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It's all good at BJ's Market Cafe 

Farmers market, home-style cooking with no frills.

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We got the tip to visit BJ's Market Cafe about a month ago from a gentleman who sells Sun Harvest Honey at the Bernice Garden Farmers Market. He swore it would have a quality peach selection at its produce stand, and that the adjacent restaurant was home to some of the best blue plates in town.

For years we have decried the scarcity of cheap and simple diner-eats around Little Rock, particularly of the breakfast variety. Of course, Waffle House is dearly beloved. But it feels anonymous and sometimes cold; you can't escape the fact that it's a franchise and (at least for us) recalls the sensation of being hung-over. BJ's, on the other hand, scratches that home-cooked itch, and its location and layout feel seriously old school: An "Unfussy spot for home-style American eats" is what Google Maps has to say about it. Pretty accurate.

The complex, nestled in an industrial park and damn near easy to miss, is flanked by the railroad tracks that cross-cut Prothro Junction in North Little Rock. Look for a Crazy Dave's Carpet Outlet and a quaint plant nursery across the gravel parking lot.

The first time we visited BJ's, we went searching for Arkansas peaches. We were greeted there by a brilliant spinning machine that shucks the pods from purple hull peas. A "Roto-Fingers Pea-Bean Sheller" it's called, and a sure joy to behold.

Inside we found a humble but well-stocked produce stand, various jams and jellies, pickles and other canned goods, and a couple of friendly farmers. Next to the cash register sat a "yella-meat" watermelon fresh from Scott, split in two for customers to taste. It was the sweetest watermelon we've ever had.

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We talked to the owner of BJ's, Jeanna Whitley, about her trials and tribulations running a fresh produce stand in Arkansas. She lamented the loss of a number of family farms due to land development and an unpredictable climate. She remembered orchards in Forrest City at Crowley's Ridge, "a big peach capitol," she called it.

We got off with a bag of purple hull peas, a pint of cherries, heirloom tomatoes and a handful of peaches, all for around $10. One of the farmers instructed us to come back for a meal at the cafe next time, and to bring all our boyfriends and husbands.

The second time we visited BJ's, we went for the breakfast. When we asked Whitley why she expanded from a farm stand to a full-service greasy spoon, she said she was tired of hauling around 20-pound bags of potatoes and wanted to provide home-cooked meals that would inspire people to gather around a table together. BJ's Market has been around since 1975, but the cafe side opened up just 12 years ago, in 2006.

At 7 a.m. on a Monday morning, the restaurant had already seen its blue-collar rush. We're told there is a strong cohort of regulars who come for their morning coffee and hold court at the round tables. The vibe inside is wholesome and warm: There are gingham curtains, an assortment of patriotic, Razorback and country tchotchkes, and wipe-off boards listing the day's vegetable sides and dessert offerings.

The menu is quintessentially Southern and affordable. We went all-in, ordering the Ham Saltmeat Special with a fried egg and buttered toast ($6.99), a Veggie Omelet ($6.99) with fresh tomatoes, peppers and mushrooms, biscuits and gravy ($1.99), a side of homemade sausage ($1.79) and a large pecan pancake ($2.25) to round out the meal.

Saltmeat was new to us, and it sure gives its name justice. A sodium-rich piece of fried ham with a salt rind that takes a little getting used to. Reminds us of chitterlings, but with more bite. Overly salty at first, but hard to put down.

Overall, the breakfast was classic and delicious. The pancake had an impressive ratio of nuts to cake. We had to flip it clear over to see what the heck was going on under there. A dense layer of pecan bits settled at the bottom of the soft pancake is what we found.

Other notable items include a chicken fried steak special and pork chop special (both $8.99), biscuits and chocolate gravy ($1.99, only served on Saturdays). The menu does not have many surprises, and we think that's the point.

BJ's is open through lunchtime Monday through Saturday and for dinner on Fridays. Catfish is served all day on Fridays (the supper special is always fried catfish). The cook was proud to tell us that the kitchen uses no canned veggies, but sources most everything from the farm stand. The veggie omelet proved as much — the tomatoes were juicy and light, peppers crunchy and fresh.

BJ'S MARKET CAFE
704 Market Plaza
North Little Rock
945-8884
Bjsmarketcafe.com

Quick bite

The next time we visit BJ's, it will be for dessert. According to a list hanging on the wall, the sweet options are encyclopedic in the pie tradition: chocolate pie, coconut pie, egg custard pie, peanut butter pie, lemon icebox pie, fresh peach pie, banana pudding, possum pie (an Arkansas classic), pineapple delight and strawberry pie.

Hours

5:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 5:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday, 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday.

Other info

No alcohol; credit cards accepted.
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