Review: The House

We’ve been meaning to try The House for quite awhile – it’s one of those places that I think about every time I drive by and yet never seem to get around to trying.  We finally found ourselves in Hillcrest on a Friday night where we couldn’t decide exactly what we wanted and figured that The House’s diverse menu would be sure to have something to satisfy.  I’d heard good things about their burgers and hummus, and I’d also heard they had a pretty good selection of beers on tap, although our server ran through the list so quickly that I couldn’t really tell you what they are.  I managed to catch something about Tallgrass brewing and said, “Yeah, bring me that.”  Jess did the same with a Goose Island Honker’s Ale.  I’ve never understood why places will print a wine list and not do the same for beer – but I digress.

We started with the Hummus and Tzatziki plate, an extremely generous portion of the creamy chickpea puree with tangy tzatziki, a spicy chili sauce, and a small pile of feta cheese, kalamata olive, and pepperoncinis.  The platter was served with some very good toasted ciabatta bread, which I found to be a very nice change from the typical dry pita chips so commonly served with hummus.  The hummus itself was tasty, if a tad heavy on the tahini – but that was balanced nicely by a squeeze of the lemon served to the side.  The tzatziki was excellent, with the mild sweet cucumber flavor melding well with the thick yogurt base.  The greatest discovery on the plate was how well the flavor of the feta was complimented by the spicy chili sauce.  There’s a lot of flavors going on with this appetizer, and we were pleased with them all.

For her entree, Jess ordered the House Burger with caremelized onions and cheese.  We’d heard that the House’s sweet potato fries were great, and so she ordered those as a side dish…only to be served the regular fries you see in the picture to the left.  The burger itself was good: the thick beef patty was seared well but still juicy, and the carmelized onions were sweet and added some richness to the tomato and lettuce that come as the standard toppings.  The bun, like all of the Boulevard Bread Company bread that The House serves was excellent.

I ordered the Swiss Dip, which is a French Dip sandwich with Swiss cheese.  The sandwich was good, with a generous portion of tender steak, sliced thin and covered with melted Swiss and an onion and mushroom mix I wish had stayed on the grill just a touch longer.  The au jus was rich and flavorful and provided the perfect complement to the steak – and I was happy to have that generous hoagie roll to soak it all up.  I ordered the regular French fries with my sandwich, and it’s really here that we hit the only major snag of our otherwise great meal at The House – the fries were simply awful.  These fries were limp, soggy, lifeless chunks of potato that drooped when we picked them up and lacked any sort of crunch whatsoever.  A good French fry is crisp on the outside and gives way to a soft, mealy interior.  Who knows, they may just have been having an off night on the fry station – but it doesn’t seem like they’re blanching their potatoes before frying them, and that means soggy fries.

French fry woes excepted, we enjoyed our meal at The House a great deal.  The portions are large, and obvious care has been taken to create flavorful sandwiches and attractive appetizer platters.  The service was friendly and efficient, and I have to compliment the kitchen and our server for knowing just when to hit our table with the appetizer and main dishes – I never felt rushed or felt like I was waiting too long for anything.  There are some other dishes that look intriguing on the menu – like fish and chips or mac ‘n cheese – that I hope to try on a future trip.  The atmosphere is unique and quirky without being gimmicky, and it’s right in the middle of one of our favorite parts of town.  It’s a restaurant that with just a little effort could go from “good” to “great,” and I have high hopes that they can do it.  Enjoy!

The House on Urbanspoon

Roasted Chicken Galantine

In traditional French cuisine, a galantine is a deboned cut of meat which is stuffed with forcemeat, poached, and then served chilled – often coated in aspic.  This version does away with the poaching and the aspic, and instead re-imagines the chicken galantine as a hot dish, served like a roasted chicken – but still boneless and stuffed with something delicious.  I’ve been meaning to teach myself how to debone a chicken for some time now, and after reading description after description of different techniques, I had an epiphany: I was never going to learn how to debone a chicken by reading about it.  Lucky for me (and for you, if you want to try this recipe), the master of technique himself, Jacques Pepin, made an excellent video that demonstrates a very simple way to debone a chicken with a bare minimum of knife work.  After a couple of times practicing this technique, I couldn’t believe how easy it actually is to remove all the bones from a chicken and still have an intact skin!  I could describe the method, but instead I’ll just ask you to watch this:

So now that you’ve gotten your chicken all deboned, let’s talk about how to make that stuffing that Pepin was using in the video above, and what you need to do to get that wonderful stuffed bird onto a plate.

