Forgive me, foodies, for I have sinned.
Given the high profile life I lead, it probably comes as no surprise that many of my meals are made up of the finest organic products, produced by talented artisans and chefs to be consumed on-site at one of our many picturesque farms. Other times, I content myself with lighter fare — local mixed-green salads massaged into being to a soundtrack of Iron and Wine and served with just a hint of patchouli. And of course I wash it all down with some of the finest wine and beer that our fine state has to offer. It's a good life.
What I don't do, what I never do, is eat fast food. Even my butler's maid is too good for the stuff. After all, switching from my regular diet of foie gras hamburgers to something as gauche as a Whopper would be like painting a goatee on the Mona Lisa.
Of course, that's all the biggest bunch of baloney this side of Oscar Mayer. I do try to limit my intake of take-out food, but there are times when a lunch hour turns into the dreaded "lunch 15 minutes" and fast food manages to pump enough fat, salt, carbs, and mutilated protein into my body so that work may continue. And honestly, not all fast food is terrible. Wendy's has some decent salads, and I've got a soft spot for the dreaded Chicken McNugget. And with the coming of McDonald's "Mighty Wings," one thing becomes clear: Mickey D's needs to stick to chicken of the pressed and boneless variety.
What's a chicken wing from McDonald's like? You can do them yourself at home. Make a large batch of the flour paste popular in kid's craft classes. Add to this dough about a cup and a half of season salt. Coat chicken wings with the glop to the thickness of about 3/4 of an inch. Fry for the length of time it takes to sync up Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon with The Wizard of Oz. When the chick on "Great Gig in the Sky" starts wailing, pull the wings. For best results, top the wings with your favorite sauce, then dump them directly into the nearest trash can. Let them sit for an hour, then eat. You'll be close.
If there's one thing I can say about the Mighty Wings, it's that they at least have a real chicken wing somewhere buried under the harsh, salty crust, unlike, say, the McRib. I'm still unclear why McDonald's thought this was a good product, though, because wings aren't convenient to eat in the car, they're so over-battered that they don't fit into the sauce tubs for easy dipping — and oh yeah, they taste like MSG-enhanced evil. There are fun guilty pleasures out there, but it's clear after the first bite that the Mighty Wing will never be one.
McDonald's is located...well, everywhere.
In this day and age of Amazon.com and spacious, open-air shopping palaces like West Little Rock's Promenade, the old-fashioned shopping mall is something of a quaint relic, a symbol of a by-gone time where kids cruised the halls while parents did their shopping. Nowhere is this more apparent than at the Hot Springs Mall, a building in which I've spent more hours than I can count looking at cassettes, and then CDs; pumping dollar after dollar into a change machine at Aladdin's Castle for video game tokens — and most important, grabbing a bite to eat at the greatest mall restaurant of all time: the Corn Dog 7.
Many of the Hot Springs mall stores from my childhood are gone — Aladdin's Castle fell victim to the gaming power of home computers and consoles, Waldenbooks fell to the selection and ease of Amazon and the Kindle, and while there's still an FYE Music with CDs and movies, the Camelot Music and Disk Jockey stores I shopped at are long gone. Through it all, though, the most reliable place has been the brightly lit corn dog joint, where it's guaranteed that a couple of surly teenagers will hand-batter a hot dog on a stick, dunk it in the fryer, and sling that greasy, crunchy delicacy right at your face in no time flat.
Corn Dog 7's fortunes have fallen along with the malls, and Hot Springs has one of the few remaining location of the Hughes, Texas restaurant left. And sure, it's corn dogs, but they're really good corn dogs, made fresh and never soggy or burned. I love the mini-corn dogs because I can't stand putting anything wooden in my mouth (including Popsicle sticks and tongue depressors), so these tiny bites of crunchy goodness dipped in mustard are some of the best treats around.
