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Rollin' on the river 

Dondie's in Des Arc offers catfish, White River views.

DES ARC DESTINATION: Dondie's packs in crowds Friday and Saturday nights image
  • David Koon
  • DES ARC DESTINATION: Dondie's packs in crowds Friday and Saturday nights.

There are restaurants in Arkansas that clearly get a much coveted ambiance bump. McClard's Barbecue in Hot Springs is like that. Hugo's near the square in Fayetteville. Lassis Inn in Little Rock. A hundred more.

If you want to witness an off-the-charts ambiance bump, head to Dondie's White River Princess in Des Arc. While the nice little buffet of catfish and seafood delights is good, the view from the windows — featuring a broad, magnificent bend of the White River crowned by the basket handle of the Highway 38 bridge — is what really seals the deal. It's hard to imagine a better place to eat catfish. Add to that the fact that it's one of the only things to do in Des Arc (a solid 30 minutes north of I-40 after taking a hard left from the freeway at Hazen) and you can see why Dondie's is packed to the gills (har-har) every Friday and Saturday night.

Situated in a reasonable facsimile of a beached riverboat (we'd been told by friends before we went that it actually WAS a riverboat, possibly even one that was floating at the edge of the White River), Dondie's has been open since the 1980s. It was started by local resident Dondie Guess, who christened the good ship with his name.

Dondie's features a buffet that's petite by the standards of most all-you-can-eat seafood places, with fried catfish in both fillet and bone-in steaks, crawfish in season, perfect boiled shrimp, fried shrimp, stuffed crab, a salad bar and other goodies. I was actually glad to see the buffet wasn't one of those mile-long affairs. Those joints, in my experience, spend so much time trying to get the turnip greens and pickled beets right that they often fall down on the main event, which is the fish.

It's hard to fault the fish at Dondie's. While they don't live up to the mile-high standard that was the late, great Georgetown One-Stop that once stood a little farther up the White River, Dondie's catfish was some mighty fine eating, especially the thick and meaty catfish steaks, which only needed a splash of hot sauce or two to be rendered very good. A companion got himself a nice steak, and I pitied him having to watch me eat all the flaky mudcat I could hold (and then some), with a side of perfect crawfish, so spicy they left me with tingling lips for 30 minutes. Out the window, the White River was swollen, filled with swirls and eddies from rains further north, the bridge shining in the dusk. Ah, ambiance!

MAGNIFICENT: Dondie's catfish and spicy crawdads, with a view image
  • David Koon
  • MAGNIFICENT: Dondie's catfish and spicy crawdads, with a view.

When I'd had my fill of catfish, the very friendly waitress came by and asked if we were up for dessert. Having heard great things about Dondie's finishers, how could I say no to a thick wedge of their homemade carrot cake? I had them box it up, but when I chowed down on it later, I found it to be just perfect: a neon-orange doorstop of deliciousness, so moist it was nearly damp, with thin layers hung together by a fine buttercream frosting.

While you can get fair-to-middlin' catfish and seafood all over the state, the older I get, the more I see that dining isn't just about filling your tank or satisfying your cravings. Good food, like everything else in life, should be about making a good memory; something to think back on when you're forced to settle for that chain burger or frozen pizza. While the drive to Des Arc is a haul from just about anywhere, getting there — crossing farmland as flat as a pool table as the sun creeps slowly into the dirt at the edge of the world; standing with the local folks from surrounding farms as they wait for their big Saturday night dinner in town; sitting down to eat the spoils of the river as the river creeps past, as it has since forever — is definitely a memory worth making. In short, Dondie's is a boat ride every Arkansas foodie should probably take at least once, if only to say they did.

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