Return with us, ye mortals, to a time called the early 1970s. A simpler time! No cell phones, no personal computers, no Internet. Just lots of dudes with questionable facial hair, cars that looked like Cleopatra's pleasure barge, iffy fashion choices for both sexes and the stench of Old English cologne.
Which brings us to Mr. Dunderkbak's in McCain Mall, a new/old place resurrected by a modern wave of retro-nostalgia. Opened in 1973 as a franchise of a widely-scattered chain (an online search found one still-surviving example in Florida), Mr. Dunderbak's was one of the quirks that made McCain Mall so interesting in the days of yore: a joint straight out of the mall in "Fast Times at Ridgemont High," purveyor of bratwurst, sauerkraut and cheese-slathered pretzels. This reviewer walked by the place a thousand times in our college days, but — not yet a fan of kraut and substantial Teutonic sausages — we didn't manage to eat there during the first incarnation. Sold by the original owners in the early 1990s, Mr. Dunderbak's held on until 2000, when it closed.
For most restaurants, that would be the end of the menu. We're here in the future now, though, and strange things can happen, especially where social networking is involved. Along with using its powers to overthrow totalitarian regimes and put the very public smackdown on elected bigots who get out of line, Facebook has been a great tool for helping make culinary dreams a reality (we reported last year, for instance, on a Little Rock foodie's successful Facebook effort to get Taco Bell to make a Dorito-shell taco). So it was that a while back, somebody put up a Facebook page called: "Mr. Dunderbak's in McCain Mall – Bring it Back!!!!" At this writing, the page has more than 1,700 fans. The retired former owner of Mr. Dunderbak's heard the call, and soon signed a lease on a space on the lower level of McCain. While we're still waiting on our flying car, we'll take the ability to resurrect beloved restaurants from the dead as a consolation prize.
While the reborn Mr. Dunderbak's gets a Memory Lane bump from lots of Central Arkansas diners who remember good times at the old place, even for someone who doesn't recall the original, it's a whole lot of fun, and definitely preferable to the chain joints that line the rest of the McCain food court. The owners have recreated the cozy vibe of an old-line watering hole completely, with exposed (fake) beams, big booths, a lounge area, and a deli counter full of meats and cheeses. Though you can sit outside in the mall, the better choice is to sit inside. While we were there, the stereo system was playing one disco hit after another, heavy on the Bee Gees and Elton John, so — other than the buzzing pocket computer in our jacket — we were easily able to transport ourselves back to the era of gas rationing and Billy Beer.
Decor aside, a place is only as good as its food, and what we had at Mr. Dunderbak's turned out to be pretty good. While the deli (where you can buy a beer, though not a Billy Beer) and coffee bar is a little deeper in the restaurant, the grill is at the front, and they have a nice slate of sausage offerings. We tried the smoked bratwurst with kraut ($4.95). Knowing that Mr. Dunderbak's has a sizeable slate of vegetarian offerings, we also brought along our veggies-only Companion. She tried the veggie Polish sausage and the veggie club.
While we haven't always been a fan of the al dente texture of bratwurst, two years in Iowa cured this reviewer of his apprehension, and now we really enjoy a good brat. The one we got from Mr. Dunderbak's was great: flavorful, smoky and juicy. Paired up with a little warm kraut, a soft hoagie roll and a squirt of spicy mustard, it really hit the spot. The bun was cold, however, something that could be remedied easily by asking the cook to toss it on the grill for awhile.
As for the veggie offerings, we'll let our herbivorous pal take this one: First impression of the Polish veggie sandwich is: there's bread, lots of it. And nothing about that bread particularly stands out. Once you tunnel through all that spongy white stuff, you reach the tofu "sausage." It's a little sweet and a lot doughy. This quality, coupled with the sauerkraut, makes the whole thing come across as a great big hunk of slightly undercooked sourdough bread (doused with mustard, if you choose). But it's at least twice as good as those pre-packaged veggie dogs you buy at Whole Foods, and if you're veg, you're probably used to the doughy sausage thing. So yeah, this one's a go.
The veggie club, which we had on pumpernickel (and which you could have on rye or cheese-free ciabatta), is three inches of fakin' (fake bacon, for the uninitiated), tofurkey and veggie roast beef, topped with a square, plastic-y slice of vegan cheese and a slice of tomato. It was salty, the type of salty that induces instant hypertensive shock. This is a common shortcoming of fake meat products, which is why we usually avoid them. There's no lettuce to temper the sodium overdose, either. But while we expected the former, we were only disappointed by the latter. (Word to the wise: We didn't see much of anything green among Mr. Dunderbak's offerings. If you're cravin' true veggies, this ain't the place.) The tofurkey has a mild flavor and a believable texture. Okay, well, the texture isn't anything like true deli turkey, but it's almost exactly like the dense, processed grocery store deli turkey that comes in plastic tubs with clear windows.
Frankly, we are grateful to Mr. Dunderbak's for even trying, because there is no other veg offering vaguely resembling a deli club sandwich in all the land (by which we mean, the land of metro-Little Rock). There was a bit of smokiness behind the saltiness, and actually, we did enjoy the sandwich. Since meat substitutes are, by definition, one type of something that is processed to resemble another type of something, we can hardly blame the thing for tasting a bit over-manipulated.
On the way out, we bought one of Mr. Dunderbak's storied pretzels: a firm, sweet, doughy little twist, encrusted with salt and baked to a perfect brown. Not much to be said on that regard, other than the fact that the one we had was very tasty, and folks on the Bring Back Dunderbak's Facebook page rave over them, especially when slathered with sausage and cheese.
Ah, what a time we live in, kids. This reviewer, like almost everyone else in the world, has restaurants we wish we could jump-start and bring back from the dishwater of history, even places we never ate a bite at (Jacques and Suzanne, anyone?). Good to know that in this strange modern world, that's an option.