CONWAY — Back in my live-fast-die-young days, I was a dedicated chain restaurant hater. Life, I thought, is too short to eat anything that’s been focus-grouped. Great food is about experimentation! About picking up the echoes of place! How could you possibly get anything remotely edible from a restaurant that serves exactly the same dish — right down to spice, temperature and placement on the plate — in Mobile that it does in Oklahoma City?
The older I get, however, the more I’ve come — God help me — to tolerate and even enjoy chain restaurant food. There’s something comforting about knowing that if I’m in the mood for turnip greens, I’m going to be able to get a bowl of them from (again, God help me) Cracker Barrel. They’re not going to be the curl-your-toenails-good greens you might get at some joint deep down in the boondocks of Mississippi, but they are hot, fairly tasty and readily available.
In short: When you’ve got a life to live that doesn’t include spur-of-the-moment jaunts to Mississippi for the Holy Grail of Turnip Greens, you soon find that good enough is good enough.
Which brings us to this week’s outing: Joey’s Seafood and Grill. Folks have been calling us for months to recommend the place, which developed into a high placement in our annual Best Restaurants voting. If nothing else, we listen to the readers. So, on a recent trip through Faulkner County, we dropped in.
Being that this is Arkansas — and given all that praise — we expected Joey’s to be some tin-roofed dive with hot trays full of steaming catfish and hush puppies. Surprisingly, it turns out to be the chainiest of chain restaurants, right down to the extensive, spiral-bound menus and hokey fisherman decor. We even had to pay $5 for a club fee, on the off-chance we might want a drink. Still, given that the Lord has moved my heart about chains of late, I decided to give them the benefit of the doubt.
Like most chain places, Joey’s has a menu that would nearly work as a doorstop, full of soups, appetizers, entrees, desserts, fruity drinks, sauces for your shrimp (10 kinds!), and the deep-fried remains of just about everything that skitters on the ocean floor or swims in the deep blue sea.
For an appetizer, my companion — once a denizen of Crab Cake Country on the East Coast — suggested that we try the crab cakes ($7.99). Though they arrived quickly, they seemed a bit skimpy for the money: two jar-lid-sized cakes, maybe three-quarters of an inch thick. While I thought they were serviceable when dipped in the side of remoulade sauce, my more knowledgeable companion pronounced them a disaster.
“Even keeping in mind that this ain’t Baltimore,” he said, “I can’t help but to be put off by what Joey’s called a crab cake … No amount of Old Bay (seasoning) could save it.” The real thing, Companion said, has big chunks of crab meat, held together by breadcrumbs and spiced batter — just enough to barely allow it to maintain a patty shape. Joey’s crab cakes, he said, were overly greasy, with too much batter and not enough crab.
So much for what I know.
For the entree, we both decided to stick with the basics. I tried what the menu promised would be the best fish and chips I’ve ever had: the “Taste of Three” meal ($11.99), with one piece of their original fish, one piece of haddock and one piece of halibut, served with a side of fries. Companion, meanwhile, went for the fish tacos ($7.49) — two big tortillas, filled with fried whitefish, salsa blanca and shredded cabbage.
While my fish and chips were good — especially the haddock, which was firm and well seasoned — I was struck again by the portion size, which seemed a bit svelte for $12. I know, I know: Portion sizes are out of control. But if they want to cut back for my own good, howsabout knocking back that price a little, pal? It’s fish, not filet mignon.
Companion thought the fish tacos were a little skimpy, too, and that what little fish there was turned out to be over-fried and greasy — easily overpowered by the fixin’s.
For dessert, I tried the key lime pie, which turned out to be unremarkable and very obviously box-born.
In short, while Joey’s Seafood is a fair-to-middlin’ place for a no-surprises meal, it’s not going to knock your socks off in any regard (except when it comes time to pay the check, that is). Still, with a little something for everyone, it’s worth a look if you don’t mind chain dining.
Joey’s Seafood and Grill
755 Club Lane
Those who don’t mind mixing their meats might want to try Joey’s blue crab burger — a half-pound burger on a Kaiser roll, topped with a generous mound of crabmeat. While surf-n-turf ain’t our thing, this is bound to appeal to somebody.
11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 10:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Sunday.
Moderate prices. All credit cards accepted. Wine, beer and cocktails available; $5 club fee for one diner in each party.