Cantina Bell: A Study in Sadness


In the interest of full disclosure, let me start off with this:  I worked for Taco Bell for several years in the late 90s, moving up from cash register jockey all the way to assistant manager.  I know a little something about the Bell, and while I don’t have any horror stories for you (we were a very clean store), I will say that Taco Bell food when I was there was, in large part, pre-cooked and reheated — almost nothing was made fresh.  This wasn’t always the case with Taco Bell; at one time, chicken, steak, beans, and ground beef were prepared in the restaurants, and while it was never haute cuisine, it was once a little better than what it became in later years.  One piece of advice I’ll give you about the Bell before we go forward: don’t eat there before about 11:30, or you’re probably going to get stuff recooked from the night before.

Unfortunately, it’s not that kind of cantina

After a lawsuit last year alleging that Taco Bell’s beef was less than pure (which was later dropped after a massive and expensive PR campaign), the Bell brand needed a little revamping.  In addition to the rumors that the fast food chain was using sub-par taco filling, the rising popularity of chains like Chipotle also took their toll on the Bell’s consumer base.  Step one in battling these setbacks was to come up with an “extreme food” menu item, a tactic that worked well for KFC with the Double Down and Wendy’s with the Baconator.  That item, of course, was the Doritos Locos taco, a wildly successful menu item I refuse to try due mostly to my sheer hatred of Doritos.  Step two in the battle to repair the brand was to go the opposite direction and try to compete directly with Chipotle: the Cantina Bell menu.

The Cantina menu even comes with a celebrity name: Lorena Garcia, a Venezuelan-born chef most famous for her appearance on the dreadful America’s Next Top Restaurant.  Garcia (all by herself, I’m sure) developed a Cantina Burrito and a Cantina Bowl, which the Cantina Bell website says contains “citrus-herb marinated chicken, flavorful black beans, guacamole made from real Hass avocados, roasted corn & pepper salsa, a creamy cilantro dressing, and freshly prepared pico de gallo, all served on a bed of cilantro rice.”  Sounds delicious, doesn’t it?  I went down to the Benton Taco Bell today to try one, so let’s take a look:

The drink, of course, was a 2012 Mt. Dew — a very good vintage

At first glance, the Cantina Bowl doesn’t look that bad.  There’s some “roasted corn” salsa (delivered most likely pre-made in bags), some pico de gallo (which when I worked there was made by dumping mushy tomatoes, white onions, dry cilantro, and packets of unidentifiable goop into a bucket and stirring), and the lettuce actually looks like real lettuce instead of the half-rotten shredded iceberg that appears on most TB items.  The green glop in the middle I’m guessing is the guacamole made from “real Hass avocados,” but it could have been Elmer’s glue dyed green for all the taste it added to the dish.  Looking at the dish again, it struck me that something was missing, and it took me a second to realize what it was — oh, yeah, THE CHICKEN.  Let’s stir this thing around a bit and see if we can find any.

I should probably tag this swill NSFW

Still having trouble seeing the chicken?  That’s because there isn’t very much of it there, and what little chicken there is doesn’t quite meet my expectations of what grilled “citrus herb marinated” chicken ought to look like.  As a matter of fact, it tasted exactly like the same old spongy, bland chicken that Taco Bell has been using for years in their chicken soft tacos and quesadillas.  The recipe for that chicken went something like this: take a bag of pre-cooked chicken, wedge it into a contraption that looked like two grill grates that locked together, submerge in 200 degree water for 15 minutes, dump into a pan and serve.  If that’s the kind of advice Chef Garcia was giving the folks on America’s Next Top Restaurant, it’s no wonder the show was canceled and the winning restaurants all closed within two months of opening.

As an afterthought (both in the dish and in this review) there was also an ample amount of bland, mushy rice and about two dozen flavorless black beans.  Taco Bell has NEVER been able to cook rice correctly, mostly because their idea of cooking rice is dumping rice and water into a pan and letting it gestate on the back of a steam table for half an hour before slopping it onto things like the Cantina Bowl.  I don’t know how they’re doing the black beans, because when I worked there, the only beans we had were dried bean flakes that were mixed with hot water to form a refried bean sludge.

