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story.lead_photo.caption The Hubcap Cheeseburger, minus the lettuce and tomato, comes with a plentiful pile of fries at Cotham’s in the City. - Photo by Eric E. Harrison

The plate bearing the big burger and fries that the waitress brought to our table spurred the immediate interest of other customers.

A gentleman sitting at a neighboring table, leaped up and asked, somewhat breathlessly, "Is that the Hubcap Burger?"

Cotham’s in the City

Address: 1401 W. Third St., Little Rock

Hours: 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-2 p.m. and 5-8 p.m. Friday

Cuisine: Southern fried, “Home of the Hubcap Burger”

Credit cards: V, MC, AE, D

Alcoholic beverages: No

Wheelchair accessible: Yes

Carryout: Yes

(501) 370-9177

Yes, we assured him, it was.

And a friend who happened to be lunching there asked as she headed toward her table, "Can you actually eat that whole thing?"

Probably not, we told her. We fully expected to take half of it home in a box. (Which, in fact, we did.)

Welcome to Cotham's in the City, "Home of the Hubcap Burger." The signature monster patty originated at the original Cotham's Mercantile in Scott at least as far back as 1984, when what had since 1912 been a general store for Scott-area farmers and plantation owners added a small eating area.

Prominent politicians -- notably, according to the official history on the back of the menu and on the restaurant website, Bill Clinton and David Pryor -- among other distinguished Arkansans, beat a path to Scott and Cotham's door. A newer "urban" branch opened in the shadow of the state Capitol in October 1999 in what had been a TGI Friday's (when its decor was still mostly brass-and-plant) at Third and Victory streets.

It has been a big hit since with the downtown lunch crowd, and particularly state lawmakers et al. -- just try to squeeze in there while the Legislature is in session. And it has, all by its lonesome, been the standard bearer for big burgers and Southern-fried standards since the progenitor burned down in May 2017.

Maybe that's what spurred the owners, in the past couple of months, to put their toes in the after-hours waters and start opening for Friday-night dinner. Or maybe it's just that their customers have been complaining that they can't always get there during the day. During our evening visit, we saw plenty of families with small children and even their grandparents who even in the summer wouldn't have gone there at lunch.

What dominates this decor isn't brass or plants but a riotous two decades worth of political posters, yard signs and bumper stickers, covering much of the upper wall space (above the well-seasoned brown wood paneling), from campaigns ranging from the White House to the courthouse. A couple of actual hubcaps hang on the eastern wall panels, presumably so customers can compare the size of their burger to the real thing.

Seating is at sturdy chairs at glossy-acrylic-topped wooden tables -- bespangled with square advertisements for area merchants and the restaurant "Home of the Hubcap Burger" logo. There's a main dining area, plus two raised platforms and a "sunken" dining space along the building's front windows. Above, we noticed, for the first time on our most recent visit, a patterned panel of stained glass -- possibly a relic of a synagogue, since there are stars of David at each of its four corners -- over what was once a skylight.

The Hubcap Cheeseburger ($11.75) isn't really the size of a hubcap, or at least not a modern hubcap -- maybe more along the lines of the hubcap on a child's red wagon -- but it's certainly a really hefty burger. It's at least 6 inches in diameter (we never have a ruler around when we need one), and we'd say it was, even cooked, more than a pound of beef. And because no bakery we know of, or maybe that Cotham's knows of, makes buns that size, ours overflowed the large bun it came on, with plenty of melted cheese, lettuce, tomato, onions and mayonnaise. Don't want lettuce, tomato, onions and/or mayo? Don't worry, the wait staff and kitchen are eager to please, accommodate and withhold.

It was too big for us to simply lift off the plate and eat as a sandwich. So it may have come as no surprise to our waitress when we requested a knife so we could "cheat" and cut it into manageable quarters.

The patty itself was relatively unseasoned, but it had been salted; at least the first couple of bites were slightly to uncomfortably salty. The huge pile of fries that came with the burger had definitely been salted -- well, oversalted, actually. Otherwise we enjoyed the experience.

If you somehow find the Hubcap Burger inadequate, or you somehow need to cover four wheels instead of one, the menu provides a solution: The Quadruple Hubcap ($29.75). No, we didn't ask to see one. In fact, our stomachs ache at the very thought. And if you're not up even to the single hubcap challenge, the menu offers a standard-size cheeseburger for $9.75.

Most of the menu is the epitome of Southern-fried friendly, including chicken fried steak, chicken fried chicken and our Friday-night entree choice -- two good-size pieces of farm-raised catfish, with fries, slaw, corn fritters and "pups" ($11, $14 for three pieces of catfish). Because, Friday. (We're still walloping ourselves for not making it to Cotham's on a Tuesday for the $8.50 lunch special chicken and dumplings.)

The catfish was nearly perfect, tasty, not greasy and the flavor of the fish dominating the modest batter. It took some effort to pierce the exterior of the two fried hush puppies, but once we did, they were delicious; the two tiny corn fritters were a nice add-on and might inspire us, on a future visit, to order them as a $6 "beginning." Other "beginnings": fried green tomatoes, $7; fried pickles, $6; fried onion rings, $6.25; and ​fried jalapenos, $6.

Service was excellent, the entire staff -- servers, bussers, hostesses and food runners -- teaming up to refill drinks and get those big burgers promptly from the kitchen to the table.

Photo by Eric E. Harrison
Two-piece catfish dinner at Cotham’s in the City comes with (clockwise from left) two hush puppies, two corn fritters, fries and tartar sauce.
Photo by Eric E. Harrison
Political yard signs and bumper stickers dominate the decor.

Weekend on 07/19/2018

Print Headline: Burgers not Cotham's only winners

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