Some of you know (or may have guessed by now) that I came to Arkansas via Texas. Now, I’m not a born n’ bred Texan, but I spent good enough chunk of time there to get a decent feel for its culinary happenings, particularly those truly classic Texas dishes that have put places like Houston, Austin, San Antonio, and Dallas on the global gastronomic map. Many years ago, upon my arrival to the Lone Star State, I was particularly fascinated by the concept of “Tex-Mex.” I’d heard of such a thing before, of course, but I’d never truly experienced it in full force, and never fully grasped what the cuisine entailed. For the first year or so of my tenure in Texas, I spent a sizable number of my dining experiences immersing myself in this queso-soaked, beef-loving, skillet-full-of-fajitas, frozen-margarita world. Honestly, it was a joyous time—I became quite fond of those classically Tex-Mex dishes, and I suppose I came to understand, in some small way, what the essence of Tex-Mex really is. Perhaps the best homage to Tex-Mex I’ve read came from a 2007 New York Times piece by Joe Drape entitled, “A Celebration of Tex-Mex, Without Apology.” Here, Drape describes a similar situation to my own in which he, a Texas outsider, was thrown into this mystical world of smothered enchiladas and came out of it with a sweet fondness for the food. He defends Tex-Mex for what it is, and not for what others feel it’s trying to be (with some misplaced hopes for authenticity). His closing words seal his testimony: “Neither the government of Mexico nor the high priests of that country’s cuisine are going to get an apology from me. In the Lone Star state, Tex-Mex is as authentic as any food can be.”
We were escorted back to our seats, after having to convince ourselves not to fill up on chips and cheese. As we sauntered through the main dining area, we passed by a rounded glass window, wherein a skilled Latino woman stood hand-making flour tortillas and tossing them on a rotating flat stovetop. A promising sight—I mentally committed to myself that a few of those tortillas would find their way to our table.
The Church at Argenta has begun work to put a coffee shop, Mugs Cafe, at 515 Main St., next door to the Argenta Market and is having a drop-in from 4-7 p.m. Thursday, April 4, for coffee and menu samples. Among the offerings: "Thanksgiving on a roll," a turkey and cranberry slider; and a smoked salmon and avocado club sandwich.
The full cafe menu — described as tentative on the website — includes coffee in all its iterations as well as frappucinos, breakfast foods, gelato, wraps, smoothies and more. A July opening is planned. The cafe has a Facebook page to check for updates.
Also on the menu: Church. The Church at Argenta, which is Southern Baptist with a twist, since all denominations are welcome, will eventually meet at the coffee shop. Michael Carpenter, "church planter," said "we're not going to be overt ... but we're not going to be covert, either."
A statement on the cafe from the church webpage:
It is so easy for us to withdraw to the comfortable confines of our Christian sub-culture. But that is not the example Jesus set. He crossed every conceivable demographic and line. By building a coffeehouse, we will be able to create a place where connections will happen week in and week out. We can only image how many people will walk into Mugs Café to get a cup of coffee and end up finding a church.
For more information, call 615-477-8854. Carpenter also sends this link to the food blog Fancy Pants Foodie on the cafe.
We got wind of this a couple of weeks ago, and now it's official: Bruno's Little Italy will rise again, this time on the ground floor of the Mann on Main annex, the Mann Lofts, at 310 Main.
Gio Bruno, whose father, Jimmy Bruno, opened Bruno's in 1948 in Levy, said he's thrilled about being a part of "what I think will be a historic rebuilding" downtown. Moses Tucker is renovating the Mann Building for state offices and its annex for apartments.
