The weather is heating up, but it’s clear that the central Arkansas food scene is just as hot. We’ve seen a string of exciting restaurant openings over the last few months, and there’s many more we’ll be seeing in the coming months. It’s definitely a great time to be an Arkansan, and we’ve got a lot to be proud of in this bourgeoning food scene. Keep your eyes glued to Eat Arkansas, we’ve got a lot of great things still to come.
It’s time once again for Food Feedback Friday, your opportunity to sound off on whatever it is you’re shoving in your face this week. On last week’s #FFF here’s what you all had to say:
There were mixed opinions on the annual Greek Food Festival. SusieQ put down a Gyros sandwich, chicken kebob, hummus, and baklava and seemed to be pleased with her selections, but nolaguy left “extremely disappointed,” stating that “there was practically no flavor in anything” and that “my family wished we'd just gone to Layla's instead.” Kevin describes his “new favorite lunch discovery” from Rock ‘N Tacos, a chicken taco salad with “shredded chicken, lettuce, wonderful beans, rice, guac, sour cream, and fresh mango salsa.” Thanh is pleased with A.W. Lin’s, calling their seafood coconut soup “awesome as always.” Raven enjoys the Cajun turkey spread sandwich from Bray Gourmet, numbernine tried out Chuy’s stating, “it's not worth a wait of more than 10-15 minutes, but it's good,” and that their “tortillas are delicious.” And Tammy attended the Heifer International Feast in the Field, sampling a “delicious creamy carrot soup garnished with herbal creme fraiche,” and a “fall-off-the-bone Coq au Vin with spring vegetables and polenta.”
There you have it. Your turn. Let us know what’s filling your belly this week.
When it comes to Mexican food, I’m all for authenticity, but I’m in no way averse to mixing things up a bit and creating tacos and burritos that incorporate ingredients that one would never dream of finding in such vessels south of the border. You might think of this as “Americanizing” the flavors of Mexico, you might consider this some sort of “fusion” vaguery, but when flavors sing as sweetly as they do at Benton’s bravest food truck, Baja Grill it’s really not that important what you call it, what matters is that it tastes good. This may or may not be the first time you’ve heard the virtues of Baja Grill expounded upon, and I certainly hope this won’t be the last. After months of salivating over their Twitter feed, I was finally able to make it down to Military Road to see what all the fuss is about. I’ll just say this, there’s probably not enough fuss about this place—if you haven’t made it down to Baja’s corner of the world, reconsider your priorities and get thyself a mouthful of some of the finest tacos and burritos this side of the Rio Grande.
If you were to sample but one of their menu’s many tantalizing items—a decision which proves to be extraordinarily difficult—please make it the Cuban burrito. The Cuban also comes in taco form, a very worthy option as well if you are leaning in that direction, but you can opt for the burrito option if you so desire. Standard to both the burrito and taco is the spectacular shredded Cuban pork—sweet, spicy, and tender, it forms the base of these spectacular items. The burrito then distinguishes itself by taking a soft, grilled flour tortilla, stuffing it full of the pork, fluffy seasoned rice, and black beans, and tops it with a sour orange red cabbage-jicama slaw. The slaw may be the most inspired component of this entire culinary equation—the zest of citrus, mildly sweet, with a slight crunch from the freshly chopped jicama. They dredge the entire thing in their housemade queso, a creamy, cool, rich concoction the puts the whole thing over the top. I’ve had my fair share of pitiful cheese toppings—some half-hearted, melted Velvetta and Rotel abomination which would never be fit to top this blessed burrito. Baja’s queso is no such broth—it’s clearly made with care, flavorful, and a beautiful addition to an already spectacular dish. Each bite of this burrito is bittersweet—your mouth rejoices, but deep within, your brain dreads the moment this burrito is gone.
If you got in your car right now, I bet you could make it to Baja Grill in under half an hour. Okay, probably not the case for everyone, but regardless of the time commitment required to park yourself at the feet of Baja Grill, it will be well worth your effort. Take a seat on their ample outdoor seating while the weather is still permissive, and bask in the glow of burrito brilliance.
