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The downtown lunch scene has picked up a bit recently: The Capital Grill and Velo Rouge have all opened within the last year, and a new brew pub and hamburger joint are expected soon. Now comes Choo-Choo Steam, with a menu a bit more unbuttoned and woolly than these other options. The name itself — suggestive of the train station down the street, but actually a take off on the name of the proprietor's last venture, Choo-Choo in North Little Rock — suggests that this will not be a ho-hum dining experience.
Located on the corner of Fourth and Louisiana, Choo-Choo Steam is a sushi-sandwich bar. While this is not an obvious culinary combination, there's no reason it can't work if done right. Unfortunately, not all dishes were up to par, which led us to believe that the sandwiches are simply a sop to diners who are not adventurous enough to eat Asian food for lunch. There has been an explosion of sushi restaurants in Little Rock recently, and the weird menu might also be an attempt to expand options when Hanaroo and Wasabi are just blocks away.
The surfeit of sushi shouldn't stop you from trying Choo-Choo Steam's, however. Theirs is strong and obviously fresh. They offer 17 choices — nothing fancy, but, among those we tried at least, all solid. The slices were thick and tasty. One companion highly recommended the spicy tuna roll — although he cautioned that it was the spiciest he'd ever had. Many of the rolls come with the fish or avocado on top of the rice.
Another dish to try is the bulgogi, a traditional Korean beef dish. The meat was excellent, with a lot of flavor. It had a nice combination of sweetness and tanginess thanks to a marinade of sugar, soy sauce, onion and sesame seeds, among other ingredients. Choo-Choo Steam's version is served with white rice, miso soup, orange peels and a salad. As good as the beef was, the sides — rice and miso and a salad of iceberg with ranch dressing — were mediocre.
The sandwiches didn't distinguish themselves, either. One friend described the chicken on his grilled chicken sandwich as a pressed, cafeteria-style meat square without any flavoring. We wouldn't be quite so harsh on our Choo-Choo, the house specialty sandwich, but we can't say we'd order it again. It had ham, roast beef, Genoa salami, Swiss and a healthy helping of mayonnaise. It supposedly had hot sauce as well, but the taste was indiscernible. The menu says the wheat bread is fresh baked, but there was nothing special about its flavor or texture.
Other soup, salad and sandwich options don't stray too far from the ordinary: the BLT and club sandwiches look a bit forlorn on the menu, as do the taco, chef, and grilled chicken salads. One item that caught our eye but disappointed our palate was the chicken chili — the soup was not bad, but it was a bit small for the price and too oily for our taste.
The restaurant also caters to the early morning crowd with a small breakfast menu — bagels, breakfast sandwiches and a turkey croissant. We dropped in to see if Little Rock has managed to produce a decent bagel. No, we're sorry to report, though Choo-Choo Steam's is no worse than the typical white-bread-with-a-hole. Anyone who is at all picky about coffee should avoid Choo Choo's java — which you can't douse with half-and half, as they only serve non-dairy creamer.
The lunch menu is confusing. Besides a jumbled layout that's littered with abbreviations, specials aren't always clearly broadcast. Sandwich combos are only listed by the register — which is fine if you're ordering at the counter, but not if you're sitting down. The bulgogi comes as a sandwich special, but it's not on the menu. Nor do you discover that you can't order the bulgogi sandwich as a chips-and-drink combo until you try to do it.
The restaurant attempts to compensate for its deficiencies with strengths in two intangibles: a good space and helpful service. The corner location and large windows mean the dining room is bright, and high ceilings give an additional feeling of openness. (This pleasantness is marred a bit by contemporary pop radio playing at a higher-than-necessary volume.) The waiters, who also cook and tend the counter, are fast, friendly and willing to please.
The food is the most important consideration, however. Unless you get the sushi or the bulgogi you're likely to leave disappointed. Based on the bulgogi's strength, Choo-Choo Steam might do well to drop the sandwiches and venture into more uncharted lunchtime territory. A downtown restaurant with Korean fare — now that would really be welcome.
400 S. Louisiana St.
Stick with the sushi and bulgogi. Both are strong.
7-10 a.m., lunch 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday through Friday.
Standard lunchtime pricing. No alcohol. Credit cards. Take out and delivery. Sushi platters are available — call a day in advance.