The happenings

dinner

Dinner (and picture) courtesy of Hillcrest Artisan Meats

It’s always nice when a favorite lunch spot starts doing dinner, and the folks at Hillcrest Artisan Meats have definitely put a nice spin on things with their take-home dinners. We’ve tried a couple of these now, and they’ve been fantastic. Our first experience with the dinners was a homemade lasagna, both a meat-based kind and a cheese kind — and surprisingly, I liked the cheese best of all (although the meat version was tasty). Our second meal was the lovely creation you see there to the left — a confit duck leg, Toulouse sausage, pork loin, sauerkraut, and new potatoes. Jess and I split it — she took the pork loin, I took the duck, and we split everything else right down the middle. It was fantastic eating, and something I hope they do again. If you haven’t tried these dinners, they’re doing them on Mondays and Fridays from 4:30-6.

musselsUnfortunately, not all food can be good, something we found out when we visited Pancetta, the new-ish restaurant in the Marriott downtown. Those mussels you see to the right are among the worst things I’ve ever put in my mouth, and Jess and I wound up sick for nearly three days after the meal. This also led to one of the worst reviews I’ve ever given, something that made life a titch uncomfortable with the Times’ advertising people since Pancetta advertises with the paper. But like the editorial staff and other contributors, my job isn’t to sell ads, it’s to write honest food reviews.

Periodically — and usually after a negative review — someone will ask why we review places we don’t like. The answer is simple: I have deadlines, and not everywhere serves good food. I don’t have the luxury of picking and choosing only the good places when I’ve got a review due every week or so. It’s no fun bagging on restaurants — I had a lot more fun writing this positive review of South on Main than I did blasting Pancetta.

There are a lot of bloggers out there that do it as a hobby — and I think that’s great. It’s also how I started. As my food writing grew in popularity, though, it became possible to do it for money — and that changes things. You get to a point where people start gunning for you and sniping at you, something I never really understood until just recently. Fortunately, that’s a minority view, and the vast majority of readers are friendly, good people — and it’s pretty easy to ignore those who aren’t. And if you go to Pancetta, don’t get the mussels.

One for the family

famWhen we started Arkansas Foodies, it was a way for Jess and I to have a hobby we could share that would fulfill interests we both had: cooking, photography, writing, and trying new food. As time went on, though, Foodies became about something more:  it became a way for us to keep up with our families despite the distance that separates us. Jess and I both come from close-knit families, and while time and circumstance has spread us all around the country, we still value our time together and celebrate each other whenever possible. We’ve got family from Denver to Glenwood to Hot Springs Village to Arkadelphia to Rogers — and it’s pretty hard to get us all in the same room for any given amount of time. We text and call, tag each other in pictures on Facebook, and occasionally tweet each other, but nothing compares to getting together — especially over food.

Peg Leg ComboA lot of what I post here goes up with family in mind, from recipes I think they’ll like to restaurants and festivals I think they’d enjoy. And whenever we DO all get a chance to get together, the blog serves as something else — a way for me to express how much fun I have with the family, as well as a recollection of good times had and experiences shared. It also lets other parts of our family keep up with us — not to mention lets me organize my thoughts in a way I’m used to.

So with that in mind, I’ll get to the delicious stuff — a triumphant return of the Millers, the Roberts, and one Garner to Peg Leg Pete’s, a restaurant with a silly name but great food that we first ate at back in 2011. As was our habit, we started off with a dozen oysters, and Peg Leg’s were far and away the best ones we tried — as good as any oysters I’ve had since our trip to Seattle. Jess and I decided to go all out and order two of Peg Leg’s big dishes: the Seafood Combo, a platter of fried oysters, fried shrimp, fried grouper, and fried scallops (sense a theme?) and the Mixed Grill, which basically had all that same stuff only blackened with spices on the grill.

Peg Leg Mix GrillThe best of the bunch? The grilled shrimp were amazing: large and succulent, with a spicy coating that didn’t overpower their innate sweetness. The fried grouper was fantastic, tender and moist with a crisp outer crust that went nicely with the spiced cocktail sauce on each plate. Scallops on both plates were good, although the table was nice enough to say that mine were better (thanks, guys). In fact, the only down note on either plate were the sugar snap peas, which were a little overcooked for my taste. Still, by the end of this feast we were stuffed to the rafters and in need of a little rest.