(Baja Grill is located at 1130 Military Rd, Benton. 501-617-1002)
I walked into the new River Market location of Gus's World Famous Fried Chicken with very little in the way of expectations about the place. I've never eaten at any of the Mason, Tennessee-based chicken joints, and while I'd heard odes and exclamations of praise for the restaurant's spicy fried chicken, I've generally found that deep-fried yardbird is never quite as good as it should be. There were plenty of empty tables in the newly opened dining room, something that surprised me given the hype that's surrounded Gus's ever since we confirmed that a location was headed our way. This was a soft opening, with a limited menu, but our server assured us that the full scope of menu items was on its way quickly.
So how did was the chicken so legendary that it's called "World Famous" measure up? Well, it was good. Really, really good. It's rare that a place lives up completely to the hype, but just such a thing happened with Gus's.
We started our meal off with an order of Fried Pickles, which unlike the breaded pickle chips found most places were actual long spears of high-quality pickles dredged in seasoned flour and fried to a crisp. Each bite was the perfect balance of crisp coating and juicy pickle, salty and spicy and sour all at once. We polished off a basket of six in no time, and despite the moisture content of these pickles there wasn't a soggy bite to be had. It was obvious from this starter that the Little Rock staff of Gus's had been well trained on the ways and means of getting fried food right, something that made us look forward even more to the chicken.
When our chicken hit the table, we were hit with a spicy, hot aroma that had our mouths watering. The chicken was lightly breaded, fried to a perfect golden brown — and like the pickles, fried so evenly and consistently that I was pretty amazed. First bite was cayenne pepper, paprika, and the deep, clean taste of peanut oil. Second bite was all chicken, moist and flavorful without being heavy or greasy. I'm not a big fan of the chicken breast, but I ordered one tonight because frying a breast and keeping it moist is the definition of playing fried chicken on hard. Gus's was a complete success, with even the tenderloin section of the breast winding up just as juicy as the top. This fried chicken actually tasted like chicken, and was a pleasure to eat even after the crust had been stripped away. And at around $7 a plate, this is easily the best meal deal in the River Market. The sides are no slouch either, with a creamy, tangy slaw and some savory beans rounding out a plate that was already spectacular.
With Riverfest coming up, I hope that the Gus's staff gets ready to be mobbed, because word of how good this chicken tastes is going to spread like wildfire. I know that I can't wait for the next time I'm sitting at one of those red-checkered tables with a 40 oz. in one hand and a piece of hot, delicious fried chicken in the other. I can't tell you if Little Rock's location is as good as the original, but I can tell you this: it's easily the best fried chicken in town.
There's a sign on the door of Gus's World Famous Fried Chicken, the much, much-anticipated River Market branch of the fried chicken mini-chain, that says the restaurant will be serving tonight at 5 p.m. It's at 300 President Clinton Ave.
I suspect, since they're staying mum on their Facebook page, that this is the beginning of a soft opening run that will continue up until Riverfest, when the restaurant is scheduled to be officially open. I couldn't get anyone to answer the phone to confirm.
Dining out at a respectable steakhouse is always an occasion, but in truth, it’s not something I get around to that often—I sit down to steak infrequently for many reasons. A decent steakhouse is going to require you to really open up your wallet a bit — if you’re eating that bargain bovine, with sirloin/baked potato/veggies all for $20 or less, you can’t really expect to be overly impressed with the results. Additionally, getting your steak cooked properly seems to be something that’s far too uncommon. Medium rare (my preferred doneness) tends to be met with varying outcomes, and this only seems to accentuate the hefty price tag when things are not done correctly. It’s more forgivable to be presented with an overcooked burger—you’re put back, maybe, $10 — but a $48 dollar slab of beef is a bit harder to swallow when it comes out a little too close to jerky than you’d like. It’s high stakes eating, but of course, when done correctly, the rewards can be generous.
With family in town, we decided it was high time we rekindle our love for giant cuts of cow, swanky dining rooms, and a doting waitstaff — this go round, we determined to try our luck at Sonny Williams' Steak Room, that classic River Market steakhouse that overlooks all of the downtown hustle and bustle. It just so happened that Sonny is still doing things right, and our steaks were nothing less than top notch.