The press release:
BRUNO’S LITTLE ITALY TO OPEN ON MAIN STREET IN DOWNTOWN LITTLE ROCK
After over a year’s absence, Little Rock’s original Italian restaurant will re-open in downtown
Little Rock on the ground floor of the Mann Lofts at 310 Main Street. The restaurant will be
operated by Vince Bruno, son of the legendary founder of Bruno’s Little Italy, Jimmy Bruno, in
partnership with his brother Gio Bruno. The family has a 60+ year history of serving the best
Italian food in the Little Rock area, starting in the Levy neighborhood in North Little Rock, and
followed by ventures on Roosevelt Road, Old Forge Drive, and Bowman Curve in Little Rock.
“We are very excited to get back closer to our roots downtown,” said Gio Bruno, who will
train the pie-men to toss pizzas visible through a window into the kitchen. Brother and Chef
Vince Bruno commented that, “We have all the old Bruno’s recipes which we have been serving
to several generations of Arkansas families and visitors alike. Bruno’s Little Italy, which will have
seating for 70 patrons inside and 30 more outside on an outdoor patio.
Construction starts today, March 11th, with a Grand Opening scheduled for early August.
Financing for the restaurant is being provided through Arkansas Capital Corporation of Little
Rock. The architects for the restaurant are AMR Architects and the General Contractor is
Central Construction Group.
The Mann Building and Lofts, scheduled for completion in June, is a joint venture of Moses
Tucker Real Estate and the Doyle Rogers Company. The Mann Building is 95% leased and 11 of
the 19 loft apartments have been spoken for, according to Tommy Lasiter of the Doyle Rogers
Company. The project also includes a 415 space parking deck and room for additional retail and
“This is a major announcement for Main Street and a signal that the grand old street is
coming back to life in a very dynamic way,” said Anne Laidlaw, chair of the Downtown Little
Rock Partnership’s Main Street Revitalization Committee.
Gio Bruno said the restaurant, after jumping through some hoops with the city, got permission to level the sidewalk in front of the Mann Lofts to have sidewalk seating for 30. The restaurant will seat 70 inside and there will be a window into the kitchen that will allow diners to watch the pizzas being thrown, just like in the old days.
Bruno said he expects his brother to restore some items to the menu that weren't offered during the restaurant's days on Bowman Road: Spaghetti Reggio, which is spaghetti tossed in oil and onions; and Spaghetti Caruso, spaghetti topped with fried chicken livers in a marinara sauce with mushrooms. Bruno said his grandfather came to America on the same boat as the famous Italian tenor.
Lunch hours haven't been nailed down, but lunch will be served Monday through Friday. The restaurant will open at 4 for take-out orders and the dining room will open at 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.
Not too long ago, I had some complaints about the available burrito options in our city. After a rather disappointing venture to Blue Coast Burrito, I was left lamenting the lack of exceptional big, fat, stuffed burritos. But if you’ve driven down the West Little Rock side of Rodney Parham Rd recently, you may have noticed a small sign announcing the eminent arrival of a new “California-style” taco and tamale joint on a corner outside the Market Place Shopping Center. This past weekend, I found their sign announcing that they were “now open,” and I knew it wouldn’t be long before I would make an obligatory trip inside of Little Rock’s latest taco shop, “Rock 'N Tacos and Tamales.”
Despite my preconceived bias towards such restaurants, I was pleasantly surprised by my meal at Rock 'N Tacos. There’s room for improvement, for sure, but I noticed the owner asking patrons for their sincere opinions and suggestions, a good sign that they’re willing to weed out any flaws.
The menu at Rock 'N Tacos is not particularly astonishing. It’s the sort of Mexican food that appeals to diners who are generally less eager to seek out more authentic options from some of the more unsavory Mexican restaurants and taquerias. Here, the offerings are safe and not unexpected, but that’s not to say everything is dreadful. You’ll find big taco salads in crispy fried flour tortilla bowls, street tacos, chimichangas, cerviche, and burritos. As the name implies, they make their tamales in house, but unfortunately they did not have them when I visited. Premature opening? Perhaps. You’d think if you were opening a tamale house, you’d want to actually serve tamales on the first or second day of business. But this being “California-style” cuisine, I had to go with a big burrito as well as a fish taco, the two items I equate most with Baja style cooking.
