Brace yourself. The ice is coming.
Light your candles. Start up your generators. Grab every loaf of bread on your grocer’s shelves. It's the ice-pocalypse and you need to be prepared.
But add one more thing to your list—hot chocolate. No, I'm not talking about some pitiful just-add-water scoop-swirl-and-serve garbage you'd get out of a tin can. I'm talking genuine drinking chocolate, made with love and affection, served up steaming hot by the lovely folks at Loblolly Creamery.
This seasonal drink is not to be missed this time of year. You're going to get cold, that's a fact. And nothing warms the body and spirit like a warm drink teeming with chocolate.
When it comes to food and drink, people love to blurt out the words, "the best I've ever had" with just about anything they enjoy. This casual use of the expression, generally speaking, causes it to lose its meaning over time. Usually, it's not actually "the best," but it sure gets people's attention when it’s labeled so.
That being said—Loblolly's hot chocolate is THE BEST I've ever had.
Why? Many reasons. First, they've nailed in on consistency. You don't want a drink that's too thin and watery, often flavorless and bland. You also don't want something so thick it's difficult to choke down. Loblolly's drink is smooth, silky and creamy, with the perfect thickness. It gently slithers down the throat slowly and gracefully. The flavor is unparalleled. Rich, sweet high-quality chocolate with just a touch of cinnamon to finish with a faintly spicy note. It’s bliss in a cup.
Do not pass up their housemade marshmallows. They are every bit as important and impressive as the hot chocolate. Unlike store-bought marshmallows, which often tend to be chewy, spongy, and stale, Loblolly's are soft, smooth and creamy. It's a texture unlike anything else I've seen in a marshmallow. They melt slowly in their hot chocolate bath—cherish them while they last. They offer various flavors, but I prefer the fragrant flavor of maple as my 'mallow of choice.
Stockpiling for the impending doom about to hit central Arkansas. They sell the stuff in a DIY to-go kit (marshmallows included), so you can make your own hot chocolate from home.
Whatever it takes to get some—snowmobile, dog sled, snowshoes—try this hot chocolate. Your holiday season will be infinitely brighter because of it.
Find Loblolly at the Green Corner Store: 1423 Main St, Little Rock.
On paper, Hot Dog Mike looks like the purveyor of some of the finest food in Arkansas. He’s got more Twitter and Facebook followers than nearly any other restaurant or food truck in Arkansas. He convinced fans to donate thousands of dollars to his efforts to erect a brick-and-mortar station in which to sell his hot dogs. He’s been the recipient of numerous accolades and awards from publications all over central Arkansas.
Reading this, a newcomer to the Hot Dog Mike story, someone who had not yet sampled his food, would surely look forward to the day he or she could sample Mike’s product with a great deal of anticipation. This would assuredly be some sort of hot dog epiphany, an eye-opening, game-changing event in the arena of tube meats. We’re talking the French Laundry of frankfurters here.
At least these were my thoughts as I set out to sample Hot Dog Mike for the first time.
The EVERYTHINGdog…mustard only. PLAINJANEdog…just pick whatever sauces you want and I’ll throw it on a dog. KRAUTdog…yup, kraut. Oh, and mustard. CLASSICdog…relish, mustard, onion.
Sure, things got a bit more inventive with some of the more premium hot dogs, but was this really the same Hot Dog Mike menu I’d heard so many mythical tales about in seasons past? Was this the menu putting street food on the map in Little Rock? Was this the hot dog revolution everyone was talking about? Surely, I had missed something.
Still, I was excited by the prospects of Hot Dog Mike’s new home base. And not yet having actually eaten one of his hot dogs, I allowed hope to buoy me through the door to purchase my first ever Hot Dog Mike hot dog.
I had determined to sample (what I had deemed) the most intriguing and original creations Mike was offering that day. This included the WOOPIGHOTdog with “bacon!,” slaw, onion, bbq sauce, and sriracha. Secondly, the CAPITALdog with cream cheese slathered on the bun, relish, and sport peppers. A bag of Lay’s potato chips and a bottle of soda rounded out my meal, putting me back just around $11.
And here’s the thing. The hot dogs are fine. They’re not awful, they’re not even bad. They’re fine. The same way a hot dog at the ball park is fine. The same way your half-wit uncle’s 4th of July cookout hot dogs are fine. Your Cub Scout campfire hot dogs are fine. So it is with Hot Dog Mike.
Typically the words “all you can eat” should have you turning tail and finding somewhere else to spend your money. But that’s not always the case, as I recently discovered this week at The Oyster Bar.
