Border Cantos is a timely, new and free exhibit now on view at Crystal Bridges.
What is American cuisine? For most, American food is barbecue and hamburgers, hot dogs and fried chicken, and we can't help but agree. But there's another side to American food that we associate with the luncheons and social events of the mid-20th century, dishes like chicken salad with grapes on a lettuce leaf or finger sandwiches of albacore tuna with celery and pecans, all served with salad (fruit or green) or a small cup of soup. It's the sort of lunch our grandmothers might have made for Bible study when LBJ was president; the sort of thing seen in old cookbooks that devoted entire chapters to sweet and savory gelatin dishes. It's also the exact kind of throwback menu served at Scallions, which does this nostalgic food so well that eating lunch at the Heights cafe is like taking a comfortable trip through time.
As a prime example of the old-school nature of the Scallions menu, we offer up the Quiche Lorraine ($7.95), a dish we always associate with Julia Child and old episodes of "The French Chef." Scallions' Lorraine has a lot more cheese in it than other quiches we've had, turning the egg-based dish from something we've always experienced as a rather dry custard into silken bites of creamy, smooth pie filled with gooey Swiss cheese and bacon in a tender, flaky crust. On a recent visit, we paired the excellent quiche with a cup of crab bisque, which had some unfortunate separation issues with the cream and broth base but still pleased the palate with its rich crab flavor and ample bits of lump crab meat.
To add a dose of freshness to our meal, we continued with the Sonora salad ($7.95), a mass of finely chopped green leaf lettuce, red cabbage, and shredded carrots topped with grilled chicken, pecans, blue cheese, and dried cranberries. In a town where most restaurants consider a pile of wilted iceberg to be a salad, this wonderful (and large) combination of sweet, savory and fresh impressed us. In addition, the salad greens and toppings were chopped to perfect fork size, insuring that each bite was representative of the salad as a whole — this may sound picky, but we've had all too many salads where the huge bits of lettuce caused embarrassment as we tried to politely get a fork-full into our mouths.
From the sandwich side of the menu, we went with the Country Club ($7.95), a fun play on the classic open-faced Croque Monsieur that traded the classic bechamel sauce for something closer to good old Arkansas cheese dip, topped with diced tomatoes and olives. Underneath the cheese, a pile of delicious bacon and ham added some serious flavor, while the ribbon-rye base held everything up quite well. It's a unique sandwich, one that we liked more and more with every bite.
Our day to visit Scallions was wet and chilly, so we did not get to take advantage of the below-street-level patio, with its shaded tables and quiet atmosphere. We hope to make it back during better weather to do so. There's nothing at all fancy about the place, which we found completely charming. Each person working spoke to our table at least once, coming by for a refill of a tea glass or just to ask how everything tasted. The cafe serves up the sort of middle class, middle America cuisine that is often shunned in this age of fusion cuisine and sleek hipster lounges, but for our money, it's the sort of food that never goes out of style: It's tasty, it's filling, and when done with the sort of care that is apparent at Scallions, it's an inexpensive way to experience a different side of American cuisine.