Regular Eat Arkansas readers might have noticed that I've got a fairly serious obsession with po' boy sandwiches. As I've discussed the po' boy with folks around Little Rock, one name came up time and time again: Maddie's Place, the Riverdale Cajun and Creole restaurant that boasts a chef, Brian Deloney, who not only graduated from the Culinary Institute of America but also worked for Emeril Legasse for nearly a decade. With a resume like that, the food at Maddie's was sure to be an unqualified success, right? Not exactly.
Maddie's has a great thing going for it right off the bat, though: a lunch menu that includes both full po' boys or a half po' boy with gumbo or red beans and rice with a drink for only $10. I like it when lunch specials include the drink in the price, because there's too many times that I get what I think is going to be a cheap lunch only to have an extra $2-$3 added on for a glass of iced Lipton. We decided to order a half Catfish Po' Boy with a bowl of gumbo for one entree, and since I'm also pretty obsessed with oysters, we ordered a full Oyster Po' Boy as well. The place was pretty packed for lunch, but our server was quick and efficient, and our food was on the table after only a short wait. The fried stuff all looked great, and the gumbo was attractively presented with a generous scoop of white rice right in the middle — just the way we like it. Looks can be deceiving sometimes, and that was turned out to be the case here.
First, the good: Maddie's gumbo is spot on, thick and rich with a lot of savory goodness. The texture of the gumbo was smooth and consistent, a sign that the ingredients had been slow cooked to coax every bit of flavor from the meat and vegetables and marry them into hot, hearty stew. The rice was tender without being mushy, and the sprinkle of green onions over the top added a pleasant fresh bite to the dish. It's as good a bowl of gumbo as we've had anywhere in town, and I can certainly see myself ordering up a bowl of this comfort food favorite the next time we actually get some sub-volcanic temperatures in Arkansas.
Where the meal lost us was in the po' boys themselves. We loved the crusty, chewy French bread on which the seafood was served, and while the lettuce and tomato were fresh, the remoulade sauce and seafood itself was incredibly bland. Forget lack of spice, these sandwiches had an actual lack of salt. This is a real shame, because it looked to us like that catfish used at Maddie's is good quality, and the oysters on my sandwich were some of the largest I've seen served in Central Arkansas. The food was fried perfectly, too, with a nice crisp breading on the seafood that gave way to a moist and tender middle — there just wasn't a lot of taste involved. I'm not sure if this was just an off day for Maddie's, and that maybe somebody forgot to shake a little salt and pepper into the batter, but even after a dash of pepper sauce and a lengthy visit from the salt shaker, the sandwiches were still pretty flavorless. In addition, the kettle-chips-from-a-bag that came with the sandwiches seemed like a cheap way out for a side dish — especially in a town where you can get freshly made, crisp chips from a food truck.
In the end, it was obvious that the cooks at Maddie's have their technique down pat, and that they're using some really quality ingredients in the preparation of their food. Unfortunately, the spice and flavor that's associated with Cajun cuisine just doesn't ever make an appearance in the food itself. This is a real shame, since with just a tweak of the heat and salt levels in the food could really make this place one of the elite mid-priced lunch spots around.
Maddie's Place is located at 1615 Rebsamen Park Road in Little Rock, and they're open 11-9 Tuesday-Saturday.