In earlier days—before electric appliances were commonplace in most American households—Monday was known as “wash day.” In many southern homes, especially those found in New Orleans, wash day also meant a steaming pot of red beans and rice for supper. Traditionally, women of the house would place a pot of beans on the stove, leaving it to simmer all day, allowing them time to tend to the laundry.
Today, we tend to pile our dirty laundry into a big metal machine just about any day of the week, giving us ample time to prepare a pot of beans just about any day we’d like. But at The Oyster Bar—a Little Rock landmark since 1975—you’ll find the wash day tradition is alive and well. And almost as if you’re visiting an old friend who’s prepared a heaping pot to share, you can eat as much as you’d like—an endless bowl—all for only $5.95. It may well be the best bargain bowl in town.
There are some real Oyster Bar fanatics in Arkansas—I even know a couple that got married at the place. That’s real love. This was my first time at the OB—I felt I had lived in Little Rock long enough that it would be a crime not to try it.
It’s spacious inside, family-friendly, and a lot cleaner than I expected based on its worn exterior. Hunger gnawed at my belly as soon as I entered, I was prepared to feast.
The above-mentioned “all-you-can-eat” red beans and rice was surprisingly good. It comes with a substantial bit of andouille sausage blended into the mix, which makes it an even better value in my opinion. The broth is thin, but just slightly spicy. The rice was nicely done, fluffy and not overwhelming the beans. The most bowls consumed at our table was a measly three—but I imagine many more have been gulped down by more serious challengers. Perhaps one of the most delightful parts of the meal was the complimentary buttered and grilled French bread that accompanies the stew. It was soft, flavorful, and perfect for sopping up any residual juices left upon finishing any given bowl. Of course, as a friend reminded me, if you’re shooting for the coveted title of “red beans and rice champion eater,” you don’t fill up on bread.
The Oyster Bar is located at 3003 W. Markham, Little Rock. The red beans and rice "all you can eat special" is only available on Mondays. For a full list of their daily specials, see this link.
Several foods seem to only make an appearance around our home during the holiday season—candy canes, egg nog, cranberry sauce, gingerbread. It’s unfortunate really, but perhaps it allows these items to remain a special treat each year. Peanut brittle is another of these seasonally appearing foods. It’s very rare that I find myself purchasing peanut brittle at any time of the year, really. It’s an older, more traditional candy—some might even call it “old fashioned.” But we still seem to find it making appearances fairly regularly during the holidays, mostly due to it being gifted at some point during the season. I’m perfectly fine with this—I’ve always liked the stuff enough to enjoy it from time to time.
So I determined that I would find this “Juanita’s” while in town. Luckily, everyone in Arkadelphia seems to know where this place is—I had to ask for directions twice to find it. But eventually, we rolled up to the large, factory-like candy store and perused the small gift shop which featured all Jaunita’s has to offer.
Ms. Juanita’s picture still hangs proudly on the candy shop’s wall. She began making brittle in 1974—producing the candy in a small building behind her home and traveling around the state to sell it out of her car. Juanita passed away in 2001, but her sons keep her business alive today.
Walking in, you’ll notice only a few options—peanut, pecan, and cashew brittle. These can be purchased by the bucket (1-1/2 or 3 lb) or in smaller 8 oz plastic bags. Samples of each nut variety sit in front of their own display.
One particularly nice aspect of their brittle is its exceedingly thin nature. It’s quite crispy and crackles when bitten into. It’s buttery and sweet, sticky enough to cling to your teeth just a little before sliding down your throat. Of the three varieties, I enjoyed the pecan most. These nuts impart a rich, roasted, almost smoky flavor to the candy. But the peanut and cashew were no slouches either.
If you don’t feel like driving down to Arkadelphia to purchase these brittles yourself, you can phone in or mail in an order (details here) and have it shipped to where ever you’d like. No matter how you make this happen, if you’re a believer in brittle, I can’t recommend this candy enough.
Juanita's Candy Kitchen is located at 47 Stephenwood Drive, Arkadelphia, AR (directions here)
Around here, "let's get Chinese" means one of two things: take out or buffet. The results in both cases bear only a passing resemblance to authentic Chinese cuisine — especially given the scope of regional variations that come with a country of billions that covers a pretty wide swath of planet Earth. The buffet, though — now that's as American as baseball and apple pie, a phenomenon built from gluttony and a need for cheap eats that comes together in an unholy marriage built on stack after stack of fresh plates at the end of steam tables keeping pans of crab rangoon, lo mein, and pepper shrimp warm and ready. It's a glorious and terrible thing, suiting an American palate that's fond of fried food, lots of protein, and soft-serve ice cream for dessert.