Appetizers made another favorable impression on our table. Fried boudin balls with fried crawfish tails were enjoyed by all. The boudin balls, stuffed with hot sausage and fluffy rice were coated in a crispy fried exterior, lightly dipped in a rich, spicy remoulade and just a drizzle of a spicy/sweet chili honey glaze. They were surprisingly light for a fried dish, and the four on the plate were slurped down within seconds. Small bits of batter-dipped and fried crawfish tails were tasty little nuggets as well, but the batter-fry technique tended to detract from the otherwise delicate, subtle flavor of the crawfish. Next, throwing all caloric caution to the wind, we opted for the spinach and artichoke hearts dip with jumbo lump crab and toasted pita chip. This dip was another winner amongst all at the table—rich, creamy, and buttery, but the delicate flavors of the spinach and artichoke still shone through the fat. But the pita chips really pushed the dish over the top. The description claims these are “toasted,” and they may be, but they tasted to be fried lightly in a pan. Though they appeared at first glance, due to their relative thickness, to be nothing more than greasy, hard and crunchy chips, we were all surprised by the airy, soft texture—another appetizer worth a sample.
The Fold, the new taqueria and cocktail bar from Bart Barlogie and Wilson Brandt, opened this weekend in Riverdale. They're open Tues. - Thur. 11:00 a.m. - 11:00 p.m.; Fri. - Sat. 11:00 a.m. - 12:00 a.m.; Sun. 11:00 a.m. - 11:00 p.m. (phone number: 916-9706). Based on the epic lines at Local Lime, the market for upscale and eclectic Mexican food in Little Rock is strong, so we’re expecting a hit. Located in a renovated 1950s gas station at 3501 Old Cantrell Hill Road, the restaurant's specialty is botanas — small plates, or snacks — while the bar will focus on Mezcal. We’re psyched to sample the cocktails, which feature hand-squeezed juice. See some samples after the jump.
The Little Greek Restaurant franchise, which says it offers Greek food with an American touch, is coming to Little Rock, taking over the site that housed Cheeburger Cheeburger in the Pleasant Ridge Town Center.
The Little Rock website for the franchise has links to menus in Florida, where the franchise started, and Texas. You got your lamb skewers, mousaka (as LGR spells it), gyros, hummus, etc. The Little Rock phone number hasn't been activated yet; we've left a call with the chain owner Nick Vojnovic to find out when the restaurant will open and who owns the franchise here. [See update below.]
The restaurant's Facebook page offered up the above photograph of spanakopita and Greek salad, which looks pretty good. Looks like a nice beet slice atop the salad.
UPDATE: That is indeed a beet on the top of the Greek salad, a salad that also includes two lettuces, pepperoncini, onions, bell pepper, olives, feta and a potato salad mixture with homemade dressing, company president Vojnovic says. The recipe comes from Greek cooking in Tarpon Springs, Fla., which has the largest Greek population of any American town, thanks to its 19th century sponge diving business.
Franchise holders are Thad and Michelle Waugh. They are hiring between 20 and 30 people for the new restaurant.
The restaurant owners hope to open in early July, Vojnovic said. He said the menu hasn't been formalized to add local tastes (like the Texas one, which includes a filet mignon skewer). The Little Rock restaurant will be the 14th in the chain.
Central Arkansas is blessed with some really good sausage makers. Whether it's the house made sausages from Hillcrest Artisan Meats, Edwards Food Giant, or straight from the farm, there's no shortage of really fantastic sausage in the area. To this list of greats, add Travis McConnell, a man with no small amount of experience making charcuterie, and who has been slowly rolling out his Butcher and Public restaurant concept at various events around town.
I wasn't able to attend the big hog roast that McConnell threw last February, but I was lucky enough to catch him grilling some of his homemade sausages at the Bernice Garden Farmers Market. I ordered up a hot one and was treated to a large juicy sausage nestled just right on a split and grilled baguette. Toppings were of a "do it yourself" nature, so I slathered on a generous amount of mustard and a couple of spoonfuls of a tasty looking chimichurri — there was also a bread-and-butter pickle mix, but I'm not a fan of sweet pickles. The result was one of the best things I've eaten in awhile: tender, savory grilled sausage on chewy bread, kicked up with mustard and finished with a chimichurri that was just the right balance of garlic, fresh herbs, and good oil. I was eating off a paper holder on a park bench, but I might as well have been eating somewhere fine.
I'd wondered when Chef McConnell first announced his plans to open Butcher and Public in the Main Street area if there was enough room in this town for another fine-meat purveyor. After sampling the chef's work, I know that I'll have no problem making room for such good food in my life. The Butcher and Public gang plan to do more market appearances, so I urge you all to grab one of these fresh-grilled masterpieces as soon as possible — I can't wait to eat my next one.
