Every eatery that can, rightly, boast of dishing up good food, whether it's the fried whiskerfish in a dusty South Arkansas hole in the wall or the entree at a fancy restaurant that touts its Eauzarks or Auxarks or whatever cuisine, has at least one dish its cook wants to boast about. It's the dish the cook is most proud of and the one that regulars to the restaurant are most likely to order up. Or maybe it's the dish the cook thinks should be the standout and wants unenlightened customers to be encouraged to see things his way through an article in the Arkansas Times. No matter. We went to five Readers Choice winners to see what the folks in their kitchens say is their signature dish; here are the results.
At Rolando's Hot Springs location (there are two others, Fort Smith and Rogers), the grilled tilapia is numero uno, and like most of the dishes at Rolando's, one of its critical ingredients is lime. Saul Alvarez, the chef since the Hot Springs location opened seven years ago, said the kitchen marinates the mild white fish in garlic, lime and salt, covers it with breading and paprika and cooks it on the flat top. The tilapia is served on a bed of white rice and black beans (enlivened with canola oil, garlic, vinegar and salt), with cucumbers marinated in an Argentina sauce of parsley, lime, jalapeno pepper, white and yellow onions, garlic and extra virgin olive oil on one side and chopped red onions marinated in lime, tomatoes, salt and olive oil on the other. Slathered on the fish is a sauce of capers, garlic, lime, seasoned salt, tequila and parsley ("we use a lot of lime," Alvarez said at this point). Like every plate that comes out of Rolando's kitchen, the dish is accompanied by jalapeno and chipotle sauces and decorated with mango.
Another top seller, Alvarez said, is the sauteed shrimp in wine sauce, camarones al mojo.
OK, a place called the Flying Fish is necessarily going to have a fish dish as its signature, and it ain't the ceviche. No, the fried Mississippi catfish and hush puppies reel in the most customers, owner Shannon Wynne says. Wynne credits the loyal kitchen crew at Little Rock's Flying Fish for making great catfish every day. "They know what they are doing and we pay them well," Wynne said. Here's how they prepare their mudcats: They dip the filets in a yellow cornmeal batter balanced with garlic and a blend of herbs, and then fry them in peanut oil (key because its frying temperature is so high, Wynne said). The hushpuppies are made with Shiner Bock beer, "and we don't mind telling anybody else that's in the restaurant business because we think we have the best hush puppies." Now about the ceviche: Wynne prefers it to catfish, but he thinks the "comfort level" with marinated raw fish is not what it could be. Little Rock's FF — the first to open in the chain, which now includes locations in Texas and soon in Bentonville for fish-loving catfish fans — is the top-selling of all Flying Fish locations.
Sushi Chef Alex Guzman at this Heights favorite is so fond of the signature sushi dish he created that he put his own name on it. This foot-long, 2-inch-high combination of seafood, fish eggs, crackly tempura flour and a chili sauce makes the Alex Roll the most popular choice at the restaurant. The base is a California roll variation — crab, cucumber and avocado stuffed in a rice roll — that is lightly fried. On top of the roll goes spicy tuna, and on top of that blue crab. Mango is the next layer, and that is topped with roe and a chili sauce. It's big enough for two, and it can be made extra spicy, Guzman says. Guzman, who is now working on a new sushi dish called Thank You, has been chef for four years; he believes he may be the only Salvadoran sushi chef around.
Executive Chef Lee Richardson says everything prepared for Ashley's and the Capital Bar & Grill is "sort of signature." But, if he had to pick one thing that says "Capital Hotel" it would be the ... Roasted Peanut Soup with Honey Whipped Cream and Fried Celery? The Ham Hock Tortelli with Roasted Apples, Sweet Onions and Creamy Cabbage? The Pistachio-Cherry Creme Brulee with Pistachio Shortbread Cookies? Nah. It's the pimiento cheese and crackers. "I realize it's unlikely," Richardson said, "but we serve it complimentary at lunch at Ashley's and sell it as a shared snack appetizer in the bar and we send it up to guest rooms as an amenity and everybody wants it." He promised that "we can turn people around on pimiento cheese," making fans of those who shrug at this distinctively Southern concoction. Here's why: With the exception of the Wisconsin cheese and the mayonnaise ("Sometimes you can't do better than Hellman's," he said), it's all house-made, from the roasted sweet red bell peppers and pickles that provide a soupcon of pickle juice in the mix (for "nuance," Richardson says) to the crackers, rolled out in the pastry kitchen's sheeter and baked. Grocery store pimiento cheese "makes my lip curl," he said, and Richardson's wife won't be in the room with store-bought. But Capital Hotel pimiento cheese is on another level, he says. The kitchen makes, he guesses, 50 to 100 pounds of the stuff a week. It's never served the day it's made; it has to sit overnight so the cheese can soak up the water content in the mayonnaise. Half-melt the pimiento cheese on a hamburger "and it's sort of transcendent," he said.
When manager Matt Beachboard said the French fries were Big Orange's big draw, we wondered — how can that be? The hamburgers are terrific! But then we mentioned it to a friend and she said, "oooh, that truffle oil." Well, OK then. "We use Kennebeck potatoes and make our own aioli truffle oil," Beachboard said, using the highest-quality brand. Big Orange blanches its potatoes before they're fried for perfect texture and oil absorption. People do like the hamburgers, most assuredly: The most popular hamburger has Petit Jean bacon and avocado on top ("put bacon on anything and it's going to be delicious," Beachboard said), which he said men and women order equally. The bun — sort of a half hallah, half brioche — was crafted with Mama's Manna, and Beachboard said it was tweaked 20 or 30 times before "we came across with what we think is perfect." Big Orange's made-from-scratch veggie burger is getting a reputation for being the best in class for LR. Beachboard said he strong-armed his father — who isn't at all a veggie-burger kind of guy — into trying one "and it's pretty much all he orders" now.
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