The real kicker to all of this is that the Cantina Bowl isn’t really that cheap.  At $4.99 for the bowl and $1.89 for my drink, my bill was $7.50 after taxes.  For $7.50, I can go to an authentic Mexican taqueria in Benton and get more food, and it will be food that’s cooked fresh daily on a real grill.  In Little Rock, I can visit my favorite taco truck and wind up with twice the food of this sad little Cantina Bowl — and it’s food prepared fresh and quick right on the spot.  Or just drive right down the road from the Benton Taco Bell itself and you’ll find not one, but two awesome taco trucks that will be better than this swill on their worst day.

The Cantina Bowl isn’t the worst thing I’ve ever eaten at Taco Bell (that would be the Chili-Cheese Burrito), but its sheer audacity in using the word “gourmet” and promoting it like some sort of new cuisine is insulting.  In a day and age where good cheap eats are literally all around, the continued popularity of places like Taco Bell is a mystery that ranks on up there for me with the Loch Ness Monster and who built Stonehenge.  Be nice to yourself: don’t eat this garbage.  Cheers.

Taco Bell on Urbanspoon

A Few of My Favorite Things

I periodically get asked about my favorite things to eat and drink, and it’s actually a pretty difficult thing to answer.  We try a lot of different things, and I tend to go through phases where I get obsessed with one type of food or restaurant and then a month later be onto to something completely different.  There are a few things that seem to stay in constant favorite rotation, though, so while this isn’t a definitive list, it certainly sums up the things I’m digging on right now.  Here’s the list in no particular order:

  • French Press Coffee from Big OrangeAs far as I’m aware, Big Orange is the only place in town where you can get French press coffee made with one of my favorite brands, Dazbog Organic Coffee.  The brew is dark and rich with some nice fruity notes to it and low acidity.  The stylish Bodum French presses that they use add a nice touch to the presentation as well.  A small splash of half-and-half, and there’s nothing finer than this cup of coffee.
  • The Cuban Taco from Baja GrillI recently reviewed Baja Grill over at the Arkansas Times, and the Cuban Taco was the most delicious of all the wonderful things we tried from this Benton taco stand. Moist, tender shredded pork topped with a tangy slaw, chipotle aioli, and cool, creamy avocado all wrapped in a tasty double corn shell? Why, yes, please! I’ve been told by several readers that the mahi mahi taco is also something not to be missed, but my next visit to Baja Grill will be all about this Cuban — and I’m pretty sure they’ll make one into a burrito for you as well.  You tend to eat at a lot of taco trucks in this business, and this truck was one of the nicest surprises I’ve had in some time, so I urge you to check them out and follow them on Facebook or Twitter for updates and specials.
  • Ranier Cherries — These are pretty much the best fruit ever to exist.  If theoretical physicists are to be believed, there could be many alternate dimensions that make up a wide and varied multiverse — and the Ranier cherry will reign supreme in each of them as the best tasting, most awesome thing to eat.  We’re reaching the end of the cherry season this year, but you can still find Ranier cherries at several local grocery stores — and if you keep your eye out, you can sometimes get them for only a few dollars a pound.  And around here, a pound of cherries lasts maybe a day.
  • Chicken and Dumplings from The Southern Gourmasian I’ve eaten so many of these tasty rice dumplings with grilled chicken, shitake mushrooms, and spicy ramen broth that Gourmasian owner Justin Patterson just calls them my “usual.”  Chewy, savory, hot, and rich — this dish is pretty much perfection in a bowl.  This is another place I reviewed for the Arkansas Times, and while the rest of the menu is incredible (especially the steamed buns), it’s these dumplings that I just can’t seem to get enough of.  You can follow them on Facebook and Twitter, or catch them at the University Market at 4 Corners weekdays and Hillcrest Farmers Market on Saturdays.
  • The Green Corner Store Soda Fountain and Loblolly Creamery — Rachel and Sally of Loblolly Creamery are ice cream geniuses. Flavors like Roasted Peach, Fresh Fig, Salted Caramel, Honey Goat’s Milk, Buttermilk, and Cherry Chocolate have all been among the best ice creams I’ve ever had.  They make a mean sorbet, too, with the Mango-Chili flavor pictured to the right being one of the sweetest, coldest, spiciest things I’ve ever had.  In addition, they produce all their own syrups for old-fashioned sodas, and they’ve recently introduced black and green kombucha to their line of refreshments.  Don’t pass up their homemade waffle cones and ice cream sammies, either!

