SCOTT — While we perfectly respect a diner’s need to be pampered, you’ve got to appreciate a little dump like Cotham’s Mercantile.
As long-time fans of the place, we say "dump" in the most affectionate way we can muster.
Leaning out over a murky slough, balanced on an odd assortment of brick piers and makeshift timbers, the place looks like it might drop right into the swamp and disappear if touched by the slightest puff of wind.
Inside, the owners have taken great pains to keep the restaurant true to its corner-store roots. Dimly lit and almost smutted by age, the walls are clogged with junk from the days when the place served up more o-rings than onion rings: plumbing parts, boxes of nuts and bolts, miracle cures for man and machine. The tables don’t sit flat on the floor, and even if they did, it wouldn’t matter, because the building has long since fallen out of square with the planet, the planks underfoot rocking and rolling like a basketball court in Michael Jordan’s nightmares.
Given that we had an excuse, we visited Cotham’s in Scott twice for this review: once for lunch, another time during its Friday and Saturday-only dinner. Though the menu doesn’t change for dinner, there is still something special about dining there at night, with the lights dim and the cars muttering by just outside the front windows.
Overall, the menu itself has not changed appreciably in the 10-plus years we have been darkening the door, with its expected assortment of down-home fare: chicken fried steaks, plate lunches, catfish and its famous — and famously big — Hub Cap Cheeseburger.
For an appetizer, we can never resist the fried green tomatoes ($3.49). They’re a rare delicacy in these parts, but Cotham’s does them up right. The size of the order depends on the size of the tomato, but it’s always more than enough for a group of four: thin slices of firm ’mater, rolled in cornmeal and fried right to the cusp of crispiness, with a side of ranch dressing for dipping. Though salty, they’re always a treat.
Once those had disappeared on our lunchtime visit, we chose the aforementioned Hub Cap ($8.59). When not on reviewing duty, it’s what we always get, though we sometimes indulge in the Hub Cap Jalapeno Cheeseburger ($8.69) if we’re feeling frisky and the medicine cabinet is well stocked with Rolaids.
Yeah, it’s big — not quite as big as your standard Ford hubcap, but still a mouthful at around eight inches across. The problem with most bigger-than-most burgers you get is that they’re pretty much a novelty item, a case of seeing just how much beef can be packed onto a bun. The result often ends up tasting like just what it is: a pound or three of greasy meat, on bread. The Hub Cap, however, is both grande AND good — easily one of the best burgers you can get within driving distance of Little Rock, with a toasted bun, red onions, tomato, a nice blend of spices, and a big, big slab of not-too-slippery beef. Though most carve it up into wedges like a pie, I’ve seen more than one companion scoff at the prospects of finishing it and then find themselves unable to do anything less than devour the whole thing, with much groaning and wailing afterward.
Next on out list of favorites, and indulged in by Companion at lunch, was the Southern-fried catfish ($8.99 for three pieces, $11.99 for five pieces, $13.29 all you can eat). It was pretty much the standard catfish plate, with french fries, coleslaw, hushpuppies and corn fritters.
Though Companion generally likes her fillets a bit thicker and meatier, she agreed that they were some of the best she’s had in awhile, with a spicy crust and crispy edges. At dinner, it was Companion’s turn to match wits and waistlines with the Hub Cap, while I tried something new: the 8-ounce chicken-fried steak dinner ( $7.99). Served with a choice of two veggies and a roll, it was fine, a real steak (not the pre-formed, space-age mystery meat slab that many places pass off), tender, with a thick peppery crust and a coating of great white-milk gravy. It was soon scarfed.
Given all that, you might think we wouldn’t have enough room for dessert. But after watching some folks at lunch digging into the Mississippi mud pie ($3.39 half, $5.79 whole), we were determined to make room. After a few dozen jumping jacks in the parking lot, we went in with the pants-ripping gusto. Even with any pangs of hunger long since quenched, we couldn’t help but demolish the dish laid before us: a wad of vanilla ice cream between two layers of devil’s food cake, all covered in scads of hot fudge and whipped cream. In the bowl, the "whole" that we shared was as big as a Labrador’s head and as close to orgasmically good as you can get in a place without blacked-out windows and a bouncer named "Tubby." By the time we were finished, we were stuffed, but happy.
Thought it’s a bit far flung, Cotham’s in Scott is well worth the trip — a magnitude or so better than either of its Little Rock incarnations, if for no other reason than the decor. Though you have to have your mouth set just right to be in the mood for their down-home fare, when you do get in that mood, no place else in town can quite hit the spot so well.