Winter is the perfect time to explore the natural stone shelters where native Arkansans once lived
This debate could go on until the okra gets cold, so let's settle it up high: The best Motown-era tune to shut the mouths of everyone in a room is "Stand by Me." When it came on at a recent lunch hour at the south Fayetteville soul food joint Momma Dean's — part of a cavalcade of old hits the restaurant seems to keep on an endless loop, at ample volume — four tables of chatty workers and families all hushed at the same instant and tended to their chicken as Ben E. King filled the dining room.
Part of what makes Momma Dean's a worthwhile detour on the way north to the University of Arkansas campus is its food, of course, and more on that later. But another part is this vibe. It's not just the largely blue-collar patrons who feel the music: There's a good chance that once or twice a meal, you'll hear people in the kitchen singing along to Otis Redding or Sam and Dave or whatever happens to catch the staff in the right mood. Cooks who sing portend good things for the food.
And the food is good, if a bit inconsistent. If there's a rule of thumb here, it's that whatever's fried is gonna be outta sight, and anything not blessed with the benefits of hot popping grease to lock in the taste might be merely all right.
The upside on both counts, though, is whatever you get, you're gonna get a lot of it. Adults pay $9.99 for what amounts to groceries: a main dish, two sides, a dessert and either a roll or piece of hot water cornbread. Oh, and a drink — tea, if you're wise — in a quart Mason jar. None of the mains are anything you'd fess to your cardiologist: fried chicken, fried pork chops, chicken fried steak; smothered chicken and smothered pork chops; chicken livers/gizzards; ribs; catfish. Skip the chicken tenders unless you're under the age of 8. And even then, think hard.
Between two trips to the restaurant, across five people's lunches, there were raves for the ribs, which were a tad dry but well-smoked and helped by a delicious sauce on the side; for the catfish, which was moist, flaky and crisply breaded without having been assaulted with salt; and for the chicken on the bone. The skin comes out light as a kitten yawn and flaky as the cable guy. The meat, sealed in the humidity beneath this bronze cocoon, is tender, and a delight. It may take a few minutes to fry up a hillock of bird, but it's worth it. (This goes for the other animals, too. When a waitress came to check on a table, and was informed a main wasn't yet out, she guessed it was fried chicken. Told it was catfish, she shrugged and said, "fried something." What's your rush, anyhow?)
The sides follow the fry-it rule. While the macaroni and cheese was dismissed by one diner as hospital cafeteria-grade, the slaw, the green beans and the greens all passed muster. The purple-hull peas were just about perfect in consistency and flavor, and with the added benefit of tasting almost, uh, healthy. The okra, by contrast, apparently fell to earth in the same golden fryer that produced that divine chicken. It takes a steady hand at the stove to make a vegetable taste this fine without also turning it into a grease bomb; the okra hits that sweet spot. The corn nuggets are fun — they look like little corn dogs, after all, and taste sweet. But you can't miss with peas and okra. The fire juice in the mini jars of jalapenos on each table brings 'em all home.
If you still have room for dessert (i.e., if you're half man, half abandoned mine shaft) resist the various cakes, which have the too-dry hallmarks of a grocery store's bakery counter, and go for the banana pudding. One of our dining companions actually blurted "oh, my god" as he plugged a spoonful of the stuff into a mouth that didn't think it still had an appetite. If you're allergic to 'nanners, the peach cobbler, bobbing as it is in heavy cling syrup, should also suffice. Seriously, though, you should get the to-go container, settle up by the autographed Tim McGraw photo at the counter, and take half of these grandmotherly portions home with you. It'll save you having to sing for your supper later on.
Momma Dean's Soul Food
1701 S. School Ave.
More reason to love Momma Dean's: For every meal the restaurant serves, it gives away a free meal to someone in need.
11:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday.
Momma Dean's caters and accepts all credit cards. No alcohol.