Sometimes, you just want a damn burger.
I mean, it’s August. The heat index has been in the triple digits, but that hasn’t stopped the lawn from growing. While you’re mowing, you keep finding other things that need doing — weeds pulled, bushes trimmed — so that by the time you make it back into the cool air conditioning, you’ve soaked through every item of clothing you wear. You’re tired, you’re hungry, and you just want a damn burger. You’ve earned it.
Now, Little Rock has no shortage of burger joints — that’s not a problem. The problem is that not every burger is suited to every occasion. Just as some beers go better with lawn work than others (barrel-aged imperial stouts are decidedly non-quaffable), so, too, are some burgers better suited to satisfying the hunger created by physical exertion. Such burgers do not come not topped with Havarti cheese, arugula, fig jam, white truffle or a fried egg. And they do not have sweet potato fries lingering anywhere in the vicinity.
So whenever I get a post-lawn-work hankering for something substantive, I wind my way over to Chatz Cafe (8801 Colonel Glenn Road). Chatz has the feel of an old small-town diner around which Little Rock has grown, with only four tables in the cafe but a nice smokehouse out back. The place is only open for lunch and dinner three days a week, but proprietor Frank Chatwood does catering daily.
If you walk in, you’ll see on a marker board behind the counter the words “Daily Special” listing a one-half-pound burger (either regular beef or turkey) with one side and canned drink for $10, with a small extra charge for cheese, bacon or jalapeños. That marker board has been unchanged for a while now, probably because people like me walk in, look at it, and say, “Yeah, gimme that.” It works.
So about this burger … . Plato may have insisted that we have never perceived a truly straight line or an impeccably round circle, that such perfection of form is incompatible with the reality of material creation, but I believe he may have reconsidered his theory of forms had he only been able to try this burger. If you can get your hands around it, you will not be putting it down. That’s because, at about the halfway mark, the natural juices of the burger (this was never a frozen patty, no sir!) will threaten to dissolve the bun, so you’ll have to finish it up before it falls apart on you. The meat tastes lightly salted, and each burger comes with lettuce, tomato, onion and pickle. The last time, I got mine with cheese, jalapeños and bacon, and Chatz scrimped on none of that. The jalapeños were generously heaped upon the burger, and the bacon was cut thick and fried to the right balance between crispy and chewy.
Eating this burger is a somewhat messy affair, and after you wolf down that half-pound of meat, you might be rethinking your side dish. Each sandwich at Chatz comes with a side: BBQ beans, creamy coleslaw, creamy potato salad, french fries, hush puppies or fried okra. But since we’re talking burgers, we have to talk fries. Chatz’s fries are not so thin that they are all crunch, and not so thick that they fall limp, but rather fall within the Goldilocks zone for french fries — just right. They come dusted with cajun seasoning that negates any real need for salt. Full as you are after the burger, you’ll eat these fries — they are that good.
If you have Chatz for lunch, don’t make any dinner plans.
Chatz is not all burgers. The daily lunch specials also include a “zydeco” (consisting of catfish, shrimp, and house-made link sausage) and a smoked meat sandwich. Chatz does its own smoked meats (in fact, the restaurant was originally called Chatz Smoked Meats), and I will happily stack its barbecue against any other in Little Rock. The last time we were in, my wife got the chopped pork sandwich. The meat was tender, not so finely chopped that you couldn’t feel the texture of the pork. Chatz keeps it simple with the barbecue sauces, offering vinegar, sweet and mustard sauces, and the coleslaw is not overrun with mayonnaise, as so often happens, but instead allows the vegetable ingredients to stand on their own — it’s colorful and crunchy.
It’s been a rough few years for those who like a traditional burger done well. The razing of Asher Dairy Bar and the closure of Monkey Burger have left a deep hole in the Little Rock culinary scene. But Chatz Cafe remains and continues to excel at food done right. This is not high art — it’s craftmanship. And when you’re hungry, craftsmanship will satisfy you in a way that art simply cannot.
8801 Colonel Glen, Little Rock
Hours: 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, noon-5 p.m. for “Soul Food” Sunday
No alcohol. Catering and bulk orders available seven days a week.