Since most of the things here are unique to Little Rock, I hope it will inspire some of you to get out and explore the wonderful things around you.  It’s been a hot, dry summer, and we’ve got to take our small pleasures whenever and wherever we can.  Cheers!

Scenes from the Bernice Garden Farmers Market

My favorite neighborhood in Little Rock is the South Main neighborhood, and a big part of that love stems from the Bernice Garden at the corner of Main and Daisy Bates.  In addition to being a lovely garden full of plants and sculptures right in the middle of the city, the Bernice Garden is also home to many fun events that celebrate art, culture, and — most importantly to me — food.  Every Sunday throughout the spring, summer, and fall, the Bernice Garden holds a Farmers Market, and it’s one of my favorite places to go for fresh vegetables and locally prepared goods.  If you’ve never made it down to the Bernice Garden, you’re missing out — come on a weekday to enjoy the sculptures and grab some lunch at the Root Cafe or Boulevard Bread Company, or come down to grab an ice cream or a phosphate at the Green Corner Store Soda Fountain.  Come on Sunday and you can have your pick of some of the freshest fruits, vegetables, and flowers around.

At the market this week, we made a beeline to The Food Truck, where our good friend Jeffrey Palsa was serving up a magnificent four-cheese, potato, and broccoli frittata along with some fresh (and refreshing) gazpacho.  Fortified by our tasty victuals, we headed on over to the Laughing Stock Farms booth in hopes that Josh Hardin would still have some of the purple hull peas he’d mentioned to us over on Facebook.  Not only did Josh have the peas, but I realized that his wife Anna was actually an old college friend of mine who I hadn’t seen in years — just going to prove that this state is really like a small town.  Josh and Anna have really developed their farm into something impressive, and their booth was chock-full of plump tomatoes, juicy grapes, bright yellow squash, and my favorite find of the day: fresh figs.  I only bought a pint of the figs, and since they didn’t even survive an hour after I made it home, I really wish I had taken Anna’s advice and gotten a quart of the succulent fruits.  The Hardins also had a rather impressive pile of sweet corn on display, and while I didn’t buy any, I have it from no less an authority than Max Brantley of the Arkansas Times that it’s good stuff:

Max has always been pretty dead-on with his recommendations about tomatoes and other produce, so I don’t see why any of us should doubt him about the quality of the corn.  I can certainly vouch for how good the purple hull peas were — we cooked them up with some peppers and proceeded to polish them off along with a pint of sun gold tomatoes and an entire pan of cornbread.  A little dash of Monk Sauce made them just right.

After a great day that saw peppers being roasted, music played, and featured samples of a very tasty selection of cheeses from Kent Walker, we retired to the nearby Green Corner Store for a scoop of Loblolly ice cream.  Being on a fig kick, I was excited to see that they were featuring a fresh fig flavor, and it did not disappoint.  Expecting just vanilla ice cream with chunks of fig in it, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the ice cream itself tasted of figs — and it was loaded with huge pieces of the fresh fruit.  It was one of the most perfect ice creams I’ve ever had the pleasure to eat (and Loblolly has made me say that more than once).  Jess opted for a minty melon sorbet, and she described it as “summertime in a cup.”  Refreshed with ice cream (and some cold brew iced coffee from the market), we were ready for just about anything — and it’s all thanks to the folks of SoMa, our favorite spot in the Rock.

Bernice Garden Farmers Market runs from 10-2 every Sunday.

Let’s Talk (the 12 Commandments of) Sushi

Sushi at Sky Modern Japanese

Food Republic’s George Embiricos recently published a list of 12 commandments for the eating of sushi which got some play on Twitter from the likes of Anthony Bourdain and Iron Chef’s Masaharu Morimoto.  Although lacking Bourdain’s experience or Morimoto’s Michelin star, I do have a couple of things in my corner that make me qualified to talk about sushi: I have eaten everything from cheap grocery store rolls to high-end sashimi; I also got engaged in a sushi restaurant over an order of spider rolls and some tuna nigirizushi .  So without further ado, here’s something that very few people probably will care about — the opinions of a land-locked food writer about the so-called commandments for consuming raw seafood.