Mylo Coffee Company has become something of a legend at the various area farmers markets, with folks lined up well in advance of each market's opening for a cup of coffee and one of their many pastries. We've talked before about their kouign amann, the puff pastry delight that is normally the first to sell out, and I agree that it's one of the best things I've ever put in my mouth. But my tastes swing more to the savory rather than the sweet — and not surprisingly, Mylo has just the thing: the pissaladiere.
The pissaladiere has a storied history, arriving in France from Rome during the time when the Papacy was based in Avignon, surviving against all odds during the various reformations and revolutions to wind up on a fold-away table in Little Rock. The pastry is similar to pizza, only better in every way: instead of solid crust, the base of Mylo's dish is a thick layer of homemade phyllo dough, chewy and crisp all at once. Atop this luxurious base are caramelized onions, a thick layer of jam-like tomatoes, shredded cheese, and whole kalamata olives. The result is a buttery, tangy, slightly sweet and wonderfully salty dish that is one of the most perfect flavor profiles I've ever eaten. I've always been a fan of the morning-after slice of cold pizza — and the Mylo pissaladiere is like taking that idea to Michelin-star levels.
Because of local restrictions about selling prepared meat from a farmers market booth, Stephanos and Monica Mylonas have been forced to get creative with their dishes, including the pissaladiere, which traditionally includes anchovies. The couple is more than up to the task of changing their recipes to suit those guidelines, though, creating a host of vegetarian savory pastries that will suit the tooth of even the most dedicated carnivore. The Mylonas' sweets are popular, and rightfully so, but if you crave savory like I do, you'll find your perfect morning companion with this little square piece of cheesy, salty joy. It's become my go-to weekend breakfast — so if you all go out to try it, be sure to save me one.
The daily grind got the best of me this week, so Food Feedback Friday is getting up rather late…just in time for your midnight snack. No biggie, the rules remain the same. Let us know what you’re eating, who’s really knocking it out of the park, and who’s falling flat. I’ve got the in-laws in town this weekend, which means fine dining is store for my wife and me. We’re thinking steaks…been too long since I’ve had a quality bone-in rib eye. Arthur’s or Sonny Williams have been the two we’re been considering most carefully.
Last week on Food Feedback Friday, Raven calls the zucchini salsa at Local Lime “one of the best salsas I’ve ever eaten,” but has some issues with the scant toppings from the pizza at Santa Lucia. Mordy ate some glorious sounding concoction dreamed up by the kitchen at White Water Tavern called “Thanksgiving in May” with turkey, cranberry sausage, cornbread stuffing, and mashed potatoes and gravy…as a sandwich. Kar had the chicken tenders from Slim Chickens and calls them “fresh, hot, and fantastic.” Hugh Mann had his “first go” at a sandwich from Hillcrest Artisan Meats and leaves satisfied, Kevin is underwhelmed by his pizza from Damgoode Pies, to which I say, join the club. Rooibos snagged a Reuben from the Capital Bar and Grill and says, “I’ve never had corned beef so tough.” That’s a shame. EY is pleased with the “huge short rib” from Acadia, and Joel checks out Leo’s Greek Castle under the new ownership, stating, “the hamburger was definitely an improvement from previous burgers there and the gyro platter as wondrous as ever.” You can read it all here.
Your turn folks, where ya’ grubbin’?
I know a thing or two about transitions. When the editor of the Arkansas Times first asked if I wanted to contribute to Eat Arkansas, it was only a few months after the departure of Kat Robinson, a writer who has eaten at and written about more places across this state than almost anyone. After my first few posts here, I recall getting an e-mail from Pat Lynch asking if I was the "new Kat," to which I replied that while I could never hope to replace her, I hoped I could do the blog justice. Things really started clicking a few months later when Dan joined the blog, and it's been relatively smooth sailing ever since.
