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Stick with breakfast at Ozark 

Ozark shines in the a.m., but shadows fall over dinner.

We love the local joints, those little tucked-back places that only the townies know about. Finding one of those restaurants — full of work-a-day Joes rubbing elbows with judges, insurance agents and funeral home directors — is one of the great joys of visiting small town Arkansas. Even if the food isn't to die for, it's the only way to really feel like you've truly been to a place: by supping where the people who live there sup. There aren't many of that breed to be had anymore in Little Rock — those places where everybody knows everybody and the frycook knows your name if you visit more than twice. Life moves fast in the big city; too fast for waitresses who call you "hun" and want to chat about last Friday night's football game at the high school, anyway.

There are still a handful of places like that in Little Rock, though, and Ozark Country Restaurant is one. Snuggled just a half-block off Cantrell (which might well qualify as the Main Drag of Little Rock these days), it's still surprisingly unknown to many.

Kind of a non-chain Cracker Barrel, Ozark's breakfast is popular. Weekend mornings usually mean waiting for a table. On a recent Sunday morning visit, after the obligatory wait, the reviewer tried a short stack of their sweet potato pancakes ($5.59), while our companion sampled the Ozark Country Breakfast ($8.99), featuring a big biscuit, diced potatoes (which they inexplicably call hash browns), white gravy, two eggs and a choice of bacon, sausage or ham. Companion's breakfast was hearty and stick-to the-ribs good, with a nice-sized helping of thick-cut bacon, but it's admittedly hard to mess up breakfast food. Pancakes, though, are tougher to get right, and the ones we had at Ozark were a real treat. We've had the sweet potato variety elsewhere before and weren't impressed. These, on the other hand, were excellent: sweet, light, with a fine flavor of yams and a little cinnamon. Slathered with some butter and maple syrup, they started the day off right.

The restaurant now serves dinner on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights from 5-9 p.m. The dinner menu (which is actually available for lunch, too, beginning at 10:30 a.m. every day) is fairly small, with just six meat-and-two entrees (all $9.59 each) and a spaghetti-and-Italian sausage offering ($8.59). From the dinner slate, we chose our tried-and-true choice whenever we see it on a menu anywhere: the chicken fried steak ($9.59), pairing it with black-eyed peas and steak fries. Our companion, meanwhile, tried the bacon cheddar burger ($6.59) with fries.

Our friend's burger was fine: big, meaty, with a generous slice of sharp cheddar, all served on a buttery Kaiser roll. With a squirt of ketchup on the side, it and the fries were soon devoured. The chicken fried steak, however, was a sadder story. What we were served turned out to be the cardinal sin in this foodie's book: the dreaded pre-formed patty, slathered in white gravy.

If you're thinking it sounds like Ozark managed to step on this reviewer's personal pet-peeve landmine, it did. It's more than just a quirk, though. The reason we always try the chicken fried steak when we see it on a menu is because that dish, by our way of thinking, is the canary in the coal mine of down-home restaurants. Everything you need to evaluate a restaurant (from care in preparation, to recipes, to the quality of ingredients, to how long since the grease in the fryer has been changed, to whether the service is fast enough to get it to you before it turns into a cold mess) is handily encapsulated in the humble chicken fried steak. Get a good one, and it's heaven. Get a bad one — burnt, tough, under-seasoned or over-cooked to the point of being like shoe leather — and you probably have a pretty good snapshot of what's going on behind the kitchen door.

All that said, in our experience, any place that sells you a "chicken fried steak" but can't even spend a couple of bucks on a cube steak to bread and fry just isn't gastronomically trustworthy enough to rate a second look. As an added affront, the black-eyed peas — a lowly legume which can rise far above its station if done right — were so bland that we might as well have been eating waterlogged lumps of Play-Doh. Even the chunks of ham floating amongst the peas seemed as flavorless as chunks of rubber. The steak fries were better, but were also devoid of any seasoning: no salt, no pepper. A friend who sampled the mashed potatoes and gravy recently said they were bland and no better.

In short: while the breakfast at Ozark Country Restaurant deserves a good bit of the praise it has received over the years, our advice is to stick with The Most Important Meal of the Day or their burgers if you visit. While our sample of their plate dinner offerings was admittedly limited, the coal mine canary croaked early, and a little of that particular bird's swan song goes a long way.

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