A Cajun/Creole surprise in Crossett

I don’t hand out at-a-boys often, especially to restaurants, and when I do, it’s because the restaurant is in the Worth a Journey category. Such restaurants are rare in the center-south. However, last week Vertis and I discovered a culinary and visual gem in Crossett.

It was not a fine dining experience with high fees; it serves practical Southern, Creole and Cajun cuisine that is truly outstanding in a setting that resembles a Louisiana juke joint with a blues band frontman.

January 17 is our wedding anniversary and to celebrate we chose Greenwood, Mississippi, and the Alluvian Hotel. The evening was great and as we were driving home, Vertis spotted Beech St. Bistro on the internet. It’s a few blocks from US 82; if you have trouble finding it, just ask.

The restaurant serves from 11:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. daily. We pulled into the parking lot a few minutes after 11am, and immediately the outside made us think we might have found some treasure off the beaten path.

The bistro is in a large old clapboard house with a wide porch decorated with a mix of mostly painted Louisiana memorabilia with a few musical instruments.

When we entered we had a visual surprise. It looked nothing like what I thought a Crossett Bistro would look like. It was like southern Louisiana.

Decor can add ambience, but cannot replace good food. You must have both. We sat near the front where we could see most of the restaurant. Tables are scattered around the rooms of the old house; looking at the walls, ceiling and bar it was evident that a great deal of work had gone into making the space visually spectacular.

Vertis went to the bathroom, and when she came back, she said, “There’s a chandelier in the ladies’ room.

A local artist has added a wonderful touch of Southern/Cajun murals that make the restaurant feel authentic. I glanced at the menu and the owners’ Louisiana heritage was evident: Cajun and Creole infused with lots of the South. Virtually all of the items are homemade, even the mac and cheese.

It turned what could have been just another place decorated to death with ordinary food into a place where the cuisine matches the decor. Owner Chester Paul Huntsman handed me his card, which was a guitar pick with his name on one side and a picture of him as a bluesman playing guitar on the other side.

He told me arthritis had slowed his playing, but he hadn’t lost any of his bluesman personality, and immediately made us feel welcome. The bistro has live music on Thursday nights, and if you’re inside the building or on the front porch, I guarantee you’ll have no trouble hearing it.

A meal starts with complimentary hot water cornbread muffins and yeast buns. These items are hard to beat and they add a little something extra to almost anything you order afterwards. The 11 lunch dishes were so southern that my mouth started watering just reading them, and it made me start remembering my grandmother’s home cooking. I had to tell the waiter to give me a few more minutes; it was so hard to decide.

I finally chose a pork tenderloin with brown sauce and rice: absolutely delicious. Vertis selected okra, a large bowl with a hint of Southern flavor with the addition of fresh corn along with shrimp, crawfish, chicken and sausage. The portions were large enough for Vertis to bring home enough for the two of us to have lunch the next day.

I took the menu home to take a look at the dishes on offer for dinner. I don’t know of any other place in Arkansas where you can cook an alligator half a dozen ways, or three or four ways to eat crawfish (thank goodness none of the crawfish require you to peel the tails). How about a quarter pound of fried crawfish or alligator with homemade onion rings?

The bistro isn’t just Louisiana specialties; it’s packed with Southern favorites like burger patties, pork chops, chicken fried steak, and a list of po-boys as long as your arm.

A few menu items will have me driving 42 miles back to El Dorado for dinner. According to the people at the bistro, their homemade chicken and dumplings are to die for, and one of my favorites is the homemade banana pudding. It also includes donuts stuffed with cream cheese and blueberries.

You might want to go all out and throw an Atchafalaya feast: half a pound of fried crawfish, half a pound of fried alligator, seven fried jumbo prawns, seven jumbo prawn scampis, fries, fried onion rings, homemade yeast rolls and hot dishes. water cornbread for $69.99.

. . .

Regarding my recent hitchhiking column, I received similar stories from readers. Here is one of the best:

“It happened in a small town in East Texas in the early 1950s when our hitchhiker ended up there after dark. After a few hours of no traffic, cold, and no luck to take a walk, he spotted a bread box in front of a grocery store. He was so cold that he opened the bread box, went in and closed the lid. A few hours later, the bread delivery man arrived early opened the bread box and brought out our hitchhiker. After the hitchhiker helped pick up the bread, the delivery guy gave Tyler a ride.”

Email Richard Mason at [email protected]

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