You're a lady, you want to lunch. You call the editor of your local weekly newspaper and ask where to go.
Answer: Wherever chicken salad is served.
This real-life exchange prompted the Arkansas Times to do some further thinking about chicken salad. Where do we like to go?
First off, everyone likes her (or his) chicken salad prepared differently. Chunky or smooth? With apples or no? Walnuts?
In fact, a taste test at the office got a little ugly. Testers snickered at each other, impugning their colleagues' ability to judge food. "Curry," one moaned, "an abomination." But she who did not favor curry took a pretty hard hit on the pronouncement.
Noses went up at balsamic vinegar; other noses went up at those noses (philistines, they sniffed). One woman's "too much mayonnaise" was another's "just how it ought to be."
But chicken salad is more than food. It is the staple of restaurants of a certain ambiance, its decorous presence creating character the way butter changes a baked potato from starch to something spiritual. Restaurants that proudly serve chicken salad know on which side their bread is slathered. A few favorites around town:
Cordell's, which has been open for several centuries on Old Cantrell Road, has that Old Little Rock feel and Old Little Rock Family clientele. A food tray from Cordell's is the first thing at the door after the Grim Reaper's come through. Tradition. It's not a tearoom type, but an artifact of the days when Cordell's was the sole purveyor of fancy foods. Here, at little white tables, men and women not on schedules gather for lunch amid baskets, cans of cheese straws, Scottish oatmeal, Cajun coffee. Cordell's chicken salad people like the egg and mayonnaise and chop of the chicken. They also believe Cordell's potato salad is incomparable.
Then there's upscale Little Rock, men and women alike, who choose to eat at Trio's, which, being on the other side of Mississippi Street, is still west to the folks down at Cordell's. Intimately lit, always crowded, decorated with fine art, this full-service restaurant in Pavilion in the Park has no weak spots, unless it's the fact that you will wait for a table at lunch. Chunky, salty, oniony chicken salad and a glass of Sauvignon blanc - that's the Trio's route.
Tearooms do exist, thankfully, though there are those who still mourn, after a couple of decades, the demise of the Very Special Tea Room in the Heights neighborhood. (It was good, but its prices were very special indeed.) The Victorian Garden on North Hills Boulevard in North Little Rock fills that ladies-in-lace niche, and it does it well - if you like curry in your chicken salad. Apples give it crunch and sweetness. It's all very genteel and friendly - as is its clientele.
Then there's the cutting-edge kind of poultry purveyor, and that would be, of course, Boulevard Bread Company, just off Kavanaugh in the Heights. Boulevard dares to use balsamic vinegar, meaning it dares to serve chicken salad that is brown. Some are offput by its looks, but the capers, shredded meat and sweet-and-sour battle being waged within make for an unusual - and some think terrific - Chicken Salad For Today's Upper Crust. The ambiance here: Chic gourmandery, high-priced and high-quality.
You can't talk chicken salad without mentioning Scallions, also off Kavanaugh in the Heights. This is a ladies-who-lunch, ladies-who-lunch-with-their-kids, and ladies-of-a-certain age-who-lunch kind of place. It's reliable, and its chicken salad, dotted with grapes and celery and served with a cup of hot soup - well, it's the height of respectability.
Buddhists, businesspeople, neighborhood artists - who isn't in line at Community Bakery? The downtown intelligentsia spill their chicken salad on the New York Times here and chase it down with a skinny latte. The sun shines in on the elevated dining area, the wood floors gleam. And though the diners here range from suited to studded, the chicken salad is in content your Arkansas grandmother's variety, the kind she served up on sweet white bread (not croissants): Traditional as all get out.
Back to that taste test: After the broken crockery was thrown away and the wounds were mended, our twelve apostles of their own ideas about food, thank you, gave Cordell's the win.