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Good for the soul


We love soul food — chicken and turnip greens, pit barbecue and candied yams, pork chops and homemade macaroni and cheese. While all that probably doesn't do much good by your physical heart, it surely does wonders for your spiritual ticker, full as that food is with care and history. Whether captured in the round borders of a plate or the square crib of a Styrofoam box, soul food is always a little encapsulation of how poor people can find goodness even when they can't afford to buy it.

Living in a Southern urban center as we are, Little Rock folks have a nice variety of soul food joints to choose from. Most are run by big families, and they all serve pretty much the same thing. The difference, and what renders them uniformly worth trying, is that each bears the fruit of a different family tree — a grandmama who put a little lemon juice in her sweet potato pie, or an uncle who swore by a dash of cinnamon in his barbecue sauce. That's what makes it all so beautiful. In a lot of cases, you are — quite literally — eating the same things the folks in the kitchen would make if they were serving someone they love.

Now comes again a famous name in both Little Rock politics and food: Robert “Say” McIntosh. Back in the 1980s and early 90s, McIntosh was something of a hell-raiser and reporter magnet, burning flags, crucifying himself in public more than once and punching out a well-known white supremacist on television. These days, however, he has apparently slowed down considerably, edging into his twilight years by opening a great little restaurant on Seventh Street near Capitol View with his kin. With a fine soul-joint atmosphere and a simple menu of down-home faves, it's a real winner.

The day we visited in early May, it was still cool enough outside that they had the doors open, the screen door banging every time someone came in. James Brown was on the radio (“Get on the scene. Like a sex machine ...”), and the place was so full we had trouble finding a table. Best of all, behind the counter was The Old Lion Himself, looking much more broad and gray than the lean figure in the Ali-esque boxing portrait near the counter, but still spry.

Say's was out of soft drinks the day we visited, so it was either water or fresh-squeezed lemonade ($1.25 small, $2.25 jumbo), which suited all of us fine. We were told they were also sold out of catfish and ribs, so we tried the fried chicken dinner ($10.95) with greens and yams. One of our companions went with the sliced pork sandwich ($7.25), while the other tried the Big Robert cheeseburger ($7.75). We also took three slices of McIntosh's culinary claim to fame, the sweet potato pie ($1.95).

The lunch rush was on, so while we waited, we all had our dessert. We've had McIntosh's pie before, and – to be honest – we've never been a fan. The crust is excellent: flaky and light. The filling, however, is a bit too sweet for our taste, and a bit too mushy. That said, the differences in taste concerning the lowly sweet potato pie are probably as numerous as differences in fingerprints, so try it for yourself.

Our plates were much more promising, with big entrees and generous sides. The chicken dinner, as is often the case in soul food joints, was all wings. We don't mind working a bit for our dinner, so we tore in with abandon. Though we couldn't help wondering what they could do with a thigh or a breast, the chicken was very good; well-seasoned and expertly fried. The sides were similarly good, with the buttery-sweet yams pairing up perfectly with the smoky greens and a wedge of cornbread.

Our companions, meanwhile, found a lot to like in their meals as well. The barbecue, our friend reported, was very tasty — well smoked, and covered in a dark sauce spicy enough to make him sniffle. The burger, too, was good, with a generous-sized patty and nice seasoning.

In short: Say McIntosh Restaurant is a great little place for a laid-back meal if you aren't worried about blowing your diet all to hell. Try it if the thought of a good pot of yams gets your blood pumping. It's definitely good for the soul.

Say McIntosh Restaurant
2801 W. 7th Street, Little Rock

Quick bite
Novelties on the menu include whole sweet potato pies for $9.95, and the Big Bad Say ($14.95), Say's take on the humungo-burger. The menu doesn't feature any details other than a price that's double that of their good-sized Big Robert, but we're assuming it's a heart-stopping chunk of beef.

10 a.m. – 8 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 10 a.m. – 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; Noon to 5 p.m. Sunday.

Other info
All credit cards accepted, no alcohol, moderate prices.

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