Utopia Restaurant and Lounge, a new American-style eatery, opened today at 521 Center Street. You can check out their Facebook page here.
The restaurant features a full bar, with a lounge area upstairs that will host musical acts and other events. Happy hour is from 3:30 to 7 p.m. weekdays.
The person who answered the phone listed for Utopia at (907-6688) didn't want to be quoted for publication, but said the restaurant had a soft open on Valentine's Day with the lounge open over the weekend, but both the restaurant and lounge are officially open as of today.
The menu will feature American faves, including salads, burgers, wings, baked tilapia, salmon, fried chicken, fish, and sandwiches, with more substantial entrees at dinner. Breakfast, which is planned to begin next Monday morning with hours still to be determined, will feature faves like egg dishes, chicken and waffles and omelets. In addition, Utopia is planning "Soul Food Sundays" from 11 a.m.- 5 p.m. on Sundays.
The person we talked to said the Utopia website should be up on Friday at www.utopialittlerock.com
Small town Arkansas loves their local joints, and one we're eager to get to is The Tamale Factory in the tiny hamlet of Gregory, a few miles east of Searcy. We've heard really good things about their steaks and tamales since they opened in early November, and owner George Eldridge said they're swarmed on Friday and Saturday nights to the point where they're now requiring reservations of groups of six or more.
The restaurant, which has a private club permit for drinks, is situated in a barn on Eldridge's farm, and gets its name because that's where he makes the tamales served in the Little Rock outlet of Does Eat Place. The menu — as seen on their Facebook page — looks fairly bare-bones, almost identical to the menu at Doe's in Little Rock, which Eldridge also owns.
Tamales are a big seller at The Tamale Factory, of course, with three and a side of chili going for $4.25. Also interesting are the steaks. They're pricey ($17.50 per pound for the Porterhouse, for example), but you get what you pay for. They've also got cheeseburgers, catfish, fried shrimp, boiled shrimp, and a baked salmon platter.
Eldridge said the place has been packed every night they've been opened, so if you're planning on making a road trip, you might want to call ahead.
The Tamale Factory
19751 Highway 33 South, in Gregory
Hours: Fri.-Sat, 5 p.m to 10 p.m.
“I have loved to cook my entire life,” says Jones. While in college at Ole Miss, she worked as a server, hostess, and assistant garde manger. While she originally planned on attending culinary school after graduation, life took her to Washington, DC, where she worked at The Mansion on O Street as the manager of the restaurant and hotel. Here she began learning the ropes from the cooking staff and assisted with menu development for the bustling restaurant. After realizing her passion for cooking, she decided to ship off to Chicago to attend culinary school.
In regards to her time in The Windy City, Jones relates, “This was an extraordinary experience for me. We had opportunities to help at every large culinary event and the availability to stage in any kitchen in the city. The food scene was unbelievable. I had about 600 restaurants within a mile of my apartment. I think I could have stayed in Chicago forever but I also wanted to get back to the South.”
Growing up outside of Jackson, MS, Jones tells of traveling to New Orleans as often as possible. Her philosophy in cooking and respect for southern food was built around her admiration for celebrated chefs such as John Besh, Paul Prudhomme, and Susan Spicer. Dishes commonly found on tables in New Orleans made regular appearances in her family’s kitchen, and Jones attributes much of her passion for cooking to a heritage studded with exceptional home cooks.
Since opening shop in the historic Catlett Tower Building, Natchez has been slowly building a reputation for artfully-prepared dishes, both technically remarkable and surprisingly imaginative. The space is moderately upscale, with a casual elegance, lacking the stuffiness one might expect from a white-linen/shirt-and-tie affair. It’s comfortable and unpretentious, the perfect playground for Alexis Jones to impart her personality on a plate.
