My wife and I got into the car last week, and when she noticed the bottle sitting in my cup holder, she got an odd look on her face. "Were you drinking beer in the car?" she asked, slightly scandalized. Sure enough, the brown glass container sitting empty could certainly be mistaken as a beer bottle at first glance, and with a label across the front that reading "Tommyknocker," anybody could be forgiven the mistake — after all, Tommyknocker is one of my favorite breweries in these United States.
But before you all get on the line to the state police and MADD, let me explain. I wasn't drinking Tommyknocker beer and driving — I was drinking a Tommyknocker Strawberry Creme soda, one of four excellent flavors of soft drink that the brewery is now selling in Arkansas. I picked one up with my lunch at Hillcrest Artisan Meats the other day, and I was an immediate fan of the sweet, creamy soda — so much so that I'm not sure which I like better from the Idaho Springs brewery, the soda or the beer.
In addition to that strawberry, the soda is also available in orange creme, almond creme, and root beer — all fantastic. And while being made with organic ingredients doesn't make all that sugary soda into a health drink, the high quality of what goes into each bottle results in something that quenches thirst with burst after burst of delicious flavor.
If you haven't had a chance to wrap your lips around one of these sodas, I've just given you a nice excuse to stop into H.A.M. for lunch. Alternatively, you can head up to Argenta Market in North Little Rock to grab a four pack of whichever flavor strikes your fancy. Just be sure not to peel the label off if you want to drink these tasty sodas while driving.
When it comes to meal starters, is there anything better than a really good meat and cheese plate? For far too long, this wonderful mix of cured meats and fine cheeses has been a story of squandered potential, and since the holidays are coming, you'll see what I mean: limp, greasy slices of dollar store summer sausage mixed with cubes of day-glo orange cheese with a few wilting Ritz crackers to complete the package. It doesn't have to be this way, people — you can have an elegant and delicious selection of meats and cheeses ready to start any meal; just ask the Capital Bar and Grill.
At CBG, you can mix and match several types of charcuterie and cheese. Dry cured meats like bresaola and coppa sit next to house-made deliciousness like pate made with pistachios (or cranberries on our most recent visit) and a chicken liver mousse that is creamy, rich, and completely excellent. As for cheese, the Capital provides a selection that ranges from creamy Camembert to a sharp, crumbly blue (my favorite) that can please any palate. Add in a handful of spiced pecans and a large basket of grilled bread, and the results are as far from those sad cocktail party meat trays as the moon is from the sun. It's the sort of thing that can be the beginning of a great dining experience or the main course of something equally good, and the variety of combinations available make for a fun time deciding what to get (although in that picture above, we got everything).
Getting everything offered can, of course, be a little pricy, but the whole plate will easily feed a table of four with some left over. Smaller appetites would do good to pick that liver mousse and pate, as these fresh-made items are representative of the artistry and skill that defines good charcuterie. And if the selection of fine cheeses isn't your thing, you can always supplement your meats with some of CBG's famous pimento cheese.
We Americans have been the recipients of numerous extraordinary gifts from our neighbors to the north, that bounteous country known as Canada. Oh Canada! How we love thee! Can you imagine a world without the likes of Neil Young, Pamela Anderson, Michael J. Fox, Keanu Reeves, Ryan Gosling…Nickelback?! No, that is not a world for me. But what about all those culinary treasures we’ve been provided with by our friends, the Canucks? Alright, maybe there aren’t really a lot that come to mind here, but it’s impossible to imagine the foodscape of Canada without considering the beauty of poutine.
Why poutine has not infiltrated every corner of the globe is beyond my understanding. Think about it…it’s a bona fide recipe for success, something that should be readily embraced all over the world. Crispy fries, rich brown gravy, gooey cheese curds. I ask you, what’s not to love?
Despite the magic of poutine, it remains an endangered species on most of America’s restaurant menus…especially here in the South.
But poutine lovers in Little Rock can finally stop their pouting, there’s no longer any need to hop the border to obtain Canada’s greatest culinary achievement. Chef Jeff Owen at Ciao Baci has placed poutine on his fall menu…and you all need to get over there and try this stuff.