And now, once again, I find myself in a place of transition, and once again I'm nervous and excited. Many of you are familiar with Arkansas Cooks, the local interview show hosted by Mary Twedt that airs every Saturday at noon on KUAR FM 89.1. Mary's been doing the show for ten years, and I've been an avid listener for many of those ten. A couple of months ago, Mary approached me and asked if I'd be interested in doing some episodes of Arkansas Cooks, as she was looking to transition into a less active role but wanted to keep the show going. Now, I'm not a radio guy, but I jumped at the chance to work on such a long-time favorite, especially with good folks like Mary and producer Travis Hill. Now for those of you who might be worried, let me say: Mary isn't leaving the show, she's just turning over some of the work to myself and the excellent Neal Moore. But I'll be on the air this Saturday with my first show, an interview with the ladies of Loblolly Creamery.
I know most of you regular Eat Arkansas readers need no introduction to Rachel Moore and Sally Mengel, who along with Dan Moore form the backbone of Little Rock's best ice cream company, but anybody who has ever talked to the ladies of Loblolly knows that Sally and Rachel are smart, funny, and happy to share their ice cream secrets (which turn out to be witchcraft) with anyone who is interested. I sat down with both of them at the Green Corner Store right before a private "Sundae Tasting" event, that saw everything from non-dairy ice cream made from coconut milk to custard flavored with saffron, to a candied rose petal that tasted like pure sugared spring time. I learned how long it took for Rachel to perfect their basic vanilla recipe (months) and the origins of the name "Loblolly." In addition to all that, the ladies talked about their future plans — including the eventual re-purposing of Jeffrey Palsa's food truck Preston into a new kind of ice cream wagon.
The care and love that Rachel, Sally, and Dan all put into their business is obvious with every bite of Loblolly ice cream (or every drink of house-made kombucha). I hope you'll all tune in to hear what this fantastic local business is up to — or at least tune in so you can come back here and make fun of my radio skills. I'll be keeping you all up to date with what's going on with the show; and of course stick around Eat Arkansas for the latest in blogtastic food news.
A foodie must-do this weekend is the International Greek Food Festival, which kicks off Friday, May 17 at 11 a.m. at the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church, 1100 Napa Valley Drive in Little Rock. Admission, parking and trolley service are all free. Visit their website for lots for more information.
Now in its 29th year, the festival runs through 3 p.m. Sunday afternoon. On the menu for this year are all the faves you'd expect: gyros, falafel, hummus, tabbouleh salad, kebabs, spanakopita, loukanika, roast lamb, plus lots more. If you don't feel like standing in line, they also offer a drive-through menu with many of the festival's more popular items.
Attractions this year will include an Old World Market with jewelry, stained glass, wooden toys, art work and ceramics, a book store, a grocery section and a selection of pastries and frozen dinners to go. Entertainment on tap will include Irish, Indian, Greek, Scottish, Russian and Middle Eastern folk dancing, with something different to see every half-hour. The Centers for Youth and Families will also have a kid's area set up, with games, a bounce house, face painting and other things to keep the tykes occupied.
If past years have been any indication, the Greek Food Festival will probably be a mob scene, but they do offer free trolley service from nearby parking lots. It's loads of fun, and the food is well worth it.
The latest in Little Rock's unexpectedly wonderful eating experiences comes to us via a young baker and her bike. Introducing the Little Rock Pie Cycle, a true Arkansas original. The Pie Cycle is the brainchild of Hannah Moore, a native Arkansan with a zest for life and a flair for the unconventional. The Pie Cycle only recently began selling its wares—every weekend Hannah jumps on her bright red bike with an insulated container full of freshly baked hand pies strapped to the back. She's been selling primarily in the Hillcrest neighborhood, keeping things close to home to keep her pies at their freshest. The girl's pumpin' pedals to work here, so don't expect her to be making appearances in Conway anytime soon.
So you stalk her Twitter or Facebook page, where every weekend Hannah posts her location for the day. She’ll be camped out at a park, or a bench outside the grocery store, or at a farmer’s market peddling pies to the hungry masses. You’d be wise to get there early, though, she often sells out quickly. I’ve been attempting to meet up with her for the last three weeks in order to gorge myself on handmade pie and meet the sweet genius behind this business venture. Last weekend, at the Hillcrest Farmer’s Market, I finally got my chance.
