It seems strange to say this about a restaurant that has been open since the early 80s, but I think the Faded Rose has something of an identity crisis. Oh sure, the menu seems pretty straight forward, with a list of Cajun dishes and steaks that seem pretty par for the course, but I couldn’t shake the odd feeling that settled over me during a recent visit, and it boils down to this: is the Faded Rose a high-end restaurant? Or is it a more workman-like place catering to folks looking for home cooking? Judging by the prices on the menu, it aspires to be the former, but the atmosphere and service place it square in the latter category. None of this is to say that the place is bad, per se, but I don’t think it rises to the level indicated by its price point.
The dining area of the Faded Rose lives up to the restaurant’s name — dimly lit, with a lived-in look that’s to be expected of a place that’s been serving food for thirty years. On our recent visit, a group of regulars were raising hell at the bar, loud and boisterous in their cups, and while some might find that endearing, the effect was an echo of shouting that filled the small restaurant with a cacophony of slurred voices and screamed drink orders. We initially felt ourselves lucky to be seated at a small table in a remote corner, until we realized that this basically segregated us away from the part of the restaurant that received regular service. Our server came to give us drinks, and when we asked for a couple of minutes to look over the menu, disappeared completely from the dining room for what seemed like an eternity, returning only to take our orders impatiently. For a place where entrees run from about $15 and up, this “whaddya want” style service seemed more appropriate for a diner than a decent restaurant.
As for the food, it had elements of greatness that were unfortunately surrounded by mediocrity. The Catfish Po’ Boy featured two large filets of golden brown fish that were cooked to perfection, but the effect of the fish was ruined by the low quality pickles, tomatoes, and wilted iceberg lettuce that accompanied it. The fries were hand-cut, which we felt was a nice touch, but suffered from texture issues that could easily be solved by utilizing a two-fry method, a technique that has vaulted the fries at Big Orange into first place among Little Rock fry lovers.
We accompanied our po boy with an order of “Cajun Popcorn,” a large bowl of spicy fried crawfish tails. The tails were large and plump, and we were pleased that they actually had that good, sweet flavor that comes with high-quality mud bugs. Unfortunately, the breading was so over-salted that the good flavor of the tails had trouble competing, and once again we were left disappointed.
Our final dish was the 9th Ward Hamburger Steak, a chopped sirloin steak covered in spicy gravy and served with crawfish rice. Nobody expects a hamburger steak to rival a ribeye, but I’ve always had a soft spot for them — especially the version served at Cheers in the Heights. This chopped steak suffered from bits of gristle, which was a real shame because the spicy gravy was quite good. The crawfish rice had a lot of potential, with a good flavor and ample amount of crawfish tails, but it tasted old, with hard grains of dried-out rice ruining the texture of what should have been an excellent side. The other side, the “famous” soaked salad, was a mess of wilted lettuce, chewy olives, and an overdose of salad oil — there may be people out there who love that sort of thing, but I can’t see why.
I noticed on the way into the restaurant that there were several Readers Choice awards hanging on the wall, most of them from 2006 and before. Is this a sign that the restaurant has dropped off in quality in the past 8 or so years? Or has Little Rock’s dining scene gotten that much better so as to point out the flaws in the menu of a place once considered among our city’s elite? Either way, the result was a meal that didn’t seem to live up to the hype, and while it wasn’t bad by any means, it certainly put us off of trying anything on the menu at a higher price point. With local restaurants moving to higher quality produce, the
Sysco-level (note: Sysco has contacted me to say that The Faded Rose is not their client) less-than-stellar lettuce, tomato, and pickles used on these sandwiches just don’t cut it anymore — and perhaps that’s a sign that I’m a jaded eater, but it doesn’t change the disappointing nature of the meal.