It's not every day that we see a Cajun/Creole chain make its way to our state — there aren't many such places in general. Recently however, West Little Rock saw the arrival of J. Gumbo's, the first branch of a nationwide operation to hit Arkansas. The restaurant is situated inconspicuously in a small strip mall off Cantrell Road, fairly easy to pass by if you don't know what to look for. Inside, you'll find a fast-casual operation, where you step up to the long glassed-in counter, place your order, and walk down the line as your food is assembled in front of you, like a Cajun version of Subway.
The majority of J. Gumbo's entrees are various forms of gumbos served over rice with a side of soft French bread. One of the more attractive aspects of their setup is that the servers let you sample any dish available before you decide what to order.
We've been most impressed with J. Gumbo's spicier chicken stews, which it's conveniently arranged down one column of the menu. The "Voodoo Chicken" ($7) is a boldly flavored and robust dish of shredded chicken cooked in garlic and olive oil with a spicy tomato sauce blend. It was as spicy as advertised. Even better was the "Drunken Chicken" ($7). The dish is also spicy, with a slow steady burn across the tongue throughout the devouring of the dish. It was also shredded chicken, slowly stewed in beer and a blend of classic Cajun spices, including cayenne, oregano, paprika, and black pepper, on a bed of fluffy white rice. The beer imparted a faint sweetness that blended beautifully with the spiced meat. Topped with a heap of sharp cheddar cheese and cool sour cream, the dish is reminiscent of a spicy chicken chili. The whole thing was splendid — exciting flavors, served hot and fresh.
Next, we sampled another popular chicken dish, the "Bourbon Street Chicken" ($7). This was much milder and sweeter than one might expect based on its reference to the legendarily raucous New Orleans landmark strip. The chicken comes soaked in a sweet, almost fruity hoisin-like sauce, tempered by the flavors of butter and a mild, salty seasoning. It wasn't much to look at, but the taste was fantastic. We were also intrigued by the highly recommended "Bumblebee Stew" ($6.75). This vegetarian-friendly mix of yellow corn, onion, black beans, and stewed tomatoes was wonderful on its own, but it was suggested we grab a little to mix with our other entrees — a wise decision, indeed. We were pleased with this combination of vegetables and sweet corn that went so well with our spicier chicken dishes.
Being that J. Gumbo's touts itself as a "Cajun" joint, we were determined to sample some of the more classic bayou-born dishes one would typically associate with such an establishment. Its version of gumbo ($6.75) is a dark brown roux with onions and bell peppers. It's a thinner broth than many of J. Gumbo's other stews, but it's hearty and flavorful. It comes chock-full of tender chicken and slices of andouille sausage and makes for a sizable meal when topped with a scoop of rice. We were less enamored with its shrimp etoufee ($6.75), in a golden-yellow roux that we found a little bland, overly thick and goopy. The shrimp played a very minor, non-contributory role in the dish and we found ourselves hoping for just a bit more flavor from an item so essential to the culture's culinary fabric.
New Orleans is more than 400 miles from Little Rock. Not a terribly far distance for Arkansans to travel when craving the authentic flavors of "The Big Easy" and her surrounding parishes, but not a trip many can make regularly. In between trips, J. Gumbo's stands as a decent substitute for some of the tastes one might find in those parts. Diners will find the portions to be generous, the service amiable and gracious, and food served up in a timely manner. It's an ideal spot for hurried business folk stopping in for a quick lunch or for family-friendly dining any night of the week.
12911 Cantrell Road
11 a.m. until 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. until 8 p.m. Sunday.
Beer only, credit cards accepted.