Burger King Mentality

I had braised beef cheeks from Hillcrest Artisan Meats for lunch today, with Gruyere cheese and caramelized onions on a crunchy, chewy baguette. It was glorious. If you’ve ever eaten slow-cooked beef cheeks, then you’re thinking about how wonderful the silky, tender meat tastes and how rich and savory a sandwich it would make, especially paired with a mild, nutty cheese and the sharp, sweet kick of onions. If you’ve never heard of beef cheeks, you might be skeptical, or even a little repulsed at the idea of eating a piece of cow facial muscle. I can understand that, and while I’m one of those people who will try pretty much anything, I know that there are folks out there who don’t feel the need to stuff themselves with strange and exotic things. That’s fine. There are also folks out there with allergies to certain foods, and that’s the most legitimate reason to avoid a food I can think of. But there’s one group of folks out there who infuriate me, and they suffer from the Burger King mentality.

What I mean by Burger King mentality is people who go into a restaurant and immediately start picking apart the menu in order to get it “their way,” for no other reason than they feel entitled to having it “their way.” Fast food restaurants have made this a selling point for their swill, and since it really doesn’t matter as far as flavor goes what members of the “two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame-seed bun” group you actually choose to scarf down on your lunch break, people have begun to think that having it “their way” is the only way. These people are wrong.

Any restaurant worth your patronage is staffed with people who know what they’re doing. They’ve got a chef, or a cook, or a griddle guy who knows how to execute his menu in a way that makes the food work together. In the front of the house, there is a wait staff who are knowledgeable about their menu and capable of answering any questions about the ingredients used. If a restaurant lacks these things, it should probably also lack you as a customer. So given that you’ve chosen a place worthy of you, why not be the kind of customer who is worthy of the hard work that goes into a place like that — by ordering a dish from the menu prepared exactly how it’s supposed to be prepared. Again, I’m not talking about people with allergies, I’m talking about the people who would have ordered the beef cheek sandwich above without onions, or with added mayo — in other words, people who think they know the chef’s business better than he does.

So if a dish has onions, tomatoes, mushrooms, or any other thing that you think is icky, you’re better served just ordering something else. Asking the chef to prepare a dish without a certain ingredient is like asking your mechanic to just put three tires on your car because you’ve just never developed a taste for that one on the passenger front. Just like a house needs all its load-bearing studs and walls, so to does a well-crafted dish need all its ingredients. It might not hurt your Whopper to pull the pickles off, but it will certainly detract from a pate sandwich or a well-grilled Cuban. And while the reconstituted onions on your Big Mac are just an afterthought, that beef cheek sandwich I opened with wouldn’t be the same without them. Be adventurous, and follow my mother’s rule: you’ll never know you like it if you never try it. Cheers.

It was the Best of Restaurants, It was the Worst of Restaurants

In my other writing gig as a food critic for the Arkansas Times, I get to try a lot of restaurants in the city, and Jess and I have had more hits than misses — we’ve been lucky. One of the most fantastic hits we reviewed was the White Water Tavern, home of the mammoth burger and the occasional chicken and waffle taco special. Jonathan Wilkins has been running himself ragged getting that place whipped into shape, and his hard work is paying off the dividends of deliciousness. But not every place can be as good as White Water, so here are some of our most recent hits and misses in descending order of greatness.

Mostly a hit: RJ TAO Ultra Lounge. Although really not the kind of place that suits our personalities, Jess and I enjoyed our meal at RJ TAO. The restaurant gave me a chance to try kangaroo, and I’m always pretty excited to try something new. The best thing we ate all night was the Belgian chocolate fondue, which was rich and bittersweet — and surprisingly made a perfect coating for the fresh cantaloupe that was our favorite thing served to the side (we weren’t as big on the stale Rice Krispie treats). The worst thing we tried was also a fondue, this time of the classic cheese variety. Severe separation and textural issues really made hurt this dish, although the flavor of the cheese showed some promise. It may become one of Little Rock’s new trendy places (which they so desperately want), but my overall impression was that it’s a tad overpriced and trying way too hard to be hip. Still, if they settle down and keep using quality ingredients, they’ve got real potential.

Half Hit, Half Miss: Aladdin Kebab. The succulent chicken kebab at Aladdin is seriously one of the best grilled meat dishes I’ve ever tasted: excellent spice and flavor in the marinade, and a good char on the edges of the meat that made every bite a tender, smoky delight. The gyros were tasty, although I prefer a true yogurt-based tzatziki to the sour cream version used here. Hummus was incredibly smooth, and redolent of the tahini used (we could have used a taste more lemon to cut it). That’s the half-hit part. The half-miss is the Mexican side to this eclectic menu, which while decent, doesn’t come close to the level of the Mediterranean dishes. Still, worth a visit just for that kebab.