Spinach Stuffing

  • 5-10 ounces of fresh spinach, chopped
  • 3 large cloves of garlic, minced
  • 2 teaspoons red wine vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 1/2 cups 1/2″ bread cubes
  • 1 cup Gruyère, Swiss, or mozzarella cheese

Heat oil in a skillet and sweat the garlic for five minutes, taking care not to brown (some shallots are also nice here).  Add the spinach and red wine vinegar and cook until nice and wilted, stirring to toss well with the oil and garlic.  Remove the spinach from the skillet into a bowl and set aside; allow to cool to room temperature.  Mix well with the bread cubes and cheese, adding a dash or so red pepper to taste.  Stuff your deboned bird, making sure to get some stuffing into the leg cavities; truss your chicken as seen above and to the right (for technique, see the Pepin video).

Once you’ve gotten your bird all deboned, stuffed, and trussed, it’s just a matter of cooking.  Traditionally, the galantine would be poached in broth (slow cooked at about 170 degrees for a few hours) and then allowed to chill overnight.  Then, after being decorated with herbs and vegetables, the whole lot would be coated in aspic – which is basically meat Jell-O.  But for our method, we sprinkled the outside of the chicken with salt and pepper and roasted it uncovered for an hour and fifteen minutes in a 400 degree oven.  This resulted in a chicken that had the crisp skin and rich flavor of a roasted bird – but one we could slice (like you see above) to reveal a gooey filling of fragrant cheese and spinach stuffing.  If you’re a fan of cold roasted chicken (like I am) then you can chill this and serve it cold for a more traditional appearance – it’s good that way too.  This was a fun technique to learn, and the resulting dish was elegant and delicious.  I can’t wait to try Pepin’s technique with Cornish hens and duck next!  Enjoy!

Review: U.S. Pizza Co. (Hillcrest)

I’ve eaten quite a lot of U.S. Pizza over the years, from their Dickson Street location while I was going to college in Fayetteville to their Fair Park location just a few blocks from where I work – but I think my favorite location of all remains their one in Hillcrest.  Saline County (our current home base) is about to get their first U.S. Pizza, so we thought we’d take a trip up to grab a bite and remind ourselves how good U.S. Pizza is.  The Hillcrest location has indoor and patio dining available, and fortified by a couple of the iciest mugs of Diamond Bear Pale Ale I’ve ever been served, we spent some time with the extensive menu.

The pizza at U.S. Pizza is great, but don’t worry if you’re in the mood for something other than a pie – there are enough sandwiches, salads, and appetizers on the menu to satisfy almost any taste.  Like many restaurants in central Arkansas, U.S. Pizza has a tasty cheese dip that makes a perfect addition to one of my favorite items on the menu: the Reuben, served up right on marbled rye and piled high with corned beef, sauerkraut, and cheese.  Other great sandwiches include the Meatball and the Philly Cheese Steak – these guys do sandwiches as well as they do pizza.  We were in the mood for some pizza today, though, so we opted to go with the Dave’s Favorite, a flavorful combination of Anaheim and jalapeno peppers with grilled chicken, tomatoes, fresh spinach and yellow squash piled high on U.S. Pizza’s signature thin crust with Alfredo sauce.  The pizza was a perfect balance of tangy tomatoes, spicy peppers, and savory chicken; the crust was crisp and held up very well underneath the weight of all those toppings.  This was the first time we’d ever ordered this particular pizza at U.S. Pizza and it quickly became one of my favorite pies I’ve ever eaten – the yellow squash was a delightful discovery.

U.S. Pizza is a rare example of an Arkansas-based restaurant chain, and the quality in food and service is fairly consistent across the board among the locations I’ve eaten at.  There are some pretty good pizza places here in Little Rock, but I think U.S. Pizza certainly belongs among the best of the best.  Fresh ingredients, unique and varied choices in toppings, and an extensive non-pizza section of the menu makes U.S. Pizza one of the most well-rounded pizza places around – with the best part being the fact that they can actually pull off such a diverse menu and make it all taste pretty good.  Prices are in line with any of the mainstream pizza joints you might have in mind, and the taste and quality is far beyond whatever they’re making at Papa John’s.  There are several locations around the state, so there’s bound to be one near you.  Enjoy!

U S Pizza Co on Urbanspoon

University Market at 4Corners – Food Truck Heaven

“I met the pig that’s in this sandwich,” says Jeffrey Palsa, owner of The Food Truck, as he slides a huge stack of ham, Swiss, and American cheese onto the small griddle in the back of his truck.  Confusion is obvious  on my face, and he laughs as he continues, “His name was Spot.  And the little girl that sold him to me said, ‘Spot was a good pig – but he makes better pork chops!'”  And that, in a nutshell, is the University Market at 4Corners, Little Rock’s new food truck court at the corner of University and Colonel Glenn – excellent local food served up by talented cooks out of small mobile kitchens.  I’ve been hearing about the locavore movement for years, but The Food Truck really brought home to me what local food is all about.  And as for old Spot?  Well, that little girl didn’t have the whole picture in mind:  he made good ham, too.

