- TASTY: But not tops.
Though this reviewer once waged an out-and-out jihad against chain restaurant dining — bland and boring was our battle cry — we've mellowed with age. Call us an old fogey, but as the years have ticked on, we've found there's something nice about knowing you can get the same cheeseburger at the Chili's in Boca Raton as you can at the one in Flagstaff. We know, we know. Next stop: Luby's Cafeteria, slip-on shoes and a Buick so big it has to have a “Wide Load” sign on the bumper in order to traverse city streets.
Which brings us to this week's lunch safari — Little Rock's new Famous Dave's Barbecue location. Flashy and fun inside and out, it's surely got the looks of a great li'l place for lunch or dinner with friends. However, given that the Central Arkansas market's cup hath long runneth over with great barbecue places, does flash matter that much?
They've surely got the look down pat. After a thorough remodel, the old Tia's Tex-Mex near the corner of Shackleford and Markham has been transformed into a kinder, gentler version of your favorite old-line barbecue joint. At the back of the place, a big red neon sign says “EAT LIKE A PIG.” Old-timey signs and knick-knacks decorate the walls, and a cartoon flame motif dominates from the dining room to the powder rooms.
The menu doesn't disappoint either, with — par for the chain course — a little something for everybody: appetizers; soups and salads; pork, chicken and brisket sandwiches; ribs; burgers; an extensive kids' menu and a nice slate of lunch specials.
From the list of appetizers — including an interesting smoked salmon spread and orders of spicy rib tips — we tried the onion strings ($5.49). Service was slow during our visit, but what came to the table was worth it: light strings of sweet onion, deep fried in a spicy flour coating and served with remoulade sauce. While hot, the onion strings really hit the spot, tasting like a really good flour-coated onion ring. They got greasy and a bit soggy as they cooled, however, so be sure to hit them hard when they first come to the table.
From the big list of entrees, we selected the two-meat combo ($12.99), choosing beef brisket and chopped pork from the list of possibilities (barbeque chicken, rib tips, chicken tenders, hot link sausage, catfish fillets and hot wings are also available) and beans and potato salad for sides. Companion, meanwhile, tried the same deal, but chose the roasted chicken and fried catfish, with French fries and the cinnamon/amaretto “drunken apples.”
The entrees came to us quite a bit quicker than our appetizers. First disappointment: Even though Dave's offers six bottles of different barbecue sauces on every table, and even though it's pretty much blasphemy to serious barbecue purists, the pork and beef came already slathered in a tomato-based barbecue sauce. The sauces are on the tables, folks. If we want sauce, we're more than capable of bending our elbow 30 degrees and grasping the bottle of choice. Second disappointment: Blame it on ugly American gluttony, but our companion agreed that the portion sizes were a bit weak, especially given that we'd just forked over $13 per plate. In our case: maybe a regulation measuring cup full of pulled pork and four or five thin slices of brisket.
Disappointments aside, we soldiered on. We soon found that, skimpy or not, Dave's meat was universally tender and flavorful underneath that bath of sauce, with the brisket tasting especially fine. Ditto on the sides, with the sausage-flavored beans and the sweet drunken apples both standouts. Not so good were the overly sweet corn muffins (so sweet they were sticky and served in little paper underpants like a cupcake) and the catfish. We found something off about the texture of the well-seasoned fillets — so much so, in fact, that we wondered aloud whether it might not be catfish at all. Some kind of cod, maybe.
Though we're prone to stuff ourselves so much that we skip dessert, this time we were in the mood for something sweet. To that end, we tried Dave's Famous bread pudding ($4.99). What came to the table turned out to be the best experience of the meal: a huge slab of tasty bread pudding, served with French vanilla ice cream and covered in a sticky and delectable pecan praline sauce. Rich and creamy, it was all we could do to finish half of the dish.
Our verdict on Famous Dave's is definitely mixed. If you're in West Little Rock and looking for some quick, reliably tasty eats, you could definitely do worse. But given that Central Arkansas is home to around a dozen amazing old-time barbecue joints — Whole Hog, Lindsey's, Chip's and Sims, just to name a few — you could also definitely do better.
Ask yourself: When Jesus returns, do you really think He'll eat his barbecue at a place that serves their cornbread in little crinkly pantaloons? Case closed.
Famous Dave's Barbeque
225 N. Shackleford Road
Need to feed the crew (or one competition eater)? Try Dave's All-American Feast: a full slab of ribs, a whole chicken, a half pound of either brisket or pulled pork, coleslaw, French fries, baked beans, four ears of corn and four cornbread muffins for $52.99 (hospital stay and stomach pump not included).
11 a.m.-10 p.m. daily.
All credit cards accepted. Beer and wine available. Moderate prices.