Pure Miss: Datsaburger. We have several really good burgers in this town from Big Orange to the Root Cafe. Datsaburger is so far removed from these places in terms of quality that the light from their galaxies would take a thousand years to reach it. Their website claims that the owners went all around the Mid-South searching for the secret to making a great burger — and I guess they didn’t find it. Apathetic service, apathetic meat, and worst of all, the abomination I have in that picture over there — the Razorback burger, a glorified McRib without even the decency to give you the pickles. And don’t even get me started on the food-poisoning-incident-waiting-to-happen that is their condiment bar.

Miss? Didn’t Even Show Up: Kebab House. What do you get when you eat at a place where the server first tells you that they’re out of a menu item and then serves it to the table that comes in 30 minutes after you? Kebab House. What restaurant serves up hummus without pita bread, says they’ll bring it to you after two requests, and never brings it to you by the time you leave? Kebab House. Who never offers to refill your drinks? Kebab House. Who advertised free Turkish coffee throughout the month of September and charged me for mine on September 28? Kebab House. SYNC Magazine thinks they’re okay, which should make you mistrustful to begin with. I haven’t left a restaurant this angry since the last time I ate at a Ruby Tuesday. I get asked sometimes what the worst place I’ve eaten is, and for 2012, the answer is (everybody now): Kebab House. Seriously, that place sucks, even the things they actually served us correctly.

Well, that’s an overview of the good, the bad, and the Kebab House. If you have any places  you think we should try, be sure to e-mail us at arkansas.foodies@gmail.com — we’re always looking for reader feedback. And if you like the Kebab House, may your gods have mercy on you. Cheers.

Jamón Ibérico at Hillcrest Artisan Meats

It all started as a bit of a joke on Twitter — a bunch of local food bloggers talking about how much we love Hillcrest Artisan Meats, and how much we’d all like to try one of the more expensive items sold there: the $89/lb jamón ibérico de bellota. The joke became serious — and then a reality — as we realized that we could all perhaps pool our resources and all partake in this legendary Spanish ham without breaking the bank. It was also an excellent excuse for quite a few of us local bloggers to get together face-to-face, something Jess and have wanted to happen for quite some time. Present at this blogger/pork summit in addition to Jess and myself were Christie Ison from Fancy Pants Foodie, Joel DiPippa from the Southern Ash blog, and my excellent colleague from Eat Arkansas, Dan Walker.

Widely considered the finest ham in the world, this Spanish import is made from black Iberian free-range pigs who are allowed exercise and are finished strictly on a diet of acorns (which greatly influences the flavor of the ham). The meat is aged for up to 36 months, so you can see that the time required to cure one of these hams coupled with the limited number of pigs that the pastures and oak groves of Southwest Spain can sustain means meat that is on the upper end of expensive.

And how was it? Simply fantastic. Brandon at Hillcrest Meats sliced us a half pound of the stuff so thin that it was almost translucent. Unlike prosciutto, which I find to be rather chewy, the iberico was soft and yielding, with a luscious fat to it that melted almost as soon as it touched the tongue. The flavor was mild and rich, and like good, strong wine was almost overwhelming in a way that forced each of us to take our time and savor each bite. This was more than charcuterie — this was the essence of all that is perfect and wonderful about charcuterie summed up in a wafer-thin slice of salty, unctuous heaven.

Everyone I’ve talked to (who wasn’t there) has the same question: is it worth it? I’d say that it certainly was. A half-pound of meat for nearly $50 seems like an insane amount to spend, but with five separate bloggers splitting the cost, that only comes to $10 each — and by the end of that half pound, we were all so overwhelmed with the richness of the meat that I don’t think anyone could have eaten another bite. It’s certainly something I would consider buying a few slices of as a nice addition to any tray of antipasti, and as a bonding experience among a group of food writers who only just met, I can’t think of anything better to serve. The sweet, wild flavor of the meat, buffered by salt and age was more than a mouthful of ham — it was one of the truest food experiences I’ve ever had.

THE HERMANOS JAMONES: Joel DiPippa, Daniel Walker, Jess Miller-Roberts, Michael Roberts, Christie Ison

THE HERMANOS JAMONES: Joel DiPippa, Daniel Walker, Jess Miller-Roberts, Michael Roberts, Christie Ison