Vacations are always fun; vacations with family are even better. The memories made are what keeps the stressful times of the year manageable. We know a lot of great people here in Little Rock, but there’s nothing like family to put your mind at ease and make things just right. Cheers, and thanks to Joe, Tracy, Kevin, Ashley, and Andrew for such a fantastic trip!

Sun, sand, and seafood: the Arkansas Foodies take on the Redneck Riviera

BeachA couple of years ago, Jess and I stayed in Navarre, Florida for a few days with her parents. It was a great trip, and one that we’ve talked about quite a bit since. One of our favorite memories from the Navarre trip was the day we went to Pensacola Beach — we all fell in love with the white sand beaches, restaurants, and the gloomy old ruin of Ft. Pickens. Jess’s mom in particular loves the beach, and I’m a huge fan of preparing and eating seafood, so when it came time to plan another trip to Florida, we were all pretty set on staying on the island and putting those emerald waters right at our back door. We stayed at Beach Club resort and spa, a well-equipped apartment with ample cookware, great appliances, and a balcony that featured a grill. Between runs to the beach, sitting by the pool, and hanging out in the hot tub, we managed to find time to explore the area, go to some good restaurants, and cook some meals for ourselves.

Andrew ShrimpWe stayed this time with Jess’s mom and dad again, but this time her cousin Kevin, brother Andrew, and sister-in-law Ashley were along for the trip — and since we’re fans of saying “the more the merrier,” this was a merry group indeed. We split four of our nights into alternating days of cooking and restaurants, with Jess and I taking one cooking night while Andrew and Ashley took the second — and it was fun to see how other people work in the kitchen. Andrew made up the excellent marinated shrimp skewers seen to the right, and baked some fresh seasoned tilapia to make for a huge spread of “build your own” fish tacos. Everything was so fresh and tasty — it was one of those meals that make you hate getting full because you want to keep eating. Big thanks to our Colorado Millers for bringing it with the seafood: we loved every single bite.

ScallopsFor our dinner, I managed to do something that I’ve never been able to pull off:  cook scallops that didn’t suck. When everyone requested scallops as part of the meal, I had a brief moment of panic — my scallops usually turn out like little rubber balls. But I read up on them and gave it a shot…and they turned out perfect! Chewy, but tender, with a light flavor that had folks raving. Want to do scallops on your own? Just make sure they are VERY dry, sprinkle with salt and pepper, then sear in a hot skillet for only a minute on each side. We served ours with some garlic kale, and I couldn’t have been happier.

Stick around, because we’ve got lots to share with all of you: oysters, hot dogs, and some unorthodox spring rolls that surprised us with how good they were. Our sunburns are healing and it’s time to get back to work. Cheers!

Beach 3

The good, the bad, and the ugly: Summer 2013 edition

IMG_0185

Laughing Stock Farms eggplant

Welcome back to another edition of “The good, the bad, and the ugly,” where I keep you all up to date with what’s going right — and what’s going wrong — with local food. It’s been a relatively mild summer, which means it’s been a very good year for our area farmers markets, and we’ve been fortunate enough to meet and get to know a lot of new growers, producers, cooks, and craftsmen all across town. We’ve also managed to put away a lot of local food this summer, and that’s all been good, too (for the most part). Mostly, we’ve been living our lives the best we can, cooking up good food, learning all we can about Arkansas, and trying to dodge the humidity. So without further delay, here are some of the best and worst of Little Rock this summer, an idea I readily admit I stole from Jason and Shelle Stormoe of the Arkansas Merepoix Blog.

IMG_0071 (427x640)

Lillet with orange

Best drinks: The best drinks we had this summer came courtesy of Lee Edwards and Dylan Yelenich of Big Orange. I initially contacted Lee for a story I was working on for Arkansas Life magazine about low-alcohol cocktails for summer, and while he and Dylan could have just thrown any old thing at us and had done with it, they went above and beyond by providing us with an in-depth discussion of vermouth, which led to a discussion of fernet branca, which led to a pleasant evening getting buzzed in West Little Rock and then eating some fantastic food. Big Orange has just opened their new Midtown location, and while we haven’t had a chance to check it out yet, we’ve been keeping up with Lee on Twitter — and it’s pretty obvious that these guys know their business.