Not all buffets are created equal, though, and for my money, the best Chinese buffet in Central Arkansas is one called Buffet City in Benton. Little Rock fans of Tokyo House sushi buffet may be interested to know that Buffet City is where it all started. Hot food, hibachi, and fresh sushi, all for around ten bucks, and of course it's all you can eat.
I came across Buffet City when my wife and I first moved to Central Arkansas. In those days, we didn't live the high-class food writer lifestyle we do today, and the occasional foray out to eat meant getting the best bang for our buck. The buffet was an easy way for us to pick and choose our favorite things to eat — for me it was the always-fresh sushi and something called "tiny, spicy chicken"; for my wife it was beef and broccoli and lo mein. We still travel down to Saline County from time to time just for nostalgia's sake — and because there's no Chinese buffet in Little Rock that we find superior.
Of course, nobody goes to a buffet expecting fine dining, and there are certainly better Chinese places around. But for an all-you-can eat place, Buffet City does quite well. Folks wanting fresh cooked food can choose from beef, chicken, seafood, or vegetables and have them grilled hibachi style right before your eyes. Slip the sushi guy a few bucks for a tip and you're likely to get asked what it is you like — and then get the lion's share served right up fresh. And while the buffet has kid-friendly stuff like pizza and chicken nuggets, there is also a good selection of steamed and stir-fried vegetables, several kinds of shrimp, and some surprisingly delicious things like frog legs with hot peppers and steamed clams in a savory broth. It's fast and cheap, but it's also pretty good.
Buffet City is located at 1528 Military Road in Benton, and they're open daily for lunch and dinner. Weekend nights and Sunday lunch are the best times to go, as the restaurant really ups its game in terms of variety. Service is always good, and the place really is a cut above other restaurants of its type.
When it comes to Indian food, I generally live by two principles: 1. When choosing a “level of spiciness,” never go with my first inclination. 2. Never eat at the buffet.
Principle one stems from stupidly ordering curry hot enough to bring a professional linebacker to tears. The second comes from too many bad buffet experiences—food that simply could not live up to the freshness and quality you’d get by otherwise ordering off the regular menu. But, of course, the Indian buffet can be incredibly tempting. The variety, the bargain price, the ability to sample so many new dishes while still being able to enjoy your old favorites. It’s almost impossible to avoid forever.
I’d heard from a number of people that the buffet at Taj Mahal was worth checking out—including many of my Indian co-workers. Some Taj regulars even claimed that the buffet was as good or better than ordering off the menu. This intrigued me. Undoubtedly, for someone hoping to get a taste of everything an Indian place has to offer, the buffet is not a bad route to take. So it was, I found myself gorging myself at Taj’s buffet one fine Wednesday afternoon.
I was indeed impressed with the quality and variety of Taj Mahal’s buffet options. Sure, some items were lackluster, not warranting much attention at subsequent rounds at the buffet, but many items had me going back for seconds.
To begin with, their naan was excellent. The complimentary tandoori naan was soft, hot, steamy, and buttery—a fantastic start to the meal.
From the buffet, we enjoyed the chicken jalfrezi with a smothering of thickened curry, fried crisp in spiced oil. A favorite dish at the table was the green curried lamb meatballs with mint. These were soft and tender, with a robust lamb flavor. Equally delightful were the fried chickpea balls smothered in a cream sauce. The vegetable biryani—basmati rice with mixed vegetables—formed a wonderful backdrop for the many interesting spices dancing across the plate. And though I was nigh unto bursting out of my britches, at the end of our meal I could not pass up the opportunity to sample dessert. Most memorable was the mango kulfi—a creamy, smooth housemade Indian ice cream that offered just enough sweetness to satisfy without being overly heavy or rich.
I was rather disappointed with their tikka masala, however. If you're going to screw up one dish at an Indian restaurant, you don't want it to be the tikka masala. It was far too sweet for my tastes, almost lacking any spice whatsoever. I assume they keep it mild to appeal to a greater number of patrons, but this thin, runny chicken dish was not something I’d head back for.
The verdict? Try the buffet. It’s surprisingly good and can stand up to their menu items. And considering the inflated price you’ll likely be paying by ordering individual items from the menu at Taj Mahal, it makes a whole lot of sense to get your fix for Indian during buffet hours.
Taj Mahal is located at 1520 Market Street, Little Rock, AR. 501-520-4900
Few “outside-of-Arkansas” cities are as frequently visited and vacationed-to by Arkansans than Dallas, Texas, the notorious Big D. For less than a tank of gas, there is no finer place for Central Arkansans to get away and enjoy some of the greatest dining in the country. Dallas may have a reputation for being chock full of bloated, power-hungry business tycoons and money hungry moguls of all sorts, but in reality, it’s a city that appeals to folks from all walks of life—young and old, wealthy and otherwise. There’s fantastic eats for all who are interested in exploring this fine city, and all it’ll take from you is a short hop across the Arkansas state line.
