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In early March, Core Brewing Co. opened its sixth "public house" on Main Street in North Little Rock's bustling Argenta neighborhood. Core's beers are made in Northwest Arkansas, and its other five pubs are also in that quadrant of the state.
Core's original plan was to sell only beer, and management encouraged patrons to bring their own food. The plan was so solid that the Core team reportedly removed the kitchen equipment that remained from the days when Starving Artist occupied the space.
But man ... or woman ... or public house doesn't live by beer alone. In late August, a relatively small but adventuresome menu debuted, featuring the creations of James Wetzel, who operates Le Bouvier, a French-focused food truck in Bentonville.
Central Arkansas has plenty of places cranking out standard bar fare, some quite well and some not so well. So our first glimpse of Core's menu was exciting and encouraging, and, for the most part, the somewhat novel bar food concepts played out well.
On a recent Wednesday evening Core had a crowd. In the beer-only days it was pretty sparse. Our group of six sat down at one of the odd mish-mash of tables with the even odder mish-mash of chairs: Ours were black wrought-iron patio chairs that naturally recline, which wasn't conducive to our hunkering down over a meal.
The open-faced BLT bites ($5) are a great concept — bacon, tomato, chive-dosed creme fraiche and high-quality balsamic vinegar atop house-made rosemary bread. The flavors worked perfectly together, and the tomato tasted like an heirloom, rare this time of year. We would have liked more bacon; the tomato pieces were larger than the bacon pieces.
We also were psyched to see Gulf Coast deviled eggs ($7), pickled deviled egg halves topped with a perfectly fried, smallish oyster, a dollop of remoulade sauce and a bit of bacon, though the menu didn't list that. Here we have a suggestion for Core: Don't pickle the egg.
The appetizer that drew the most raves was the Naughty Bacon Bleu Cheese Fries ($8). The base was a generous pile of thick, hand-cut fries that were just salty enough, crispy and creamy. How can you go wrong slathering fries with a creamy blue cheese, bacon and chives? At Core, you can't.
We tried five of the seven entrees. All got good marks, but not all got raves.
The fried oyster po-boy ($12 with fries) featured seven crisp oysters on a 6-inch bun from Gambino's, a renowned New Orleans purveyor. It was topped with lettuce, tomato and a mustardy remoulade.
The fish tacos featured two fillets across four corn tortillas. The spicy bean-corn relish was a hit. The accompanying fried tortilla chips were unevenly cooked: Some were super chewy.
The Bouvier burger ($12 with fries) must be a popular item from the chef's food truck. The half-pound "steak blend" patty — served on a hoagie bun and not the "house-made everything pretzel bun" as advertised — was almost too thick to easily negotiate, and it came well done, not medium as ordered. It was good, nevertheless.
The fish and chips included only one fillet, but the price — $14 — justified two. The batter was cornmeal-based, usually used for catfish, and not the traditional flour-based pub batter.
The most surprising inclusion on the Core menu might have been the best thing we had. The Buddha Bowl ($9) is the best vegetarian dish we've tried outside an Indian restaurant in a long time. Perfectly cooked couscous, kale, bell peppers, shredded carrot, snap peas and pickled radish were blended with a generous portion of goat cheese that made the dish creamy and tangy. A subtle roasted shallot vinaigrette bound all the flavors.
We finished our meal with the ricotta donut holes (four for $5). They were fluffy, but not so cheesy. We found the accompanying strawberry "gastrique" too tart.
We worked through a broad cross-section of the Core beer menu; all were solid representations of their styles. They weren't too cutting-edge, which made sense given the large market Core is going after.
Besides the odd collection of furniture, we were surprised that we were presented plastic forks and knives — wrapped in a nice cloth napkin, mind you. Hey, Core: Real silverware isn't expensive or hard to find. Get some.
Core Public House
411 Main St.
North Little Rock
Jeff Wetzel, the food truck owner who is the mastermind behind the food at this Core, told us similar menus will be implemented at the other five Core public houses in Northwest Arkansas, which to this point have offered only a small selection of typical bar food.
3 to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 3 to 11 p.m. Friday, noon to 11 p.m. Saturday and noon to 9 p.m. Sunday.
You can order Core merchandise from its website.