Magness Lake, in Heber Springs, is a magnet for swans
We'd ventured out into the scorching June afternoon for lunch, and the shade provided by the newly erected blue-and-white striped tent at the University Market at 4 Corners was welcome, but barely adequate, relief. For us, there's only one answer to the stifling heat and painful light that's been a constant this summer — find something even hotter to eat, and keep eating it until everything else is cool by comparison. It's for this reason we found ourselves at a plastic picnic table on one of the hottest days of the year shoveling down chicken and dumplings ($7.50) from Little Rock's newest food truck, Southern Gourmasian. And before you count out dumplings as something you'd neither want to eat A) outside in the summertime nor B) from the aluminum and steel box that is a food truck kitchen, please bear with us for just a little while longer, because the Gourmasian's chicken and dumplings, like the rest of the food, is not quite what it appears to be at first glance — they're from one of the most exciting new menus in town.
As the name implies, Southern Gourmasian's food is classic Southern as seen through the flavor palate of Asian cuisine. Chef Justin Patterson, burned out with his work at the Pleasant Valley Country Club, decided to dive into the burgeoning Little Rock food truck scene with the idea, and name-checks David Chang, the superstar chef and founder of New York's Momofuku restaurant group as an inspiration. When we mention our admiration for Chang's "Momofuku Cookbook," Patterson smiles and says he's read it "at least seven or eight times." But it's easy to say that you've drawn some inspiration from a big name chef for your menu; it's even pretty easy to just take recipes from a book like "Momofuku" and serve up copycat versions — what's hard is taking an idea and making it your own. Lucky for us, Patterson has done that.
Which brings us back to those dumplings, a spicy mixture of mochi (sliced cakes made from pounded rice), shredded grilled chicken, shitake mushrooms, grilled onions, and a savory ramen broth. These rice cakes have some fabulous qualities to them, as they take well to both boiling and frying, and Patterson makes the most of these attributes by crisping them lightly in oil and then letting them bathe in the ramen broth. The result is a dumpling that approaches the consistency of a seared scallop, with a neutral flavor and chewy texture that not only makes it the perfect vehicle for the peppery broth but also provides a nice contrast to the tender grilled chicken and mushroom mix. This dish could honestly survive just as a dish with seared rice cakes in sauce (which is a Chang recipe), but by adding the smoky chicken and mushrooms, Patterson adds the warm feelings that come from a classic comfort food staple like chicken and dumplings.
This same playful nature is present in the second dish we tried, the shrimp and grits ($8.50). Now shrimp and grits is one of our all-time favorite dishes, and we were interested to see what Southern Gourmasian's take on it would be. Upon first sight, we weren't sure of anything except that we had a container piled high with five large crispy coconut shrimp. Where were the grits? Upon eating the first shrimp, we saw them — a crisp fried cake of grits nestled just under our mountain of shrimp. It's an excellent idea, especially from a food truck; we've never considered shrimp and grits to be an on-the-go dish, but having a solid cake of grits with the shrimp makes it possible. The shrimp were crunchy on the outside and tender on the inside and the grits were coarse ground with a slightly smoky flavor. We thought that the dish could have used more spice. A little more heat would really do a lot to set off the tasty mango gastrique drizzled over the top of the shrimp.