Pictured above: “Everyone told me, ‘Oh no, you are crazy to open a restaurant. It’s the pandemic, they are all closing now. I said, ‘I think it will work.’  Restaurant owner William Watkins. Photos by Jamie Lee.

 

Soul food is a culinary tradition in the South, but it is more than just cuisine. It is a view into the culture and region where it is prepared from recipes passed down for generations. This style of cuisine is rooted in heritage and a strong connection to community. Shared meals and family are at the heart of each kitchen.

 

William Watkins, owner of Fat Jaws Soul Food and Southern Eats, has successfully created a restaurant where all these elements blend perfectly. As owner and executive chef, he and his crew put their heart into feeding people’s souls.

 

Originally from Hot Springs, Watkins lived in Dallas for about 20 years. There, he did catering and a few pop-up restaurants. After moving back to Arkansas to be closer to family in 2020, Watkins worked a full-time job as nutrition director for a Head Start program and did private catering on the side. When 2021 rolled around, he decided the time had come to do something more.

 

“Everyone told me, ‘Oh no, you are crazy to open a restaurant. It’s the pandemic, they are all closing now,’” Watkins said. “I said, ‘I think it will work. People need to eat, so let’s just see.’”

 

Watkins found a building downtown and began remodeling, using the kitchen to cook for his catering jobs. He followed that with Catfish Fridays events in which he would open in the evenings and sell catfish plates. As business started to pick up, patrons began asking him to open for lunch. Fat Jaws opened for regular restaurant service in 2022.

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“In the first few months, we were averaging about 25 customers a week, and I thought we were doing great. Then I said, ‘God, just give me 50 a week,’” he said. “It moved up to 50 a week. We had our regulars coming in. Once people started spreading the word about us, it has really taken off.”

 

Social media also helped spread the word about the new restaurant, allowing for controlled growth and for Watkins to keep his full-time job. That time was short-lived.

 

“We got a call from Channel 11 to be in their ‘Eat it Up’ segment. After that aired, our 50 customers a week became 50 a day,” Watkins said. “We also participated in the Big on Little Rock campaign with the Little Rock Convention and Visitor Bureau, which highlighted African American businesses in the city, and about a month ago, the city posted about our business on their social media channels. All that publicity and word of mouth has been great for us.”

A bright dining room. vibrant artwork and plenty of family references await Fat Jaws diners.

The quality of the food has not hurt the restaurant’s popularity, either. Watkins learned to cook from his paternal grandmother, Gracie Greathouse-Watkins, to whom he pays tribute in the restaurant’s decor, along with other honored family members.

 

“I have a wall painted behind the register. You see my maternal grandmother and paternal grandmother included on it,” Watkins said, adding that he often sat at the table in the kitchen with his paternal grandmother and learned from her. “I wasn’t interested in playing outside with the bigger cousins. I wanted to sit there and just watch her cook.

 

“She was an amazing cook from Tollette, and she made everything from scratch. I would love to hear stories about her learning to cook from her grandmother. I watched and I asked questions.”

 

One day, while Watkins was in college, he called his grandmother with a request for her roast.

 

“Granny stayed on the phone with me for four hours while that roast cooked, walking me through every step of the cooking process — how to dry it, stuff it and how to make the pan gravy,” he said. “That’s how I learned to cook. When I was hungry for home-cooked meals in college and couldn’t get to Granny’s house, I would be calling her. ‘Hey Granny, I really want your green beans. Tell me how to do it,’ and she would always take the time.”

 

This deep family connection remains the center of Fat Jaws, a bright and airy space full of colorful local art and lively music. The menu is stocked with family heirloom recipes to which Watkins has added his own spin using local ingredients.

 

For example, the loaded biscuit served during brunch features two open-face biscuits topped with fried tenders, scrambled eggs, bacon and Watkin’s homemade cream gravy. Another popular choice is Fat Jaws chicken and waffles, a traditional favorite with the unique twist of peach cobbler compote topping.

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Catfish and collard greens tacos are just one of the creative spins the kitchen puts on soul food favorites.

Another dish showing Watkins’ creative side is the fried catfish and collard green taco popular among the lunch crowd. Crispy catfish is topped with creamy slaw made with tartar sauce, paired with braised collard greens and drizzled with malt vinegar. Wrapped in a warm tortilla and served with fries and hush puppies, the balanced yet flavor-packed taco is another thing that puts Fat Jaws on the local food map.

 

The restaurant balances the more unique dishes with the traditional elements by which any soul food restaurant is judged. The four-piece fried chicken plate, for example, offers light and crispy protein well-seasoned throughout due to brining. The yardbird is accompanied by smothered, buttery cabbage and sweet and smoky baked beans.

Another winner, the flavorful Hennessy barbecue wings, arrive sweet and sticky and served with creamy macaroni and cheese and braised collard greens. The wings are served on a slice of white bread, great for sopping.

 

As with the entire menu, Watkins takes great pride in his revisited heritage dishes, simple food done extraordinarily well. Hence, his personal favorite is the Church Plate comprised of homemade spaghetti with three strips of crispy fried catfish and fresh coleslaw. It speaks of Sundays in the South after a small-town church service.

 

As the restaurant has grown, so too has Watkins’ catering business, something else he credits with his earliest education in food.

From classic fried yardbird to inventive wings, Fat Jaws’ chicken entrees are quickly becoming the stuff of local legend.

“Catering is how all of this started,” he said. “I had friends over one day who said, ‘You can really cook!’ I was then asked to cater a friend’s birthday party for 150 people. I didn’t know anything about catering. I went out and bought all the equipment, and that’s how it all started, from one friend, and then word of mouth took over.”

 

Watkins said he called his original catering company He Cooks Catering because “everyone thought it was an old woman cooking in the back.” Fat Jaws has already landed catering gigs for Arkansas Children’s, as well as other businesses in Little Rock and Hot Springs.

 

Soul food is as much a mood and an atmosphere as it is a culinary category. When customers walk into Fat Jaws, they instantly feel comfortable, like walking into a friend’s house. A friend that really knows how to cook and knows his flavors.

 

“When I started, I wanted it to be somewhere people could come in and feel like they were back at home,” Watkins said. “You come in and smell the food and feel nostalgic. I’ve had someone tell me, ‘I haven’t tasted catfish like this since my grandmother’s.’ That’s what I aim for. I’m cooking from a standpoint of how my grandma cooked. When I get comments like that, I feel I’ve nailed it.

 

“It must be something that I would eat and that my grandmother would be proud to serve. I really do care about the food. I want people to know we are trying to put out a good product.”

 

As for the future of Fat Jaws, Watkins said he wants it to become a staple in downtown Little Rock but not outgrow the intimate family feel. He has plans to expand the hours to dinner, as well as add events such as gospel and jazz brunches, and he said he dreams of one day opening a restaurant in his hometown of Hot Springs.

 

“My vision was always to have a small restaurant, nothing too big because I want it to feel like home — something we can maintain and become a favorite for customers,” he said. “You can go to a soul food restaurant, and the food isn’t always going to be great unless you do it with love. My take on it is that whatever we are cooking, we are cooking from a place of love, a place from our soul and our spirit. That’s what I think soul food is.”

 

Fat Jaws Soul Food and Southern Eats

220 W. Sixth St., Little Rock

(501) 492-6925

Sun-Tu: Closed

W-F: 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Sat: 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

 

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