This story is adapted from Arkansas Pie: A Delicious Slice of the Natural State, with additional new material.
They’re not locals. The locals know to call in their orders and pick them up. No, they come from all over the United States and elsewhere, for the opportunity to have a Keo Klassic sandwich and what Southern Living calls the best coconut meringue pie in the South.
The folks in Keo were grateful for a good spot to grab a bite to eat, and they encouraged Charlotte to expand her menu. She worked too on clearing out the pharmacy front to back and utilizing every bit of room in the building… and as she cleared it out, the crowd just continued to fill every seat, day after day.
I kept watching for a bit, as more people arrived. A minute before eleven a couple of big vans pulled up. I realized my discretion at having parked so far away may have been ludicrous, so I went ahead and headed in.
The interior was
My waitress flitted by like the breeze, taking orders from a nearby table of seven before sweeping over and delivering a menu to me. “I’m so sorry,” she apologized almost breathlessly. “Do you need a minute?”
“Need a drink?”
“Sweet or un, hon?”
“Un, no lemon.”
She smiled and moved on to the next table, handing out menus to the three ladies there and soaking up drink orders. Then she disappeared into a prep area out of view.
Not that there weren’t people who gave up. I saw twice where groups of four to six came in, took one look and left. Their loss. There were a dozen people waiting in the front of the restaurant, and it looked like there were a good number of people outside, too.
My waitress returned with her notepad. “Have you decided?”
“The Keo Klassic. Oh, and could you describe your caramel pie?”
“It’s a burnt sugar custard under meringue. I like it.”
“I’ll have that too.”
She grinned and turned to the next table to pick up its order. The pie had been a hard choice. While the coconut pie at Charlotte’s is highly recognized, the chocolate is also well known. The whiteboard also had egg custard and caramel written on it – and while I loved egg custard I hadn’t had a caramel before. I wondered if it’d be like butterscotch. I promised myself if I managed to make it through the repast I’d already ordered that I’d ask for a piece of egg custard, too.
My eyes were drawn to the delivery of a chocolate milkshake to the group table across the way. The tall glass screamed of dairy delights. It was the first dessert I had seen pass that morning, and it made my stomach rumble. Most of the tables were packed with people nursing beverages and none of the tables had real food yet. But that was fine, since most of the tables were abuzz with conversation.
It’d taken 15-20 minutes just to get that drink order and here it was 11:30 and I was really starting to feel hungry. I heard the hostess, Kimberly, taking orders over the phone. There seemed to be just as many call-in orders as eat-in ones, and I couldn’t imagine just how busy that kitchen must have been.
I just marveled -- all those people waiting, all the ones already seated wanting food, what kept them there? Was the reputation of the place really that good, or was it the food? For heaven’s sake, it was a Tuesday morning -- not necessarily the busiest time of the year, eh?
Kimberly came over and bussed the table next to mine as she took an order on the phone. My eyes wandered back over to the specials board, which was advertising a Fresh Fruit Plate with watermelon, strawberries, grapes, pineapple, bananas, cantaloupe and poppy seed dressing with a choice of chicken salad, tuna salad or cottage cheese and garlic biscuits to boot for $8.25. I was starting to see this special speed by me on its way to other tables.
All at once two of the waitresses swept into the room with meals for the group of seven on the other side of the front room. Grilled ham and cheese sandwiches, round burgers and clubs were doled out, each with their cursory stack of rippled potato chips and a hearty slice of pickle.
The line had been constant, staying at even numbers despite the small influx of people as tables became available. At 11:40, few had received their meals but still there was no complaint. I heard my waitress tell newcomers at another table “Cobbler is Thursday, remember?” and give her wan smile again. I noticed she was taking dessert reservations with each dinner order. Apparently there is some small fear that a particular type of pie might run out before the customers get the chance to order.
In the back, it’s a different story, where the big tables reserved early on were being served. The noise level never dipped, conversations continuing in-between bites of sandwiches and salads and of course the inevitable pie.
As I snapped away, I overheard one of the ladies at the next table mutter “it’d taste better if she ate it.” I smiled in their direction, and they nodded back. It was hard to shoot, with that decadent layer of meringue all full of bubbles and the custard… I shot it, but I couldn’t wait for the rest of my lunch. One bite, and I knew I’d chosen well. That lovely burnt sugar taste of the custard, a caramel made from scratch and not some melted lump of stuff from Kraft, a gorgeous taste that could make you cry. The meringue, firm and yet able to grasp the custard well, was toasted on top, almost burned but not quite, attaining a burnt sugar essence in its flavor. All of this sat on top of a lovely hand thrown butter crust that mated well to the whole pie. I could not help myself. I had to dig in.
Well, I had to work, you know. This was, after all, what I did. I put down my fork and started shooting the sandwich under its cover of rippled potato chips. The Keo Klassic’s nice crust made by the parmesan garlic batter on the grill was crispy, while the bread underneath was still white and fluffy. The thin layers below spoke of tastiness -- Monterrey Jack cheese, smoked turkey breast, tomato, white onion, avocado and another slice of Monterrey Jack. It was all somehow smooth and juicy at the same time, holding together with each bite. It was soft in the middle, and warm, and like this incredible interpretation marrying grilled cheese and a fresh turkey sandwich. I adored it.
I was halfway through the first half of the sandwich, and watching the line up front. One of the waitresses announced “be sure when you get through the door you get your name on the waiting list.”
You wouldn’t think of reservations for a down-home establishment like Charlotte’s, but it really is that popular. I heard my waitress tell the table next to mine that a church group of 22 had come in and had stalled up the orders a bit. The ladies at that table waved her off, not concerned about the time it had taken to receive their order. Time’s not a big issue for most diners here, I came to find.
I was about halfway through the sandwich when the waitress came to my table. “Can I get you anything else?” she asked as she freshened my tea.
“Egg custard, please. To-go.”
“You got it!” she beamed. She pulled out my check, marked it and flipped it onto the table. I finished my sandwich and returned my attention to the pie, which had been calling my name throughout the meal. It was just as good if not better.
It’s amazing to me that such a humble place receives that sort of attention. I should have expected it -- after all, when I mentioned that day on Facebook that I was in Keo there was a collective swoon of pie lovers. But nothing prepared me for the volume of people I would see pass through those doors.
After that first visit, I became one of the folks who'd call my order in - always a Keo Klassic turkey without onions and a slice of caramel pie. I'd place my order first thing in the morning, dawdle around and head out to pick up my order about 11:30. I probably got plenty of dirty looks. But I had a great meal.
As I watched her dob huge mounds of meringue atop the custard pies, I asked her why she didn't just make more pies. Her amswer? She had no intention of making any more pies than would fit in her oven or on her counter. I can respect that.
And then there are the delightful fruit and salad plates... which, when summer is at its apex, are the perfect summer lunch: tuna or chicken salad surrounded by fresh fruit on a bed of lettuce. Simple, yet elegant, and maybe you won't feel so guilty getting that pie after.
Charlotte's Eats and Sweets
290 Main Street
Keo, AR 72046