Great salad, or greatest salad?

photo 2Sometimes, all I want to eat is a salad. There’s just something that’s extremely compelling about the light, fresh crunch of greens topped with a little bit of protein and a killer dressing. We’re blessed here in Little Rock with several places that know their way around salad, from the cheese-piled chef-style salads at US Pizza to the artisan meat and cheese affairs served up at Boulevard Bread Company to a chicken liver-topped masterpiece at South on Main that blows me away every time. And after eating salads all over this city, I think I’ve found the greatest salad that Little Rock has to offer.

And it’s being sold at a burger joint.

Now before you scoff, let me clarify: this ain’t no regular burger joint. I’m talking Big Orange, part of a family of restaurants that has made excellent salads part of what they do. Starting with ZAZA Pizza in the Heights, these restaurants excel at pretty much everything they do. And with the Thai Chop Salad, I they have gone above and beyond a mere salad and into the realm of the sublime.

The Thai Chop is a massive plate of romaine lettuce, shaved cabbage, tasty tomatoes, fresh jalapenos, red pepper, cilantro, basil, peanuts and sauteed steak, all served with a spicy, tangy dressing that is one of the most compelling combinations of ingredients I’ve ever had. You may think I’m being hyperbolic about how good this salad is, but I promise you, it’s even better than I can describe. Savory, spicy, and at the same time cool and light, this salad keeps the flavors coming in all directions. I love Big Orange’s burgers, but lately this salad is all I want to eat — and since the Midtown location is just up the block from me, I eat there often.

Summertime is salad time, so if you haven’t tried this one yet, put it on your agenda. The Big Orange gang also tries to locally source ingredients whenever possible, which is another plus — so pass on the burgers on your next trip and try the best thing on the menu. Happy eating!

Big Orange on Urbanspoon

Bad food — and expensive, too!

photo (3)No, the picture over there on the right isn’t one of the 1,319 current Federal Superfund sites, but it’s a crime nonetheless. That, my friends, is an actual plate of food that I ordered and was served recently at Bruno’s Little Italy on Main Street, part of a disastrous meal which I talked about in more detail here. This particular dish — a fetid combination of chicken livers, mushrooms, pan sauce, and pasta — deserves some special recognition: it’s one of the worst dishes I’ve eaten, and it cost me $17.95. Now I’m sure that some of you reading this won’t see eighteen bucks as a lot to pay for a plate of food, but to me, that’s expensive. This writing thing manages to pay a lot of the bills, but I’m not exactly Scrooge McDucking into a pile of krugerrands wearing a speedo made out of hundred dollar bills.

Which brings me to the whole point of this article — expensive meals that suck. In the case of those chicken livers (a food with which I am normally quite enamored), the downfall lay with how they were cooked, which in a word, was burned. And not just a little burned, no, there was the robust flavor of charred flour and meat in every bite (and the livers themselves tasted a little unfresh as well). When all was said and done, I was left with a bill approaching $70…and I was still hungry. Oh, and pissed off.

The most expensive crappy meal I ever ate was at Pancetta in the downtown Marriott. That meal reached poetic proportions of badness and made me envy our ancient homo erectus ancestors — and their diet included scavenged zebra that spent days baking in the African sun. I was lucky that my newspaper was picking up the tab for that one, because if I had been forced to drop a Franklin-plus of my own money on that meal, I probably would have wound up in jail. 

Thinking back to my younger years, I recall making $4.25 an hour and thinking that a $25 meal for two was a hopeless extravagance. These days, I’m able to enjoy meals at far better places than then, but that doesn’t guarantee a good time every time. There are still some really bad places out there, and part of what I want to achieve as a food critic is warning my readers about places that will steal your hard-earned cash, fill your mouth with garbage, and then ask for a tip. A bad meal that empties your wallet is the most painful dining experience possible, and I’m just lucky to live in a city where bad meals are a rare occurrence. And don’t eat at Pancetta. Cheers!

Vino’s muffuletta pizza

photo 3(2)I’ve written about Vino’s Brew Pub quite a lot over the years, but usually I’m talking about their beer. There’s a good reason for it, too: the beer they make down on 7th and Chester is some of the best around, and continues to improve every year.

Vino’s does more than just make great beer, though — they also make a pretty mean pizza. Whether by the slice or by the pie, Vino’s makes pizza that’s some of the best in town. I’ve always been partial to the Margherita or just plain pepperoni, but today we tried the muffuletta pizza, and I think I’ve found a new favorite.

