One of the things that make Arkansas such a great place to live is just how much good food there is here, often in the most unexpected places. Maybe it's something about growing up in a culture where everybody's grandmama learned early how to stretch a 2 o'clock dime into a dinnertime dollar — whipping up big flavor with humble ingredients, as cheaply as possible — but it's fairly rare to run across a person in Arkansas who doesn't do at least one dish exceedingly well. What this translates to for a foodie is the delicious understanding that even at the end of the grimmest two-laner in our fair land, you might happen upon heaven on a plate: that slice of pie, perfect cheeseburger, rack of ribs or spread of fried catfish that makes you believe again that God wants good things for us. We delight in sniffing those places out — the local joints, frequented almost exclusively by townies, that nearly nobody outside the zip code has ever heard of.
We ran across one of those the other day and had to share: Red Swamp down in England. Situated in a little clapboard building on the town's main drag, it doesn't look like much, but it's what they do inside that counts.
Red Swamp, as you might infer from the name, is a Cajun joint, though they do lots of other stuff like barbecue, crab legs, and burgers. From the big menu, the reviewer tried the fried oyster sandwich ($6.99) with a bowl of gumbo on the side ($6.99). Companion 1, meanwhile, tried the catfish platter ($10.69) with a side of baked beans ($1.50), while Ol' No. 2 tried Red Swamp's special smoked half-pound Angus burger (a steal at $5.50).
The gumbo came out first, and it turned out to be something really special: a thick, meaty stew full of okra, veggies, shrimp and crab. This writer lived in South Louisiana for two years, and it took us right back there again, though I'm sure purists would have wished for more broth. I found myself wishing for more, period, as the portion seemed a bit skimpy for $7. Here endeth the complaints.
Our entrees came out quickly and hot. The waitress had warned us when we walked in a little after lunch that they only had a few of the smoked burgers left, and one bite of our friend's nicely-sized example made us understand why. Red Swamp actually patties them up and then smokes their burgers alongside the barbecue ribs, something we don't think we've ever come across until now. As presented, the burger was nearly as black as a meteorite, but its flavor was divine: smoky, juicy and just lovely all around. When we head back, we're definitely getting one of those babies with all the trimmings. Digging into my own fried oyster sandwich I found it to be similarly good, featuring loads of expertly-fried oysters in a spicy breading, topped with sweet homemade coleslaw and what appeared to be homemade tartar sauce, all served on a round Kaiser roll. While we're more used to eating po' boys on French loaves, the round roll made it much easier to handle and the sandwich itself was near perfect: two-fisted big, the oysters juicy and flavorful, with just enough flavor to make the tangy tartar sauce pop. Companion, meanwhile, also enjoyed her catfish plate, which came piled with big, meaty fillets in a light cornmeal batter that featured a great hint of spice. Her beans were similarly nice: sweet, spicy, and full of onion. Though we were all reaching the caloric danger zone by then, we had to try some of Red Swamp's fried pies, which we had learned from the waitress were kind of their claim to fame. We've had fried pies all over — it's kind of the national dessert of the Outer Baronies of Arkansas, we've found — but these were right up there: a nice, firm crust surrounding a generous mound of sweet filling (apple and chocolate, in our case).
Yes, England is quite a haul from Little Rock, around 25 miles. On the plus side, if you go down there to catch a table at Red Swamp, we think you'll definitely have something talk about on the way home.
223 Main St.
Red Swamp offers ribs on Thursday night, boiled shrimp with corn and potatoes on Friday night, and steamed crab legs on Friday and Saturday nights.
11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday; 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday.
No alcohol. Cash or check only.