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!

David’s Burgers is still the best

photo(1)Little Rock has some great burgers. Two locations of Big Orange, burger Fridays at H.A.M., classic eatery The Box — the list goes on and on. Outside the metro area, we’ve got the burger that brought Man vs. Food to town: the Cotham’s Hubcap. And of course, Russelville is home to Feltner’s, which even as a shadow of its former glory can still make a tasty burger.

But out of all these, David’s Burgers, particularly the Markham Street location, remains my favorite.

So, first things first: what makes a good burger. It starts with high quality meat with a good fat ratio. David’s uses freshly ground chuck, so they’ve got that covered. The burgers should be hand-formed (but not handled too much), then fried on a screaming-hot grill. David’s does that, too. Next, decent toppings, which David’s also does (I like cheese, tomato, grilled onions, and jalapenos on mine). Last, it shouldn’t be too expensive, and it should be served with as many fries as a man can eat — again, David’s passes those tests with flying colors.

This isn’t a fancy burger, it’s more like the Platonic ideal of what a good diner burger should be. It’s a juicy, salty, mammoth slab of ground chuck on a toasted bun, and it tastes like a burger should taste time and time again. There’s a place for fancy burgers — I’m not knocking fancy burgers — but there’s something very compelling about this down-home simple hamburger that keeps me coming back time and time again. Plus, being able to feed two people for less that $20 ain’t bad either.

Simple, delicious food, friendly service, and an endless parade of fries? Yes, that’s David’s Burgers, and it’s why it remains my favorite burger in town.

David's Burgers on Urbanspoon

Brew review: Saddlebock Dirty Blonde and Abita Andygator

photo 5We had dinner last night at Diamond Bear Brewing’s new restaurant, the Arkansas Ale House. The place has only been open for a coupe of weeks, but has proved popular — so popular, in fact, that the reserves of Diamond Bear’s own beer (which they thought would last three months) are already gone (except for their porter). Since they’re just now setting up the new brewing facilities, this means that there’s going to be some time yet before Diamond Bear products can hit the taps again — but it’s a great sign of how much people love local beer!

There are plenty of other beers on tap at the Ale House, though, and we decided to try the Andygator, a helles bock from one of our favorite breweries, Abita, and the Dirty Blonde, a kolsch from an up-and-coming Arkansas brewery, Saddlebock Brewery of Springdale. It was a mixed-result taste test which ended in a win for the home-state folks.

First, the Andygator. The color, head, and fragrance of this beer were great, with a rich golden color to the beer topped by a creamy foam. The flavor, though, left some to be desired. It started off with a strong medicinal flavor that really overshadowed anything else, and while it had a nice, malty finish, the initial shock of sharpness just put us off of the beer altogether. It did pair reasonably well with the spicy bratwurst we were eating, as the flavor of the meat and some brown mustard help cut the thickness, but overall this was a top-heavy beer that came on too strong — and at 8% ABV is a little stronger than we want for a dinner beer. Abita generally makes well-balanced beers, so this one came as a shock.

With the Dirty Blonde, though, we found a perfect summer beer. Light, crisp, and with a slight flavor of citrus, this was a refreshing brew perfect for a hot night (and perfect for pairing with spicy foods). This is a very mellow beer, very reminiscent of a cream ale, but without the thickness on the tongue that cream ales can sometimes give. It clocks in at around 5% ABV, which makes it a much better candidate for that dinner beer we were looking for — and indeed, two pints of this brew left us in good cheer but not tipsy. We were glad to see a really great beer from Saddlebock, as our last experience with them, a bomber of their hefeweizen that had gone off badly on the shelf, wasn’t a good one. Still between the beers we tried from this brewery at the Arkansas Times Craft Beer Festival last year and this experience at the Ale House, we still give high marks to what they’re doing and look forward to trying more from them.

I’ll be talking more about the Arkansas Ale House in the July 16 Arkansas Times, so stay tuned for a full run-down of their food (here’s a hint: it’s good). Cheers!

 

Brew review: Prairie Funky Gold Mosaic

20140711-181651-65811427.jpgSummer isn’t even half over and it’s already been one of the most exciting times we’ve had when it comes to Arkansas beer. First, our good friend Josiah Moody announced that he was leaving his position as brewmaster at Vino’s Brew Pub to start his own beer label, Moody Brews. Then, the Arkansas Alehouse, a collaboration between Diamond Bear Brewing and restaurateur Matt Beachboard opened its doors (and we’ll be reviewing that one for the July 16 edition of the Arkansas Times). As if that weren’t enough, Ian Beard at Stone’s Throw sent us an e-mail detailing that brewery’s plans to double their brewing capacity. Could things get any better?

Yes. Yes, they could.

In addition to all the great news coming from local breweries, we also had a change in Arkansas beer law that went into effect on July 1. This change allows for any place that has a retail license to sell beer to now sell it straight from the keg in the form of 32- and 64-ounce growlers — which means that now we can the fresh-tapped taste of keg beer from some of our favorite breweries in the privacy of our own home (and for cheaper than buying it by the pint in a bar). For more details on the new law, check out my Eat Arkansas post about it.

We bought our first (non-local) growler last weekend, a jug of Prairie Artisan Ale’s Funky Gold Mosaic. Now this is what’s known as a “wild” ale, meaning that the yeast used in fermenting this stuff went a little crazy. This craziness gives the ale a complex flavor that is sour at first taste, but then opens up to a fruity sweetness that we found quite compelling. Wild ales have a little bit of funk about them (which is a good thing), so trying your first one can be a surprise if you aren’t prepared.

Sour isn’t the only flavor here, though, as the beer finishes with a dry citrus flavor that’s very pleasant. This is a true summertime beer, perfect for serving with grilled food — and because the beer opens up nicely as it warms, you can enjoy drinking it at a leisurely pace without it turning on you — this is not a beer you want to drink ice cold, as a frigid temperature will mask a lot of the tasty stuff going on in the glass. Prairie has been one of the most consistently awesome breweries I’ve come across, and the Funky Gold Mosaic is another winner. 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

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!