The University Market is the brainchild of Hot Dog Mike (Little Rock’s Coolest Hot Dog Cart), and the Mosaic Church, who plan a church and community center for the old K-Mart building in whose parking lot the Market sits.  And as I talked briefly to Pastor Mark DeYmaz and others behind the project, the word “community” was spoken again and again, and I realized that there was something more going on here than great food:  these folks were coming to a part of town that many in Little Rock avoid, and they were intent on creating an environment that was welcoming to people of all races, creeds – and yes, all tastes.  I’ve worked just a few blocks away from the Asher/Colonel Glenn/University intersection for several years, and there’s not been anything quite like this in that entire time – and it’s awesome to see.  But this is a food blog, so let’s answer your burning question: how’s the food?

Well, we haven’t had a chance to try everyone involved with the University Market, but since Jess is finishing her last semester at UALR, and I’m just down the road, we’ve managed to try a few of the selections.  On the first day the food court was open, Jess braved the crowds to try Red River Catering, a barbecue and catfish truck.  She got the three succulent pieces of catfish you see to the left, and spoke highly of how mild-flavored and tender the fish was.  I can’t wait to try their ribs, because the smell of barbecue from their truck is very tantalizing.  Since our only options for fish in the University District up to this point have been Long John Silver’s, Captain D’s, and the McDonald’s Filet O’ Fish, I can say with some certainty that Red River Catering has easily improved our options by over 100% in the seafood department.  Make sure you try the hushpuppies, as they’re fresh and taste like homemade.

Of course, we already mentioned The Food Truck, but these sandwiches are good enough for some elaboration.  The Chicken Pesto, seen right, was a wonderful combination of savory chicken, ripe tomato, and one of the best pesto sauces I’ve ever eaten.  The pesto complimented the chicken well without even trying to get overwhelming.  Jess tried the My Mama’s Sandwich, a turkey, red onion, and avocado treat that I have to admit is one of the only turkey sandwiches I’ve ever eaten that made me want to go back for more.  Keep your eye out for when The Food Truck offers chili – I added a cup of the tangy beef chili to my sandwich the other day for just a buck and was impressed by the flavor.  For less than the price of a Subway combo, you could be eating a sandwich that isn’t mostly bread coupled with fresh made sweet potato chips and a drink – The Food Truck is a steal.

As good as The Food Truck’s sweet potato chips are, and as good as Homegrown’s (more on them in a minute) rosemary and parmesan fries are, my vote for favorite side dish goes to Papa’s Burgers and Dogs’ onion rings.  I bought a tasty Angus beef burger and an order of onion rings from Papa’s and took it with me back to the office for lunch, realizing halfway back that I had forgotten to get any ketchup – and anybody who knows me will tell you that I tend to drown things in ketchup if left unsupervised.  Tentatively, I snuck an onion ring from the box and tried it…and no ketchup required!  These onion rings are have a soft, flavorful onion middle with a light, crisp batter that was like a cross between tempura batter and funnel cake batter  and wasn’t soggy on one single ring.  Papa’s does hand-dipped corn dogs, too, and if they can batter those as well as these onion rings, I’m sure they are incredible.

The Homegrown Gourmet Food Truck is the most “high brow” truck in the market, offering gourmet burgers and tacos.  I can’t resist crazy tacos, and so I tried the Mongolian Pork taco with Granny Smith slaw and fried avocado and the Jerk Chicken taco with Pineapple slaw and fried avocado.  The Mongolian Pork was heavenly; tender and flavorful, with sweet, spicy, and savory all mixing together into something pretty special.  The jerk chicken wasn’t quite as good – the pineapple slaw tended to overpower the chicken, and I craved a little bit of the Scotch Bonnet heat that indicates really good jerk chicken.  The breaded and fried avocado slices on both tacos were a revelation, though, as I’ve never had avocado cooked in this manner.  Crispy fried guacamole?  I would have been doubtful before trying Homegrown, but now I’m a fan.  I can’t wait to try their Ahi Tuna Tacos with Wasabi Slaw next!

So what’s the take-away from the University Market at 4Corners?  Well for starters, let me assure you that I’ve only scratched the surface of what food is available there.  And I haven’t tried a food truck yet that wasn’t A) extremely clean, B) staffed by very friendly folks, and C) serving up some of the best food I’ve had in Central Arkansas.  This is food with character, served by people who make it with pride.  The folks who run the University Market are trying something bold in an area that has been too often neglected in the past 20 years:  they are trying to bring diverse tastes at affordable prices to the diverse folks who make up the University District.  As one of the working class folks who make that district my home for 40 hours a week, I welcome them with open – and hungry – arms.  Here’s to the continued success of the University Market: Peace. Love. Food Trucks!

