Comfort food that makes you say “aaahhh…”

May 26, 2017


Bread pudding. Yes, it’s as good as it looks.

It had been the Day From Hell.

I’d been going at a dead run since 8:30 a.m. I’d made an unexpected two-hour trip I hadn’t really planned on making, and got started later than I really wanted to start. I was looking at being way late for a dinner engagement with a couple of friends.

I texted them about 5. “I’m going to be late. Not sure how late,” I announced.

One replied, “Do you still want to meet, or just reschedule?”

My reply: “I wouldn’t miss it. Been thinking about ravioli all day.”

So I went breezing in to Uncle John’s, one of three retail establishments in the thriving Delta metropolis of Crawfordsville, AR, population about 200. An hour late.

To my friends’ everlasting credit, they were patiently waiting for me. And I sat down, got my bottle of wine (it’s bring-your-own) open, and knocked back a third of a glass, and things started looking better.

Uncle John, who founded the restaurant, was a farmer and a volunteer firefighter. As anyone who’s ever been associated with a volunteer fire department knows, volunteer firefighters eat. And Uncle John used to always be the designated cook when the fire department had a dinner.

“John, you ought to open a restaurant,” people used to tell him. So, John did.

It’s open Thursday-Saturday nights, and Tuesday-Friday for breakfast and lunch. What you need to know about lunch is Thursday is spaghetti day and Friday is catfish day, and you can get a fine cheeseburger any other day of the week. If you go for dinner, take your own wine (they have beer). They’re happy to bring you a corkscrew and glasses. If you go for dinner on Friday or Saturday, be prepared to wait. There are benches out front.

I’ve been eating at Uncle John’s for about 25 years, which is about how long it’s been open. I’ve had the steak, had the ribs, had the barbecue, had the catfish, but it’s the Italian fare that keeps me coming back. Good, solid Italian peasant fare, with “spaghetti gravy” — a deep, dark red, meat-infused sugo, seasoned merely with salt, pepper, onion, garlic and a hint of red pepper, simmered for hours, the very essence of tomato. I could wax lyrical about Uncle John’s spaghetti gravy — may God forgive me, it’s even better than Miz Vera Simonetti’s, may God rest her soul, spaghetti gravy, and she’s the best cook  whose cooking I was ever fortunate enough to eat.

Mrs. Lucille Marconi, Uncle John’s wife, used to make all the ravioli. I don’t know if she still does or not; but somebody makes it there onsite, and it’s just about as perfect as you can make meat-and-cheese-filled-pasta be. The pasta squares get a dollop of filling, are folded over into triangles, and cooked. They’re perfectly tender, not the tiniest bit gummy. A plate of, oh, I don’t know, a dozen of them, maybe? comes with a salad of iceberg lettuce with a few bits of tomato, and Texas toast that’s slathered with garlic, butter and olive oil and grilled on the flat top. That, with bread pudding, will set you back less than 20 bucks. Can you beat it? I submit you cannot.

It’s as warm and comforting and loving as a big hug and your Mama saying, “Come on in here, sit down, and have something to eat.”

I had my salad with their house dressing, a simple but sprightly viniagrette that’s heavy on the olive oil, makes liberal use of good red wine vinegar, and adds a sprinkle or two of herbs. They do not stint with it. I love it.

The garlic toast serves marvelously to mop up the extra sauce. My friends — one had ravioli, one had lasagna — asked for carryout boxes. Waitress says, “So do we need three carryout boxes?” I looked at her, mouth full, and simply shook my head. If I hadn’t been ashamed to do it, I would’ve licked the plate.

And then we had bread pudding, because as I explained to them, it was surely illegal, likely a crime against humanity, and most certainly a mortal sin to eat dinner at Uncle John’s and not eat bread pudding. It’s almost ethereally light, which is a very odd thing in bread pudding-land. It has no nasty little raisins. It has only a hint of cinnamon and nutmeg; the rest is bread and custard. It comes soaked in a bourbon-and-butter sauce I’d love to just drink. I suspect it has about 4,500 calories per bite. I do not care.

I did bring half my bread pudding home with me, and warmed it up to go with my breakfast coffee. Not that I couldn’t have eaten it last night; I surely could have. But my friends were through eating, and I felt guilty making them wait any longer on me, being they’d waited so long for me to get there to start with. It was worth it, though, to have it this morning.

If I didn’t have dinner planned out for the next four or five days, I’m damned if I wouldn’t go back this weekend. Lord have MERCY, but that was good!

Uncle John’s. Forty-five minutes, plus a few light years, west of Memphis, a half-mile or so south of U.S. Highway 64. Go. Get the ribs, get the catfish (on Friday!), get a steak, get the Italian. You’ll get a great meal.

But under no circumstances are you ‘n y’mama ‘n ’em to pass up the bread pudding.



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