Ready for springtime

tomatoesIt’s been a long, cold winter, and I don’t know about y’all, but I am so ready for spring time that I’ve taken to giving pep talks to the jonquils that grow outside my house. An Arkansas spring is a wonderful thing, because the warmer temperatures bring with it some pretty fantastic things to do, especially for food lovers. Let me tell you what I’m talking about — spring’s almost here, and it’s time to get warm and have fun!

*Bernice Garden Farmers Market — Our favorite farmers market returns April 14, bringing all sorts of good things to eat to the Bernice Garden on South Main Street. Set in a picturesque sculpture garden, the Sunday market is a wonderful conglomeration of produce, crafts, and artisan products that can’t be missed. Our friends at the Waffle Wagon will be back slinging their delicious wares, and we’re betting they’ll have some new tricks up their sleeve after winning first runner-up in the recent Arkansas Times “Best Restaurants” poll in the food truck category.

IMG_9681*Arkansas Times Heritage Hog Roast This event was a massive success last year, despite the colder-than-average May temperatures. Chefs from all around town will be competing to see who can win this year’s bragging rights for best roast pig in the land on May 3. If the food is anywhere as good this year as it was last time, the real winners are all of us that get to eat it.

*Greek Food Festival — One of Little Rock’s longest-running and most popular food festivals returns on May 16 with all the gyros, spinakopita, and hummus you can possibly eat. This massive celebration of Greek culture runs through May 18, and features music, crafts, and some of the friendliest people in town. If you have a chance, be sure to take a tour of the Annunciation Church, because the Byzantine iconography is a beautiful sight to behold.

*Jewish Food Festival — The best grouping of kosher food in the state has moved to War Memorial Stadium this year, and the added room can only mean good things for lovers of falafel, latkes, and my personal favorite, chopped liver. The event will be on April 27, and will start with a traditional Jewish breakfast at 8:30 a.m. followed by the main event from 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. Be sure to make your way to the baked goods table — you won’t want to miss all the goodies there.

*Farm to Table Everything — Our chefs love the spring as much as we do, because it means more Arkansas produce for their menus. Matt Bell and the South on Main crew are sure to have some wonderful specials on tap, as will Alexis Jones of Natchez, Peter Brave of Brave New Restaurant, and many others. We’re also looking forward to the opening of Mylo Coffee Company’s new brick and mortar store on Kavanaugh, meaning that the spring is going to bring us more than just new flowers.

Of course, this is just a small sample of the good things coming this spring in Arkansas. I’ve heard rumors that Josiah Moody of Vino’s Brew Pub might be planning a special beer for St. Patrick’s Day, so grab a pint, toast the warmer weather, and get outside and enjoy yourselves!

Checking out the Arkansas State Fair

IMG_0719Before this year, I hadn’t been to an Arkansas State Fair in over two decades. I don’t care for riding rides, and my fellow food blogger Kat Robinson does such a thorough job every year previewing all the wild and crazy food available at the fair that my attempting to do it would be worse than redundant: it would surely be inadequate. But Jess wanted to head down to the fairgrounds this year, and despite my skepticism of going to a place where a sippy cup-sized lemonade is $4, a turkey leg goes for $10, and one of the food kiosks is called “Fried What,” there might be something for me at the fair. Turns out there was: the livestock.

photo 2(2)Having just recently attended an Arkansas-based stop of Outstanding in the Field, the thought of the farmers that work so hard to bring us the food we eat was still pretty fresh on my mind, so walking through the cattle barns and goat pens was of particular interest to me this year. We walked to Barton Coliseum to watch girls in their sparkle belts and Sunday-best boots lead their prize heifers across the arena floor for judging. We watched as entire families washed, brushed, and beautified their animals to prep them for showing. And through it all, I was reminded that there is an entirely different world out there where raising animals and growing vegetables and fruits is a daily way of life. Strange isn’t it, that we see so little of this on a day-to-day basis, and rather sad, too.