As I mentioned previously, the Pie Cycle specializes in "hand pies"—hand-held pocket-sized pies, akin to the more familiar fried pie—except Hannah's pies are baked rather than fried and dripping in oil. The small pockets of piecrust are filled with fresh fruit fillings of all sorts, neatly wrapped, and individually sold. To me, the sign of a great pie maker is seen in their piecrust, and Hannah’s crust certainly passes the taste test. Hers are heavy on butter, rich, soft and flakey. The light, flavorful crust creates an ideal backdrop for the myriad of fruit fillings Hannah incorporates into the hand pies. Our order included a bright, whole blueberry filling, a spiced apple, and a tart, tangy strawberry rhubarb. She uses only fresh fruit and all natural ingredients, utilizing local ingredients whenever she can. She’s creating everything from scratch, baking all her goods the morning she goes out to sell. To Hannah, “hand pies mean summertime. It’s a food you would eat in shorts with your bare legs hanging off the side of something like a boat or a bridge.”
“My father-in-law is a math teacher, and every year on Pi Day (March 14th) he celebrates with his students by doing experiments, reciting digits of Pi, and of course, eating pie. He really liked these hand pies I had been making, so he asked me if I could make 150 of them for his students. So I made 150 pies and I thought, ‘How can this be my life?’ We came up with the Pie Cycle as a way to justify a lifestyle of baking and eating pies every day.”
The Pie Cycle is a truly wonderful addition to our mobile and street-side dining scene, and it’s certainly something worth tracking down. It’s an experience, and a real pleasure meeting young people with big dreams and the creativity to make them happen. Hannah says she’d like to make a few bike modifications in order to accommodate cold drinks for the hot summer months. Hannah says, “I got the opportunity to live in France for a few months where we drank tons of lavender lemonade, which is probably the most refreshing drink I’ve ever had. I’m also working on a roasted peach lemonade.”
The Pie Cycle is destined to brighten the day of anyone fortunate enough to get their paws on some of Hannah’s lovely creations, and I look forward to seeing this small business grow in the coming months. You can find the Little Rock Pie Cycle wheeling around the Hillcrest neighborhood of Little Rock. Follow the Facebook or Twitter pages for the week’s locations, times, and flavors. And if you’re a regular at the Hillcrest Farmer’s Market, you’ll be able to catch her there most Saturdays.
Thanks to Arkansas Times pal Ashli Ahrens for spotting small jars of Duke's Mayonnaise at the Dollar Tree store in Riverdale and then hipping Yours Truly to their culinary significance via Facebook. We don't know if other Dollar Trees in Central Arkansas have Duke's right now, but as of 5 p.m. yesterday, the one in Riverdale had at least two cases of 8 oz. jars.
Why the excitement about what can be the blandest of condiments? Because Duke's, first whipped up in a boarding house kitchen in Greenville, S.C. in 1917, and sold continuously since then, might be the greatest ever expression of the humblest of condiments. CNN's foodie site Eatocracy has declared a tomato and Duke's sandwich to be, and we're quoting here, "the best sandwich in the universe."
That's a high bar, but they might be right. I tried a little on a turkey sandwich last night, and let me tell you: while it likely didn't do a damn thing for my cholesterol, Duke's made that bit of bread and bird positively sing with its tangy, creamy flavor. As noted in the CNN story, it's markedly less sweet than any other mayo you'll find, but that's not really a problem. It's easily one of the best condiments I've ever tried. Ever. In my life.
If you're within the sound of my voice, rush on down to Dollar Tree. We also hear they may sell Duke's locally at certain specialty stores like Whole Foods, but this is definitely a way to get it on the cheap.
Dean Cline is back at work making potato salad and chicken salad according to the recipes of the legendary Cordell's deli. I confirmed that he's gone to work on the deli staff at Terry's Finer Foods at Country Club Station in the Heights. He's at work and made batches of both salads today, but word has spread quickly, so I can't guarantee what you'll find if you head up there this afternoon.
When we last visited, a deal to supply the salads through a former owner of Browning's had fallen apart.
If you don't know from Cordell's, long a fixture in Riverdale, it's your loss. Time was a tray of thinly sliced roast top sirloin and a tub of potato salad was the tried-and-true Old Little Rock sympathy platter for both funereal and celebratory occasions. I think I even eventually stumbled on the secret ingredient that explains the smooth and unwatery texture of the potato salad dressing. But replicating the taste of potato salad time after time — not to mention the firm, but not crunchy texture of the potatoes — is a real art. Cordell's had it down.
Who says there's never any good news
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