I sampled a good deal of the current menu on a recent visit. Jones constructs a revolving daily lunch menu and plans on regularly restructuring the dinner options as well to fit the seasonal availabilities of her ingredients. Here’s a bit of what’s going on right now…
First off, if you only get one thing out of what I’m telling you right now, it should be this: get the gnocchi…it is simply stunning. I’ve never had a gnocchi dish that rivals this show-stopping version created by Chef Jones. Using Yukon Gold potatoes, she creates the most silky, tender, almost-creamy gnocchi these lips have ever wrapped themselves around. Then she sautés them in a bolognese of ground bison, ground pork, chunks of bacon, and ground veal. The layers of flavor that come from this harmonious mixture of proteins is like nothing else you’ve tasted. But there’s more…she adds a dollop of her light, velvety-soft housemade ricotta, stirs in a mixture of tender browned carrots, tomatoes, and onions with a bit of heavy cream, and finishes the whole thing with a fried egg. When I cut into the egg, and the bright golden yolk cascades down the layers of meat, vegetables, and ricotta, I was so happy I nearly welled up with tears. The taste…oh my, it darn near brought me to my knees. One of the best dishes I’ve eaten in Little Rock.
After being closed for remodeling for nearly three months, Restaurant 1620 reopens Friday, Sept. 21, as 1620 Savoy, a name that pays tribute to Harlem’s the first integrated jazz club (1620 was owned by African-American chef Evette Brady) and to the new look’s jazz-era flavor.
Rick Qualls, who managed 1620 for former owner Brady (she’s gone into catering) and now owns the restaurant, brought his musical theater background to bear on the main dining room design, with its art-deco inspired marble floors, white leather chairs, hidden blue lighting, antique French advertising posters and a bar done in black and white tile and zebra carpeting.
The restaurant also has a casual side now, where you can eat from the same menu as the fine dining side — which includes 1620 favorites like filet mignon and liver and onions along with newly added dishes involving smoked duck, miso-glazed Tasmanian salmon, Dover sole and oysters — dressed in your cut-offs. Chefs are Tim Morton, Payne Harding and John Masching, all of whom are planning a new restaurant in the River Market district in a yet-to-be-built Central Arkansas Library System addition that will also feature a movie theater.
The casual side has a bar and bar menu (croque monsieur, smoked duck tacos) as well, where nothing is more expensive than $12, and a walled patio where, Qualls said, “a water fountain flows into a fire pit.” The casual side will transform into the Club Savoy from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. Friday and Saturday nights, with a DJ. The restaurant will be open for dinner daily except for its first Sunday, Sept. 23.
Chris Bray, a 28-year-old marketing management graduate of the University of Arkansas, has made his first foray into the restaurant world with Bray Gourmet, and he's banking that customers will gobble up his turkey spreads at the new sandwich shop at at 325 Center St.
Bray said in a quick interview that he developed his recipes while working another job — at Hugg and Hall equipment dealers. He's come up with four varieties of turkey spreads (original, jalapeno, Cajun and dill, which he'll also sell by the half pint and larger), along with a menu of other sandwiches (homemade pimiento cheese, Petit Jean peppered beef and ham, and pesto chicken), soups and salads. His cookies and brownies are homemade and he's offering cinnamon rolls and muffins in the morning. Like the beef and ham, Bray's bread is also an Arkansas product: He's buying from Arkansas Fresh Breads, the supplier of buns to Big Orange and YaYa's, and is serving on an olive oil sourdough exclusive to his deli. Sandwich prices range from $5.29 to $6.79. Look for a new menu soon, too, Bray said.
Bray also caters from the restaurant (where Downtown Deli once operated), which seats 80 and is hung with artwork by Tyler Arnold of Fayetteville, "who does a lot of Hog stuff," Bray said. (He means no offense to other colleges, he said.)
Hours are 7:30 to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday.