IMG_0627I go to many of our local farmers markets regularly, as do many of my neighbors. And there, the vegetables are always washed and clean, the meat frozen and packaged — and while you can talk to the growers directly, it’s still a neat and sanitized version of food that doesn’t nearly do justice to the hard, dirty work that goes into raising those vegetables and raising those animals. Agriculture is a tough proposition, with the Old Testament telling us that it was God Himself who made it that way to punish us all for tasting the forbidden fruit. And yet, despite the long hours, constant threats from bugs and weather, and low profit margins, the growers I talk to seem to love what they do, relishing the growth of each plant or the fattening of each hog as their way of taking the world around them and turning it into nourishment for others. And so while I didn’t get a deep-fried pecan pie, corn dog, or jumbo turkey leg, I did take away something food-related from the fair: the farmer is the life-blood of our civilization, and we don’t pay attention to that fact nearly enough. Cheers.

Tailgating with the master

photo(38)Arkansas is a quirky place, and one of those quirks is our flagship university and sports team, which isn’t anywhere near the populous central part of the state, being tucked away instead way up in the Northwest Corner — closer to Oklahoma than to Little Rock. And while that section of the state has grown by leaps and bounds over the years, there was a time when Fayetteville, Arkansas, home to the University of Arkansas Razorbacks, was a small place up in the Ozarks that was a real pain in the neck to get to. Even when I first attended the U of A back in the 90s, there was no functioning interstate highway that would get you into Fayetteville — every bit of traffic had to run along a two lane highway that curved through hills. That all changed during my junior year when I-540 opened, and now Fayetteville is a pretty easy trip — but it’s still a long way from the rest of the state.

Because of this quirk of geography, the Arkansas Razorback football teams have traditionally split their home games between Razorback Stadium on campus and War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock. They’ve been doing this since 1948, and all the first games I ever saw were at the Markham street stadium here in the Rock. As the University has grown, and as the Northwest part of the state has become an economic powerhouse, Razorback stadium has grown to seat over 70,000 people, while the aging War Memorial still only seats around 50,000. When I was a kid, games were split evenly between the two sites, 3 and 3, which changed to 4 and 2 some years back. The latest blow to Little Rock games was the moving of the marquee Arkansas-LSU matchup to Fayetteville, leaving us with second tier opponents in central Arkansas. Little Rock games are a tradition that is something of an anachronism, and one which is probably on its way out. But you’d never know that by the tailgate party.

photo(37)Here’s how tailgating works in Little Rock: people from all over the state descend on the golf course that is right next to War Memorial stadium. Packed bumper to bumper to bumper, these tens of thousands of people light up their grills, crack open any number of cold ones, and proceed to party for an entire day. We had our first Little Rock game just yesterday, a night game against Samford, and while the game itself wasn’t as good as it should of been (although we still won), the party beforehand was fantastic.

This year, Jess and I were lucky enough to have been invited to the tailgate party thrown by Kelly and Erika Gee, a couple of friends who are known for their ability to throw a barbecue party. I knew Kelly had skills after attending a pig roast he held last fall in North Little Rock, but yesterday’s event was even more exciting due to one thing: Kelly just recently purchased a beautiful, custom made smoker that he funded through Kickstarter. That’s right — while the rest of the internet was getting worked up over Zach Braff and Amanda Palmer, we here in Arkansas knew where our money was going. It was going to the House of Gee.

We live within walking distance of the stadium, and they were pulling ribs from the fire right as we arrived. Three types of ribs yielded three excellent results, with meat that was firm, juicy, and still fall-off-the-bone tender. I’ve eaten ribs a lot of places, and these were easily some of the best I’ve ever had. A pan full of sliced pork tenderloin was flavorful and tasty, and we got there just before the wings ran out — and thank goodness we did, because the smoked wings were out of control good. Other highlights of the party were some of the strongest and tastiest Jello shots I’ve ever had courtesy of Erin Robinson. We weren’t able to stay long, and we missed what was said to be a tremendous pork shoulder, but I’m still happy to have been a part of the first tailgate of the Beastmaster (the consensus name for the smoker) era.

Thanks again to Kelly and Erika for hosting us — we like you guys even more than your barbecue. And we like the barbecue a whole bunch.


Grill master Kelly Gee

Derby Day Eats at Oaklawn

The Arkansas Derby is here again, and while I don’t have any betting tips for you, I do have some recommendations for keeping your strength up waiting for the big race. Oaklawn has a variety of edibles to suit almost any taste, and while the drinks they serve to wash it all down might be a touch on the pricey side, everybody’s going to be winning enough that it shouldn’t matter, right?

