Border Cantos is a timely, new and free exhibit now on view at Crystal Bridges.
In the early 1980s there was a cub reporter at the Arkansas Gazette. The ragingly successful rapid weight-gaining program he had embarked on in college had continued unabated in the months following graduation. Gross excess was his culinary game, and never was that more in evidence than at the many all-you-can-eat buffets that were a local staple of the time: Shakey's, Pat and Mike's, the ubiquitous free-food-at-happy-hour spreads.
And then there was Sandy's Homeplace, which the Gazette backshop workers who introduced him to it called simply "The Yellow House." It featured a smallish buffet of rib-sticking comfort food — all-he-could-eat except for the featured meat, to which Sandy's customers were limited to one serving. It was over in the industrial area sort of on the way to the airport ... but not exactly. That was about all he knew.
Consistently buying new and larger clothes was worse than tiresome for the broke young journalist, and he began to try to lose weight. That meant bye-bye to The Yellow House ... for more than 30 years. The journalist isn't a journalist anymore (except for penning periodic restaurant reviews), but Sandy Woods is still running the restaurant she bought and opened in 1978. And the food is still as good, and hearty, and infinitely plentiful as he remembered.
If you like home cooking, you owe it to yourself to put Sandy's spread up against whatever you consider the best in town. And see if you can find any other spot — good or bad — where you can eat all you want for $7.50, which includes rolls, cornbread, iced tea and tax. (It's $8.25 if you use a credit card.)
Sandy's loyalists (we work with one) can recite the daily main course specials by heart (the second meat is the one-serving-only designee):
Monday: Chicken pot pie and hamburger steak;
Tuesday: Fried chicken livers and chicken fried steak;
Wednesday: Chicken and dumplings and hamburger steak;
Thursday: Fried chicken livers and chicken fried steak;
Friday: Chicken and dressing and chicken fried steak.
Sandy's is open from 10 a.m. until 1:45 p.m., and it's as fast a meal as you want it to be, custom-made for nearby workers who get only 30 minutes for lunch. And you'll see the white-collar downtown office set there, too.
At those prices, and with that volume, Sandy couldn't be blamed if she leaned on lots of premade products. But she doesn't, telling us she batters the livers and chicken fried steaks herself, and she forms the turtle-shell shaped, tender hamburger steaks by hand as well. Her mashed potatoes are instant, and she does use a gravy mix (the brown gravy on the hamburger steaks is rich and tasty) — but she also doses her country green beans and her Great Northern beans with nice hunks of tender ham, infuses her carrots with spices and creates a slightly sweet, creamy niblet corn. Her homemade pecan pie — the only kind she offers unless the mood to make something different strikes her — will set you back $1.50, tax included. She makes her own rolls and cornbread, too.
The vegetables follow a daily pattern, too, but we won't recount the whole list here. Know there are green beans, a dry bean or pea (pinto, Great Northern or black-eyed) and corn every day. Turnip greens, cabbage, English peas, white rice and baked beans are all in regular rotation.
The combination of tender texture and the rich brown gravy elevated the hamburger steak well above the norm. And while we heard Sandy tell one diner not to bother fishing around for hunks of chicken in her chicken and dumplings "because I shredded it as fine as I could so nobody could find it," we actually did find several shards. And we really liked the tender, biscuity dumplings. The green beans and Great Northerns are classic, cooked down Southern style — the ham kicking them up several notches.
We were proud we had only a couple of dollops of second helpings, when thirds and fourths were our norm way back when. We saw an online review that called Sandy's "the beige house." Maybe the yellow has just faded, we're not sure. And while we will never put all-you-can-eat buffets back into our regular lunch rotation — we have a sedentary job and not much willpower — we'll still splurge at Sandy's from time to time.
Pay attention to the regular daily rotation of Sandy's lunch entrees and pick your visit accordingly. We have a friend who swears by the chicken livers (all you can eat on Tuesday and Thursday), and everybody loves a hand-battered/fried homemade chicken fried steak (Tuesday, Thursday and Friday but one serving only).