Central Arkansas venues have a full week of commemorative events planned
Expectation is a double-edged sword, and since Heights Taco & Tamale Co. is the seventh new eatery in as many years for restaurant group Yellow Rocket Concepts, our expectations were at an all-time high. The Yellow Rocket group has always been ambitious and varied in all its ventures, taking on burgers at Big Orange, upscale Mexican at Local Lime, pizza at ZAZA and even craft beer on tap or in the can with Lost Forty Brewing — all to wide acclaim. So when the group announced its intentions to renovate the old Browning's restaurant on Kavanaugh in order to open a Delta-style taco and tamale place, we almost felt sorry for everyone involved. After all, adding on the burden of a historic location is just another layer on top of the usual restaurant opening chaos.
So how does HT&T (as our servers called it) measure up? Well, it ain't fancy, and it ain't expensive, but it sure is tasty — and somehow managed to exceed even our high expectations.
Like all of Yellow Rocket's Amber Brewer-designed dining spaces, HT&T is a wonderful blend of sleek modern design paired with some wonderful retro kitsch. From the intricate tile mosaics that line the back walls to the throwback light-up letter board (which read "Mojito, mo' problems" on our last visit), it's a statement space that asserts the restaurant's identity with gusto. Inside seating is well spaced and comfortable, and we made sure to eat one meal out on the cozy, comfortable patio — and the people-watching opportunities there are worth a trip alone.
The HT&T menu isn't enormous, but there's enough variety to necessitate a nerve-steadying cocktail while trying to decide. Luckily, Yellow Rocket bar guru Lee Edwards has developed a drink menu that makes this ordeal rather wonderful. The HT&T signature frozen mojito is a subdued and refreshing version of the minty favorite, perfect for summer, but the Whiskey Fix — a tasty concoction of bourbon, lemon, Aperol and bitters — that had us singing the praises of the bar. A respectable selection of draft and bottled beers is also available, but even beer drinkers should give this cocktail menu a try.
Fortified by our tasty libations, we finally felt ready to get ourselves into the menu, deciding to start simple with the "Pick Three" salsa option ($3.50), something with which Local Lime veterans will be intimately familiar. The options here are different than HT&T's West Little Rock sister, and quite fun. Our bowls of sweet and spicy salsa verde and the house red were perfectly delicious, but it was a creamy jalapeno and onion dip that really won our hearts. Cool and mild, with just a touch of spice, it's a nice change from more traditional salsas and one we know we'll order again and again.
On a following trip, we decided to go a lot bigger with our starters, choosing an order of Half and Half Cheese Dip ($6.50) and a skillet of Tamale Pie Dip ($12). "Half and Half" means half cheese dip paired with a choice of ground beef, chili or salsa verde, and we were so happy with our choice of ground beef that it will be hard to branch away from it in the future to try the other options. This is a classic Southern-style cheese dip served in a deceptively deep bowl and loaded with seasoned beef — basically every homemade cheese dip ever made here in Arkansas, but smoother, creamier and just generally better.
But as much as we enjoyed the cheese dip, we have to admit that it was pushed aside like an old lover the second the tamale pie dip hit the table, because this pile of sliced tamales, crispy Fritos (yes, Fritos), spicy chili, tomatoes, jalapenos and sour cream had us salivating. Anyone who has ever given in to the guilty pleasure of a Frito-chili pie will find that concept perfected in this tamale dip. Eat it on the crackers provided to the side. Eat it right off the fork. Whatever method of consumption chosen, the results are guaranteed to be delicious.
Having had the house-made tamales in the dip, we decided to sample them on their own, ordering a plate of six ($10) along with some chili ($2) and queso ($2.50) on the side. Smiles crossed the faces of everyone at the table when the tamales came out, and we immediately began talking about growing up on hot tamales from a can. One bite of these decidedly not-canned tamales brought us right back to the present with a hit of spice and flavor that resulted in eye-popping pleased faces all around. We covered some of our order with the chili and cheese, and while that was nice, we can honestly say we prefer these little masa and beef treats au natural, shorn of their paper wrappers and ready to eat.
With the "tamale" portion of HT&T's name verified, it was time to put the other T — tacos — to the test. First up was an order of Pickle-fried Chicken Tacos ($12.50), a combination of buttermilk-fried chicken and red pepper chowchow that made our "best tacos in town" list on the first bite. There was a ton of flavor in the crisp breading, and the generous portion made each bite a big one — and with chicken this moist and juicy, we didn't mind a bit. We predict this will be the most popular item on the menu as HT&T goes on, because it hits everything a Southern palate loves.
But it was with our second order of tacos, the Hard Shell Beef Tacos ($11) that we discovered good, simple fun on a plate. These tacos are what we think of as "Taco Tuesday" tacos: seasoned ground beef, shredded cheese and a few slices of tomato stuffed into crispy corn shell ready to eat. We've eaten a lot of these types of tacos over the years, enough that we have rules about how we like them. The shell must be thick enough to avoid sogginess, yet still be capable of absorbing enough juice and flavoring from the meat so that the taco does not shatter on first bite. They should be full, but not overflowing. And, of course, they should be delicious. These tacos? Three for three with extra points for serving these beauties in a small metal holder that kept them upright.
Not a fan of tacos? Well, we pity you, but we can also say that HT&T has you covered. We enjoyed the enchiladas ($12), served up in a full-size cast iron skillet. Both beef and cheese fillings are fantastic, and we had trouble deciding which sauce we preferred, the red or the green. The whole affair is served with two sides, and we thought our rice and black beans were delicious, although we admit we mostly ignored them to focus on that glorious mess of enchiladas.
If there was one dish that fell short for us on our trips to HT&T, it was the Pork Nachos ($12), but even with this dish, our problems stem more from personal preference rather than the actual quality of the food. The pork in question here is done in-house on a smoker out back, and we really wanted to love it. But although the meat was succulent and tender, it wasn't smoky enough to our taste — which, combined with a sauce that we found overly sweet, made for a jarring juxtaposition with the rest of the savory dish. We understand the thinking here — this is Delta-style pulled pork, and well made, but we still feel more smoke and less sweet would really develop this pork into something special.
So about those expectations — we figured to be served great food by friendly people with skill and efficiency in a lovely environment. After all, with six previous restaurants under the belt, Yellow Rocket should have things down pat by now, and in the case of our meals at Heights Taco & Tamale Co., all those expectations were met and then exceeded. The waitstaff is courteous, the bar is quick and the kitchen didn't miss a beat even on a night when the wait for a table was approaching two hours — and not because service was slow: the crowd was just that huge. It's always nice when a classic restaurant space can be used, and with food this good we predict that there won't be a vacancy there on Kavanaugh again for a very long time.
Like any new restaurant in a part of town that likes to eat out, HT&T is most likely to be busy any day of the week. Like sister restaurants Big Orange and Local Lime, HT&T uses the No Wait app to notify patrons by text message when tables become available. Download the app for yourself and get in line for a table from your smartphone before you ever leave the house — it really takes the guesswork out of when to show up at the restaurant.