Best “Thank Heaven They’re Open”: This one is a tie. First up, Matt Bell’s new restaurant South on Main, a restaurant that I got to try in limited quantities a few weeks ago at an ALFN dinner, and about which my colleague Daniel Walker of Eat Arkansas has written an excellent preview. My personal favorite new joint, however, is the brand new Stone’s Throw Brewing on 9th and Rock streets. Jess and I checked out their soft opening last weekend and were impressed by their Belgian-style beers. Little Rock just got a lot more awesome from the opening of both these places.

IMG_0194Best coffee: Also in the “new” category, across the river this time, is Argenta coffee shop Mugs Cafe. We were quite impressed with the stylish and modern decor, not to mention the tasty lattes and breakfast sandwiches we tried. Check them out next time you’re headed up to the Argenta Farmers Market — you’ll be able to get the buzz you need for all that produce shopping.

Things aren’t all good, though, and so let’s give a few shout-outs to things that have gone down lately that weren’t perhaps the best.

Worst service in relation to food:  This goes to the Capital Bar and Grill, where a group of us got together last week to celebrate some birthdays. Food was, for the most part, excellent (some steak and Cobb salad issues aside). I had a pork belly crostini that was out of this world, and Jess and I both enjoyed dipping our fries into a truffled bearnaise so light that it was almost more foam than sauce. Service, however, stunk. Our waiter was rude, clueless, and neglectful. Members of our group who were having cocktails were never asked if they would like another round; I had to flag somebody else down just to get another glass of iced tea. To top it off, we never saw a single fried black-eyed pea, something that is supposed to be a free starter for every table.

Worst all-around experience:  Twin Peaks. But it did inspire one of the most well-read and most-commented pieces I’ve ever put on Eat Arkansas. I’ll say no more.

Worst all-around food: I thought initially I would pick The Fold, but they weren’t nearly as bad as Mamacita’s on Kavanaugh. The Fold was crappy and overpriced, but it had some bright spots. Not so for Mamacita’s, a restaurant that managed to be bland, foul, and also overpriced on both of our visits. I can’t stress enough how terrible the food was.

Now over to you — what’s your good, bad and ugly? Cheers!

bigorange

The happenings, and some stir fry

IMG_9254 (853x1280)We’ve had a busy time of late, but it’s all been in the name of expansion! Thanks to all of your kind donations, I was able to purchase a digital recorder, something that will enable me to pursue a new avenue of local food promotion: radio. That’s right, beginning April 27th, I will be joining the show Arkansas Cooks as a co-host, so be sure to tune in every Saturday at noon on KUAR FM 89.1 to learn more about Arkansas food and the folks who prepare it. You all helped make this possible, and I can’t thank you enough.

Other things of interest: we were recently lucky enough to “test drive” some free-range chicken and hand-made sausage from Farm Girl Natural Foods, and I couldn’t be happier with the meat. We did a longer write-up over on Eat Arkansas, so check that out for more information about these locally-raised delicacies.

I’ll leave you with a recipe that we made with some of the Farm Girl sausage, a simple stir-fry that just rocked our heads.

Hmong sausage stir-fry

  • IMG_9418 (533x800)1 package Farm Girl Natural Foods Hmong sausage. This is an Asian sausage style flavored with ginger, cilantro, and chilies — and Farm Girl’s pork shines.
  • 2 cups broccoli slaw. Yes, the kind in the bag from the super market. If you want extra carrots or anything else like water chestnuts or sugar snap peas, add ‘em in.
  • 2 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 2 tablespoons water
  • 1 tablespoon rice vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon corn starch
  • 1 egg (per person)
  • Steamed rice

Remove the sausage from its casings and brown in a skillet. While the sausage is browning, poach the eggs in a separate pot, then put them in a bowl of ice water to hold. Mix together the soy sauce, water, rice vinegar, and corn starch. Add the broccoli slaw to the pan with the sausage (this is a very lean sausage, and will not produce much fat, so no need to drain) and stir to mix. Add the soy sauce mixture, stirring to coat. Cook the stir fry until the slaw becomes just tender and the sauce has coated everything nicely. Give your eggs a 30 second dunk in some boiling water to freshen them up. Make a bed of rice, place the poached egg on top, then cover with the stir-fry. Serve.