I’ve mentioned before that I spent a good bit of time in Dallas, and I’ve discussed its merits with numerous Arkansans making their way there for both work and play. If you foresee a trip to Big D in your immediate future (and I hope you all do), I offer this (very) short list of some of the must-try restaurants in the city. And while it seems almost ridiculously hard to narrow down and compress this grand city into one article, I offer this—the best way to do Dallas right.Cane Rosso- A few years ago, a small mobile pizza vendor operating under the name “Cane Rosso” hit the Dallas food scene like ton of mozzarella. Jay Jerrier, owner and operator of this unique pizza establishment, had already tackled the corporate world, financially securing himself a comfortable future for (perhaps) the rest of his life. So what does a man do when he can essentially do whatever he feels like for the rest of his life? Jay chose to make pizza…and we should all be grateful that he did.
Jay will tell you that his pizza epiphany came on his honeymoon, where he and his wife visited Naples and sampled authentic Neapolitan pizza for the first time. He describes this as an eye opening experience, his “I’ve-got-to-learn-how-to make-this-pizza” moment. And learn he did. He studied in Naples for weeks to learn the meticulous art of Neapolitan pizza making, he purchased a mobile, wood burning pizza oven (assembled in Naples), and he brought his skill and passion for pizza home to Dallas. Within about a year, Jay Jerrier’s Cane Rosso, went from a mobile pizza oven, being dragged around Dallas on the back of a pick-up truck to a brick and mortar restaurant in the heart of Dallas’s burgeoning Deep Ellum neighborhood.
Know this…the pizza at Cane Rosso is stunning. Simply put, I have not had a finer pie in my life. Now of course, pizza is quite subjective, and some may not prefer the thin-crust and delicate, often subtle flavors of Neapolitan pie. But if you do enjoy such things, it’s unlikely you’ll find anything as spectacular, as authentic, or as delicious this side of the Atlantic. Jay jokes that he wants every customer who tries Cane Rosso for the first time to have that same “holy sh*t!” moment that he had when he first sunk his teeth into his pizza in Naples. Lucky for us, this happens on a daily basis.
Expect simple, housemade dough, constructed with imported Italian “double-00” flour, sea salt, water, and yeast. Sauce from hand crushed San Marzano tomatoes. Hand-pulled mozzarella, made in-house daily. Pizzas are cooked in a handsome, imported dome-shaped, wood-burning oven that reaches 900 degrees, and cooks the pies perfectly in about 90 seconds.
A few pies to try: The “Luana,” with locally made Italian sausage, hot soppresata, and mushrooms—a personal favorite of mine since Cane Rosso first opened their doors to the public. The “Delia,” with roasted grape tomatoes, fresh arugula, and a sweet and salty “bacon marmalade.” The “Paulie Gee” with soppresata, caramelized onions, and Calabrian chiles. Lastly, a special “off menu” item that’s nearly always offered, the “Honey Badger,” a white pie (without red sauce) flavored with hot soppresata and spicy honey.
Leave room for dessert and sample their zeppole—Italian donuts sprinkled with powdered sugar and paired with a chocolate dipping sauce. It’s the perfect way to end a fantastic meal at Dallas’s (and perhaps, America’s) best pizzeria.
*Pecan Lodge- The harsh truth is, for many years, there was no great barbecue in Dallas. Let me clarify—there was always plenty of decent and mediocre barbecue, occasionally there was even “good” barbecue. But great barbecue? Exceptional barbecue? Legendary barbecue? Huh uh. Not in Dallas. Most barbecue enthusiasts were forced to travel to the smoky center of the state, the barbecue mecca of central Texas. Dallas, for whatever reason, simply could not compete with the sultans of smoked meat operating such barbecue joints as Franklin in Austin, Louie Meuller in Taylor, Kreuz or Smitty’s in Lockhart, or Snow’s in Lexington.
It’s understandable if you are confused about the “new” restaurant that’s taken over the old RJ Tao space on Kavanaugh. It’s not Table 28—that’s the new joint inside the Best Western where Vesuvio used to be. It’s not Cellar 220—that’s the new name of the space once housing Lulav. It’s not Forty-Two—that’s the popular restaurant inside the Clinton Presidential Center. Rocket 21? That’s the old Ferneau restaurant in Hillcrest. No, this is Café 5501, and while it can be hard to keep all those numbers straight, just know that this new café is basically a scaled down, more casual version of RJ Tao—same owners (Robert Tju, who also owns Sushi Café), with a more affordable and often more familiar menu. Truthfully though, aside from the new sign on the door, you won’t see too many signs of change within. It remains a large, capacious building with a sizable patio, elegantly and boldly decorated with an Asian-themed influence. Expect lots of soft fluorescent lighting and larger than life Buddha statues.