I’ve always liked Vino’s version of the muffuletta sandwich, so it wasn’t surprising that I enjoyed the pizza version. All the expected toppings were there: olive salad, cheese, ham, and sliced pepperoni, which the restaurant uses in place of the more traditional salami. A little bit of olive oil serves for sauce and the result is a savory, gooey mess of toppings on top of a buttery crust. It’s a filling pie and one that I hate took me this long to try. And of course there are plenty of tasty house brews on tap to help you wash it all down.

Vino's on Urbanspoon

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!

The ups and downs of Flounders Chowder House

Flounders Po BoyAll we ask for from a restaurant is that it have decent food, decent cleanliness, and decent service. For Flounders Chowder House in Pensacola Beach, we’ll have to just agree that sometimes two out of three ain’t bad, because while the food was good and there wasn’t anything dirty that I could see, our server made us rather uncomfortable with the way she acted.

Here’s the thing about Flounders: it’s a spot that caters to tourists, and it’s insanely big — big enough that a there are several full-size boats and about 50 motors that make up a large part of the decor. It’s big enough to have a full play area for kids along with ample outside seating. So I get that the place is bustling. The flip side is this — in a big restaurant that caters to people who are probably unfamiliar with your menu, one drink menu for a 7 top is not good. Giving everybody 10 minutes to figure out drinks and appetizers isn’t good. And getting mad when you rushed us, then came back and we added more food to our bill (thus spending more money) is, in a word, ridiculous. And that’s how our waitress, Cathe, treated us, like idiots who were giving her a hard time…when in reality we were curious folks wanting to explore the menu.

But enough about the surly server. How about the food? We ordered a dozen oysters, and they were far better than our previous dozen, very fresh and no grit. Jess ordered a shrimp po’ boy which, while nothing out of the ordinary, was still loaded with tasty shrimp and served with some very respectable and crispy fries. Jess’s mom was nice enough to give me a a piece of her fried flounder, and it was fantastic — easily one of the best bites of seafood I had on the trip.

Flounders Seafood BurgerMy entree was the “seafood burger,” a thick grilled hamburger with a mish-mash of crab and other seafood on top. I ordered the burger medium…and got it cooked a perfect medium, which went a long way to earning the place some respect. The seafood topping was tasty, and the fries were (once again) quite good. This was a gigantic burger, and one that I enjoyed quite a bit.

The rest of our table seemed as pleased with their meals as Jess and I were with ours, and several of the Millers had fun downing the massive “Diesel Fuel” mixed drinks (which I avoided). By the end of the meal, even Cathe had seemed to make peace with us, and I will give her credit that our orders came out just like we asked for them, and she had no problem splitting our bill the way we wanted. By the end of the meal, we were all so full that the previous weirdness was (mostly) forgotten anyway. Special thanks for this meal go to Jess’s cousin Kevin, who graciously picked up the tab for all our entrees, which makes him a mensch, even if he is a Texas Longhorns fan. Flounders Chowder House is located at 800 Quietwater in Pensacola Beach.

Flounders Chowder House on Urbanspoon

Lunch at The Fish House

Fish House OystersWe spent our first night in Pensacola out on the beach with my brother and sister-in-law, listening to the ocean crash, drinking a few cold ones, and grooving to a soundtrack of Sublime and Gorillaz until the wee hours. Waking up the next day, Jess and I decided to take a quick swim and go get some supplies for that night’s dinner of shrimp and scallops, but we decided that we needed something to get us back up and going after a late night. Best answer when you’re right on the Gulf of Mexico? Eat a bunch of seafood for lunch.

To this end, we traveled to Atlas Oyster House hoping to get a couple of dozen on the half-shell…only to find out that Atlas is only open for dinner. No reason to despair, though — Atlas shares a building with sister restaurant Fish House, and they were open and ready for lunch. We wound up with a pretty good meal with some definite creative touches that would make The Fish House a place we’d definitely recommend.

Like I said, we were in the mood for oysters, but The Fish House doesn’t have them on the menu. Our waitress was nice enough (after spending about 15 minutes discussing workout techniques with the yuppies at the adjacent table) to tell us that she could get us a dozen raw since they were part of the same group as Atlas. The result was an iced-down platter of oysters of which six were decent and the rest were so sandy that we might as well have just eaten a mouthful of the beach. Seriously, if you can’t serve clean oysters, don’t offer them, because grit ruins the experience. Lucky for us, the oysters would be the only low point in the meal.