When Thoughts Turn Toward Spring

The warm weather lately has turned my thoughts to springtime.  Arkansas weather tendencies being what they are, I admit that these thoughts may yet be premature, but there’s no denying that everything around us seems tensed and ready to bud and sprout and get all that allergy-inducing pollen going.  And while I love winter, with its rich soups and comfort food, I always look forward to the fresh vegetables of the spring and early summer.  We can, of course, get most any vegetables around here in the wintertime, too – but no hothouse-grown tomato trucked in from elsewhere can hope to hold a candle to a vine-ripened Arkansas tomato, and there isn’t a cucumber anywhere right now that will taste as clean and good as the one grown in somebody’s back yard during the season.  With that in mind, I’d like to get a small head start on the spring by presenting a few simple and tasty things that you can prepare with all the yummy things that will be available just around the corner.

Strawberries with Balsamic Vinegar
This is a classic pairing of flavors that is as surprising as it is refreshing.

  • 1 quart ripe strawberries, hulled and sliced in half (or quarters for larger berries)
  • 1 tablespoon good balsamic vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • cracked black pepper
  • fresh mint, cut chiffonade

Place your sliced berries in a bowl with the vinegar and sugar.  Allow to macerate for an hour, then serve on a plate with a sprinkle of the pepper and as much mint as you like.  These berries are also quite good on ice cream.

Quick Radish Pickles
I got this method of making radish pickles from David Chang’s Momofuku cookbook.  They’re good as a snack or on a salad.

  • 6-8 spring radishes. Radishes in the spring time are smaller and sweeter than their winter counterparts.
  • 1 teaspoon fine sea salt
  • 1 teaspoon sugar

To make these simple pickles, just slice your radishes into thin wedges and toss with the salt and sugar.  Allow them to sit for 5-10 minutes and then enjoy them!  This is one of my favorite snacks on a hot day.

Cucumber and Tomato Salad with Dill
Nothing tastes fresher than this salad made with grape tomatoes, cucumber, and a healthy dose of fresh dill.

  • 1 pint grape (or cherry) tomatoes, sliced in half
  • 1-2 cucumbers, peeled with the seeds scooped out and chopped
  • 2 tablespoons minced fresh dill
  • olive oil
  • red wine vinegar
  • salt

Toss the tomatoes, cucumbers, and dill together with a generous glug of olive oil and a few dashes olive oil.  Salt to taste, and allow to sit in the fridge for half an hour or so for best taste.  This is a great salad to serve as a side dish or as a light lunch. Enjoy!

Cast Iron Skillet Pizza

When it comes to pizza, we’re usually fans of the thin crust variety, but every once in awhile we like to indulge in deep-dish style.  Deep dish pizza is almost more like a casserole than an actual pizza – you can really pile the toppings up on one of these.  And since most restaurants use cast iron pizza pans for their deep dish pies, we figured we could get much of the same effect by using our favorite kitchen pan – the cast iron skillet.  All you need is a good yeast dough, a well-seasoned skillet, and a little imagination and soon you’ll be enjoying all that deep-dish goodness!  This is a very filling dish, and the only real limitations on it are your taste in toppings.

Basic Pizza Dough

  • 1 package of quick-rise yeast
  • 1 cup warm water
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 2 cups bread flour
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • olive oil

Bloom your yeast by dissolving it into the cup of warm water and allowing it to sit for around ten minutes.  The yeast will take on an almost creamy texture.  In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook, combine the yeast mixture, sugar, olive oil, sugar, salt, and bread flour and mix thoroughly.  The dough will be stiff and elastic.  Coat a separate bowl with more of the olive oil and put the formed dough into the bowl – and you want to kind of flop your dough around in that bowl until it gets a nice coating of oil.  Cover the bowl with a towel and let your dough rise until it has doubled in volume, about 30 minutes.  Spread your dough out into your cast iron skillet so that it has a good, thick layer on the bottom and comes up the sides about an inch.  You might have more dough than you need, depending on the size of the skillet.

Put a layer of tomato sauce on the bottom of the crust, then a layer of mozzarella and parmesan cheese.  Add whatever toppings you like – we used beef, pepperoni, and onions, but anything works.  Top with another layer of mozzarella and parmesan and add a few sliced tomatoes.  We like to put a sprinkle of oregano, basil, and red pepper on very top, but that’s purely optional.  Bake at 400 degrees until the crust and cheese are golden brown.  Enjoy!