I stopped in recently for lunch to get a feel for the menu changes and to see if there had been some significant improvements.
Burgers come only from Creekstone and Ratchford Farms, serving “premium Black Angus beef.” The menu states that they are grinding their beef daily; it also claims that they are flying in fresh seafood daily. The latter seems a little hard for me to swallow, but if it’s true, more power to them and I appreciate the effort. There’s a “garden burger” to appeal to the vegetarian patrons, there’s a sweet and tangy teriyaki burger (panko crusted and deep fried), again hinting towards their decidedly Asian attitude.
I suspect there weren’t many within the dining public surprised to discover that Bumpy’s Tex-Mex on Bowman had recently closed its doors for good. Mediocre food, uninspired takes on Americanized Mexican dishes, and somewhat pitiful location. I was, however, slightly surprised that, seemingly within only a few weeks, the space was housing another Mexican establishment. Didn’t they learn the first time around? Hadn’t they already attempted to squeeze that spot for every refried bean it’s worth? The Mexican monster had reared its ever-present head again, this time referring to itself as Fonda Mexican Cuisine. To be honest, I was about as enthusiastic about trying the new place as I am about getting a colonoscopy.
But curiosity got the better of me. It’s nearby, it definitely isn’t crowded (yet), and hey, I like Mexican food. So last weekend, I took my seat in the polished and comfortable restaurant.
And I’m pleased I did…I’m sort of “fonda” the place now (See what I did there? Stay with me, folks).
You’ll find dishes such as pollo con mole, which uses authentic family recipes, the mole a conglomeration of “nineteen ingredients in a silky sauce.” Guisado de peurco finds pork shoulder diced and simmered in an oven-roasted tomatillo sauce. The “chef’s favorite” utilizes slow-roasted lamb, pulled from the bone and stewed in a chipotle broth.
I’d be incredibly nervous opening a Mediterranean restaurant in this town. The competition is stiff to say the least. What with local favorites such as Layla’s, Istanbul, Leo’s, and a host of other beloved establishments, you might wonder if there is really still room in this market for such cuisine. However, folks seem to seriously cherish their gyro meat and just about everyone in Pulaski County goes gaga for good hummus. I’m fairly confident we’ll continue to see the arrival of many more such restaurants around town as long as patrons continue to gobble the stuff up.
Little Rock’s latest addition to the flourishing Mediterranean market recently opened its doors in the Colonnade Shopping Center on Bowman Rd. Anatolia sprouted up rather quickly it seemed, but while they’re still getting their gears in motion, they’ve been seeing steady business already from passerby traffic noticing their roadside “Now Open” sign. Plus, it’s pretty difficult to pass by that sign (pictured above) featuring a jolly cartoon man carrying a Samurai-sized knife, preparing to demolish a large slab of roasting meat.
I stopped by this weekend past to get a sample of the menu and to see what they offered to this corner of West Little Rock. Walking in and looking around, the place is peaceful and simply decorated. A couple dozen tables, a few pictures hang on the walls featuring far off exotic locations. There’s a walk up counter for those interested in picking up their food to go, or you may simply seat yourself and get table service.
The two owners mentioned they were from Turkey, but they spent most of their time behind doors in the kitchen. The rest of the staff we interacted with were friendly and appeared grateful we had come to visit.
The menu will not likely surprise anyone familiar with such restaurants. Appetizers include hummus with pita bread, cacik (yogurt with cucumber and garlic), felafel, and stuffed grape leaves with tzatziki sauce. Though, we didn’t sample these on this initial visit, the “sigara boregi” caught our eye—fried phyllo flutes stuffed with feta and mozzarella cheeses. A lentil soup, tabouleh salad, and eggplant salad round out the first half of the menu.
A dozen or so entrees make up the remainder of the menu. Standards such as beef and chicken gyros are found here. Apparently, they haven’t started serving lamb as of yet, but our server assured us it would be on the menu at some point. Kebabs come in a number of flavors.
We had the mixed grill, a hodge-podge of many of the listed entrees, which comes portioned “for one” or “for two.”
