Winter is the perfect time to explore the natural stone shelters where native Arkansans once lived
When an indistinct hunger hits us during the week, we amble a few blocks down to the River Market and just smell. There's a primal appeal in choosing a meal that way, and, in the 12 years the space has anchored the city's entertainment district, there's always been plenty of diversity to breathe in. Vendors have come and gone — especially lately — but the spread remains formidably broad: There's barbecue, Japanese, Mexican, Middle Eastern, pizza, bistro-style sandwiches and, now, Bavarian and Thai.
It might be a stretch to simply call Mason's Deli and Grill “Bavarian” or “German,” as the River Market does on its website, and leave it at that. Don't expect Wiener schnitzel or spaetzle. Instead, Mason's offers the most palatably American of the Bavarian Grill concept — typical pub grub plus sauerkraut. There's the Mas burger, formerly the Bavarian burger ($6.99), a hamburger with Muenster cheese, spicy mustard and sauerkraut. The Bavarian Reuben ($5.99), a traditional Reuben, but with spicy mustard instead of Russian dressing. The Italian sausage ($4.99), an Italian sausage, but with sauerkraut. And so forth.
As much as we love sauerkraut, it doesn't exactly scream “crowd pleaser.” For those who hold their nose at the sight of fermented cabbage, there are chicken strips ($5.99) and a turkey pita ($5.99). Of course, everything else on the menu, even the bratwurst, can be ordered sans sauerkraut.
Also potentially working against Mason's: Everything is made to order. Typically that's a good thing. A bratwurst freshly grilled beats a bratwurst out of the rolling-hot-light machine any day, but relative to much of the rest of the River Market, where food choices are often made based get-it-and-go time, Mason's lags behind. In the five trips we made to the space, our food took an average of seven or eight minutes. In the real world, that's excellent, but for booth dining, it's interminable.
Mason's also offers pretzels, salted or doused in Parmesan ($1.99), served with port wine cheese ($2.99) or with pickles, summer sausage and port wine cheese ($4.99). If that immediately makes you nostalgic for the old McCain Mall standby Mr. Dunderbak, don't waste the sentiment. Mason's pretzels are SuperPretzel brand, that is, the same chewy kind you find at movie theaters and football games the country over.
That misstep aside, the deli and grill use quality products. The meat is Boar's Head and the cheese tastes premium. Ditto for the spicy mustard. The burgers are lean. The homemade chips, which come with every sandwich and link, aren't greasy and are nicely thick.
Across the hall, Bangkok Thai fills a void that's existed in Little Rock for a bafflingly long time. Patrons have 16 options, colorfully outlined on a large sign that hangs across the length of the restaurant's space. Six items, like Pad Thai, red and green curry and Pad Bai Kra Prao, come in small ($3.99) and large sizes ($6.99) and are billed together as buffet items. In the restaurant's first week, we ordered the Pad Thai and got a bland serving of rice noodles and beef and chicken — no green onions, bean sprouts, peanuts or lime — from the buffet. Each time thereafter, though, the food we ordered from the buffet portion of the menu was cooked to order.
After our third trip, we picked up a paper menu with an expanded selection, but when we returned, excited to order spring rolls and satay, we were told those, and everything else not included in the overhead menu, wouldn't be available until the summer, when the buffet reopens.
Still, there's a broad enough selection on the overhead menu to keep most Thai enthusiasts sated. From the “pre-order menu” of selections that will always be cooked to order, the noodle soup ($6.99) offered a simple, but tasty respite from the cold on our most recent visit. Dining in at the River Market, we received a rich broth and rice noodle soup in a large ceramic bowl with peanuts, bean sprouts and lime on the side, plus salt, pepper, red pepper flakes, Sriracha and spicy beef paste for livening.
Save the pad Thai on the opening week, everything we sampled came spiced (and even more so when we requested it “hot”) and with plenty of vegetables. The coconut milk-based red curry ($3.99 or $6.99) stood out in particular. For an appetizer, try the son-in-law ($.99): two hard-boiled eggs, battered and fried, and served floating in a sugary tamarind sauce.
As at Mason's, be prepared to wait longer than most everywhere else in the River Market. But, based on our observations in Bangkok's first month in business, the demand for Thai seems to outweigh an unwillingness to wait. The booth has been hopping every time we've passed by.
Ottenheimer Hall, River Market
Heaven for those who believe everything is better with sauerkraut on top. The Bavarian Reuben, a traditional Reuben made with Boar's Head corned beef, spicy mustard, sauerkraut, Muenster cheese and marble rye, is among the best we've had in town.
10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Saturday.
Credit cards accepted. No alcohol.
Bangkok Thai Cuisine
Ottenheimer Hall, River Market
And all the Thai cuisine lovers say, “Finally!” Plenty of sweet and spicy, vegetable-heavy fare. All priced cheaply to reasonably.
9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday.
Credit Cards accepted. No alcohol.
Sorry, but I don't see how a return visit is going to make those soft…