Fish House Soul RollsTo get the gritty taste of those oysters out of our mouth we ordered some Soul Rolls, described on the menu as a spring roll with collard greens in place of cabbage, served with a creamy mustard sauce and peach chutney. To be perfectly honest, we ordered this appetizer strictly because it was a unique take on spring rolls, and we didn’t expect much. Our expectations were quickly exceeded by this dish, however: crispy wrap, rich tasting greens — and the creamy sauce made a great addition. The peach chutney was sweet, tangy, and spicy all at once, and worked far better with the rolls than we would have thought possible. The chicken seemed to be something of an afterthought, not adding much flavor, but this was still a surprisingly good dish and one that I’d order again. Cabbage in spring rolls normally offers a bright crunch to spring rolls, and the collards in this dish did the opposite — they provided a deep chewy texture and flavor that was quite compelling.

Fish House Shrimp GritsFor our main entree, we went with the Fish House’s “signature” dish, something they call “World Famous Grits a Ya Ya.” This dish was perfection. Creamy smoked Gouda cheese grits topped by a sauce made from creamed spinach, bacon, garlic and shallots; topped further by some excellent grilled jumbo shrimp — it was just perfection. The grits were thick and creamy, redolent with cheese flavor; the sauce was flavorful without overpowering; the shrimp were among the best we’ve had — plump, juicy, and with a seasoned flavor that was simply fantastic. By the end of this dish, we had forgiven the oyster mishap (after all, the oysters weren’t exactly on the menu) and decided that The Fish House was pretty great in our book. As a side note, this shrimp and grits dish was considered a single portion, but we easily split it between two people and left stuffed (the Soul Rolls certainly helped). The Fish House is located at 600 S Barracks St. in Pensacola, and they’re open for lunch and dinner. Happy eating!

The Fish House on Urbanspoon

Spending some time in The Dog House

Dog House ChiliWe may go in for our share of fancy food, but there’s lots of times when only the simple things will do. Amidst running around the white sand beaches of Florida’s Emerald Coast, drinking more than we probably should, and relaxing poolside at our condo, we had to make time for that most important of meals: lunch. And not wanting to break the bank (or drive), we discovered a small deli within walking distance of the Beach Club that specialized in hot dogs called The Dog House Deli. Jess and I both love a good hot dog, whether we’re making them for ourselves or getting them from our favorite local hot dog cart, so we had to give it a try…and then another try. Our final verdict? The Dog House is fantastic cheap beach eats.

My first experience with the place was a Chicago-style dog made with onions, sweet relish, tomatoes, pickles, peppers, and celery salt — a very tasty combination. I’m sure that Chicago natives could nitpick this version of their local delicacy to death, but it tasted pretty good to this Arkansas boy.

Even better than the Chicago-style was the chili, cheese, and onion monster you see in the picture above. That’s an 8-inch dog on a soft bun, covered in savory chili, yellow mustard, and just the right amount of chopped onion. Sure, the chili dog isn’t the most inventive way to eat a hot dog, but this version of the classic was one to remember.

photo(43)The best thing I ate a The Dog House, though, wasn’t a hot dog at all — it was a big slab of Polish kielbasa. The sausage was part of the New Orleans-style plate which saw the kielbasa covered in sauerkraut and then doused with thick, rich red beans. Should red beans and rice where the rice is replaced by sausage and kraut on a bun work? Probably not. Did it work? Oh, most definitely. The sausage was spicy, with a nice snappiness to the casing, and the beans were as good as any I’ve had. The kraut added a nice, bright tang to the plate, and the bun was substantial enough to hold everything up, although a fork and knife were necessary to maneuver around this plate of goodness. I paired the beans and sausage plate with a Pensacola Bay Brewery Riptide Amber, which reminded me favorably of a Diamond Bear English Pale. All in all, a top notch lunch for not a lot of money.

The Dog House Deli is located at 35 Via de Luna Drive in Pensacola Beach. It’s not very big, but it will quickly become your go-to place for lunch if you’re in the area.

Dog House Deli on Urbanspoon

Restaurant Memories: The Bohemia

bohemiaThere’s still a restaurant called Bohemia in Hot Springs, and by all accounts it’s a fine a wonderful place that serves some of the best food in the Spa City. I haven’t eaten there for a variety of reasons, but mostly because I just don’t find myself in that part of town to eat very often these days. That wasn’t always the case, though, because the Bohemia, the original Bohemia, was not only one of the best restaurants the state of Arkansas has ever seen, it remains one of the greatest restaurants I’ve ever eaten at anywhere. I don’t recall my first meal at the place, nor my last one, but I can think of several spirited dinners that took place over sauerbraten and schnitzel, and it remains the only place I’ve eaten a Baked Alaska worth talking about.

