It’s not every day you will catch me going on and on about dressing. But then, it’s not every day that a restaurant opens in Little Rock with as much pedigree and promise as TAE – that’s True Arkansas Eatery. TAE comes from the team behind beloved fusion restaurant The Southern Gourmasian, which closed back in February. Justin Patterson spent almost six years dazzling at Gourmasian, both in the food truck and the Capitol Ave. restaurant. Cetera (or CC) Key joined him later, and together the two crafted what was arguably one of the city’s best restaurants. Now, the pair is focusing exclusively on Southern food at TAE, and if what I’ve tasted is any indication, Patterson and Key have lost none of their culinary magic. You can get your first taste at today’s grand opening lunch service.
TAE is located in the Hotel Frederica on Capitol Ave., across from the federal courthouse and just a few blocks from The Southern Gourmasian’s former spot. Patterson and Key made the move after struggling with the location and the building itself. Initially, they tried to simply move the Southern-Asian restaurant, but both agreed the menu did not fit the new space at the hotel. Thus, TAE was born, and with the new space came a new focus.
“I’ve been searching for a way to build, you know, what is Little Rock’s food identity,” said Key back in March. “I asked Justin what he thought it was, and I did my research. But when the hotel (Frederica) came around, I was like, ‘This is perfect.’ I think the history of the hotel is perfect for what we were trying to do.”
With TAE, Patterson and Key prove once again experts at maintaining and expressing a culinary vision. TAE is unmistakably Southern, from its décor and friendly wait staff to its menu. The Fried Green Tomatoes appetizer is seasonal and delicious, and as the first item to the table makes clear TAE’s new direction of simple plates done well. The main menu starts to flex its creative muscles a bit more, though each dish keeps to its roots. An Arkansas Hot Tamale serves as a unique take on the Delta classic, deconstructing the dish into a lovely cornbread, pulled pork (as brilliant as you remember), pinto beans and hot sauce. And the Arkansas Toothpicks might be the most creative plate of all, giving Patterson’s excellent smoked ribs a cornmeal batter and a bath in the fryer. A tangy barbecue sauce cuts through the fatty mouth feel for a surprising Southern expression of intelligence and balance.
Fret not, my vegetarian friends, as TAE has plenty of goodness for you to enjoy. You could go the route of the Power 92 Salad, a delightfully fresh plate of greens, edamame, avocado, Brussels sprouts, apple and housemade blue cheese. Or you could grab the Feed Ya Soul, a plate of deep South vegetables featuring greens, purple hull peas, and sautéed zucchini and squash.
Or you could order that dressing I can’t get out of my mind. Nealie Mae’s Cornbread Dressing is Key’s grandmother’s own recipe, and it will have you asking her for an invitation to Thanksgiving dinner. The cornbread has just the right amount of butter for a perfect crumb, and a rich depth of seasoning elevates the dish to a level I didn’t think possible for a dressing. And that is the kind of thing that TAE just nails. It’s a celebration of Southern heritage that takes commonplace ingredients and expert skill, creating a menu brimming with love and nostalgia. It makes total sense that Nealie Mae’s fancy church hat rests on a decorative shelf in the restaurant, a call-back to the history and culture that TAE is built upon.
If you haven’t picked up on this by now, I’m telling you to go eat at TAE. The restaurant will be open for weekday lunch only for a couple of weeks. In July, the restaurant will introduce a weekend brunch, followed shortly after by dinner service. TAE will feature a full bar come July as well. But seriously, don’t wait. Right now, TAE is more than worth a visit.