The three-story building that the Central Arkansas Library System and Moses Tucker Real Estate are negotiating to build at the corner of President Clinton Avenue and River Market Avenue — there's a parking lot and a police substation there now — has at least one known interested tenant: a restaurant developed by New York Culinary School alum Payne Harding. Harding's father, Rush Harding, is one of the investors in the new restaurant, which will be designed by the Atlanta restaurant design firm the Johnson Studio. If this comes to pass, and looks like other Johnson designs, it will be the most fetching eatery in town.
Harding is also one of the new owners of Restaurant 1620, which is being remodeled and will open under the name 1620 Savoy — in honor of the first integrated jazz club in New York — in "early fall," general manager Rick Qualls said. Tim Morton will remain as chef and Harding and John Masching, who also attended the New York Culinary School, will be in the kitchen as well.
Qualls said the cuisine will be influenced by the international recipes Harding and Masching learned in New York. The restaurant will have a casual component as well as the white-tablecloth dining area, and an enclosed patio with fire pit. There will also be music Friday and Saturday nights, in what might be called "Savoy Club" offerings, and jazz on Sunday nights, Qualls said.
1620 was ready for a makeover, Rush Harding said. "It will be Hollywood glamour all the way," said Qualls, who is an actor at The Rep when he's not directing the restaurant.
Restaurant founder and chef Morton's aunt Evette Brady is going into semi-retirement, Qualls said, doing some catering and cooking classes.
It took two years, but The Box, a legendary burger joint that anchored the northeast corner of 17th and Main for many a year, is back.
Kat Robinson has every last detail on her Tie Dye Travels blog. The original griddle is doing the frying. They even saved the old ketchup bottles, Kat says. Find them on Seventh Street, just east of Vino's at Ringo Street. Kat's photos indicate the new Box has a good deal more sunlight than the smoky old bikers' den on Main, razed to make way for a USA Drug.
Before it was The Box, it was the Band Box. A fellow named George Eldridge ran a sporting bus out of the place to the dog track and had a cook named Lucille who also could fry up a hamburger to help the beers go down. That, you may know, led to another evolving restaurant story famous in these parts — Sports Page, Buster's, Doe's.
Go check out the new Tropical Smoothie in the refurbished downtown YMCA building at 324 Broadway. Forget the smoothies — go just to check out the building. A co-worker and I trekked the eight blocks or so for lunch today (special on flatbread sandwiches, at $2.99, and $0.99 Mango Magic smoothies), and we found the place bumping with banners, balloons and radio folk. Don't worry, that line goes quickly!
The food was decent, but the buzz is the location. If you're veg, forgo a veggie take on a flatbread (the Caribbean Luau, minus the chicken, was piles of lettuce and a generous dose of spicy brown Jamaican jerk sauce folded into a soft pita) and shell out for the hummus veggie sandwich. My co-worker gave her Honey Ham and Swiss flatbread rave reviews, and it did look good — thin slices of deli ham, fresh greens and a milky honey sauce. Added bonus, these flatbreads are only $3.99 not on sale, and they're the perfect amount for a light lunch. The Mango Magic smoothie was a bit watery for my tastes — more a slushy than a smoothie, really — but I'm willing to give the smoothies another go on a less busy day.
That's because I plan to return, again and again — and frankly, that decision has little to do with the food. The interior of the old YMCA building, at least the part occupied by Tropical Smoothie, is gorgeous. It's very European, this idea of fast food served up in an archaic, artistically crumbling structure. And I'm a huge fan of that shabby-chic, patchy-paint aesthetic — particularly when it's paired with 82-year-old Corinthian columns and fabulous Spanish tilework. The enclosed courtyard (which closes at 5 p.m., an hour before the cafe closes) is breezy and comfortable, with umbrella-covered tables, one of those spitting lion wall fountains, and an overhead U of Spanish tile roof, framing a view of the towering Metropolitan Bank. Don't trust our sad little cell-phone images...this first glimpse of what we can expect from the Y building is worth seeing for yourself.