Our beef gyro was flavorful but a little on the dry side. Of course, it’s always difficult to say just how long gyro meat has been resting on the skewer before it’s actually ordered and served, but perhaps this had been on the skewer a touch too long. Perhaps with a steady flow of orders leaving the kitchen, this will change. Our chicken gyro was fantastic however. Bits of crispy, translucent chicken skin clung to moist, tender white and dark meat. A real pleasure. Next came the “kofte kebap”—ground beef patties mixed with spiced and flame grilled. These had a nice texture, crunchy outside, soft interior, but they could have used a bit more spice. As they were, they came out a bit on the mild side, nothing we were overly ecstatic about. Two skewered kebabs were presented, one of diced marinated chicken, the other chunks of marinated beef. Here the beef fared better than that of the gyro. It was tender and moist, but a little on the small side. The chicken, likewise, was smallish but flavorful and enjoyable. A few slices of roasted tomato and zucchini sat alongside the proteins, and all rested comfortable on a bed of seasoned rice. The gratis pita and butter appeared to be of the store-bought variety, unlikely to have been made in house, but it was at least soft and light.
I always hope new restaurants hit their stride as quickly and as painlessly as possible. Given the deep-seated love in Little Rock for cuisine of this type, my guess is they’ll have their chance to impress (or disappoint) a number of guests in the near future. The competition won’t make it easy, but Anatolia may just have enough to keep this Mediterranean ship afloat.
Anatolia is located at 315 N. Bowman Rd. Ste 2, Little Rock. Hours: Tues-Thurs 11-2 pm, 5-8:30 pm. Fri-Sat 11-2 pm, 5-9:30 pm. Sunday 10-3 pm, Closed Monday.
Food writing is opinionated writing, and is subject to many things: the whims and tastes of the author, the service and execution on a given night at whatever establishment is being judged — even things like the weather can influence the way a meal is perceived. For Chef Alexis Jones and her Natchez Restaurant in downtown's Tower Building, the reviews from this publication have been mixed. My colleague Daniel Walker took a trip to the eatery last November, soon after it opened, and came back with the impression that Little Rock was getting something quite good from Mississippi native Jones' menu. A subsequent dining review by another staff writer in December 2012 couldn't have been more different, citing seasoning issues and dry dishes in giving Natchez a pretty rough time of it. Because of two reviews in such a short time, I put off visiting Natchez for awhile — there's just too much going on in Little Rock to visit places that other writers have already covered.
But here we are, getting on over half a year since we've talked about Natchez, and it finally felt like time to give the place a try for myself and see if my own opinion would swing to the good or the bad. I spent the afternoon with some friends at the Arkansas Arts Center's "Treasures of Kenwood House" exhibit (which I highly recommend), and since the restaurant is just a short drive from the museum and we were all hungry, we deemed it the perfect place for some dinner. As an ulterior motive, our good friend Zara Abbasi Wilkerson has just taken a job as Natchez's pastry chef, so we wanted to totally make her nervous by coming in on a night we knew she'd be in the kitchen.
Natchez has a menu that regularly changes, so I'll start with a fair warning that the dishes I discuss might not always be available when you visit. I'll also start by saying that the meal I experienced at the Tower Building eatery was among one of the best I've had, not only in Little Rock, but maybe ever. From start to finish, our dinner party was treated to fresh ingredients, good technique, and friendly service that maintained our table quite well despite the restaurant's being short a bartender. Our cocktail-loving companions got started with some whiskey sours they pronounced delicious, and I was happy to find North Coast Brewing's Scrimshaw Pilsner right at the top of their beer list. As a nice surprise, the kitchen sent out a plate of toasted bread with a jar of salmon rillettes for a starter, a wonderful beginning to a great meal.
Generally being a fan of classic pork rillettes over their salmon counterpart, I was skeptical of this starter...until I took the first bite. Mild-flavored smoked salmon preserved in unctuous fat that spread across the toast like butter, but maintained enough meaty texture to give each bite some weight. Our table passed the jar of fish from person to person, each reaction the same: a first bite, a closing of the eyes to savor, and then wide-eyed amazement at how good this fish really was. A second round and we were already eying the quickly diminishing jar with a sense of regret that soon we would be done with this fantastic fish.
Salads came next, and while there's not usually much to say about salad, my spinach salad with walnuts, goat cheese, and Laughing Stock Farms grape tomatoes made for a perfect palate cleanser after the rich rillettes. If you all haven't had the pleasure of Laughing Stock's produce, be sure to catch them at one of our farmers markets — these tiny little tomatoes were bursting with a sweet, heady flavor that really made our salad something special. The light dressing didn't overpower the flavor of the spinach, and the cheese and walnut mixture added some nice textural elements as well as a great deal of depth to support the bright sweetness of the tomatoes.
