Magness Lake, in Heber Springs, is a magnet for swans
The gaily painted new quarters of Fatsam's Louisiana Cafe in the northwest corner of the River Market fairly shout Bayou State. The pelican. The purple-and-gold Mardi Gras livery. Rockin' Sidney's “Toot Toot” and other squeeze box-driven zydeco on the stereo.
The food also made me want to break out in a two-step.
What a selection. Crawfish etouffee. Red beans and rice. Shrimp jambalaya. Smothered chicken. Shrimp creole. Gumbo. Overstuffed po boys.
Big portions. Good cooking. Cheap prices.
And friendly? Oh, cher. You just have to love these friendly, hustling people.
Just don't go looking for any Fontenots or Thibodauxs behind the counter of this already jumping joint. And don't go looking for the aggressive seasoning that some identify with Cajun and Creole cooking.
For one thing, Cajun cooking really isn't that hot, though virtually every dish starts with onions, bell peppers, garlic and at least a sprinkle of cayenne. For another, Fatsam's is something of a hybrid. It's the creation of James Meadors, a former football coach and high school biology teacher who decided to go all in on the food business after having a catering sideline for a number of years. During the summer, he'll be joined by his wife Constance, a Harding University faculty member, who's hanging onto her day job.
The Meadors are North Louisiana natives. It's a different culinary world from Acadiana, but not without its charms, including Cane River cooking like the meat pies that Meadors learned about while coaching in Natchitoches. But Meadors was introduced to southern Louisiana cookways by a brother's Cajun country girlfriend and blended that with what he'd learned from his mother's school cafeteria experience. (Don't scoff. I've had better food in some Louisiana school cafeterias than in many Little Rock restaurants.)
It's Meadors' idea to offer a merged vision of Louisiana cooking from Cane River meat pies to Mississippi Delta catfish to New Orleans favorites to Cajun classics (boudin is in the future, he says). This might mean a touch less seasoning than you've come to expect in some dishes, but there was no shortage of herbs, onion or other essentials in the gumbo, overstuffed with chicken and garlicky sausage.
A chocolaty roux supported crawfish etouffee (the crawfish themselves were a little muddy). It benefited from an added dash of bottled Louisiana hot sauce.
Best thing I had in several trips was a pulled pork po boy. This is Claiborne Parish barbecue, learned from an old pit legend around Haynesville, Meadors' home. It's moist shredded pork, good on its own but even better stirred with a thin tomato-based barbecue sauce, just the right balance of sweet, vinegary and spicy. They stuff the custom-made loaves from Mama's Manna with meat then add lettuce, tomato and onion, if you like them “dressed.”
You can choose as a side dish from potato salad or cole slaw or dirty rice (yes! But it could use more onions). All taste like Mammaw made them, but I give particular notice to the potato salad. It's a good mix of potatoes whipped to creaminess and big chunks of firm new potato with skin on, tossed in a mustardy dressing that is, for once, not overly sweet.
The whole catfish fillets are well seasoned and fried to a nutty deep brown. But they don't benefit from a long holding period. That didn't stop me from eating a po boy stuffed with catfish, finished with a remoulade sauce of mayonnaise and Creole mustard.
Dessert opening week was peach cobbler. Homemade? Absolutely. The generous portion of crust was feathery but rich. You best like cinnamon in your peach cobbler, because its measure turns the thick juicy peach goop brown.
Plates, dinners and po boys run in the $5 to $7 range, with changing daily specials. Jerk chicken is a delight as yet untried, but it looks devilishly seasoned.
You might know the Meadors from Riverfest, where they've been regulars on the food line for several years. Meadors says he plans to serve breakfast, to open on Saturdays and to also open for special neighborhood occasions.
Fatsam? It's James Meadors' father's nickname. He's actually 6-feet-2, 170.
“My mother was such a good cook, my friends were always calling and saying, ‘Ask Mr. Fatsam if we can come over to your house to eat.' Fatsam became synonymous with good food and good hospitality.”
Fatsam will be proud of his namesake.
Fatsam's Louisiana Cafe
400 President Clinton Ave.
The owner promises breakfast, starting about 7:30 and lunch, Monday through Saturday, though he'll keep serving food while he has it until late into the afternoon if you want to take some home for dinner.
Get some napkins for the po boys, they can disintegrate under the load of catfish, lettuce and tomato and remoulade sauce. Don't miss the real-thing potato salad.
Credit cards are accepted. There's no alcohol. The owners cater and years at Riverfest prove they can handle a crowd.