Owen starts with a plateful of gorgeous sweet potato frittes—thick cut, nicely fried, with a crispy exterior and a soft interior. Owen's handling of these salty, slightly sweet fries make for some seriously top-notch tubers. Next he adds a generous portion of duck confit—tender duck meat slowly simmered in duck fat until the rich, fatty meat is easily pulled from the bone. He also uses this duck fat/meat-dripping mixture to layer the fries in a coat of salty brown gravy. The last essential component of good poutine is added, house-brined mozzarella curds. As the white cheese curds melt and cascade in-between the hot fries, duck, and gravy, it’s nearly impossible to resist the plate's seductive and sultry allure. I think it lasted on our table less than three minutes…no exaggeration.
If you’ve never had the pleasure of a good poutine, this is a very nice introduction to the dish. Sure, you won’t be enjoying it in The Great White North, but if you play Rush’s “Tom Sawyer” loud enough through the car stereo on your trip home, it’s almost just as good.
Find Ciao Baci at 605 N. Beechwood St., Little Rock.
'O Oysters,' said the Carpenter,
You've had a pleasant run!
Shall we be trotting home again?'
But answer came there none
And this was scarcely odd, because
They'd eaten every one.
But there's more to life than raw oysters, and if I can't get them raw, I'll take them prepared the best way the South knows how: battered and fried. Oh sure, you lose a lot of the subtle flavors that a raw oyster provides, but if the breading is done well, you gain a spicy, crunchy-on-the-outside, soft-in-the-middle treat that I find more enjoyable than the king of fried seafood, shrimp. And when it comes to oysters of the fried variety, Little Rock has some contenders for king — the aforementioned Oyster Bar, Flying Fish, and Krazy Mike's all boast respectable versions of the delicate deep-fried treats. Topping them all, though, is the little restaurant on N. Van Buren that's been serving up good eats in Little Rock for nearly 40 years: Cheers in the Heights.
The oysters at Cheers are small, which is good for the fried variety, since a small oyster allows for a perfect meat-to-coating ratio that makes every bite balanced — and Cheers makes up for the smaller size of these oysters by loading up each plate with a plentiful helping. The breading is spicy and flavorful, coating each oyster well without being too thick. The oysters themselves are mild and not at all fishy, but with a flavor that comes through in each bite. Topping the whole affair is a tangy remoulade sauce that sets everything off into a wonderland of crunchy, savory seafood bliss. I used to think that the fried mushrooms were Cheers' greatest appetizer, but these oysters are even better. And although I didn't weep for the mollusks as did the Walrus, when it came time to head back home, my plate was clean and all were gone.
When you are traveling in Italy, you eat pasta. When in Mexico, tacos. When in Japan, sushi. You're dining in a land that houses the finest the world has to offer, there's really no reason or excuse to do otherwise.
When you are at Big Orange, you eat burgers. Or at least that was my general attitude about the place until only recently. Sure, you accent your beef-and-bun with their exemplary fries, sweet shakes, creative cocktails, etc.—but it always comes back to burgers.
Well that's not exactly true, it turns out, as I recently discovered on a recent return visit to one of Arkansas's most acclaimed restaurants. My colleague, Michael Roberts, once touted the merits of Big Orange's "Southern Chicken Sandwich," but I brushed that little tip away to back of my mind. "Who in their right mind passes up an all-natural burger of Creekstone Premium Black Angus beef?" Not I. It had been done before, I assumed, but not by this burger boy. I stuck with what I trusted and loved.
That is, until I recently ventured out and braved the perilous poultry. Quickly, I realized what I had been missing, and I humbly, silently repented of my misgivings.
The Southern Chicken sandwich is a behemoth of beautiful, boneless, breaded chicken. It starts with a few of their plump, juicy, white meat chicken strips—some of the most sizable strips I've ever seen. They come out crispy and blisteringly hot...so fresh-from-the-fryer they should probably come with a disclaimer addressing their excessive temperature. I wouldn't have it any other way, but perhaps you should preceed cautiously when digging in to avoid scalding the roof of your mouth.
They utilize their signature bun, which I've always approved of, but it is rather soft and is best eaten quickly to avoid excessive sogginess and fall-apart. Dill pickle, butter leaf lettuce, and sliced tomato join the party. Dill pickle, I've always felt, is essential to any fried chicken sandwich, offering a nice sharp briny counterpoint to the salty, meaty chicken. They finish with their signature "BOB sauce," a creamy concotion that offers a bit more spice and tang than your average mayo. It complements each of the inner components perfectly.
