IS IT cliché to love fried chicken? Probably, but that doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter because fried chicken is a good thing, a good-with-a-capital-G Good thing, and the world needs more Good things. There’s something so perfect about a lump of bone-in meat, skin still crackling on a plate, all rough and jagged, looking like the surface of Mars. Fried chicken is honest food, tell-you-where-you-came-from food, no-place-like-home food. And that’s why it has its own holiday, and that’s why I ordered it.
“People just lit us up with the chicken today,” TAE’s general manager, CC Key, says, tired from the National Fried Chicken Day rush. “I didn’t even realize that it was a holiday until one of my tables told me. Who even knew that was a thing?” She slumps back on the couch and leans over to me. “Day 7—this is when it starts to get easier, right?” I didn’t have the heart to remind her that weekend brunch service would begin in two days, and daily dinner service a week after that.
TAE, an acronym for True Arkansas Eatery (conveniently, also “eat” spelled backwards), is a week old. It’s the brainchild of CC and Justin Patterson, the duo who ran, and in February of this year, closed, the Southern Gourmasian, a Southern-slash-Asian restaurant in downtown Little Rock. While Justin checks on a pair of lingering diners, CC begins to tell me the story of how she and Justin met. He had placed an ad on Craigslist looking for food runners at his soon-to-open restaurant. CC had little interest in running food; instead, she had her sights on following in Justin’s footsteps of owning a food truck and then opening a brick-and-mortar restaurant. Justin was skeptical but agreed to take her on, and she began to fill in where needed: running food, waiting tables, helping in the kitchen and eventually taking over bookkeeping for the restaurant.
There’s an easiness in her voice, the way she tells me their story, giving each detail in a silly, almost conspiratorial whisper. It’s as if with each sentence, she’s reminding herself of how much fun she’s had. The National Fried Chicken Day fatigue has all but faded away.
“He was right,” she says between giggles. “After seeing the numbers, I didn’t want to open my own place at all!”
Over time, she and Justin would settle into complementary roles, CC becoming the source of ideation and Justin in charge of execution, a pattern that fits them well at TAE. “When we closed the doors [at The Southern Gourmasian], we both knew we were coming here,” she says, waving at the dining room in front of her. “That made it a little easier.”
The concept for TAE wasn’t entirely formed yet, but its beginnings had been formulating in CC’s mind for years. “I’ve always felt that there wasn’t a place that you could take an out-of-town guest to and say, This is what Little Rock food is.” For CC, it was important that TAE offer the food she grew up eating and an atmosphere that rekindled the joy she took in going out to dinner with her family as a girl.
For Justin, having a brand-new concept so different from his previous restaurant gave him the chance to start almost from scratch, focusing on an entirely new guest experience. “I used to think that the most important thing in owning a restaurant was that your food taste good,” Justin adds when he joins us on the couch, “but Southern Gourmasian taught me how wrong that was.” The restaurant’s menu, with its unique blend of Asian flavors presented with a Southern mentality, was a hit with critics and local foodies but often puzzled diners. With this in mind, the mission for the new restaurant became accessibility. “It’s that 80/20 rule,” Justin says. “You want to have a lot that people recognize, but just a little bit that pushes their boundaries.”
CC and Justin applied that same logic when thinking about how TAE would fit into Little Rock’s dining scene as well. “This is Little Rock, Arkansas,” CC says, leaning back into the couch, “and there’s nowhere in this town that you can get candied yams that don’t come from a can and actually taste good.” She throws her hands up and shrugs her shoulders. “What’s up with that?” It’s that mode of thinking that drove her to create the menu. To hear CC tell it, the creation of TAE’s menu was a weekend fever dream of grits and pork fat. “It didn’t take long [to write] at all,” she says. “I just thought about what I wanted to eat and what I was hungry for, wrote it down and sent it [to Justin].”
CC left Justin to figure out how to make her traditional menu feel more modern, trusting him to execute her vision. The purple hull pea hummus, sure to become a Little Rock classic, was an idea that sounded perfect in CC’s mind but took Justin’s culinary expertise to pull off. “When he finally got it on the plate,” CC says, “it was somehow exactly the way I knew it always had to be.”
For Justin, a native of northeast Arkansas, cooking traditional Southern food was surprisingly out of his wheelhouse. “I just didn’t grow up eating a lot of it,” he says. “Honestly, I think I was a picky eater as a kid, and my mom didn’t want to put the effort into cooking if I wasn’t going to eat it.” That lack of familiarity, however, allowed him to forge his own path with the dishes’ creation. Southern food can often get so bogged down in its own history that it can seem all but inseparable from the past. That’s not the case at TAE, where each dish feels as though it’s ushering the diner into a new, distinctly Southern future.
Even if it’s done subconsciously, eaters will always compare a Southern dish to what they remember from the past. For me, it’s a simple fact of life that no meatloaf will ever be as good as my Mamaw’s, nor will any banana pudding ever be as good as the pudding Miss Ruby would bring to our after-church potlucks. Each of us has these tentpole food memories, and they’re what makes innovative cooking of Southern food so difficult. Because of this, Justin forwent looking to the past. What would meatloaf taste like if you didn’t grow up eating it your entire life, he wondered? How nuanced can a side of greens be? Why wouldn’t you fry your smoked spare ribs? Is it possible to create a cornbread dressing that doesn’t make you want to take a nap? (Answers: Amazing. Very. Why didn’t I think of that? And Yes!)
These are the sort of questions that play out over the course of a lunch at TAE, and for each person, the answer will be different. For Justin and CC, however, their own answers to these questions were found in a respectful irreverence of the culinary traditions they’re re-creating. These aren’t the recipes that many of us grew up with. They aren’t trying to be. But they’re good, and maybe even better than many of us remember.