Welcome back, Donnie Ferneau and Kelli Marks! The two chefs and close friends have put months of work and who-knows-how-much money into starting Cathead’s Diner in East Village, which opened just a couple of weeks ago. The restaurant fits a unique space in Little Rock’s food scene; it’s only open for breakfast and lunch, and it is one of the only businesses anywhere in Central Arkansas that uses a cafeteria-style format. But unique as its presentation is, at its helm is a team of two talented chefs simply creating food that Arkansans know and love. I’ve had a few chances now to enjoy Cathead’s Diner; here is my take on the five best items the restaurant has to offer.
5. Weekend Brunch
On Saturday and Sunday, Cathead’s Diner changes to an all-you-can-eat format. Not only can you go through the line multiple times for biscuits and gravy, potatoes, and bread pudding, but the wait staff will also bring cinnamon rolls and donuts to your table. Saturday and Sunday brunch is also the best way to experience everything Cathead’s has to offer, as many of the regular lunch mains and sides are available. I recommend the rice grits, which I like to top with some pulled pork and over-medium eggs. There’s only one reason that brunch service doesn’t rank more highly for me, and that is the price. At $22.50 ($25 for a mimosa), weekend brunch is a serious splurge. The food is very good, but many families will have a tough time swallowing the final bill.
Among the many talents Ferneau has accumulated in his restaurant career is a capable hand at the smoker. Cathead’s Diner puts its own outdoor smoker to good use, smoking up brisket, meatloaf and plenty of pig. I’ve mentioned the pork shoulder already, and it’s a true winner. Moist and succulent with just the right amount of smoke flavor, it’s a plate that any barbecue lover would enjoy. And don’t miss the ribs, either. Ferneau knows exactly when to pull off his baby backs, leaving them tender but not overdone. Chances are, if it’s been on Cathead’s Diner’s smoker, you’re going to want it on your plate.
Long before any of us knew what Cathead’s Diner was going to look like, we knew about one thing: Chef Marks was going to be making donuts. Armed with a new specialty fryer in the kitchen, Marks has created a dizzying line-up of gourmet donuts that are available as single-serve or by the half-dozen to go. These donuts taste like a happy blend between yeast and cake, with good heft but still an obviously light touch. I was particularly impressed with the Key Lime Donuts, which are filled with lime curd that explodes with sweet brightness. These donuts deliver on the first promise that Cathead’s made on its social media pages.
2. Fried Chicken
No matter where he’s gone, Ferneau’s signature plate has been his ode to the South’s most famous dish. To be sure, it has changed over the years. At Good Food by Ferneau, it lost its classic batter in favor of a gluten-free version. That’s the fried chicken that is on Cathead’s menu, and though it lost the gluten, you certainly won’t miss it. This dish immediately vaults back to the top of the pile, joining the best fried chicken plates offered anywhere in Little Rock. The black pepper-heavy seasoning, the juicy chicken tenders, the crisp crunch of the crust, all of it combines for the best savory dish that Cathead’s offers up.
1. Chocolate Cream Pie
I honestly didn’t see this one coming. I knew about Marks’ donuts, and had previously enjoyed her delicious cakes and cookies. But these pies are, in my opinion, better than anything else she has done. All of her pies I’ve tasted at Cathead’s Diner are light as air, with a balance of gentle sweetness that leaves you immediately craving more. My favorite so far is a simple Chocolate Cream Pie; the depth Marks gets on such a dainty dessert amazes me. My wife adores the Pink Lemonade Pie, a fresh pop of citrus flavor that both recalls Southern heritage and adds pure whimsy to your final bites. There is certainly no shortage of quality plates that you will find at Cathead’s Diner, but if you leave without a slice of pie, you really have missed out.