Now that I realize what I've been missing by venturing outside of my personal fortress of beef, I may have to go completely bonkers and sample some of their other non-cow combinations. Turkey? Or (gasp!) veggie burger? My future is full of exciting opportunites. Thank you, once again, Big Orange.
During a recent trip to Terry’s Finer Foods, I noticed an unassuming red snack bag behind the check-out counter. “WooHoo!” it read. It touted itself as “an extraordinary crunchy nutty snack.” Now this was not the first I’d heard of this product—I’d heard it was something special before. Yet to me, standing there is an entire store full of fantastic products, it appeared rather drab and plain. But this was Terry’s Finer Foods here. Purveyors of some of the greatest product in Little Rock. Surely they would not allow an inferior snack food to take up valuable shelf space were it not living up to Terry’s higher standards. The check-out woman, additionally, spoke very highly of it. “It’s a local product, made right here in Little Rock, and it’s fantastic.” And although I stood there with a hard eye on one of the countertop’s miniature “Pie in the Sky” treats, the kind-hearted woman convinced me to give WooHoo a whirl.
Sure, the concoction DOES resemble your run-of-the-mill snack product, but ordinary this is not. Many of its components are familiar to your experienced snacker—honey roasted cashews, pecans, sesame sticks, rice and corn cereal, butter, pretzels, and some mysterious blend of “special spices.”
It was the blend of the “special spices” with the honey roasted bits that really made this stuff shine. Each bite was a nice mix of spicy and sweet, with the nutty and buttery flavors of pecans, sesame sticks, and roasted cashews. It was crunchy and crispy, completely cravable—everything you’d want in a respectable snack. All it needs is a cold beverage at its side and a Saturday afternoon football game on the TV.
The stuff did not last long in our home. After a few handfuls, I (foolishly) walked away from the bowl for a moment. I came back to a dish nearly emptied of its savory contents, my wife was also surprised to find how tasty the mixture was.
Keep an eye out for a new flavor of WooHoo, especially around the holidays, as there is talk of them creating a chocolate-coated edition. This is a decision I fully support. But until then, I think you’ll find that this treat lives up to their promise of being an “extraordinary” snack food.
(WooHoo can be found at several locations throughout Arkansas in addition to Terry's Finer Foods, including Eggshells, Courtyard Marriott, and Rhea Drug. Check out the list of locations here.)
Our wonderful neighbor to the south, Mexico, is responsible for sending us many great and important things—tacos, piñatas, and Carlos Santana, just to name a few. But let’s not forget their contributions to the world of fried, sugary pastry. Specifically, let’s take a moment to recognize the beauty of the churro.
The churro is not seen enough around this town. Our fried pastry arena is dominated by Shipley’s and the like, but if you’ve spent some time around a few of Little Rock’s Mexican bakeries, or panaderias, you may have witnessed some of the subtly sweet and spectacular things issuing from their oven. Churros, in truth, may have originated in Spain or Portugal, but in this town, you’ll find our Mexican brothers doing them as well as anyone on the globe.
Perhaps one of the best bakeries to find these treats is El Torito. It’s a small Mexican market and taqueria huddled away in a small strip mall off Bowman. Inside you’ll find Mexican groceries of all sort, a carniceria in back, and a small restaurant in the corner. But front-and-center is a large glass bakery case filled with all sorts of bright, colorful baked goods. Honestly, many of them have never appealed to me, but there are definitely some standouts to be had. The fresh churros are probably the best thing available.
The pliable, chewy dough is piped through a “churrera,” a syringe with a star-shaped nozzle. They’re given a bath in the deep fryer until golden brown, sprinkled in cinnamon and sugar, and whisked away to the display case for sale. The outer layer of the dough crisps up nicely, while the interior remains slightly chewy. But the churros of El Torito have a wonderful surprise inside—they’re laced with a ribbon of creamy, sticky dulce de leche. It’s a sweet, milky filling that really puts these churros over the top.
Even if you don’t catch them fresh from the oven, they are still surprisingly delightful. Or grab a half-dozen or so, take them home, pop them in the microwave for 15 seconds and enjoy. Extremists may even venture to concoct a chocolate dipping sauce to enhance the blissful experience, but this is optional and probably unnecessary. Either way, you’re in for a deep-fried delight when you make a trip to El Torito.