1. Thou shalt not Drown Thy Sushi
I agree with this one, although I break it quite regularly.  My tendency to drench my sushi in soy sauce comes from the days when all I knew of sushi were the spicy tuna rolls from the Kroger deli and the (usually) pitiful sushi bars at various Chinese buffets.  Drenching sushi in soy sauce was a way to cover up the flavor of fish that might not be the freshest.  Of course, that’s the whole point of this commandment — stop eating crappy sushi.  And when the fish is good and fresh, I don’t use nearly as much soy, but I refuse to stop breaking the last part of this one: I will continue to touch the rice to the sauce because I like how the sauce soaks into the rice.  For me, it distributes the flavor better.

2. Thou Shalt Use Chopsticks
I’m on board with this one 100%, mostly because I’m not a big fan of eating with my fingers (even with ribs and chicken wings I’m a serial napkin over-user).  So my method of sushi eating is this: pick up with chopsticks, light dip in soy sauce, pop in the mouth.  Jess, on the other hand, is an eat-with-fingers type of gal when it comes to sushi, which she says is because she isn’t very good with chopsticks (and enjoys because it irritates me).  Bourdain and Chef Morimoto weighed in on this one specifically, though, and it appears that they agree with Jess and not me:

This won’t stop me from eating my sushi with chopsticks, but I’ll have to quit giving Jess such a hard time about eschewing them.

Various rolls from Igibon

3. Honor Thy Ginger
Jess doesn’t normally touch the ginger at all, and I only occasionally eat it.  I’m with Food Republic here: don’t destroy the delicate flavor of fish by heaping it up with ginger; eat a bite or two to cleanse the palate between different cuts of fish.  Or just ignore it like we usually do.

4. Thou Shalt Not Take More Than One Bite
This is one that I have no problem with in theory.  I prefer bite size sushi — each piece should be a perfectly balanced mouthful.  Unfortunately, some of the more ornate rolls out there make the “one-bite” rule almost impossible to achieve, so instead of either taking multiple bites (and making a mess) or cramming an uncomfortable amount of food in my mouth, I just tend to avoid anything that looks like it’s too big for a single mouthful.

5. Diversify Your Order
Yes, yes, a thousand times yes! Many sushi places, including one of our favorites, Igibon, do a “happy hour” sushi menu that allows you to do this without breaking the bank.  Igibon’s menu lets you get a couple of pieces of sushi with different fish, and I highly recommend taking advantage of this in order to explore the different types of sushi out there.  Sky Japanese Restaurant also has an excellent sampler platter that I think is one of the greatest groupings of sushi around.

Tuna and Spicy Salmon from Sushi Cafe

6. Avoid the Insane Green Racoon Roll
What they mean by this is to avoid non-traditional sushi created to appease the tastes of folks raised on Big Mac Sauce and ketchup.  This could also be known as the “avoid any sushi with cream cheese in it” rule or the “hey, Guy Fieri, pulled pork nori rolls are disgusting, you gel-headed assclown” rule.  This is a good rule.  They further stipulate that rolls named after American states should be avoided as well, which is a good rule.  I’d also add cities to that, as the “Philadelphia Roll” is an abomination.  But yeah, cream cheese — decent on bagels, crappy in sushi.

7. If You Order Rolls, Eat Them First
Good rule, I guess, but I don’t tend to order many rolls, and I’m not a fan at all of gunkan maki (battleship sushi).  My ideal sushi platter has little pillows of rice with a fat slab of fish delicately placed atop them.

8. And On The 7th Day, He Did Not Eat Sushi
Ok, it was Bourdain himself that made that “no fish on Mondays” thing such a meme of the early 00’s.  And yes, I suppose that if the fish isn’t fresh on Sunday/Monday, it should be avoided.  Despite that, one of my favorite sushi places is a little buffet in Benton (oh yes, a buffet) and they do some of their most creative work on Sunday.  This is the Bible Belt, and Sunday dinner is time to shine for local restaurants.  Apply this rule on a case by case basis.

9. Beware of Freshwater Fish (Maybe)
Again, consider who is making your sushi and what the quality is.  Case by case basis here, too.

Sky Modern Japanese

10. Thou Shalt Avoid All-You-Can-Eat Sushi
Well, this one is just snobby.  One of Little Rock’s best places for sushi is Tokyo House, a very high-quality place that also happens to be a buffet.  The sushi is fresh, and the owners of Tokyo house also happen to own that buffet in Benton I mentioned earlier.  As a general rule, buffets are not great for sushi — but Tokyo House is a notable exception.  I’ve eaten everything from tuna to salmon to octopus to oysters on the half shell there and it’s all been fresh and good.

