If you want your food nationalized — that is, undifferentiated from any chain eatery across the U.S.A. — head to the north side of Fayetteville, away from the heart and soul of one of the most iconic downtowns in the state. If you want food with character, cooked from scratch and served where tchotchkes aren't crowding your pre-fab elevated booth, get down to Momma Dean's Soul Food on south School Avenue.
Even though Fayetteville has a long history of culinary one-offs — think Coy's Place, the Hoffbrau or Herman's Ribhouse — the Momma Dean's experience is like no other. Fayetteville hosts a constant churn of a semi-transient population from everywhere that's not here, but for all the Lower Arkansans trekking through, there are precious few pockets of familiar culture.
Momma Dean (a.k.a. Meneria Morrison), who was reared on a farmstead near Emmet, a speck on the map between Hope and Prescott, brought the very essence of South Arkansas culinary culture with her when she moved north in 2001: a lifetime of recipes and the skills to make them sing on a plate. Dean was raised in a four-room shack with 13 other siblings and cousins, pre-Civil Rights. There's no shortage of character in her or the food served in her dining room. Of Dean's early lessons in the kitchen she said, "You either went out and worked the farm, or you stayed at the house and cooked. If you cooked, you'd better not burn it." Nothing this writer has ever ordered at Momma Dean's has come from the kitchen burnt, even though much of the menu is in the grand Southern style — twice cooked.
Momma Dean's slightly dingy dining room, a former Mr. Burger, is timeless in that it's like traveling back to an unspecific decade. The house music doesn't help define the time; you're as likely to hear a Rick James hit as a classic from Sam and Dave via the '80s-era boom box thumping from the kitchen. It's not exactly a quiet, romantic restaurant, but most likely Momma Dean wasn't aiming for that crowd. No, hers is a place to come and roll up your sleeves, a place to dig in and get down with food that's got — you guessed it — plenty of soul.
Momma Dean and her son, Terry, don't rely on too much salt; instead they coax natural flavors out of meats with light seasoning and a good searing, and out of veggies by not overcooking them. A standing favorite for anyone who's tried it is the fried chicken, coated in a golden, crispy batter that's just not possible to achieve through any method other than old-fashioned skillet cookin'. Fried pork chops are a close second and seldom seen served elsewhere. Other menu rarities include gizzards, yams, butter beans and flavor-of-the-day Kool-Aid.
When I asked what kind of ribs were on the special, I got a puzzled look and the answer, "They're smoked." Momma's ribs are baby back ribs, and that's that. They're cooked with that nice dark crust that rib freaks like to see, even if the meat doesn't exactly fall from the bone. A plate of five or six of them, mashed potatoes with brown gravy, a fistful of fried corn nuggets, a roll and a quart jar of sweet tea is more than enough to feed a hungry linebacker, which is good because University of Arkansas athletes frequent the place. Not long ago, the entire women's volleyball team showed up for supper, a crew that probably taxed the seating limit. The dining area is on the smallish side and Momma Dean's closes at 7:30 p.m., so it's usually full by 6 o'clock on the weekends. If you wait until after the rush, be warned that some of the more popular entrees may have sold out by then.