Winter is the perfect time to explore the natural stone shelters where native Arkansans once lived
Salpicao at Bossa Nova
There are several cuisines we are deficient in here in Little Rock — Thai, Korean and Spanish immediately come to mind. But we're happy to have a Brazilian option in Cafe Bossa Nova. The Hillcrest staple was established in 2002 by Brazil native Rosalia Monroe, using recipes she brought with her from South America. The place remains a popular dining location for both dinner and lunch, and with the addition of the adjoining bakery, Rosalia's Family Bakery, this little corner of Little Rock is irreplaceable.
Looking through the menu, one dish in particular might get brushed over thanks to its somewhat odd combination of ingredients. But this dish is placed at the top of the "Especialidades da Casa" section for good reason — the Salpicao deserves your attention.
It starts with a base bed of white rice topped with shredded chicken. From there you'll find chopped Fuji apples, carrots, sweet peas and herbs all blended with mayonnaise and finished with crispy fried potato strings. The marriage of flavors and textures in this dish is remarkable. Sweet and salty, crisp and creamy — it's well-balanced and delightful to dig through. The chopped apples — a component I initially balked at — were the stars of the plate, though the crisp potatoes were not far behind.
My only beef with Bossa Nova is its prices — the Salpicao will set you back about $16, but it's not even the most expensive of the lunch options, and dinner only goes up from there. With drink and tip, my lunch cost me more than $20, and while the portion was decently sized, the tab felt a little steep for a casual lunch. Perhaps if Bossa Nova threw in some complementary samples of its famous yucca-flour cheese bread, the tab would be a little easier to swallow, but as it is, price is the single factor that keeps me from heading there more often.
But I'll be back — I'm not done with exploring their intriguing and original menu. I'm inspired by the Salpicao, and I'm eager to eat my way through more of their especialidades. Cafe Bossa Nova is located at 2701 Kavanaugh Blvd., Suite 203.
— Daniel Walker
South on Main pork skins
The pork skins at South on Main are like no other I've tasted. The restaurant decided to make them as a way to curb waste: Much of its pork comes from Falling Sky Farms in Marshall, and it comes with the skin on. Rather than chuck all that pork skin into the trash, the SoM crew decided to scrape it and fry it in grease to make these puffy treats I'm raving about. The result is an airy confection that starts with a slight crunch and then dissolves into what recent dining companion Steve Schuler, producer for the Little Rock Foodcast podcast, called "a blissful memory of pork." The light spicy seasoning on these pork skins adds a bit of kick, but it's the flavor of those high-quality pigs that shines through in every bite. Imagine, if you will, something that melts on your tongue like cotton candy but tastes like the best pork you've ever eaten.
The South on Main pork skins are available on the restaurant's bar menu, so the next time you feel the need to get one of David Burnette's cocktails into your system, soak up some of that alcohol with a bowl of these lovely bits of crunchy pork. I promise you'll be glad you did. South on Main is located at 1304 S. Main St.
— Michael Roberts
Vino's specialty brews
Ah, beer. Cool, refreshing, thirst-quenching — the very basis of civilization itself. This glorious concoction of malted barley and hops is generally considered to be an everyman drink, something to ease a mind stressed from work or wash down the various burgers, pizza slices, or hot wings while the ball game is on television.
But beer has gotten feisty in the past decade, and brewers have moved beyond basic lagers and ales into some very new territory. Beer drinkers have gone right along, gravitating toward beers so hoppy that they're almost wormwood bitter, imperial stouts that hit the gut like a shot of bourbon, and wild yeast sours that pucker the jaw as they hit the tongue. Experimental brewing is here in Arkansas, too, folks, and once again, Josiah Moody of Vino's Brew Pub is right at the forefront. Moody has pushed the small microbrewery at the Seventh and Chester restaurant beyond anything I ever thought possible, and the result has been a string of fantastic brews unique on the Arkansas drinking scene.
A recent trip to Vino's saw two of these unique brews on tap, the first a doppelbock that had been cask-conditioned with locally grown Dunbar Garden hops. Despite clocking in at a relatively high (for beer) ABV of 8.5 percent, the doppel was smooth and refreshing, and as it warmed slightly, the flavor of the hops opened up into a wonderful array of floral and aromatic flavors. It's one of Moody's best beers to date, one with which he is justifiably pleased.
The second specialty beer on tap was something called the Holy Mole, a milk stout made with milk sugar and a healthy dose of scorpion peppers, also grown at Dunbar. The scorpion pepper ranks among the hottest peppers on Earth, requiring the folks using it to take special precautions to prevent chemical burns. I tried Josiah's prototype pepper stout last year and was surprised at how the spicy pepper added some bite to the stout while the milk sugar served to break down and balance out all that heat.
This year's stout, however, wound up being a little spicier than last year's, thanks to a more pungent crop from Dunbar. Working with peppers can be thought of as comparable to the Castle Bravo nuclear test carried out in the mid-1950s — scientists wound up with a yield nearly double what they expected due to the volatile nature of the ingredients used. So yeah, this is a spicy beer — but is it still good? The answer is a resounding "yes," especially for folks who dig spicy food. There is a certain segment of craft beer lovers known as "hop heads" because of their fondness for strong IPAs and other hoppy brews; I think beers like this might spawn another subset called "spice heads" who seek out different brews made with peppers to compare the relative merits and flavors present when the hot stuff is added to beer.
There's more to this milk stout than heat, however. When the initial heat fades, there are nice chocolate notes that are rounded out by the creamy texture of the beer. Anyone who has ever had Aztec-style hot chocolate knows how invigorating a cup of spicy, creamy chocolate can be, and this beer fulfills much of that same flavor profile. I'm glad to have put a glass of this into my belly, and while I don't think this could ever be a session beer, it's certainly one worth trying at least once (or five times). Vino's is located at 923 W. Seventh St.
— Michael Roberts