- THE SOUNDTRACK: Lorenzo Giles sings R&B and gospel to lunch crowd at Kitchen Express on Wednesday and Friday.
Kitchen Express on Asher Avenue is probably one of the most consistent restaurants in Little Rock history. A Times review from 1996 hangs just inside the entryway. We probably could have just changed the date. But it's worth checking in on the institutions every now and again. We, as always, found plenty to love at this soul food standby.
Lingering above the usual lunch crowd din was the voice of Lorenzo Giles, who sets up in the back corner of the restaurant with a laptop and make-shift PA every Wednesday and Friday to sooth lunch goers with a few R&B and gospel standards. Giles is partly retired and says he does it because he loves to. He pointed to a framed picture of Kitchen Express's former owner, the late Sedrick Mays, and said, "That man was my good friend."
Mays died last year after 30 years at the helm, having started the restaurant when he was just 23. But his legacy lives on in the food. Going through the cafeteria-style line, you'll see a few things that are there every day: fried chicken and catfish, roasted chicken, turkey legs, ribs and pork chops. There are also daily specials that rotate in and out. Every dish brings a choice of two sides. This can be hard to narrow down, as there are plenty of offerings, but the portions are so generous, you probably wouldn't want to order a third.
We were in line with a very good friend of ours, a poet named Jackson Meazle who recently returned to Central Arkansas after being priced out of San Francisco. He gifted us a copy of his latest collection of poems called "Long Live You & Me" in exchange for lunch, which we thought fair. Jack went with the ribs ($8.09), with side spoonfuls of collard greens and macaroni and cheese. The ribs were delicious, soaked in a rich barbecue sauce, and one actually fell off the bone while being passed from one plate to another. The mac and cheese was a comfort: creamy but not soupy and topped with that crusty, baked cheddar that adds a real cheesy kick.
- A STAR: The fried pork chop is crispy on the outside and tender inside.
We went with the fried pork chop ($6.99), mashed potatoes and gravy and corn. The potatoes are nice and creamy, with a healthy chunk or two still hanging around. The gravy is somewhere on the spectrum between brown and white, marrying the best of the two kinds — creamy with a bitter, brothy punch. Corn is corn, but this side is helped along with a healthy dose of butter. The real star, though, was the pork chop. It's battered in a salty, peppery flour mixture and fried to a nice golden brown. The outside is crispy, the meat is tender and flavorful. It's a nap-inducer of the best kind.
It's a tough thing to do but you really should save room for dessert. The banana pudding ($2.49) is world-class. We're not sure what they do to it to get it so thick and wonderful (maybe they even add some small amount of cream cheese or sour cream?), but it's some of the best we've had anywhere, including from our late grandmother, who could cook with the best of them. The peach cobbler ($2.49) is also a fixture, and for good reason. It's heavy and buttery and you get both kinds of crust, the soft, fluffy, batter-y kind on the inside, and the crusty, peach-syrup stained layer that comes on top. The canned peaches could be fresher, but we think they have a charm all their own. A trip to Kitchen Express is, as it has long been — and hopefully always will be — a pleasure. But perhaps the best assessment came from Meazle himself, who spun a sonnet shortly after our late lunch.
KITCHEN EXPRESS SONNET
In thru the out door so we ask nicely
Lorenzo sang we must respect ourselves
and when his tale is told we'll all know
it's only about you that we must eat
as the old songs try to rock and roll me over
in collard greens and a bay leaf added
I have to say that I am so proud of this
but on the wall signs of the times
that this body was made to make poetry
in and out of folkways' forgotten shanties
that we may respect ourselves and others
so long as I have a bellyful and tired
souls got their boots bound for the road
going my way on a dark and stormy morning.
- FALLING OFF THE BONE: Ribs with mac and cheese.
4600 Asher Ave.
While we're not usually a big fan of big catfish fillets (we prefer smaller strips), these were good: salty and seasoned and a good choice for lunch. You can get a small or large plate (two fillets for $8.09 or three for $9.99). The meatloaf is a special offering. We suggest going for it if you show up on the right day. It's a hearty portion, covered in a tomato sauce ($6.99). It's dense, well spiced, and the sauce is a nice touch (not too ketchup-y). Purple hull peas (something we always order from soul food places) were a perfect side dish, especially when punched up with pepper sauce.
7 a.m. until 8 p.m. daily.
Credit cards accepted.