IMG_9439 (533x800)

 

Why donate?

IMG_9453Donate to a blog? Well that takes some real cojones on our part to ask folks to do that, doesn’t it? After all, this is the new age of digital media where everything is free and we like it just fine that way.

And when it comes to this blog, I’m inclined to agree with you. Arkansas Foodies has always been a labor of love, something that Jess and I did in our spare time in order to share our love of the food and people of Arkansas with the world at large. And we’ve been gratified and humbled by the responses we’ve gotten over the years.

Over that time, I’ve chosen to keep Foodies free of advertising (save for whatever ads WordPress may force us to run), although that may change in the future. The website doesn’t run for free, and while there’s not just a ton of overhead for this site, there’s still expenditures that must be absorbed. I don’t know if advertising is the answer to that issue, but it’s certainly a possibility. The other possibility is to have a small donation drive where you, the reader, can maybe toss us a few bucks as a way of saying “keep up the good work.”

The main impetus behind this idea of a fundraising drive is this: within a matter of weeks, I’ll be taking on a major role with one of Arkansas’ top-rated radio programs. While this program enjoys a great deal of popularity, it doesn’t enjoy a massive budget (much like this blog). To do the job right, there are some equipment and software purchases that we really need to make, things that, while not large, are outside the reach of our day jobs and my freelance work. Thus, the donation request. On the side-bar, you’ll see a button that says “Donate.” That links directly to our PayPal account, and all donations will go to buying a digital recorder and some editing software. And since I know times are tough, if you can’t afford a dollar or two, leave us a comment telling us “good luck” so that we can at least know you’re thinking about us.

Cheers!

The Arkansas Foodies 2012 Year End Thing

mjwedHere we are at the end of another year — Jess and I couldn’t have asked for a busier, crazier, better one than this one just finished. When 2012 began, Arkansas Foodies was a small blog just finishing its first full year of existence, and Jess and I were an engaged couple trying to make gourmet food in a tiny apartment kitchen down in Saline County. Of course, small kitchens aren’t a detriment to good cooking — take a look at the Smitten Kitchen sometime and see the size of her kitchen! In addition to our cooking, we attended festivals, saw the food truck scene deal with some growing pains, and tried to bring all of you honest, informative restaurant reviews and foodie news. In March of 2012, Jess and I began working for the Arkansas Times, providing restaurant reviews and pictures for both their weekly print edition as well as becoming one of the main contributors to their Eat Arkansas blog. Suddenly, this plucky little blog began drawing all sorts of traffic, and we got to know all sorts of people in the Little Rock food scene (moving up here into the middle of things helped).

elliotbayOf course, the main excitement that happened in 2012 (even more exciting than winning Runner-up for Best Blog and Best Website from the Times’ Reader’s Choice Awards) was the fact that after a long engagement, Jess and I got married. We had a small, elegant ceremony at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Hot Springs, followed by a fantastic week in Seattle for our honeymoon — something that’s old news to all of you regular readers. We also got to know a lot of our fellow food writers, first at our jamon iberico tasting at Hillcrest Artisan Meats and then through a series of lunches that saw me and my Eat Arkansas partner Dan Walker eating everything from Southwest Little Rock barbecue to French bistro food in the Heights. We laughed, we scoffed, we certainly got indigestion — and I couldn’t ask for a better lunch crew, nor better dinner companions than Dan with his wife Lindsey.

aaathumbupSo here, at the end of the year, when people tend to reflect, I must ask: did I learn anything? I learned that new friends can come sometimes when you least expect them, and that old friends are the people who never give up no matter what. I learned that my family loves me even more than I thought they did, and that they’ll do anything in their power to keep Jess and me safe and happy. I learned pimento cheese is a lot more popular in Arkansas than in Texas, that dermatologists can talk mad game about foie gras, and that a growler from Vino’s is a welcome guest at any dinner party. Lastly, I learned that there are a lot of you out there, and you teach me about food every single day. Thank you all for reading, and from Jess and me: Have a wonderful and happy New Year! Cheers.

