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travel flavors:

Uncle John's, Picken's, Cajun Express, Cow Pen and Shadden's BBQ

uncle john's by Dr. Ruth Hawkins

LThe next time you’re headed toward Memphis around mealtime, try exiting on U. S. 64 at Marion and traveling west about eight miles to Uncle John’s Restaurant in Crawfordsville. It comes highly recommended by everyone from the Catholic priest in Jonesboro to my son’s fraternity brothers.

Despite glowing recommendations, I had not been there until a few months ago. I was immediately caught up in its charm. It seems that “Uncle John” Marconi was blessed with two great talents: farming and cooking. When farming took a downturn in the early 1980s, Marconi had lots of time to cook for his family and then his friends — and then the entire community. He and his wife, Lucille, opened the restaurant in 1984, and after his death 10 years later, the operation was taken over by the youngest of their seven children, Michael Marconi.

Michael is still serving up all the Italian family recipes that he grew up with, along with other specialties added by his father as a nod to Southern cooking. You’ll find homemade lasagna, ravioli, spaghetti sauce and other Italian favorites, along with great steak and ribs. And you should save room for Uncle John’s famous bread pudding.

While there, you’ll want to check out the mural on the west wall. Painted by local artist Joann Bloodworth, the artwork depicts what small-town Crawfordsville might be like if dropped into the mountains and hillsides of Tuscany, Italy. And if you think you recognize any of the people in the painting, most of Crawsfordsville’s residents are there on the wall.

Uncle John’s is definitely worth the detour. Now that I know the way, I assure you that I will be going back.

Uncle John’s Restaurant is located at 5453 Main Street in Crawfordsville and is open from 9 a.m.-8:30 p.m. on Tuesday-Thursday; 9 a.m.-9 p.m. on Fridays; and 5 p.m. -9 p.m. on Saturdays.

pickens by Beth Wiedower

For an authentic lunch on the road, one of my favorite spots in the Arkansas Delta is Pickens Restaurant & Commissary on the namesake’s farm just south of Dumas in Desha County. Serving lunch from 11am – 2pm, Monday through Friday, the cooks at Pickens have been serving up traditional southern fare to farm workers, locals and the lucky visitor for the last several years.

Plate lunches rotate daily, but I plan my travels around Wednesday’s fried pork chop and the melt-in-your-mouth baked chicken seasoned in olive oil, fresh rosemary and fry cook Finley Davis Jr.’s secret spice rub. Signature dishes include skillet fried potatoes and onions, a rich squash dressing and a variety of fresh veggies prepared in true southern style. Pickens’ chicken salad draws travelers to and from the Gulf Coast off Highway 65 South, and Friday’s fried catfish plate is a perfect end to the work week.

Lunch at Pickens isn’t complete without a homemade dessert. Coconut cream pie, chocolate pie, and my personal favorite, pecan pie, are made each morning and go fast among the locals. For late-comers, the grill stays hot until late afternoon with chef Finley flipping hamburgers and such. A visit with Finley — and a heap of genuine southern hospitality — is worth the few extra minutes to satisfy an afternoon craving.

After lunch, check out the commissary surrounding the dining area. Staples such as canned greens and toilet paper are interspersed with farm supplies, hunting and fishing gear, t-shirts, gift items and an old-fashioned candy counter. Managing partner Laurie Black and her husband, Freddie, are often on hand to share stories of the farm and the colorful personalities of Pickens’ past.

Pickens Restaurant & Commissary is located on 122 Pickens Road (1/4 mile off Highway 65 South) in Dumas.

cajun express by Kim Williams

As a travel writer, I spend a lot of time traveling throughout the Arkansas Delta. And when it’s time for a meal, there are several places throughout the area that I love to visit: Rhoda’s Famous Hot Tamales in Lake Village; Colby’s in Wynne (I love their Monte Cristo sandwich); and Granny Dee’s Soul Food in historic Helena.