The goodies don't stop with corn dogs, though. The fries are made to order just like the dogs, then hit with a dash of season salt to finish them off. Other fried delicacies include funnel cakes and the "cheese on a stick," which offers a choice of American or Pepper Jack cheese jammed onto a stick, batter-dipped, then deep-fried to a crunchy, gooey mess. It's the sort of place your cardiologist probably doesn't want you going to that often — but man cannot live by Lipitor alone.
As I approach my middle age, I think back to things I loved as a younger man, and often revisit them. With food, sometimes that means finding out that something you loved as a child is repulsive to you now. Luckily, sometimes that means settling into a booth you first sat in twenty years ago, dipping your corn dog into mustard brighter than any other, and enjoying the first screaming-hot bite of a ridiculous treat that's still as good as it ever was. It's just too bad there was nowhere to go play Galaga once I was done.
No matter where you’re eating, you always go into a place with expectations. You stroll inside Eric Ripert’s Le Bernardin, Thomas Keller’s French Laundry—you know darn well there are certain expectations that had better to be met. You pull around the corner at the Sonic drive-thru, you expect…well, you pretty much know what to expect, no need to spell it out here. But occasionally, when we’re fortunate, we’re taken by surprise. We leave a restaurant utterly amazed, expectations exceeded, with a glowing sense of satisfaction beaming inside of us.
When you’ve determined to eat in a gas station, your expectations are often quite low. Maybe a few bags of M&M’s, the occasional stale snack cake, the microwave burrito with the eternally frozen center. These are the kinds of sumptuous nuggets you imagine choking down when picturing gas station gastronomy.
But over at the Shell Station on the corner of I-30 and Geyer Springs road, you’ll find something to shout about. Herein you'll find Gino’s Full Belly Deli—an easy-to-miss, classic American grill serving familiar fare in big portions at entirely reasonable prices. I was turned onto this place by local blogger, Jason Stormoe over at Arkansas Mirepoix—a man teeming with knowledge about unexpectedly good eats in the SWLR area.
At Gino’s, you won’t want to miss their fine rendition of the Philly Cheese Steak. The formula is familiar, the ingredients expected, but it’s a sandwich prepared correctly. A soft white roll is toasted and dressed with mounds of thinly sliced ribeye. Before going on the sandwich, the beef is given a quick sear on the flat-top, imparting a few crispy bits around the edges to the otherwise soft tender steak. Intermixed you’ll find sautéed, sweet bell peppers, tomatoes, and golden onions adding to the beef’s depth of flavor. Finally, a generous slathering of melted Swiss cheese rests atop the entire concoction. It’s a sandwich that bleeds and sweats with rich, fatty flavor. Its beefy juices drip down your hands and arms as you partake; napkins are an afterthought as your brain urges you to press on. Forget about your dignity for a few minutes and enjoy.
Then there’s the Chicken Philly Cheese Fries. One look at this behemoth of starch and fat is enough to make weaker hearts cower in fear. Throw away all thoughts of reasonable caloric intake and suggested daily dietary needs. This thing will squash the entire food pyramid in one swift, mighty blow. But they are good—very good— and should be experienced by everyone. Here’s the winning formula: crispy, thick-cut fries, piled high with chunks of chicken breast, grilled peppers and onions. On top of all this lay a double blanket of cheddar cheese sauce and melted Swiss. The union of cheese, chicken, and fry is a thing of great magnificence. Hot and crispy meets juicy and tender. Starve yourself for a week, pop a few extra Lipitor, run a marathon before visiting, slip your cardiologist a cool $100 bill under the table…do whatever you have to do to enjoy these glorious fries without guilt or shame. You’ll cherish every second of it.
The rest of Gino’s menu remains unexplored to me, but I’ll probably find it incredibly difficult to pry myself away from these items I mention here. Burgers? Ham and cheese? Chicken wings? Meh, you can keep them all…I’ll be plowing my way through another mountain of cheese and chicken covered fries.
Gino’s Full Belly Deli is located at 8000 Geyer Springs Rd., Little Rock. 501-562-0152.
