There are homey restaurants. And then there's Mr. Bell's Soul Food Restaurant in Rose City. Eating at the recent Pine Bluff transplant feels like you're in the back room of the Bells' house. Hand-written signs advertising "Frog Legs" and "Cheesecake" share wall space with paintings of sailboats and angels in the small strip-mall storefront. Above the buffet hangs a glossy of the Original Blind Boys of Mississippi. More often than not, the Bells, Leon and Loretha, are minding the restaurant alone. Mr. Bell cooks, talks on the phone, greets familiar faces and repairs the TV (last time we were in, Quincy Jones' "Sanford and Son" theme announced that he'd successfully gotten it working). Mrs. Bell smiles just about unceasingly, chatters amiably, serves from a buffet steam table, pours drinks, waits on tables and works the cash register.
Which means that it doesn't take much to derail the efficiency of the place. A long line, a big takeout order, a phone call — all can spell a delay in service at the counter and table. But take a breath, good things come to those that wait.
Like baked chicken, breaded and juicy. Or fried pork chops, deliciously smothered in thick brown gravy. Or a smothered, surprisingly tender turkey leg, covered in the same gravy (it's good on just about everything). Or slow-cooked green beans, a lighter shade of green than usual because of all the butter. Or cabbage, richly flavored, we're guessing, with the not-so-secret ingredients of soul food — butter, sugar and some sort of pig parts. Or dessert-quality candy yams. Or, perhaps the jewel of the restaurant, the actual desserts: decadent white coconut cake ($2.99) topped with an inch of icing; moist, pink strawberry cake ($2.49), buttery peach cobbler ($2.99 for 8 oz., $5.89 for 16 oz.).
Like most of its ilk, Mr. Bell's operates with a rotating daily buffet. For lunch, a meat and two veggies and a roll or hot water cornbread (both of which oddly come in plastic sandwich bags) cost $6.99. Or, for $10.99 on weekdays or $11.99 on Sunday, from 2 p.m. to 7 p.m., you can do all-you-can-eat. But you'll have to abide by 10 House Rules, printed on a large poster hanging on the wall, sensible all. For instance, "No. 2 Advance payment must be made. No. 3 Only take what you can eat, and please eat what you take ... No. 7 No Doggy Bags."
Of course, it would take a special appetite to be able to eat more than the standard meat and two and a dessert. And we wouldn't be surprised to learn that our ability to put all that away makes ours a special one. Portions are heaping. Mrs. Bell, like all good buffet minders, always digs deep into the compartments in her steam table to pull out the best of her fixin's, the meatiest beef tips, the gooiest section of mac and cheese.
More than most popular down-home joints around Central Arkansas, Mr. Bell's also serves up true soul food, just about any offal you'd want: chitterlings ("chitterlings every day," the sign outside brags), chicken gizzards, pigs' feet, turkey necks. None were available on the daily buffet when we stopped in, and we didn't feel like waiting around for them to be cooked to order. A reason to return.
Be warned: The Bells aren't lying with the "items subject to change" note on the takeaway buffet schedule, though every time we stopped in, the ever-reliable chicken and pork chops were on the menu. And what's life without a little variety?
Mr. Bell's Soul Food
4506 Lynch Drive
North Little Rock
Don't miss Mr. Bell's Arnold Palmer: half tea, half lemonade ($.99). A refill will cost you $.59, which seems a bit trifling, but don't let it hold you back. Nothing's been more refreshing in this Seventh Layer of Hell we've been living in lately.
11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday, 12 p.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday.
Credit cards accepted. No alcohol.