Hits and misses at Izzy's 

The good, the bad and the congealed.

It's been years since we were last at Izzy's, so our memories of the place way out west had grown fuzzy. On a recent return trip, we were immediately put off by Izzy's size and chain-y vibe. Our sensibilities lean towards quirky and intimate, and Izzy's seemed a bit generic and overwhelming. But for the record, Izzy's is family-owned, founded in 1985. So yeah, it's not a chain, and we did appreciate the attempt to showcase local art. Our service was fast and friendly, both when the place was packed (lunch) and when it was empty (7:30 p.m., an hour before close).

Online, Izzy's touts its offerings as "healthy food for healthy people." The restaurant even offers full vegan and gluten-free menus separate from the regular menu. So on our first visit, we went sans meat. We had a veggie burger and vegetarian tamale. The menu describes the burger as "loaded with veggies, along with ginger and bamboo shoots." The sesame bun was soft, fresh and toasted, and the lettuce, onion and pickle were a crisp combo. But the burger itself was bland. The patty had whole corn and peas (a plus), but only the slightest spicy kick. We think with a much stronger dose of ginger, this burger could have been a showstopper.

Izzy's is noted for its veggie tamales, and we encountered a hearty specimen. The thick, steaming corn shell had an unbelievably moist, dissolve-on-our-tongues texture. We were slightly disappointed with the black bean filling (a little more heat, please) and wary of the accompanying cheese dip. But our misgivings were displaced, because the dip, with a dash of cilantro on top, proved creamy, sweet and clean.

We topped the meal with a pot of organic Chinese Pu'erh loose tea, another Izzy's specialty. One pot serves two cups, and the tea comes with a take-away container so you can re-use the leaves at home. The pu'erh is supposed to help digest fatty foods, like the bowlful of cheese dip we'd just consumed.

This rich, amber liquid was the climax of our first Izzy's experience. It tasted like our grandfather's workroom smells — worn leather, old wood soaked with engine grease, dark soil, mushrooms and damp. And we know how ridiculous this sounds, but that is actually a delicious, comforting combination. Each sip brought a fuller realization of the bold flavor, which when we sipped, we realized, held all sorts of subtle secrets. According to the description, the tea had been aged for a full decade. Maybe that's why it tasted all martial-arts-movie mystical.

The tea was served with honey, which diluted the heaviness and made our second cup a proper dessert. (We had the first cup honey-free.) Izzy's collects the honey from its own backyard bees and sells it by the bottle. It had an excellent flavor — mild, floral, not too sharp.

A few days later, we went back to Izzy's for dinner. This time we tried the beef tamale platter, smothered with a blanket of meaty, whole bean, tomato-chunk chili, and served with homemade salsa and that delectable cheese sauce. The chili was moist, but way too meaty. It was essentially a plateful of wet ground round — the flavor and texture of all else eclipsed by the incredible meatiness of the thing. The tamales were stuffed with compacted shredded beef, so the texture seemed artificial rather than loose and tender. From now on, we'll stick with the veggie tamales.

We wanted to counter our garden burger with the real thing, so we ordered a beef hamburger. We weren't asked how we wanted our meat cooked, and it came to us well done and, frankly, dry. The highlight was a handful of jalapenos tucked under the bun, offering a welcome zing.

We also tried a salmon Nicoise salad. The salad was simply boring. The greens were mixed with iceberg lettuce; the red onions were the most flavorful thing in the salad. According to the menu, the salmon was poached in herb garlic butter. It definitely could have used more garlic, more herbs or more butter — maybe all three. Even the homemade vinaigrette seemed bland.

At dinner "we" were four, but only three of us tasted everything, since one of us is vegetarian. And it was the very end of the evening for Izzy's, which may explain a lot, including what happened next.

Our roasted veggie lasagna had obviously been sitting for awhile. The sauce had dried and caked, and on top of that, it was pasty and too sweet. The cheese was congealing rather than cascading. Overall, there was an alarming just-zapped sensation. Now, we know that lasagna is usually baked as a whole casserole, not in individual portions, and Izzy's was due to close in 40 minutes. We wanted to try a pasta dish. Perhaps it would have been fairer to go with another selection? Or maybe Izzy's should just be "out" of lasagna after it's been sitting for an hour?

One of us swore that the lasagna must have come from an aluminum tray, but the others had more faith in Izzy's, although we were, we don't know, confused. We dissected the stale square, discovering squash and zucchini in circles and chunks, indicating that somehow this should have worked. Our conclusion: even mom's lasagna is only good straight from the oven.

But the meal did end on a high note, and a creamy, tangy high note at that. The lemon ice box pie with a crunchy walnut graham crust almost made us forget everything that came before.

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