11. Thou Shalt Not Covet Wasabi
Don’t mix wasabi in with your soy sauce is the gist of this one.  And I’m going to break this EVERY. SINGLE. TIME.  It’s too much of a pain to dab wasabi onto the fish itself, and a nice balance of heat and salt makes a nice dip.  If the sushi already has a touch of the green stuff on it, don’t worry about mixing — but don’t be afraid to do so if you like it.  Besides, here in Arkansas, I guarantee that 99% of places serving sushi aren’t serving real wasabi anyway, so let’s not get snooty about it.

12. Ordering Take-Out Sushi is a Sin
Yeah, I prefer my rolls fresh.  So other than the guilty pleasure of Kroger Sushi, I don’t ever get takeout.  And I don’t think there’s anywhere in Central Arkansas that delivers sushi, so this is an easy one to obey.

Sushi is one of those foods that people get weird and holier-than-thou about if they like it and weird and grossed out about if they don’t.  For me, I love it and so if it takes a few California rolls to get you acclimated and ready to try the good stuff, then so be it.  Don’t worry about being gauche, because unless you’re planning on eating at Masa sometime soon, mixing a touch of wasabi into your soy isn’t going to hurt anybody.  Mostly, just try a bunch of things, be adventurous, and most of all — enjoy yourself, it’s a delicious world out there.

Review: Hillcrest Artisan Meats

I don’t think there’s anything I don’t love about Hillcrest Artisan Meats — a.k.a. H.A.M.  I love the selection of cured meats, from imported mortadella that fries up to a crisp, delicious brown to a house-made pork-lung pastrami that I tried just to be brave and wound up buying half a pound.  And if you’re in the mood for a quick, satisfying lunch, there aren’t many places in Hillcrest (or in Little Rock at all, for that matter) where you can get the sort of quality, service, and taste present at H.A.M. — served up with a little bit of attitude and a healthy dose of cheesy rock music on the radio.  We’ve eaten a few sandwiches there lately, and I think that they’re among the best sandwiches around.

The first sandwich I ever tried at H.A.M. was a tasty concoction of seared foie gras, raspberry preserves, and arugula on a crunchy baguette.  I found out later that it was H.A.M.’s Brandon Brown who had been responsible for the tasty foie dish we ate last year at Boulevard Bread Company, and I knew that this guy was on to something good.  As good as the foie was, the current love of my life at H.A.M. is the country pate sandwich seen to the right:  a coarse-ground, succulent pressed loaf of pork, lightly seasoned and perfectly complemented by a couple of slices of tomatoes, some cornichons, and a healthy dose of spicy mustard.  Regular readers of the blog will know that I’m a fiend for pate, and this is one of the best versions I’ve eaten.  If you’ve ever wanted to give the stuff a shot, this is where you should go.

For folks with a heartier appetite, you can’t go wrong with H.A.M.’s eponymous sandwich, a monster piled high with cold cut salame rosa, Fudge Family Farm ham, capicola, provolone, lettuce, tomato, onion, aioli, and Maille Dijon.  A sandwich made with any of those meats would be incredible; a sandwich made with all of them is an almost overwhelming experience.  It’s the sort of sandwich that might give Dagwood Bumstead a moment of pause before tucking into.  It’s also one of the most delicious things we’ve ever had the pleasure to eat.

Of course, Hillcrest Artisan Meats is a lot more than just a sandwich shop.  As I said at the top, I’m a rather huge fan of their imported mortadella, but they also have a wide selection of sausages, steaks, pork, chicken, and a small (but respectable) selection of cheeses — including cheese from Arkansas’ own Kent Walker.  The best part of the H.A.M. experience is that the guys behind the counter are proud of what they do, they know that some of the things they have are unfamiliar to the general public, and they aren’t hesitant to answer questions and hand out samples in order to sell you on their quality products.  They’ve also got one of the finest selection of foodie magazines to peruse and purchase, including Meat Paper and Lucky Peach.

Hillcrest Artisan Meats is located at 2807 Kavanaugh Boulevard, Suite B in Hillcrest, and they’re open from 10-6 daily.  Do yourself a favor and get yourself some meat.

Hillcrest Artisan Meats on Urbanspoon