Winter is the perfect time to explore the natural stone shelters where native Arkansans once lived
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.
The items on the menu that we think will make Southern Gourmasian a staple of the Little Rock dining scene are the steamed buns. Again, while an obvious nod to the famous pork belly steamed buns at Chang's Momofuku Noodle Bar, there are some major — and we think better — differences that make these buns pure Southern eating, and those differences have more to do with the barbecue pit than with anything Asian. The buns are available in orders of three with Shredded Pork Shoulder ($7), Balinese Chicken ($7) and Braised Beef Short Rib ($8). Each meat is slow-cooked to the point of maximum tenderness and served on a soft, chewy steamed bun with sauce and pickles. The result is like a miniature barbecue sandwich with just a slight kick of ginger, hoisin or lime. Each bite is a perfect little package of intense flavor, and Patterson's buns pass what is, for us, the most serious of barbecue tests: The sauce accentuates but does not overpower the meat. The freshly fried potato chips on the side were a nice change from bagged chips as well.
On a follow-up visit, we caught up with Southern Gourmasian's bright yellow truck at the Hillcrest Farmer's Market to sample its breakfast menu. While not as ground-breaking as the items we tried for lunch, we were still impressed with the quality of the ingredients used and the fast, efficient way that the food was served. We started with the Country Hash ($7.50), a tangy mixture of Yukon gold potatoes, poblano peppers, shredded pork and topped with a fried egg. The hash itself was good, although the sauce was a touch too strong for the delicate flavor of the pork and potatoes. Mixing the fried egg into the hash helped balance the flavor, but we found ourselves still wanting to taste the pork more. The Smoky Country Benedict ($6) was a much more balanced dish, with salty ham and a fluffy biscuit holding up two eggs and a nicely flavored hollandaise — and while the Asian element of the menu was completely absent from this one, we have to mention it solely for the fact that we can now say that the two best poached eggs we've ever eaten in Little Rock came from the back of a food truck. We followed up our eggs with a large piece of Monkey Bread ($4), and the cinnamon-sugar pull-apart treat was just like we remembered from childhood.
Ultimately, it's that ability to invoke nostalgia for traditional dishes while shaking things up with new and interesting flavors that makes Southern Gourmasian such a stellar success. Patterson and his crew are obviously very comfortable in the kitchen, and this confidence shines through in every dish served. The concept of quick, friendly service isn't lost on the guys at Gourmasian, either, as they're always ready with a quick smile and a kind word that tells you that they're excited that someone has decided to eat their food. They had a rocky start with some mechanical issues on their truck, but now that things are up and running, we're hoping that this food sticks around for a long time. Southern Gourmasian parks regularly in the University Market and the Hillcrest Farmer's Market, and they're available for catering. Like many of our trucks, they're active on social media, so look for them on Twitter and Facebook for daily specials and details.
Mobile food truck; various locations
@SGourmasian on Twitter
Order a lunch and you're likely to get a S'mores cookie as a freebie. These crisp, chewy cookies make a nice sweet end to any of the savory offerings available.
11 a.m. to 2 p.m. daily for lunch. Occasionally 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. and 7 a.m. to noon for breakfast on Saturdays.
Accepts credit cards