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High on Mellow Mushroom 

Chain's specialty pizzas explain success.

For a pizza chain that's been around for nearly 40 years, with locations stretching from coast to coast, it's remarkable to see how much excitement has surrounded the recent opening of the West Little Rock outpost of Mellow Mushroom. They must be doing something special to have gained such a loyal following before even opening their doors.

Stepping inside, it's easy to see why the place might appeal to families and the younger, hipper crowds — the spacious interior is brightly lit, with thousands of watts of neon lighting buzzing throughout the dining area, illuminating the faux-psychedelic signage and wall art, with loud music streaming from nearly every direction. Adults will quickly be drawn to the sizable bar and lounge area featuring an extensive list of signature craft beers, plus dozens more on draft and in the bottle.

But perhaps it's Mellow Mushroom's approach to pizza that has set them apart , with an interesting list of "specialty" pies, many of which are a far cry from your commonplace, ho-hum cheese and pepperoni.

Our first visit began with their popular "pretzel" starter ($4.79). Of the handful of flavor options, we chose garlic and Parmesan. These were little more than Mellow Mushroom's basic pizza dough, twisted into the traditional pretzel knot, baked up and doused with cheese and garlic butter. Unfortunately, they came to us slightly over-baked, leaving them chewy and tough, rather than soft and golden brown as a good pretzel should be. The meatballs appetizer ($6.99) we had on a subsequent trip was much better. Three large meatballs are seared on the flat-top, split and stuffed with a hunk of mozzarella, then drenched in red sauce and topped with breadcrumbs, shaved Parmesan, and fresh basil. They were soft, slightly spicy and flavorful, complimented nicely by the tangy, acidic tomato sauce and melted mozzarella — an excellent way to begin the evening's eating.

On our first walk down the Mushroom's "specialty" pizza list we stopped at "Gourmet White" and the restaurant's version of the classic supreme, the "House Special." The Gourmet White ($12.49) starts with a base of olive oil and garlic (no red sauce). It comes topped with a trio of provolone, feta and mozzarella cheeses and finished with sliced onions and both sun-dried and Roma tomatoes. The blend of cheeses was lovely, all nicely melted, creamy and rich. The feta was nicely balanced with the other ingredients. The baked tomatoes were a nice touch and the thinly sliced onions were similarly tender and delightful. The House Special ($12.99) was a weighty combination of pepperoni, sausage, ham, ground beef, Applewood-smoked bacon, mushrooms, black olives, Roma tomatoes, green peppers and onions. There was a lot going on here, but the pie was also enjoyable — we were especially happy to find our bacon nicely crisp. Still, we preferred the white pie over the heavy-handed supreme. On both pies, the crust came out nicely baked, golden brown, with a crisp exterior and soft chewy interior. A respectable crust, indeed — key to any exemplary pizza pie.

But a return visit to Mellow Mushroom yielded the best pie of all, the "Holy Shiitake" ($12.49). Again, this pizza is constructed with a base of their delightful olive oil and garlic spread with a blend of two cheeses: mozzarella and a sharp, aged Italian cow's milk cheese known as Montamore. At the heart of the pie is a sumptuous trio of mushrooms: Shiitake, button, and Portobello. Caramelized onions and fresh chives join the mix. It's finished with a drizzle of garlic aioli and black truffle oil. The generous portion of mushrooms provides enough meatiness to satisfy even the most ravenous carnivore, and the addition of fragrant truffle oil — from the fanciest of fungi —gives the pie an earthy, slightly floral flavor.

Mellow Mushroom offers just over a dozen specialty pizzas, many with flavor combinations you won't find anywhere else in these parts. Its "Red Skin Potato Pie," for example, comes topped with sliced, roasted red potatoes, smoked bacon, sour cream and spicy ranch dressing, and the "Bayou Bleu" is garnished with grilled shrimp and Andouille sausage. It even ventures into Asian territory with its "Thai Dye" pie, with grilled curry chicken, basil, cucumbers, and sweet Thai chili sauce. Many of these things we'd never imagine would work on a pizza, but folks continue to gobble them down, so we're not judging —and we're excited to try them all.

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