Coppacola from Hillcrest Artisan Meats

photo (4)Go ahead and spend some time looking at that picture over there. I can wait. I promise you that nothing I’m going to say about it will exceed the sheer beauty of that photograph.

Did you take it in? How could you not, right?

That, my friends is some house-made coppacola from our friends over at Hillcrest Artisan Meats. You may have heard me mention them a couple of hundred times. Hey, when the food is this good, a man’s gotta talk about it, you know?

So I’m sitting at work last week, and I load up Twitter to find a message from H.A.M. that I should stop by the store to try something new. At almost the same instant, I get a text message from Steve Shuler over at the Little Rock Foodcast telling me that it would most definitely be in my best interest to head up to the Hillcrest butcher shop. Neither message let on what is awaiting me there, and since I don’t need much of an excuse to go hang out at the meat counter, I hurried that way as soon as I got off.

What greeted me was that lovely display you see up top: pork cured with salt and sugar, rubbed with cayenne and left to air-dry for 4 months. Unlike other versions of this salume I’ve had, this wasn’t dried to the point of having a leathery texture, instead possessing a chewy, unctuous texture that hit the sweet spot that comes with the perfect balance of muscle with fat. The flavor was salty, spicy, earthy, and wild all at once, with a sort of elegant funk to it that gave it one hell of a character. I chewed a couple more slices in silence, eyes half closed, experiencing one of those food moments that only seem to happen to me with good pork. It was a delightful and delectable triumph, and a sign of more good things to come from the H.A.M. crew.

Special thanks to Brandon and Tara Brown for sharing this particular delicacy with me — I made sure to buy a pound of hanger steak as a thank you (and I still got the better end of that deal, because I had hanger for my supper). Yet another reason why Little Rock has the best butcher shop in these United States. Happy eating!

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!

Kava, the root of relaxation

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Long ago, on one of the islands of Vanuatu, legend speaks of a brother and sister who lived a peaceful life. The girl was very beautiful, and many men traveled from the surrounding islands to seek her hand in marriage — but she rejected them all. One of these suitors grew angry at the girl’s rejection and flew into a rage. The brother rose up to protect his sister, and the two men fought. The suitor let loose an arrow in his anger, which missed the brother and struck the sister, killing her instantly.

The brother was devastated at the death of his sister, and visited her grave daily. On one such visit, he noticed a strange plant growing on the grave which he had never seen before. As time went by, the plant grew larger and larger until an entire year had passed. The brother, still distraught over the death of his sister, went on his normal daily visit, and on this particular day, he noticed a rat chewing at the roots of the plant. As he watched, the rat suddenly died. In his grief, the brother took this as a sign, and he decided to end his life by eating the roots which had killed the rat. To his surprise, the roots did not kill him, but instead took away all his bad feelings, and he shared this knowledge with the people of the surrounding villages. The plant was a kava bush, the roots of which would become the basis of a drink sacred to many of the peoples of Oceania.

The kava plant’s scientific name, piper methysticum, means “intoxicating pepper,” and it’s an apt description. The root of the kava plant contains compounds known as “kavalactones” which produce a calming, sedative effect when consumed, while the flavor of the root (which is in the pepper family) is slightly peppery and very earthy. I’ve been drinking kava off and on for years now, and I’ve found it to be a very relaxing beverage that soothes the muscles, calms the nerves, and makes for an excellent sleep aid. The flavor can be somewhat off-putting at first, but I’ve grown very fond of it.

Traditionally, fresh or dried kava root would be chewed or pounded into a pulp, then mixed with water and strained to produce the kava beverage. In these modern times, we have two things which make this process easier: prepared, powdered kava root and the blender (although there is something quite compelling in the hypnotic motions of traditional preparation). My basic preparation is as follows:

  • 2 cups water (for best results, use warm — not boiling! — water, around 140 degrees. Cool tap water is fine, though.)
  • 1 cup almond milk (cow, soy, or other milk is fine — we’re looking for a source of fat, as the kavalactones are more readily absorbed by fat and aren’t soluble in water.)
  • 1/3 cup kava (can be adjusted for a weaker or stronger brew)

Blend the ingredients for about five minutes. At this time, I usually pop my kava into the fridge for at least 1/2 hour, but you can strain immediately if you want. To strain, I use a special nylon kava bag that a supplier sent to me after I left a nice review of their product on Amazon, but basic kava bags can be had for a few dollars. Lacking a strainer bag, feel free to use an old t-shirt or a clean nylon stocking to strain. Keep in mind that most mesh strainers are too big and coffee filters don’t work. When I strain, I let the liquid drain into a large bowl, then I squeeze out the remaining liquid from the kava pulp. Save this pulp, as you can usually get a couple of brewing sessions from it (although potency does decrease).

As for flavor, you can enjoy the kava brew as-is, or you can add things to make it more palatable. Many people add chocolate syrup, but I don’t care for the flavor of chocolate with kava. I am, however, fond of adding some Tazo chai latte concentrate to the mix for a pleasant evening brew, but more and more I’ve just taken my kava straight. Two good local sellers of excellent kava are Maison Terre Natural Products out of North Little Rock (mail order) and Dandelion Herb Shop in the Little Rock River Market. It can also be found in bulk on Amazon.

There are dozens of kava cultivars, each the product of over 3,000 years worth of artificial selection by the South Pacific islanders. This means that if you try one type of kava and don’t like it, don’t give up — try another one. Kava, for me, is preferable to alcohol, as the effects aren’t nearly as pronounced and it doesn’t leave me with a hangover. Still, some caution should be taken if you throw yourself a kava-drinking session: don’t operate a motor vehicle or heavy machinery after consuming kava, don’t mix kava with alcohol or prescription drugs, and don’t overdo it — the traditional serving of kava is 4-6 ounces, so the recipe I provided makes for multiple servings. There are also any number of instant kava mixes, pills, and extracts available on the internet, but I can’t speak to them — I prefer to just use the root. So get cheerful, get relaxed, and bula!

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!