…And We’re Back!

photo(6)What a month November was, and what a month December has turned out to be! Jess and I got married, Jess found a new job, and we moved from our tiny apartment in Bryant to a much larger place in the heart of Little Rock. Moving into the city has long been a goal for us, and while I’m happy we’re here, I hope I don’t have to do the move thing any time soon — it’s complete and utter torture. And while we’re still unpacking boxes, we’ve got our new kitchen up and running, so I figured I’d share with all of you some of the things we’ve been making. I’ve traded in my crummy old electric stove for a gas range, and while our new place doesn’t have a dishwasher, that’s a small price to pay for the convenience and quiet of where we are living. And as you can see by the Chicken Parm pictured above, it hasn’t stopped us from whipping up something tasty. The parm itself is easy: take 1 cup shredded Parmesan, 1 cup Panko, and season with herbs of your choice and fresh pepper. Cut strips of chicken breast, dip in a beaten egg, then coat in the Panko/cheese mixture and fry until golden. Serve with wide egg noodles and a chunky sauce.

photo(3)The second meal we cooked in our new kitchen was a classic Southern feast: country-fried venison, green beans, and mashed potatoes. We make green beans like grandma used to: salt, pepper, and some thick cut pork belly. Oh, and a little secret ingredient known commercially as Accent (which is pure MSG). Just a pinch or two of MSG really sets off the flavors of these beans. To prepare, throw everything in the pot with some clean water and just cook the ever-living hell out of them. By most standards, these beans are overcooked, but a long, slow simmer allows the pork (and monosodium glutamate) to work its magic and create a richly flavored dish of beans with a nice, hearty pot liquor.

As for the deer steak, we dipped it in egg an dredged it in a mixture of seasoned flour and cornmeal. And the mashed potatoes were simply that — with far too much real butter in them. All-in-all, it’s been a tasty first week in our new place, and we’re excited to be posting again. Stay tuned for the delicious conclusion of our Seattle series, and a look at Little Rock’s newest trendy taco joint Local Lime. Stick around!

photo(5)

A Wedding, and a Week in Seattle

Well, friends, it’s been awhile since our last update, but we had a good reason: after nearly four years of engagement and a year of planning, the Arkansas Foodies went and got hitched. We had a lovely ceremony at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Hot Springs, a wonderful venue located in the restored Ozark Bathhouse on the Spa City’s historic Bath House Row. I can’t speak highly enough of the MOCA’s staff, as they were very accommodating with our taking over their museum for a day. We couldn’t have had such a wonderful day without a lot of people in our corner, so special thanks to Mueller’s Bistro and Bakery for a lovely and delicious cake, Lisa Whitley of Glenwood Florist for our excellent flower arrangements, Leneé Curtis Photography for their low-key approach to our wedding pictures, Randi Slick of Signature Events for their materials and set-up, and Central Arkansas Entertainment for a good DJ. In addition, thanks to Jess’ Aunt Charlotte, who loaned us a lot of serving materials and to my mom and dad, who hosted the rehearsal dinner, provided some home-smoked meats for the reception, and who, in the case of my minister father, made the whole thing legal.

The one main person responsible for this wedding’s success, and without whom none of this great day would have been possible, is my mother-in-law, Tracy Miller. From the very first stages of planning, Tracy was always ready to help us figure out the best way to execute something, offer suggestions on substance and style, and keep us motivated to continue on when things got a little overwhelming. She was the first person in the venue, helping set everything up, she cooked and prepared a number of sweet and savory treats for the reception, and was one of the last people to leave after everything was cleaned up. Jess and I don’t think there’s any good way to really ever thank her for all the time and resources she spent on making our wedding day a special one, but I do know that nothing would have gone as well as it did without her.

For our honeymoon, Jess and I took a trip to Seattle, Washington, a city with a well-deserved reputation as a paradise for foodies. We ate, drank, and cooked a great number of delicious things, and I’m excited to start posting about all of them. From the fresh seafood and briny oysters to charcuterie and craft beer, we ate our way all across downtown, fueled by the plentiful coffee found all over. We were lucky enough to catch an autumn week in the Northwest without a drop of rain, and while it was a little colder than the weather we left in Arkansas, it was a magical and invigorating trip full of fun sights and delicious eats. So stay tuned, readers, we’re going to be offering up some of our favorite eats in Seattle coming up on the blog!

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.