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A full belly at Lake Village

I’ve made several trips in recent weeks to the far southeast corner of Arkansas, and I’m again reminded that Lake Village is one of this state’s best towns in which to eat out.

That’s right, Lake Village.

I’ve written before about Rhoda’s Famous Hot Tamales.

But just to the southeast on the banks of Lake Chicot, North America’s largest oxbow lake, is the outstanding LakeShore Cafe.

Continue east on U.S. 82, and just before you cross the Mississippi River bridge, you’ll find The Cow Pen.

Let’s take them one at a time.

Miss Rhoda’s fame has spread east to the state of Mississippi. A feature story by Chris Joyner in The Clarion-Ledger at Jackson last month began this way: “The lunch rush is over and it is quiet inside Rhoda’s Famous Hot Tamales, but the air is steamy and filled with the rich smell of cumin and chili powder. At one of the Formica-topped tables, Rhoda Adams, 71, takes a break to reflect on 35 years making what some believe to be the best example of the Delta’s most curious culinary treats. She said she was not sold on the idea of getting into the hot tamales business at first.”

Here’s what she told the reporter from Jackson: “My husband’s auntie asked me about us doing it, but I never wanted to do any hot tamales. We started doing about 25 dozen a day. I kind of liked it, but I didn’t like it without a machine.”

Her husband bought her a machine to craft the tamales, and Rhoda went to work. We should note that she’s the mother of 15 children, only 11 of whom survived to adulthood.

She said she has almost 60 grandchildren and great-grandchildren. She added, “Some of them I ain’t never seen.”

Joyner writes, “Her tamale family is many times larger. Lovers of the meat and cornmeal treats travel from far and wide to find their holy grail served on a Styrofoam plate for a buck apiece. How far would someone come for Rhoda’s famous tamales? ‘Man, what are you talking about?’ she said with mock gall. ‘Oklahoma, New York, Florida. Honest to God. And I have people here every day from Little Rock.'”

She told the reporter that three private planes came down from Little Rock one day in April so a group of executives could eat with her.

The thing to remember is that Rhoda’s plate lunches are as good as her tamales. So are her pies.

Here’s what famed food writer Michael Stern had to say in his review at “The name of Rhoda Adams’ cafe is no lie. The tamales are delicious and well deserving of the fame they have earned up and down the Mississippi Delta. She makes them with a combination of beef and chicken; the meats combined with steamy cornmeal are wrapped in husks that when unfolded emanate an irresistibly appetizing aroma and are a joy to eat as a snack or meal anytime of the day.

“Beyond tamales, the menu at James and Rhoda Adams’ little eat place by the side of the road is a full roster of great, soulful regional specialties. For fried chicken or pigs feet, barbecue or catfish dinner, you won’t do better for miles around. Early one morning Rhoda made us breakfast of bacon and eggs with biscuits on the side. Even this simple meal tasted especially wonderful. Rhoda is one of those gifted cooks who makes everything she touches something special.”

Stern was also impressed when it came time for dessert.

He wrote: “We’ve always considered Arkansas one of America’s top seven pie states (along with Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Virginia, Texas and Maine). Rhoda’s pies are proof. She makes small individual ones. … Her sweet potato pie and pecan pie are world class.”

Rhoda’s is at 714 St. Mary St. If you’re headed south on U.S. Highway 65, take a left at that wonderful old sign with the bass on it that proclaims Lake Village as the home of good fishing. Then, be looking on your left as you head toward downtown for the shed that houses the small restaurant.

A nice plan would be to have lunch with Rhoda, spend the afternoon visiting the Lakeport Plantation and then have dinner at the LakeShore Cafe or The Cow Pen.

The LakeShore Cafe website describes the place this way: “The two comfortable dining rooms and the back porch with king-size rockers overlooking Lake Chicot are not all that draw diners to LakeShore Cafe, says cafe manager Charles Faulk IV. Faulk’s dad and stepmom are the owners, and ever since he can remember, Faulk says his dad — known to all as Big Charles — has loved to cook for others. Today, he’s doing it on a grand scale at the eatery many say is the best-kept secret in the Arkansas Delta.

“Big Charles takes pride in catering to the tastes of his fellow baby boomers, both with the food he serves and the musical entertainment LakeShore Cafe offers on Friday and Saturday nights. Using family recipes handed down for generations — replete with vegetables straight from the farmers’ market — Big Charles and his staff of old-fashioned Southern cooks serve up hot plate lunches, mouth-watering steaks, sumptuous seafood and barbecue.”

Charles and Teresa Faulk were living in Mississippi’s capital city in 1997 when they bought the LakeShore Motel from 94-year-old Idell Smith, who had built it on the shores of Lake Chicot in the 1950s. Charles IV ended an Army career and moved to Lake Village to supervise the renovation of the motel. His parents would drive over from Jackson on weekends. They built the cafe after they finished renovating the motel. They later added a marina and a meeting facility.

A new dining room, bar and porch overlooking the lake were added in 2003.

While there, try what’s known as Elizabeth’s baked eggplant.

Elizabeth was Big Charles’ late mother who apparently was known for her cooking in Vicksburg.

According to the website, “Elizabeth’s scalloped oysters — a dish that graced the family dining table every holiday alongside her sparkling crystal goblets, delicate heirloom china and gleaming sterling silver — now please the palates of cafe patrons who come from miles around looking for something special.”

Let’s hope they can still find oysters despite the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

The Cow Pen, meanwhile, has been a Delta dining tradition since 1967. It’s open for dinner from Wednesday through Saturday and for Sunday lunch from 11 a.m. until 2 p.m.

There are tamales, catfish, frog legs, fried oysters, shrimp, steaks, Italian food and Mexican dishes on the huge menu. On a recent Friday night, I had the seafood platter with a side of eggplant parmesan.

In 1967, Floyd Owens converted an old cattle inspection station into a restaurant. Those of us of a certain age can remember inspection stations. When I was a child, I loved having our family automobile stopped at the inspection station near the Texas border on U.S. Highway 67 so the man could ask: “Got any cotton or sweet potatoes?”

They had to make sure we weren’t bringing boll weevils back from our Texas vacation.

Gene and Juanita Grassi bought The Cow Pen in 1977. After 30 years of running the restaurant, they decided to retire. That’s when the Faulks — Big Charles and Teresa and Little Charles and his wife Lydia — stepped in and decided they would own a second restaurant. They wanted The Cow Pen tradition to live on.

Just six months after the Faulks took charge, The Cow Pen burned in November 2007. The Faulks, however, were determined to rebuild. The new Cow Pen opened on Nov. 26, 2008. It will now serve as the Arkansas anchor to the spectacular new bridge that’s about to open over the Mississippi River.

Rhoda’s, LakeShore Cafe, The Cow Pen — you can’t go wrong with any of the three. Folks drive from Louisiana and Mississippi each day to eat at Lake Village, a place that has become one of Arkansas’ culinary gems.

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