El Torito is located at 303 Bowman Rd, Little Rock, (501) 224-0444
The dish’s centerpiece is a substantial portion of white fish. The menu states “cod,” but I know the dish changes with available fish and produce. I’ve actually had it with some wonderful sea bass. The fish is swimming in a perfectly seasoned broth and usually married together with tender carrots, fennel, garlic, and meaty shiitake mushrooms. A little chopped, flat parsley is tossed on top to tie the entire dish together into one aesthetically pleasing package.
And while the looks could kill, the taste is even better. Be forewarned, the temptation to dive hastily into the Stock Pot will exist. It’s important to savor each bite, making sure to get a little bit of every component onto the spoon. You’ll find the warm, savory, sometimes lemony broth pairs well with the fish and hearty vegetables.
Some may view the Stock Pot, which could be just as aptly named a Fish Stew, as solely a cold weather dish. It certainly falls within that nourishing “comfort food” category, but I wouldn’t hesitate to order it during the warmer Arkansas months, when most diners are looking for lighter menu options. The delicate white fish and light broth make this dish an excellent year-round option.
In a city filled with great restaurants, The Pantry is at the top of my Little Rock list. I always recommend it to those looking for a failsafe lunch or dinner spot.
The Stock Pot ($14.50) is only served during the restaurant’s dinner service. The Pantry is located at 11401 Rodney Parham, Little Rock. Hours: Mon-Fri 11-4pm (Lunch), Mon-Sat 4-midnight (Dinner). Closed Sunday.
If you’re new to Arkansas, you may have wondered at some point what the deal is with pimento cheese. Being a non-Southerner originally, I was fascinated upon arrival to the Natural State by the native infatuation with this orange spread. I was unfamiliar with the stuff, for the most part, prior to arrival in Arkansas, but I was not averse to sampling it whenever it seemed necessary. My first few experiences with pimento were rather uninspiring. Sure, it was creamy and a little tangy, but I couldn’t see the reason for its inclusion on nearly every menu in Arkansas (or so it seemed). But I’m happy to report that after a decent amount of time in our fine state, I am merrily singing a different tune. I am very much on board with the pimento party, and now I’m eager to try the luscious dish each time an opportunity arrives. What or who caused me to exchange my skepticism for praise? Perhaps not a single establishment, but one place more than any other comes to mind—Capital Bar and Grill.
Capital Bar and Grill has long been known to produce a fine rendition of pimento cheese. It’s probably most commonly ordered as an appetizer (served with crackers) and a number of folks enjoy it on their popular burger. That’s all fine, I suppose, but my application of choice is in grilled cheese form. In fact, my order of choice is the grilled cheese with bacon added, with a side of fries. My friends, that is a truly memorable meal.
The sandwich incorporates every element imperative for success in a grilled cheese. It’s a simple sandwich with few ingredients, but complexity is certainly not needed in this instance. Nicely buttered and griddled bread, crunchy on the outside, softer on the inside. Then a generous portion of their fine pimento is slathered in between. If you’ve not yet come to terms with the greatness of this concoction, let me explain how it’s done—and done so well—at CBG. The texture is smooth and creamy with just enough intact bits of cheddar to give it a bit more textural interest. The grilling and heating of the sandwich softens the cheese even more than usual, and upon biting into this mixture, it quite literally melts across the tongue. Of course the pimentos add a bit of tang and spice, one of the most redeeming aspects of pimento cheese in general. Perhaps I’m cheating by adding bacon; I’m sure some would argue it’s not necessary. But when a restaurant boasts perhaps the best bacon in Little Rock, you do not pass up such an opportunity. Always crisp, always meaty, salty, rich, and all-together spectacular—do not miss the bacon, it’s absolutely wonderful when wrapped in cheese.
Pair it with their parmesan herb fries (which just happen to be some of the best fries in the city as well) and you are assured to sit down to one of the greatest meals in Little Rock. Unfortunately, of late I’ve had a few issues with slow, spotty service at Capital Bar and Grill, but nothing so terrible as to keep me away from their pimento for too long. If you’ve not yet jumped on the pimento-loving bandwagon, sit down at CBG and you too may be singing its praises before too long.
