KJ’s Family Restaurant a hidden jewel

ADRIENNE FREEMAN Originally Published November 15, 2012 at 12:00 a.m.
Updated November 14, 2012 at 9:20 a.m.
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ADRIENNE FREEMAN

Snow crab is always available at KJ’s Family Restaurant in Judsonia. Hand-cut sirloin grilled to order rounds out the delicious meal.

— Most of us agree the interstate highway system is the only way to cover long distances, but for exploring, there is no substitute for smaller state highways.

These roads offer motorists an opportunity to meander from town to town, discovering the outstanding offerings that are well-known to locals, yet sadly undiscovered by travelers on a timetable.

Just a short distance from SUVs and sedans whizzing by at 70 mph on Arkansas 367 in Judsonia is KJ’s Family Restaurant, an unassuming jewel in a treasure-trove of flea markets, roadside stands and the quiet bustle of the small White County town.

With a flashing sign announcing its honor of “Best Plate Lunch,” KJ’s sits off the road with an ample space for parking. It isn’t for naught — almost every space was taken during a recent lunch hour.

Stan Robinson and his wife, Karen (KJ), opened this restaurant in their adopted hometown in 2006. After eight years of leasing and operating a convenience store just down the road, Stan saw the market booming for people eating out.

“We served over 500 to 600 sausage biscuits every day. We couldn’t make them fast enough,” he said.

Added food options over the years were always met with popularity. Stan remembers the birth of the idea for KJ’s like this: “My wife said, ‘If you are going to add anything else, then we ought to just build a restaurant.’”

The Robinsons wanted to buy the convenience store, but the owner wasn’t selling, so they moved their new venture down the road.

Along with their adult sons, Craig and Ben, the family pushed forward with enthusiasm. Craig had always enjoyed cooking, actually creating his own recipes as a teen.

“I remember one of the first things he cooked for the family is something he made for me,” KJ said. “We have it on the menu today, KJ’s Choice Chicken.”

The original dish is a savory grilled chicken breast with bacon, grilled onions, cheese, sour-cream sauce and homemade pico de gallo.

“I got my training at the Food Network Culinary Arts School,” Craig said, joking, referring to the many TV hours he has spent picking up tips and techniques to use in the kitchen. To get them up to speed, he and his brother Ben also did some apprentice work with food suppliers. Longtime friend and employee Eugene Burgess came along, too, as the “home-cooking expert.”

“He makes our homemade pies, chicken and dumplings, dressing — comfort food,” Stan said.

“I wanted to sell high-quality food. We make everything we can homemade. We serve a lot of crab legs, shrimp and our hand-cut steaks, as well as our plate lunch and comfort favorites. People really seem to appreciate it,” Craig said.

Diner Mary Hudson of Searcy went a step further: “This is the best food and the best people in Arkansas,” she said.

KJ’s opens six days a week at 6 a.m. and closes after lunch at 2. On Thursday through Saturday, the restaurant is open all day with dinner offered from 4-8 p.m.

“Being close to my customers and working with my family make the long hours bearable,” KJ said. “Everyone in our family loves people and loves to serve,” Stan added.

KJ’s Family Restaurant is simply but properly named: It is run by a family, happily serving families and treating the customers just like family.

Remoulade Sauce

This tangy sauce is great with all kinds of seafood. Try it drizzled over Maryland-style crab cakes or in your favorite fish tacos!

Ingredients:

1/4 cup lemon juice

3/4 cup vegetable oil

1/2 cup onion

1/2 cup green onion

1/4 cup celery

2 tablespoons garlic

2 tablespoons prepared horseradish

3 tablespoons whole grain mustard

3 tablespoons yellow mustard

6 tablespoons ketchup

6 tablespoons mayo

1 tablespoons parsley

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

Put all ingredients in food processor and puree.

Yield: Approximately 32 ounces

Raisin-Pecan Muffins With Whiskey Sauce

Dry ingredients:

1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 cup sugar

2 teaspoons baking powder

6 tablespoons chopped pecans

4 tablespoons whole raisins

Wet ingredients:

1 egg, beaten

1 cup milk

1/4 cup vegetable oil

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Whiskey Sauce:

2 cups heavy cream

1/2 cup whole milk

1/2 cup bourbon whiskey

1/2 cup sugar

3/4 cup brown sugar

1 teaspoon cinnamon

2 tablespoons butter

2 tablespoons cornstarch

Directions:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spray a muffin tin (6 large-muffin size) with nonstick cooking spray. Mix dry ingredients and wet ingredients separately; then combine to form batter. Spoon batter evenly into muffin tin and bake for 20 to 25 minutes or until golden brown on top and a toothpick inserted into muffins comes out clean.

Whiskey Sauce: Bring heavy cream, milk and sugar to a slow boil. Mix whiskey with cornstarch, and add to boiling cream mixture. Add in brown sugar, cinnamon and butter.

Simmer and whisk until sauce reaches desired thickness.

Serve muffins topped with whiskey sauce and a scoop of your favorite vanilla ice cream.

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