Had to jet home during lunch and take care of a couple of blah-tasks (bills, cleaning, etc.), so I was just planning to dump hummus on spinach and call it a salad. Luckily, the Royal Kabob Wagon has taken up residence in a parking lot near my apartment, changing my plans on the spot.
Little Rock newest food truck is owned by Roy Windham, a Pulaski Tech culinary school grad and self-professed hippie. He met a couple of guys from Vermont at Wakarusa, hopped aboard their food truck and went to a few more music festivals, then stole all their recipes, came back to Little Rock, bought and revamped an old lemonade truck and parked off Boone St./Markham, across from Arkansas School for the Deaf. And that's how Burlington's Ahli Baba Kabob Shop came to Little Rock, disguised as Roy Windham's Royal Kabob Wagon, in a nutshell. Or rather, in a pita.
Last summer, you might have come across a guy with a folding table and platefuls of cheeses set up outside The Root’s front door some sunny Saturday. That guy was Kent Walker, and those cheeses are the culmination of a mid-level computer science career, a summer in an Oregon winery and a bad economy.
For Walker, it started as a hobby. An Arkansas native and UALR grad, he left a Denver, Colo., job designing websites for Lockheed Martin to marry a Little Rock girl. High tech jobs were hard to come buy, so he picked up a handful of foodie jobs — a natural fit, since his parents have always been in the food business. One of those jobs was helping with summer harvest at Montinore, a winery near Portland, where he met an amateur cheese-maker who showed him the basics. That was four years ago.
Back in Little Rock, Walker began making cheeses in his home kitchen, trying all sorts of milk, cultures and processes to discover the varieties he liked best. He made his first press out of Cool Whip tubs and aged the cheeses in his vegetable crisper for two to eight months. And he got back into the computer science business.
“I was working with a friend, handling his business accounts, and he decided to get out of it. The accounts were mine if I wanted them. That’s when I realized that I’d be essentially starting my own business,” Walker said. “So I decided if I was going to start my own business, why not do something I’m passionate about?”
He passed on the accounts and drafted a business plan. Soon he had found a handful of distributors to carry his cheeses. In the summer of 2011, Kent Walker Artisan Cheeses was born. And his home kitchen was too small to contain it. “One gallon of milk makes one pound of cheese,” Walker said. “At this point, I’m making about 110 pounds of cheese a week.”
He moved his operations to the empty industrial kitchen at the Cathedral School at Trinity Episcopal, spawning a new life for the kitchen as a community kitchen incubator. “They were looking for someone to use the space,” Walker said. “So they just donated it to me. Other people heard and asked to use it when I wasn’t using it, and now it’s become a community incubator, where small businesses can rent it for a day fee.”
Downtown puffers, rejoice! The new Maduro Cigar Bar and Lounge opens to the public tomorrow at 109 Main Street, just south of the Statehouse Convention Center.
Owner Michael Peace said he's been thinking about opening a cigar bar for 12 years, but only began deciding on where the bar would be and what it would stock around two years ago. Maduro features over 200 boxes of cigars, a walk-in humidor, two 6 x 4 foot stand-up humidors, a state of the art air filtration system, free wi-fi and several big-screen TVs. In addition to stogies, customers will be able to select from a full bar featuring fine wine, port, scotch, bourbon, rum, tequila and more, including 30 cocktails with recipes unique to the bar. Those looking for something a little less potent can try Maduro's French press coffee or tea offerings.
Peace said the bar, which features a "Latin-inspired" decor with red walls and brown leather chairs, will have a "rolling soft opening" for a week before their grand opening next Friday night. The bar will have limited food offerings for now. "We're going to do some food, like smoked salmon and meat and cheese trays, but not a full restaurant menu," Peace said. "We might do more food later on, but for now it's very minimal." Visit their Facebook page for more info.
Maduro Cigar Bar and Lounge
109 Main Street
Mon.-Thu.: 10:00 am - 11:00 pm
Fri.-Sat.: 10:00 am - 12:00 am
Sun.: 12:00 pm - 10:00 pm
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