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There are a thousand ways to make potato salad, and some potato salads are even intended to be served hot. But most people in the South think of potato salad as a cool, summery dish, a staple of picnics and backyard barbecues. The Arkansas Times led a small and highly unscientific search for the best — or most popular — potato salad in the area.
We reached some unexpected conclusions.
It seems to be widely assumed, for example, that mustard potato salad is predominant in these parts. But it's not necessarily so. Even Ron Blasingame, an owner of Whole Hog Cafe, said “In the South, most of the potato salads are mustard-based. Some people don't want anything else. But once people try ours, they usually like it.” His is not mustard-based, yet in our small survey, the Whole Hog potato salad earned more compliments than any other. Mustard-based potato salads drew hardly any compliments.
Another mild surprise: When we asked people about potato salad, we specifically invited mention of home-made as well as restaurant-made and we expected to hear some individuals named. In the old days, people built reputations on potato salad. But that was a different and more complex time. Apparently people don't make potato salad at home as much as they once did. None of those we talked to mentioned their own potato salad or that of a friend.
Whole Hog, a barbecue place, uses twice-baked potatoes (not boiled) in sour cream. “It's kind of a potato casserole,” Blasingame said. “Some people take it home, put some shredded cheese on top, and heat it up in a casserole dish. It turns out good as a side dish.”
Similar potato salads at Reno's Argenta Cafe in North Little Rock and at the Cross-Eyed Pig, not far from Whole Hog in geography or menu, also got mentioned. At Cross-Eyed Pig, the baked potatoes still have the skin on – some people think that's important. Mayonnaise and sour cream are the base, and powdered ranch dressing is a key ingredient, an employee said. Though most people we talked to liked the baked-potato-and-sour-cream salads, a colleague said this was not what she was looking for. “I'm from Virginia — potato salad needs onion.”
The potato salad at Flying Saucer was mentioned by some. It's a German potato salad, vinegar-based, with bacon in it, good with beer and bratwurst.
If you're still looking for a good mustard potato salad, go to H.B.'s Barbecue in southwest Little Rock. The salad is mustardy without being too mustardy, and a nice complement to the high-class H.B.'s barbecue.
At one time, the potato salad from Cordell's, a delicatessen and restaurant, was the best-known potato salad in Little Rock, at least among the upscale Heights crowd that bought potato salad rather than making it. Cordell's is gone, but Browning's in the Heights still sells Cordell's potato salad. This is the recipe, according to the label on a pint: “Potatoes, pickle relish, eggs, onion, mayonnaise and spices.” A potato-salad freak, who claimed to suffer potato-salad withdrawal when Cordell's closed, said the Cordell's-via-Browning's version was as good as it had ever been when he tried it one day, but something less than that on another day. “Potato salad is tricky,” he said. He (and many others) disdains the potato salad sold in supermarkets — “Too much sugar and other weird chemical tastes.” Even so, one gourmet has been known to buy supermarket potato salad when buying supermarket fried chicken (which is sometimes better than that at places supposedly specializing in fried chicken).
People looking for a potato-salad recipe will find as many on Google as there are stars in the sky. We tried to keep our focus local. David Williams, of Dave's Place, doesn't have potato salad on his every-day menu, but he's catered a bunch of it, and offers it in his restaurant in mid-summer. “I use red onions, chopped pickles, sour cream, shredded cheddar cheese, and sometimes a little splash of mustard just for color. When I use mustard, I always use Dijon instead of yellow.” He doesn't use hard-boiled egg. Some think that potato salad without egg is not potato salad, just as some say that about onion, and some about celery, which they claim is needed for crunch.
Potato salad is indeed tricky, too much so to crown a king.