As we moved on to our entrees, we were already feeling pretty good about the restaurant. For my dish, I chose a dish of chicken livers served over pork belly with pepper jelly, kale, and a bed of Natchez's famed gnocchi, which lived up to every wonderful thing I'd heard about the pillowy-soft pasta. The livers were dredged in a spicy breading and fried crisp, but it was the underlying play of spicy peppers, rich pork belly, and those gnocchi that really made the dish into something special. After a fantastic chicken liver experience a week before at South on Main, I found myself debating on which dish was better, and I have to say (with apologies to Matt Bell) that Natchez gets the edge — mostly because I'm a sucker for pork belly and spice.
The other dishes we ordered were also quite successful: there was my wife's pork with purple hull peas and lardons served over grits, a perfect high-end comfort food dish that combined fall-apart tender pork, sweet fresh peas, and some of the smoothest, fluffiest grits I've ever had the pleasure to sample. A dish of huge Gulf shrimp served over fine-grained farro with coconut curry was decided by the table to be the best shrimp dish in Little Rock, owing mostly to the incredible freshness of the shrimp that Chef Jones has flown in daily. A final dish of tile fish over lentils with grapes was quite surprising, with the sweetness of the grapes providing an unlikely, yet perfect pairing to the sweet, flaky white fish.
And of course, since we were there to support the new pastry chef, we ordered several desserts. A Moroccan Rice Pudding was a clever play on the Southern staple with a flavor profile that reminded us of chai, while a Pineapples Foster with pistachio brittle was a nice combination of caramelized flavors. An Apple Galette with caramel sauce was equally pleasing, but the consensus pick for best dessert on the table was a Triple Chocolate Torte that featured a roasted walnut caramel sauce and some of the thickest, most luscious whipped cream I've ever tasted. Moist, smooth flavors made each bite of this torte a pleasure, from the slight bitterness of the chocolate and roasted nuts to the light sweetness of the cream topping — it's a dessert that would have been worth a trip to Natchez alone.
My final verdict? I can't speak to our reviewer's previous bad experience at Natchez, but it appears that the restaurant has settled into a nice groove since that review was written. From start to finish, our party found the food to be outstanding, the service to be good, and the atmosphere to be a nice mix between laid-back and sophisticated. Natchez is located at 4th and Center downtown, next to Bray Gourmet in the Tower Building, and if you haven't tried it — or haven't tried it in awhile — I highly recommend giving the place a shot for lunch or dinner.
I stopped into South on Main for some lunch today, and I noticed that chef Matt Bell has not one, but two liver dishes on his new menu. This, in turn, got me thinking that liver is one of the most maligned foods out there, and that's a damn shame, because liver is fantastic. Chicken, beef, pork, duck, goose — the possibilities are numerous for the enjoyment of the iron rich, firm-textured, and delicately flavored organ meat that doesn't get near the love it deserves. Don't believe me? Take a chance on some of these wonderful liver creations and see if you don't change your mind.
*Hot Chicken Liver Salad (South on Main): Take a classic wedge salad with thin-sliced radishes, chunks of sharp blue cheese, crumbled bacon, and a delicious house-made dressing and you've got a fine meal starter. Do what SoMa newcomer South on Main does and add a pile of spicy, lightly-breaded chicken livers to the top and you've got something quite special. The livers are light and clean-tasting, with just the right amount of mineral flavor to give them some character. Cutting through the flavor of the organ meat is that blue cheese, adding a bright balance to the denser flavor of the meat. Add in the crisp, succulent flavor of the lettuce and radishes with a just a hint of smoky bacon and the result is a dish that is far greater than the sum of its parts. Order this as a full salad for a filling lunch, or order the half version to leave room for some of the restaurant's tasty plays on Southern classics.
*Country Pate (The Pantry): For a more classic spin on liver, look no further than The Pantry on Rodney Parham. This house-made liver spread comes in a small jar with an ample serving of crusty French bread with some cornichons thrown in for good measure. This pate is closer to a liver mousse: light, very spreadable, and spiced with the flavor of good cognac to add some caramel deepness to the flavor of the liver. There's an earthy, rustic feel to spreading this stuff onto bread and chasing it with a bite of pickle, and as far as starters go, this one is one of my favorites around.
*Higado Encebollado (La Hacienda): A Mexican joint might not be where you'd think to find liver, but this beef liver and onions dish ranks among one of the best dishes on the menu. Tender, marinated chunks of calf's liver are grilled to perfection with onions, then served with warm tortillas and a heaping pile of La Hacienda's excellent refried beans. Like fajitas, but with a stronger, more assertive flavor, this bold liver dish works perfectly with the fresh salsa verde served with every meal. It's a huge portion, but that's just right for a liver aficionado like myself.
