CATHEAD'S 'COUNTRY BREAKFAST': Pulled pork, eggs, biscuit and gravy, fried chicken tenders and a donut on the side.
We love a good diner, a place that can be late-night raucous after the drag show empties out, or early-morning silent with nothing but old men shuffling newspapers and sipping coffee. That's the kind of place we seek out at home and on the road. It's where our kind of people go and where atmosphere (sometimes) matters more than food quality.
So, imagine our surprise when we heard that local celebrity chef and fancy food slinger Donnie Ferneau was opening up a place called Cathead's Diner. Hubba wha? The man who'd been behind the food at such trendy, tony places as Ciao Baci, Ferneau's and the 1836 Club was opening a diner in the East Village area of Little Rock? After confirming that this was not fake news, we decided to investigate.
Cathead's is strictly a breakfast and lunch establishment, located in a mixed-use development known as the Paint Factory. We set out for an early meal on Cathead's second day of operation last Thursday, were promptly greeted and seated inside a spacious dining room with an industrial feel and ordered up. The breakfast menu consists of five "entrees" that range in price from $9 to $14, including "Biscuits Benedict," "Grillades & Grits," the "Pancake Plate" and the "Blue Collar Breakfast," along with five other "Biscuits and Burritos" options. We opted for "Cathead's Country Breakfast" ($14) without properly reading the description. Folks, it was a mountain of delicious food: scrambled eggs, smoked pulled pork, a cathead biscuit with gravy, two fried chicken tenders and a salted caramel doughnut on the side. We did not come close to finishing it, but it was the kind of breakfast that could carry a hungry man through the day.
A SOUTHERN 'MEAT AND THREE': Great fried chicken, squash, mashed potatoes and purple hull peas.
Let's talk about these doughnuts. Cathead's bakes its doughnuts onsite, under the eye of head baker Kelli Marks, and they are far beyond your dad's glazed dozen. Think maple bacon, triple chocolate, topped with breakfast cereal or with a glistening and crunchy strawberry glaze. The doughnuts alone are worth a stop at Cathead's.
A return trip to lunch the following week revealed another surprise for a Ferneau establishment. Rather than table service, diners wend their way through a cafeteria-style line for a "meat and three" plate lunch on a tray ($11), dished up by the friendly and chatty Ferneau himself. From a variety of tempting choices, we enjoyed excellent fried chicken, some of the best mashed potatoes we've had in years, tender squash, purple hull peas that were perhaps too mushy and a fluffy cathead biscuit. For the chicken, Cathead's offers a squeeze bottle of "Maple Hot" sauce that added a sweet and slightly spicy tang to the bird. We opted out of dessert, but should note that Cathead's offers an array of cakes and pies ($4-$5) that are hard to say no to.
On Saturdays and Sundays, Cathead's offers only one option: a champagne brunch. For $25, diners may enjoy an "all you can eat" meal with a mimosa included (for those who don't want the mimosa, the cost is $22.50). Diners were lined up outside the doors when we arrived on Saturday with three friends, and the wait was thoughtfully eased by the delivery of complimentary doughnuts to the line.
Cathead's brunch, also served cafeteria-style, leans heavily toward the "lunch" side of the portmanteau. While eggs can be made to order, offerings included items such as meatloaf, vegetables, peel-and-eat shrimp, fried chicken, barbecued ribs and salad, along with the expected grits, biscuits, bacon, pastries and fruit.
Our table unanimously lauded the hot biscuits and rich chocolate gravy and the thick, flavorful bacon, cooked perfectly. Cathead's offers creamy rice grits instead of the standard corn variety, and the result was enthralling enough to send us back for seconds. The tender and smoky barbecued ribs damn near made our table form a pact to make "ribs for breakfast" a thing.
One member of our table ordered peel-and-eat shrimp, served, oddly, with sauce poured directly on the unpeeled shrimp. A vegetarian member of our table found not as many choices as he would have liked, but was pleased with Ferneau's efforts to listen and find options for his plate.
The service at Cathead's is to be remarked upon — every single person on staff we encountered during our three visits was friendly, efficient and never too busy to help. In addition, our brunch team especially appreciated the roving band of servers offering additional doughnuts from table to table. We ate too many, and not only out of politeness.
Head there soon.
515 Shall Ave.
Breakfast and lunch only; a champagne brunch is the only meal on Saturday and Sunday; house-made doughnuts are not to be missed.
7 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.