Border Cantos is a timely, new and free exhibit now on view at Crystal Bridges.
I have a lot of respect for my colleague, friend, and Eat Arkansas co-conspirator Dan Walker, but there are some subjects that we just don't see eye-to-eye on — like his recent chest tattoo depicting Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke, or even worse, his review of La Casa Real on Rodney Parham, a place I think is pretty tasty. Thinking more about it, I decided I had two reasons to disagree with Dan: La Casa Real evokes a strong sense of nostalgia in me, and Radiohead is terribly overrated.
Growing up around Hot Springs as I did, you'll find two camps of Mexican food lovers: those who love Central Avenue mainstay La Hacienda, and those that don't — and the ones that don't are usually pretty strong in their dislike. For me, La Hacienda is the perfect example of what a restaurant should be: family run, with tasty, relatively inexpensive food, good atmosphere, and friendly, efficient service. A recent visit to La Casa Real proved that the same things are true about the Little Rock branch of the Oseguera family business, with cheerful servers, delicious food, and a price that was exactly right. Neither La Hacienda nor La Casa Real are 100% authentic Mexican, but it would also be unfair to classify their menu as Tex-Mex. These are family recipes, perfected over generations and served with care.
My dining companion ordered the Alambre de Queso, which basically boils down to a huge plate of fresh-off-the-grill skirt steak covered in peppers, onions, and loads of gooey melted cheese. Again, it's far more cheese than you'll find in authentic Mexican cuisine, but the cheese lover in us was delighted. To the side, a small container of freshly grilled corn tortillas, mixed rice with vegetables, and a generous helping of the greatest refried beans I've ever tasted. Usually, the beans on a plate of Mexican food are an afterthought, just some brown sludge to fill in the gaps and possibly be poked once or twice with a tortilla chip. Not these beans. Dark and thick, with a creamy texture and rich flavor, these beans are like no other I've ever tried. I've attempted to make them at home with no success. The result of all this goodness was a plate that looked like a Mexican-style Philly cheese steak exploded everywhere, ready to be wrapped up on a tortilla lovingly buffeted by a layer of beans. Perfection.
For myself, I took the full nostalgia trip and ordered the #1 Combination: One shredded beef taco in a crisp shell, one cheese enchilada, and one tamale (with some more of those excellent beans). I wasn't always the adventurous eater that I am now, and this simple three-item combination was just about all I ordered at the Hot Springs La Hacienda (it's the #1 there, too) when I was growing up. It was almost exactly as good as I remembered. The taco shell was thin and crispy, loaded with tender shredded beef and piled high with lettuce, pico de gallo, and cheese. The enchilada was a wonderland of luscious cheese and red sauce — and then there was the tamale. La Casa Real's tamales are moist without being soggy, filled with seasoned pork, and topped with a thin layer of queso and more pico de gallo. And while I loved the tamale on my plate at La Casa Real, the queso was a poor substitute for the thick red chili sauce that I remembered from my youth. Still, it was an excellent and filling plate — especially for $7.99.
In the end, I can forgive Dan for trashing the place. After all, he didn't grow up with the wonderful goodness that is La Hacienda, so we can hardly expect him to appreciate a variation on a theme he's never experienced. But please, by all means, feel free to make as much fun of Radiohead in the comments as you would like.