Of course, Oaklawn’s most famous food item is its corned beef, and no matter if you’re a fan of  sauerkraut or not, a sandwich piled high with the thin-sliced brined and cured beef is a must.  While nobody would consider corned beef a traditional Southern food, it’s certainly the signature food of the races, and it’s popularity at the track is largely responsible for the number of restaurant menus statewide that include a reuben.  There’s no easy way to eat one of these monster sandwiches, with the preferred methods I’ve seen alternating between polite picking at small bites with a fork and pure, elbows-out gluttony.  It might not be the best corned beef in the world, but when coupled with the excitement of the crowd it has to come close.

If something in the way of a hot dog is more your thing, you can choose from the traditional bun-wrapped kind or go for one of the track’s foot-long corn dogs.  The regular dogs are juicy and available with all the usual suspect condiments: relish, mustard, and ketchup.  The corn dogs, however, are a real thing of beauty – a perfect breading-to-dog ratio fried just right to have a firm crunch that gives way to a soft, tender middle.  Add a bag of the fresh-popped popcorn that can be smelled throughout the concession and betting area and you’ve made yourself a very happy (if not very healthy) meal.

My favorite area of the track to grab a bite is the Oyster Bar, and I still recall my joy at discovering it on my first visit to Oaklawn.  While the Oyster Bar has a large selection of fried shrimp, oysters, and french fries, I always go for the fresh stuff: jumbo shrimp bigger than my thumb and some of the largest, plumpest oysters on the half-shell I’ve seen in the state.  Being in a land-locked state, most oysters found around here are small and tasteless, but the ones at Oaklawn are succulent and still have the briny taste of the distant ocean.  If you’ve ever been tempted to try a raw oyster, this is one of the best places in the state to do so, preferably with a healthy squeeze of lemon and maybe a dab of horseradish – and no matter how your bets turn out, the taste will make you feel like a winner.

The Arkansas Foodies 2011 Year-in-Review

“Be always at war with your vices, at peace with your neighbors, and let each new year find you a better man.” -Benjamin Franklin

In many ways, 2011 was a hard year.  Natural disasters, economic woes, and the continued existence of reality television all served to really put a damper on what we had all hoped would be a year full of peace and prosperity.  But a lot of good things happened in 2011, too, and Jess and I have never been so thankful for all we’ve been given – nor so proud of everything we’ve accomplished in the past year.  2011 was the first full year for this blog, and what started out as a little hobby for us has turned into a project that we love, and it’s the continued support of our readers that makes it all worthwhile.  So since it’s the thing to do to make “end of the year” lists, we figured we’d look back at our favorite things from our first year – and we also want to take this opportunity to thank all of you for reading and sharing your own experiences with us.  Here’s to a great 2012!

Best Pizza: Vino’s Pizzeria and Brew Pub.  We haven’t actually reviewed Vino’s on the blog yet – but that’s because it’s our favorite place in Little Rock and I haven’t written anything I like enough yet to post.  Get the Margherita Pizza, it’s fantastic.  Runner-up: Cafe Amore in Eureka Springs.

Best Hamburger: Big Orange in the Promenade at Chenal.  Big Orange has some of the biggest burgers around with a wide variety of toppings.  Bonus points for serving Dazbog coffee, but the service can be slow.  Still, it’s a very tasty place.  Runner-up: The Pantry Burger at the Pantry on Rodney Parham.

Best Food Festival: The 2011 Jewish Food Festival.  This was one of the most fun days we spent this year – latkes, rugelach, and some of tastiest chopped liver I’ve ever had along with some of the friendliest folks we’ve had the pleasure to meet.  If you go next year, be sure not to miss the baked goods table.  Runner-up: The 2011 World Cheese Dip Championship.

Best Beer: Sofie by Goose Island Brewing.  And I’m technically cheating here, because we first reviewed the Sofie back in October of 2010 – but I didn’t try another beer all year that I liked better than this light, crisp saison.  Runner-up: North Coast Brewing’s Scrimshaw Pilsner, which I drank every time I could afford it.

Best Side Dish: Truffle-Herb Fries from Big Orange.  These are the best french fries I’ve had that I didn’t make myself.  Crisp outside, mealy inside, dusted with herbs and drizzled with truffle oil, these fries are only made better by the side of creamy aioli they’re served with.  Runner-up: Stilton Tomato Half at Brave New Restaurant.

