Winter is the perfect time to explore the natural stone shelters where native Arkansans once lived
That's the formula at Big Orange, the new Scott McGehee/John Beachboard/Herren Hickingbotham concept in The Promenade at Chenal. But each portion of the formula comes with custom flair, beginning with a highly designed space, which seats about 120, counting the patio.
The cheery space is welcoming despite the generally hard finish (butcher block-style table tops; tubular aluminum chairs; a high ceiling with exposed mechanicals). Mike Huckabee, who hates the color orange, isn't likely to eat here except by a to-go order. They coated the place with gallons of soda pop-orange paint.
Calling it a super-charged Purple Cow would be a little unfair given the attention to slow food-style culinary detail, but the Cow deserves acknowledgment for going the burger/shakes/salads route long ago.
Custom? Consider the burger. It's a half-pound patty — 81 percent lean, 19 percent fat. It comes from Creekstone Farms black angus cattle, said to be pasture-raised without hormones or antibiotics and humanely treated.
It's a thick patty that hasn't been ground to paste. It's just a touch irregular in texture and engagingly chewy. When you bite into it, it drips. Perfect. It's cooked medium-well unless you like less cooking and we had one with a nice streak of pink through the middle.
The bun? As good as you'll find anywhere. No, it's not made by McGehee, who founded Boulevard Bread. But a former Boulevard baker, who's now at Mama's Manna, arrived at the recipe through much experimentation with flour, egg washes and other elements to get a tall, mellow bun with a little bit of chew and strength to stand up to the juices, but soft enough not to delay the attack on the meat of the matter.
Toppings? All kinds. There's a burger with Petit Jean bacon, avocado and fontina. Another with caramelized onions, sauteed mushrooms and fontina and Swiss cheese. We tried the Atom Bomb — a belly blaster with pickled jalapenos, Sriracha sauce, chipotle mayo and pepper jack cheese. Bring on the endorphins. (It's really not THAT hot.) Burgers cost from $6.50 for a standard cheeseburger to $11.50 for a truffle-arugula-fig concoction.
Spuds are extra and you'll want them, another custom product. Big Orange uses Kennebec potatoes, a suddenly trendy hybrid. It's round and not as elongated as the standard russet, so it trims down into shorter fries (cut a little thicker than McDonald's.) They do here what few other places do, but all should: They blanch them (fry them briefly), set them aside to rest and then fry them a second time when ordered. This produces a potato that's almost creamy inside, but perfectly crisp and golden outside. Big Orange also slices the Kennebecs into chips and serves them as a side or by the bucket as a starter. Fries run from $2.75 with a side of BOB sauce (Belgium-style mayonnaise dipping sauce, perhaps pinkened with ketchup or something similarly perky) to $4 for fries with truffle oil and a side of garlicky aioli. Sweet potato fries are $3. And, hey, split these orders. One order per person is way too much. (I think they'll bring you a squeeze bottle of ketchup if you ask.)
They've been selling Big Orange as a place where you can indulge or be healthy. Healthy, I guess, means the celery and carrot sticks with hummus and tzatziki. Surely they don't mean the crispy deep-fried asparagus tempura appetizer, served with a side of sambal mayo.
There are six meal-sized salads in the $8 to $9.50 range, but unless you put the rich custom dressings on the side and dip sparingly, you'll pile up some calories with toppings like, say, bacon, avocado and blue cheese. Most intriguing: The Thai Chop, which has sauteed steak, red and jalapeno peppers, peanuts, cilantro and basil atop romaine and cabbage with a ginger-soy vinaigrette. The Border Town Wedge also sounded promising with fried, chicken, avocado, corn, onion and jalapeno ranch dressing on an iceberg wedge. Healthy? Hell, who cares?
Don't go pretending healthy with the shake and float menu. It consists of lots of mashups of ice cream, syrups, fruits, cookies and candy, but we'd recommend the dulce de leche ice cream with caramel sauce stirred in and a cloud of whipped cream on top ($4).
There's a "pie of the moment," a daily changing choice from several different local suppliers including Hunka Pie. We couldn't possibly try a slice after a burger and whole order of fries with BOB sauce.
What about the namesake oranges? They serve them fresh squeezed — 12 ounces for $3 and in a "creamysicle" float with Fanta and vanilla ice cream.
Want stronger beverages? A well-stocked bar beckons, along with an absolutely choice if small selection of the world's wines, from a house pinot grigio for $5 a glass to a $90 bottle of brunello. There are eight craft beers on draft and lots more unusual stuff in the bottle, plus $7.50 house special cocktails. Orange Negroni or Pimms Cup, anyone?
We found the $3 cooler of fresh squeezed lemon and lime juice with seltzer just the thing to cut the sublime grease of a juicy burger and twice-cooked fries.
Service: Surprise. A McGehee eatery with conventional service. You sit at a table, a server takes your order, you pay the server after eating. Despite a crush of customers from day one, the staff handled a door-busting crowd a recent Sunday with surprising dispatch. Friendly, too. We only wish the fries had been a touch crisper, but it's all about perfecting kitchen practices for new people and Big Orange is well on its way there.
Posted hours say 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. daily, but openings have been delayed until 11 in the early going. Brunch is also planned on weekends, but no start date is set.Click here for address, hours and more information.