But on weekends, I’ll head to an out-of-the-way spot north of Wheatley. Cajun Express, owned and operated by Randy and Robin Gehring since 1997, has become a favorite of people craving spicy gumbo, zesty etouffee, yummy fried catfish, scrumptious fried shrimp or melt-in-your-mouth steaks. The steaks are divine! The hand-cut, certified Angus ribeyes feature a seasoning Randy created (buy a jar to take home). My favorite meal, which I get on my birthday, is the steak with fried shrimp. It’s one of the best steaks I’ve eaten – tender and perfectly seasoned. The fried shrimp are hand-peeled and hand-battered and fabulous!

They are known for their crawfish, raised in flooded areas behind the restaurant. From the end of March through the end of June, crawfish dominates the tables of Cajun Express. The bright red “mudbugs” come complete with corn on the cob, potatoes and mushrooms — and people love them! If you’re craving crawfish, Cajun Express is the place to go!

If you have room for dessert, order the Mud Bug Fudge Mound – devil’s food cake topped with ice cream, caramel and hot fudge sauces and chocolate Magic Shell. Awesome!

Cajun Express is located at 5082 North Highway 78 in Wheatley and is open Fridays and Saturdays from 4:30 – 9 p.m. with special hours during duck season.

cow pen by Paula Miles

I’m not sure just how often people travel to Chicot County, but if you do, please make a special point of stopping at the Cow Pen restaurant located on Highway 82 in Lake Village. The restaurant is as close to the Mississippi River as you can get on the Arkansas side. It is open for dinner on Wednesday through Saturday, so plan your trip for one or more of these days. If you make it on Friday and Saturday, live music is offered in one of several dining rooms.

I don’t know exactly what they do to their steaks, but they are the best I have ever had, especially when topped with mushrooms and shrimp. I am lucky to eat there about once a month. They also have seafood, Mexican and Italian dishes. Others say that their blackened catfish is worth the trip, but I always get the Cow Pen Steak with soup and salad bar.

The restaurant used to be an old cattle inspection station and has been converted into this newly remodeled restaurant. Although it still resembles the cattle stalls, new owners Charles and Teresa Faulk, have put a modern twist on this restaurant that has been around since 1967. They offer family dining for all ages and banquet facilities to accommodate large groups. I am usually part of a larger group and they always greet us with a smile.

The Cow Pen sits at the foot of the beautiful, new Mississippi River Bridge, something that is impressive in itself. And you can always visit the Lakeport Plantation, an ASU Arkansas Heritage Site. Great atmosphere, hospitality and food — what more could you ask?

If you do visit, please tell Charles that Paula says, “Hey.”

Visit their website at www.thecowpen.com or call 870-265-9992.

shadden's bbq by Marcel Hanzlik

So you’re traveling through barbecue country, the Arkansas Delta, searching for the “Best of the Rest.” Go ahead, pull into “Shadden’s BBQ” and treat yourself to some of the region’s finest barbeque with their lip-numbing sauce and a dose of southern hospitality you will never forget. Vivian and Wayne Shadden have been greeting and serving their specialty for almost four decades out of their 100-year-old general store. It is an experience on its own to wander through the store reading the many magazine and newspaper articles, looking at photos, awards, trophies and the old “45s” jukebox and then to roll up the lid of the chest cooler and grab a cold drink. Recently, I was fortunate to meet a couple from Kansas just passing through, a truck driver from Minnesota and a local farmer.

“Mr. Wayne’s” award-winning cooking and “Ms. Vivian’s” award-winning sauce makes for a simple menu. “Regular or Jumbo. Hot or Mild. With or without slaw.” That’s it! Take my word, go ahead and order two. The chopped pork is smoked to perfection and the sauce – “Oh My!” The sauce is thick and rich and with a tomato, brown sugar and pepper base. Mild is spicy, hot is excruciating! I love it! However, I do tone it down with a scoop of slaw. The sauce is so uniquely flavored that you will want to pick up a bottle or two on your way out.
Enjoy Ms. Vivian’s and Mr. Wayne’s barbecue, their stories, and above all, experience Arkansas Delta hospitality at its best.

Shadden’s BBQ is located at 19771 Highway 49 in Marvell.