Best Restaurant: Brave New Restaurant.  Impeccable service, delicious food, and a gorgeous view of the Arkansas River – what more could you ask for?  The Mixed Grill is a carnivore’s dream, and the Cream of Brie soup is one of these best things I’ve ever tasted.  Runner-up: Boulevard Bread Company, both for their PLT sandwich and the foie gras and sweetbreads special, which we drove to sample during some of the worst tornado warnings central Arkansas saw last year.

Favorite thing I was supposed to share but didn’t: The Charcuterie Board at The Pantry on Rodney Parham.  This delightful spread of cured meats, bratwurst, and pate is technically the sort of appetizer that is shared among an entire table.  But since Jess isn’t nearly as big a fan of this sort of stuff as I am, I just ordered the thing as my main entrée.  Delicious!  Runner-up: I think there’s enough food there to qualify the Charcuterie Board for runner-up, too.

Best Main Dish we Made: Shrimp Taco Salad with Black Bean Puree.  That one got us a mention over at Eat Arkansas, and was one of our more popular posts all year.  As for a runner-up, I’m rather fond of our meatballs, our mussels, and my own version of pate.

Best Dessert we Made:  German Chocolate Cake.  Jess really outdid herself with this rich chocolate cake with coconut-pecan icing.  Jess really came into her own as a baker this year, and out of all the delicious things she made, this cake is my favorite.  Runner-up: I love her pumpkin bread, and we also made a pretty tasty strawberry tart last spring.

Best Bar:  This one is a tie between our two favorite bars in Eureka Springs, the Squid and the Whale, home of both Guinness in a mason jar and the spiciest Bloody Mary ever and Henri’s Just One More, home of the best dirty martini I’ve ever had the pleasure to drink.  We spent a very fun afternoon crunching around in the February snow between these two places last winter.  Runner-up: The Flying Saucer, where we wound up in Sync magazine looking a little tipsy.

All in all, 2011 was a fun year.  We tried a lot of different food, had a lot of great meals, and met a lot of really interesting folks who like to do things just like we do:  they cook well, they eat well, and they live life to the fullest.  We hope you all have a happy New Year, and we’re looking forward to bringing the deliciousness to you again!

The Sixth Annual Guns n’ Hoses Chili Cookoff

After a long, gloomy week that brought rain and cold temperatures to Arkansas, Saturday came with bright, clear skies and temperatures in the mid-60s: perfect weather to head down to the Clear Channel Metroplex on Colonel Glenn Road to the Sixth Annual Guns n’ Hoses Chili Cookoff.  This was a fun event for us last year, and I think this year’s cookoff was even better.  Hosted by 100.3 The Edge’s Corey and Jay Show, the Guns n’ Hoses cookoff is a good time involving crazies in Halloween costumes serving up all sorts of chili, with all proceeds going to benefit the September Fund, a scholarship program for the children of firefighters, police officers, and EMTs.

As we made our way around to each booth, the Halloween theme was apparent everywhere – including this creepy display of chili cups surrounded by plastic mice and cockroaches.  The contestants really outdid themselves for strange ingredients this year, too, from the Zombie Hunter booth’s bear and venison chili to a chili that the servers swore was made with kangaroo sausage.  Spice levels were in the red zone, too, with the Arkansas School for Mathematics, Science, and the Arts coming in tops on my list as spiciest chili around – they called it “Man Chili,” and it certainly put my mouth to the test with its sneaky pepper afterburn.

Guns n’ Hoses has always been about the firefighters, police folks, and EMTs, and they certainly brought their “A” games to the cookoff today.  Looking back through my notes, it was these groups time and again that had the best chili.  Our favorite of the afternoon was from our hometown Bryant Fire Department, a chunky, tangy chili with a rich good flavor that I could eat any time.  Close behind them were the guys from the Cabot Fire Department with an oyster, pork, and beef chili that had a good consistency and taste, and the Little Rock K-9 Academy, whose sour cream and cheese-topped chili was perfect for a Frito pie.  The East End Volunteer Fire Department had a good, solid contribution, too, a thick meaty chili that would be perfect for a cold winter night.  The fire fighters and policemen looked like they were having the most fun, too – although it looked like everybody was having a good time.

