a nice sweet flavor, but the rest of the sandwich seemed to be a bit of an afterthought, with a rather unimpressive pile of lettuce, tomato, onion and pickles heaped to the side of the otherwise undressed seafood and bread. The main thing lacking here was any sort of dressing, and while we did have sauces of both the pepper and tartar variety on the table, a good remoulade would have really gone a long way in helping this sandwich. Still, as the lowest point of the meal, the po' boy was a pretty inoffensive one and would have to have been a lot worse to approach the worst po' boys we've ever tried. Fat Jack's manages to do exactly what a restaurant must do in a resort town: appeal to tourists hungry after a long day of sight-seeing as well as locals looking for a place to have a few drinks while catching a football game. With a large menu, huge portions, and reasonable prices, there's a lot to like here. Service is friendly, and although we felt a little rushed to turn our table over at the end of the meal, we've still got to give Fat Jack's credit for plying us with extra food after the accidental drop, and thanks to its quality seafood, we'll be returning sooner rather than later.
Fat Jack's Oyster Sports Bar and Grill
101 Central Ave.
Whether fried, bacon-wrapped, Rockefeller-style, or just raw on the half-shell, Fat Jack's has an oyster to please almost any taste.
11 a.m. to midnight Tuesday through Sunday.
All major credit cards, full bar