(The Capital Bar and Grill is located at 111 Markham St., Inside The Capital Hotel)
No, you haven't stumbled onto the latest Arkansas Blog post about Mark Pryor vs. Tom Cotton — that's not the kind of jerk we're talking about. This jerk is an allspice and Scotch bonnet pepper mix from Jamaica that can do some pretty magical things when applied to chicken. I first tried jerk chicken years ago when a lady I worked with would bring some back from a Caribbean eatery in Chicago every time she'd visit, and her once or twice a year pilgrimages became something of a legend. At that time, there wasn't anybody doing jerk chicken in Arkansas, and so a brief taste of that sweet, spicy, savory mix was something that a person either had to do themselves or just taste from time to time. With Montego Cafe on Main Street in the mix now, however, good jerk chicken is as close as downtown.
Now Montego will add some jerk spice to just about anything on their menu — you just have to tell them to "make it Rasta," but the pinnacle of deliciousness comes with the wings. Smoky grilled chicken is coated in a thick layer of sauce that makes me never want to taste any other kind of wings again. A nod to a different wing tradition — the Buffalo wing — is also provided with Montego's plate: a cup of blue cheese or Ranch dressing. I was a bit skeptical of dipping my wings into dressing the first time I tried them, but the cool, creamy flavor of the blue cheese cut through and accentuated the spice of the jerk seasoning nicely. I could eat an embarrassing amount of these wings.
If wings aren't your thing, first what's wrong with you, and second you can get boneless jerk chicken on a salad, or go for the jerk shrimp. And while there are plenty of other things on the Montego menu worth sampling (including some deceptive and delicious rum drinks), that jerk chicken is where it's at, not only as one of the best dishes coming out of the Main Street restaurant, but as one of the best dishes in Little Rock.
Montego Cafe is located at 315 Main Street in Little Rock, and is becoming one of the revitalized downtown area's tastiest and nicest spots for drinks, music, and great food — so much so that we can even forgive them for having something called "The Bob Marley Burger."
With August just around the corner, folks around these parts are preparing themselves for weather that feels like the sun has come to earth and decided to stay awhile. In such parched times, there's nothing I like better to eat than a cool, refreshing green salad — and we're lucky here in Little Rock to have some fine salad makers. From the toppings-heavy creations of U.S. Pizza, to the fresh-tossed masterpieces at ZaZa's, there's a salad for almost any taste available. For a quick lunch that's packed with good flavor, though, nothing beats the salads at Boulevard Bread Company, especially the Italian Chop Salad.
This large salad begins with a foundation of crisp romaine lettuce, upon which is piled tomato, red onion, avocado, bell pepper, blue cheese, and salami. And as if that weren't enough, a large cup of house-made mustard dressing comes nestled amongst all that goodness, ready to go. It's the sort of salad that can be eaten as a meal and keep a body full for several hours; Boulevard's attention to high quality produce, meats, and cheeses is apparent in every bite. There's nothing here that's too heavy for hot weather, even the dressing, so when it gets so hot that nothing sounds good, pick up one of these hydrating salads and cool off. The delightful mix of fresh vegetables, savory cheese, and salty salami makes for bite after perfect bite.
The Italian Chop Salad is just one of several salads available, and of course there are a large selection of excellent sandwiches available as well. Boulevard Bread Company is located in the Heights on Grant Street, right off Kavanaugh, in Ottenheimer Hall in the River Market, on South Main Street, and on the campus of UAMS.
Now, a lot of folks don't believe me when I tell them that the best poached egg in Little Rock comes from the back of a food truck, but I swear to you all it's the truth. The truck in question is perennial favorite Southern Gourmasian, and while they may be more famous for their steamed buns and spicy dumplings, if you haven't had a chance to check out the breakfast menu, I assure you it's worth waking up for.
The Gourmasian breakfast at the most recent Hillcrest Farmers Market was even better than usual, though, because of one wonderful edition: owner Justin Patterson had just gotten in his first fresh heirloom tomatoes of the season, some Cherokee Purples. Now any of you who have read the Arkansas Times and its associated blogs for more than about five minutes know that we're all pretty crazy about good tomatoes, from publisher Alan Leveritt and senior editor Max Brantley on down to
food-dungeon dwellers like myself. So when I saw the Gourmasian menu listing a BLT made with one of those Cherokee Purples, several slices of Benton's Bacon, basil pesto aioli, and topped with one of Justin's perfect eggs...well, I may or may not have just thrown all the money I had through the truck window with a high-pitched scream of utter and insane joy.