You’re good to your body. You get plenty of sleep. You hit the gym regularly. You eat your veggies. You’re avoiding salt, sugar, carbs, artificial flavors, hormonally-enhanced meats, trans fats, and saturated fats. Every now and then, you deserve a little reward, a small splurge.
So you wake up one morning, feeling particularly pleased with yourself, and you’ve decided that just this once, you’re throwing all caution to the wind. For the time being, the diet is dead.
You wonder, “What is the most unhealthy and gluttonous food I can put inside my body this morning?” Bacon? There’s an idea. Donuts? Now we’re talking.
Why not both? Shipley’s has got you covered.
Particularly the Shipley’s Donuts on Cantrell. Recently they’ve added a donut to their selection that’s so far from being “part of a balanced breakfast” it makes Jillian Michaels shiver in her Spandex. An item so mind bogglingly bad for you, while the expression is quickly becoming the internet’s most overused expression, one can only shake one’s head and mutter, “’Merica.”
Maple icing joins chopped bacon on top of a soft yeast donut. It’s not the best bacon in the universe; it’s not the best donut in existence either. But it’s there, together, living harmoniously for the pleasure of all who choose to bathe in its salty, greasy, sweet, and seductive light.
It was only a matter of time, really, that some Mensa-level, Nobel-deserving egghead developed such a carefully crafted concoction. Someone was sitting down to breakfast, enjoying a plate of pancakes with maple syrup and a side of crispy bacon. As syrup slithered over bacon and the two became one, there was a moment of enlightenment. “Put this on a donut,” the genius thought. And so it was, and we should be ever grateful
You can find the maple-bacon donut every morning at the bustling Shipley’s Donuts located at 7514 Cantrell Rd., Little Rock…just above the unicorn kisses, right next to the double rainbows.
I lived in Saline County for just over four years, and during that time I learned that there are a few surprising places to eat. One of the most surprising isn't a restaurant at all, but rather a deli tucked away in a Shell station just off I-30 right as the interstate exits Benton. The store is called Bullock's Superstop, and while you can get the typical food, candy, and soda pop there, it's what's behind the counter that makes the place a must-stop every time I find myself heading that way: delicious smoked meat.
This discovery was something of an accident: Jess and I were heading down toward Hot Springs one day and decided to stop and fill up our tank. Seeing some tasty looking sandwiches in the cold case by the cash register for only a couple of bucks, we grabbed some turkey sandwiches and went on our way. Imagine our surprise when we took the first bite and found that nestled between two pieces of ordinary light bread was a pile of thin-shaved smoked turkey as good as any we'd ever had. Moist, tender, and redolent of hickory smoke, this sandwich was a shocking revelation that there might be more to Bullock's than meets the eye.
We paid a little more attention to the place next time we were through, grabbing another one of those turkey sandwiches but also getting one of the smoked ham variety. Again, the meat was shaved wafer thin and piled thick, its only companion a slice of deli-style American cheese. Subsequent visits saw us trying some of their other non-smoked sandwiches — pimento cheese, egg salad, and tuna — as well as some of their more typical gas station fare like burgers and burritos, but it's that smoked meat that keeps us coming back. We asked the folks at Bullock's what their secret was, and all they'd tell us is that they start with Petit Jean meat and then smoke it in their own particular way. I can certainly understand the desire for technique secrecy when the food is this good.
Bullock's Superstop is located at 15536 Interstate 30 in Benton, right before Ed & Kay's cafe. I know I've written about gas station cuisine before with tongue planted firmly in cheek, but believe me when I say that the smoked meat at this place is the real deal.