*Honorable Mention - Fried Chicken Livers (Myrtie Mae's): And because no "Top Three" list would be complete without a #4, I've got to include the fried chicken livers from Myrtie Mae's in Eureka Springs. These decadent livers are first wrapped in thick-cut bacon, then batter-dipped, and then fried to a golden brown. The result is a golf ball-sized chunk of fantastic fatty deliciousness that I've always found to be the perfect end to a night visiting my favorite Eureka watering holes.
Liver is an unsung meat, richly flavored and relatively cheap to buy and prepare. It's one of the tastiest things out there — especially when prepared with such skill as the dishes I've listed here.
Of all the various cuisines that are available in Little Rock, my wife loves Mexican the most. Our most recent experience with Mexican was less than stellar, so I felt like I owed it to her to try again and see if we could find a Mexican joint that would fulfill her cravings. To that end, we headed up Cantrell Road to Lupita's, a small, blink-and-you-miss-it Mexican joint that seemed at first glance to be just the sort of place we were looking for. After eating there, all I can say is...I'm sorry, Jess, better luck next time.
A meal at Lupita's starts with a basket of chips and three separate dips: a smoky chipotle salsa that we found thin but passable, a habanero salsa dotted with avocado and cilantro that was quite nice, and a bowl of the thinnest, most tasteless queso into which I've ever dipped a chip. It's perhaps unfair to complain about something that comes to the table at no charge, but I promise that a six year old could make better queso with a jar of Cheez Whiz and a microwave.
The menu is divided into two sections, a "traditional" Mexican section and an "American" section. From the Mexican half, we ordered a chicken chimichanga (a dish more of the American Southwest than anywhere) and a hard shell taco (again, not all that authentic). From the American side, we went for the most American food of all: a foot long hot dog covered in chili, cheese, onions, mustard, slaw and jalapenos. My hope was that the mixed menu would be so good that I'd have a place to grab a burger or BLT when the wife wanted chalupas — and we could both be happy. No such luck.
The chimichanga was attractive in appearance, with a crisp, golden brown exterior covered with a cheese sauce that was world's better than the thin stuff we started with. On the inside, however, things fell apart, with wads of spongy, pre-cooked chicken swimming in a tasteless mix of beans and onions. Flavors were muted, uninspired, and completely limp. The hard taco was much the same, with some flaccid ground beef sitting listlessly in a stale, oily shell with only a smattering of iceberg lettuce and some pre-shredded cheese as companions. In a town where slow-cooked tacos al pastor and cabeza are available for around a buck, charging three dollars for this sub-Taco Bell taco was an insult.
The foot long turned out to be the highlight of the meal, although it didn't have to try very hard to do so. A couple of well-grilled dogs were nestled on a toasted bun and then piled high with chili, slaw, peppers, and onions. The dogs were tasty, and the chili was pleasantly spiced — a nice change from the bland food we had otherwise. The dish can't quit be considered a success, though, since the piles of coleslaw layered on top overwhelmed everything else, making the bun a soggy, inedible mess before we were more than four bites in.
With the multitude of great Mexican options across the city, I don't really see how a place like Lupita's can open up with such apathetic food, nor do I see a reason why the Mexican-craving masses should waste their time and money here. Cheaper and tastier options are available, whether it's authentic cuisine you're looking for or something more like Tex-Mex. Lupita's was a disappointment, which makes me 0-2 for Mexican of late.
Over the last year, Little Rock has been a hotbed for the young, entrepreneurial culinarian. We’ve seen an impressive amount of growth within local producers and artisans in central Arkansas—people willing to take chances on food, creating things they know and love. There’s a certain confidence in these folks that pushes them forward, as the food culture in this state is perhaps at one of its most fertile moments in years. People are enthusiastic about food, willing to step outside their comfort zones, looking to actively support local producers and restaurants.
What’s with the name? Jeremy tells me (coincidentally, in perfect Klingon), “I look to Wil Wheaton (former cast member of Star Trek: The Next Generation) when people ask me about being geeky…it's about being honest and passionate about things that you love and not afraid to show how much you adore them.” He goes on to say, “I'm really geeky about board games and about food…I started sharing my creations with my friends and family over board games.”
One of these friends was Stephanos Mylonas of Mylo Coffee Co. “We had Stephanos over for dinner one day; I had made some hummus. After he tried some, he was like, ‘Dude, you could totally sell this stuff.’ That was enough for me.” Shortly thereafter, Geek Eats was born.
This is the most insane and hilarious way an old thread has popped back up…
Goof - send me your email to firstname.lastname@example.org
Daniel - better than Cordell's? If so I'd love the recipe.
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