The result? Lightly grilled bread, coated with aioli, upon which two perfect purple slices of tomato rested, each full of the rich, sweet flavor that Cherokee Purples are known for. This is not a flimsy tomato, and it can stand up to a lot in terms of both texture and taste. Atop the tomatoes, crisp fried bacon and that poached egg, the white set into a perfect cocoon that released a flood of creamy yolk when pierced. I wrestled with the need to get all these good things into my face as fast as possible and the desire to stretch out the experience for as long as I could. From ingredients to technique, this was a perfect breakfast dish.
Want to get your hands on this dish? Catch the Gourmasian at the Hillcrest Farmers market every Saturday. Follow them on Facebook and Twitter to find out where they're serving lunch daily. And if you want to see Justin in action when he really gets going, he'll be cooking for The Southern Sundown Get Down on July 6, with proceeds to benefit Little Rock Urban Farming.
Vino's Pizzeria and Brew Pub is just like home for me, except they don't let me watch television in my underwear or play the Bangles' "Eternal Flame" on repeat at full volume for hours on end. Despite those shortcomings, the place offers me a regular respite from the cares of the world. I've even got my favorite table just inside the room where all the brewing equipment sits, which allows me to get a full dose of my two favorite smells: pizza cooking and beer being brewed. I've written at some length about brewmaster Josiah Moody, and while it's his inventive and delicious craft brews that hold the top place in my heart, there's one more menu item that keeps me coming back to 7th and Chester again and again: the Muffaletta.
Now for you traditionalists out there — and recent posts have led me to believe that there might be one or two of you in the reading audience — this muffaletta isn't quite what you'd find on a New Orleans menu. Instead of the traditional mortadella, salami, and ham, Vino's works with what they have and layers on ham, turkey, and pepperoni. That last bit is really my favorite touch, because it provides all the salty oiliness that salami would normally give the sandwich while adding a peppery kick as well as a flavor that reminds the diner that they are, indeed, at a pizza joint. Toasted mozzarella and the necessary olive salad finish the sandwich off, and it is served in quarter, half, and whole portions — so there are definitely some nods to tradition at work here. The resulting sandwich is a thing of beauty, with crusty bread, luscious cheese, and a load of different meats that all work together to deliver bite after bite of sandwich perfection.
At a place where a hungry soul can get cheap, delicious pizza by the slice, this excellent sandwich might get overlooked. But the next time you've a hankering for a great craft beer, use a pint of your favorite to wash one of these tasty sandwiches down. Then drink another just because.
Arkansas isn't exactly known for our Sicilian population, so finding decent cannoli in these parts is something I'd marked up there with seeing a golden unicorn prancing down University Avenue. Turns out that good cannoli isn't quite as rare as all that, as the elusive beast can be found for just a few dollars at Mason's Deli in the Ottenheimer Hall section of the River Market. I was turned on to these tasty pastries by our sweets expert Dan Walker, and since he decided to go ahead and steal my favorite Japanese place away from me, I figure these cannoli are now fair game.
Cannoli at Mason's are made just right: a light crisp shell that's filled to order with a sweetened ricotta cheese mix and topped with a few semi-sweet chocolate chips for good measure. There's also some chocolate variations that are equally good, but this play of soft, sweet cheese against a crisp shell that tastes subtly of cinnamon is cannoli as many a Sicilian grandmother intended. Too many places keep their various cannoli sitting around in cases, pre-filled and slowly turning into soggy, chewy messes. This fresh variety is unique (to my knowledge) in Little Rock, and well worth a trip to the River Market to sample. Mason's also has a wide variety of more substantial deli foods available, but with dessert this good, you'll probably want to start their first.
Dan, are these the same nuts you made a few weeks back? Delicious...great recipe.
Walker, it was wonderful to wake up early this morning, check all my usual news…
This is the most insane and hilarious way an old thread has popped back up…
A&E Feature / To-Do List / In Brief / Movie Reviews / Music Reviews / Theater Reviews / A&E News / Art Notes / Graham Gordy / Books / Media / Dining Reviews / Dining Guide / What's Cookin' / Calendar / The Televisionist / Movie Listings / Gallery Listings