There were a few other chili’s that stood out to us, including the very messianic Chilly Willy chili to the right.  We tried a couple of different chocolate chili versions, and the best one was called Heinous Anus, which despite the horrific name actually managed to incorporate chocolate into their chili so that the flavor of the chili wasn’t compromised but the chocolate was identifiable in the taste.  That’s pretty hard to do, so I was impressed.  The most unique chili I tried all day was the Dead Man’s Caribbean chili, a smooth, almost watery chili made with a jerk sauce base and garnished with a slice of lime.  I’m a huge fan of jerk chicken and shrimp, and the tart, spicy jerk sauce was an inspired choice for a chili base.  The best chili topping had to be from the Centennial Country Club, who eschewed the usual onions, cheese, and sour cream and went with a smoky pulled pork topping that really added an entirely different dimension to their chili.

So how do you deal with sampling nearly sixty different flavors of chili?  Do you turn to the antacids or a glass of warm milk?  Well, if you’re the Arkansas Foodies gang, you get your fill and then head down to the River Market for some beers and Razorback football.  We had a blast at this year’s cookoff, and we’re eagerly anticipating next year’s event.  Thanks to Corey Dietz, Jay Hamilton, and the rest of the 100.3 The Edge crew for throwing a great party right before Halloween, and thanks to everybody who got up early this morning to cook up a big pot of chili for all of us to taste.  If you’d like to make a tax-deductible donation to the September fund yourself, you can do so at any Metropolitan Bank location.  Little Rock has a lot of good food festivals, but this is one of our favorites.  See you next year!

2011 World Cheese Dip Championship

Well, it might not have been the best day for our beloved Razorbacks, but Saturday was a great day for cheese dip.  Jess and I headed down to War Memorial Stadium on a perfect fall day for this year’s World Cheese Dip Championship, a celebration of all things melted, gooey, and perfect to dip a chip into.  We had a great time visiting with all the folks serving up their cheese dip, and everybody seemed to be having a great time.  The booths were lined up all around the field at War Memorial, and wide open space was a nice change from the crowded concourse at Dickey-Stephens park where the event was held last year.  The volunteers and event staff were very friendly, and they deserve a great deal of praise for their efforts in making this event a yearly tradition in Little Rock.  It’s certainly become a must-do event for us, and our write-up of the event last year still brings in traffic.

Jess and I split once again on which professional dip we liked the most – and it was the same split we had last year.  Jess’ pick for best professional again this year was the offering from Ferneau, a lobster and sweet corn dip that I thought was tasty but not as good as their blackened crawfish tail dip last year.  As for me, I still didn’t think anybody there outdid Dizzy’s Gypsy Bistro – their rich, creamy dip is wonderful by itself, but the dollop of fresh salsa that they put on top just makes it stand out for me.  Dizzy’s would go on to win the People’s Choice for best dip, which makes them the undefeated cheese dip champs.  We were also excited to see one of our favorite amateur groups from last year, the ladies of Meadors, Adams, and Lee insurance – they had a good dip last year (a spinach dip) but I thought they really outdid themselves this year with a spicy, rich dip with just the right amount of smoky bacon.  They were my vote for best amateur, although the Team Roberts dip that won the People’s Choice award was also tasty.

Although queso is generally associated with Mexican and Tex-Mex restaurants, our local pizza restaurants were well represented at the Championship.  Entries from U.S. Pizza, American Pie Pizza, and Pizza D’Action were all very tasty, and the buttery, smooth dip from American Pie was one of the best dips I tried all day – even though by that time we were about ready to hit the cheese dip wall.  I don’t ever really think about ordering chips and cheese dip at a pizza place, but it’s something that I’ll definitely consider in the future at any of those three places, especially with one of U.S. Pizza’s tasty sandwiches.  I think this year’s festival had better white cheese dips than yellow this year – with Bar Louie serving up an oddly pink-colored dip that tasted a lot like pimento-cheese to me (which was a good thing).  There were several attempts to mimic the cumin-inflected yellow cheese dip that Mexico Chiquito (who sat out this year) made famous, with varying degrees of success.  I hope that the event keeps growing – I’d like to see dip booths on all sides of the field next year!  And since everybody loves seeing pictures, we’ll post a few more of our favorites below.

Here’s everyone lined up waiting to get in.

JR’s Game Time Dip from Yell County.  Very good, creamy dip with a lot of spice.

My favorite dip, from Dizzy’s Gypsy Bistro.

Obligatory crock pot shot.

The stadium, all ready to go!