Fans of the old Bohemia will remember Adolf Thum, the gruff and garrulous owner and chef who, along with his wife, kept a clean restaurant and ran a tight ship. Always eager to strike up a conversation with his diners, I can recall many a night where he would regale us with tales of his exploits as a Merchant Marine in the 1950s, cooking for upscale hotels in New York and Chicago as a slightly older man, and how he used to only pay his own son $20 for an entire weekend’s worth of work in his kitchen. I was a younger man then, and ate several meals with friends who might kindly be described as “hippies” — long hair and afros were the order of the day. Thum gave those guys no end of hell about their hair, swearing up and down that if any man during his days at sea had let himself go like that, the other sailors would steal his clothes and shoes, telling their scruffy compatriot that “the Holy Ghost took them.”

Apart from his quirky, yet friendly nature, the man could cook. Homemade bratwurst, Bavarian style sauerkraut, roast duck, and the aforementioned sauerbraten and schnitzel were all favorites of mine. It was Thum who taught me the difference between the cuisine of Western Germany and his homeland on the border between Bavaria and the Czech republic in the east. It was Thum who explained to me the first time what it meant to braise a cut of meat, and how soaking a piece of beef in wine could both tenderize its texture and temper its flavor. And it was Thum who came to his restaurant at 5am every Sunday to prepare his specialty: a steamed dumpling that is still the most perfect platform for any kind of sauce I’ve ever eaten. These dumplings were, in size and shape, like slices of French bread, but steamed. The texture was silken, pillow-soft and while neutral in flavor, Thum would share the method of their eating with all newcomers: let the thing soak in the sauce of your dish until you were almost done, then eat with gusto. It became the favorite part of any meal I ate there.

Thum retired and closed his restaurant in 2007; I found this out only when I went to take my then-new girlfriend (and future wife) to dinner there just a few weeks after the shutdown. I can honestly say that it was a moment of pure loss for me, and the grief I felt was like that of losing a friend or loved one. That may sound silly to some of you — but I’ll bet you never had Thum’s pickled beef. I wish I had some pictures of the food from those days, but I had yet to stumble into this whole food-writer career. What I do have is memories, of a warm dining room, good food, and one of the most unique men whose food I’ve ever had the privilege to eat: Adolf Thum.

Salumi

aasalumiCharcuterie. Regular readers of this blog will know that I’m pretty mad about cured and preserved meats, those delicious results of a time before refrigeration that linger on into this modern age because they’re just so incredibly delicious. We’re no strangers to the good stuff here in Little Rock, with restaurants like The Pantry and Hillcrest Artisan Meats turning out some fantastic house-made and imported food, but since we were in Seattle, there was but one destination for us: Salumi, Armando Batali’s cozy little sandwich shop located in Pioneer Square. It was a chilly November morning when we arrived at the door a half-hour before opening, and after ducking into a oddities shop next door to warm up for only a few minutes, we found ourselves already third in line when we returned. I spent some time on Twitter while we waited for the place to open and managed to get a retweet from Mario Batali, Armando’s extremely famous chef son.

aasalmeatOnce eleven o’clock hit, the doors opened and we headed down a narrow hall to the assembly line-style ordering. These folks knew their business, and kept everybody moving while being friendly (if a bit brusque). It’s not a big place, and there are a lot of people trying to eat there, so I’ve got to give props to the women behind the counter who turned out orders so efficiently. We started with a sampler tray, a collection of the different cured meats available at the shop. We had previously eaten the Salumi Salami at Pike Brewing, and we were once again pleased with its firm texture and light, oily flavor. The big hit on the plate was the Hot Sopressata, a spicy sausage that won us both over with a mild start and a fiery back end. The cheeses on the plate were excellent, with a soft mozzarella, smoked provolone, and a nice, sharp blue adding good flavor contrast and balance to the meat.

aaporchettaJess went for the Salumi Salami sandwich, so she really got her fill of the stuff that day. I ordered the Porchetta, a hot sandwich that had been recommended by several reviews (and also several people on Twitter). To all those people, I say “thank you.” The porchetta was tender, well-spiced, and incredibly juicy from all the melted fat infusing each bite. Stuffed into a hollowed-out roll, each bite of this sandwich was an almost overwhelming rush of flavor and texture unlike any sandwich I’ve ever had. Jess and I both are of the opinion that the sandwich might be mankind’s greatest invention, and this porchetta version served as added evidence to that theory.

Salumi was a fantastic experience, not just from the excellent food, but also from the excitement of the people around us. People were looking at this meal as an experience, something that Jess and I tend to do with most of the meals we eat. Was this famous house of meat better than our neighborhood sandwich palace, Hillcrest Artisan Meats? Not at all — if anything, the fact that H.A.M. matches Salumi bite for delicious bite makes me all the more thankful for the excellence we have just around the corner. So if you find yourself in Little Rock, head to Hillcrest — but if you’re reading this from Pioneer Square, it’s worth the wait to eat at Salumi.

Salumi on Urbanspoon