Morning in Little Rock, and the South University Kum and Go is a buzzing hive of activity. City workers, UALR students, police officers, and a thousand other types of morning commuter zip around the parking lot, jockeying for position at the twenty or so gas pumps, then heading inside for what some say is the most important meal of the day — and in these parts certainly the most rushed: breakfast. The scene inside the store is just as busy as the one in the parking lot as people line up to buy the Red Bull energy drinks, snack cakes, and 32 oz. cans of Miller High Life that keep this city running. Jerrod and Vanessa are behind the counter, just as they are most mornings, keeping things moving so that we can all get to work on time. They're both friendly in a hurried, efficient way, and they watch out for things that might be out of the ordinary, from the taking down of license plate numbers from people who attempt fuel pump drive-offs to Jerrod's running off an older man in biker leather who has been standing at the door for at least 20 minutes inexplicably shouting "DUH!" at every person who walks through the door. It's a gas station, sure, but it's something beyond that: it's where a lot of what my dad calls "just folks" come to break their fast and start their days.
Wednesdays at the Kum & Go are particularly busy, because it's on Wednesday that the signs go up: "$1 PIZZA SLICE." Pepperoni, sausage — even the egg, cheese, and bacon "breakfast slice" — all just one dollar? It's too good a deal to pass up, even better than the "2 for $2.22" hot dog deal that can net a full lunch (with kraut, onions, and all the fixins) for under a fiver, even with a drink and chips. And sure, there's ham and cheese croissants and donuts available, and the K&G kitchen has even been known to whip up a very passable biscuits and gravy, but there's just something about eating pizza for breakfast on the cheap that keeps me coming back again and again.
You don't eat gas station pizza expecting anything gourmet, and you don't eat gas station pizza without feeling a little bit of guilt. My mother certainly raised me better than shoveling in a greasy triangle of sausage, processed cheese, and something can only charitably be called "crust" as I'm navigating the traffic on University avenue, dodging freshman driving in the big city for the first time, Reagan-era boats with rims bigger than my Nissan Versa, and the 18-wheelers who have come from I-30 into town to bring us all what we consume. No, you eat this food, this "pizza" because it's cheap, and while it doesn't necessarily taste good, it hits those spots in your primate brain that make everything feel better, at least in the short-term: salt, fat, pure carbohydrate. You eat it because sometimes you have to give your Lipitor prescription the finger. You eat it because it costs only a dollar, and precious little can be gotten for that meager amount these days.
I suppose that a larger conversation about gas station pizza might include discussion of why a slice on any given Wednesday is cheaper than, say, a piece of fresh fruit, and while that's a valid topic and something that we should be quite concerned about, I'm afraid I just can't be bothered to address it until I've finished these two-for-a-dollar Slim Jims and Strawberry Diet Coke.
Kum and Go is located at 6201 Colonel Glenn Road, right below any sense of dignity you have about what you put in your body. One dollar pizza lasts all day every Wednesday.
The esquites are made up of fresh, golden corn sheared off the cob, filling a small styrofoam cup. To this comes the addition of butter, lime juice, salt, and a topping of crumbly queso fresco—a self service bottle of hot sauce and chili powder provides an optional accompaniment. So simple a combination, but how lovely the flavor. The interplay of bright, earthy corn with rich butter is expectedly tasty, but the addition of sour lime complemented by salty, creamy queso fresco makes for a fabulous way to start any meal. Elotes, a close relative of esquites, simply takes the same flavors and finds them slathered onto corn still clinging to the cob...if you prefer to work a little for your corn, you may want to go this route.
Someday, if we're lucky, we'll see esquites/elotes carts scattered throughout the city...but for now you're likely to see them only in Southwest Little Rock neighborhoods. The gussied up, gentrified West Little Rock Mexican safe haven, Local Lime is doing a version they're pushing under the guise of "Market Corn," with cheese, chili, and crema. People are going nuts for it...as they rightly should. But that same dish can easily be found at a fraction of the price outside of Mercado San Jose (and I imagine a number of other locations I've yet to discover)...well worth another adventure to this neck of the woods.
You'll find Rossy, the corn lady, outside of Mercado San Jose at 7411 Geyer Springs Rd, Little Rock.
Yes! White River is awesome and you should all go get some of their cheese!
It's pronounced "cash," I asked the executive chef about it a month or so ago.
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