Getting my liver on in Denver

IMG_1495Man, oh, manischewitz I love me some chopped liver, and it’s something that only shows up in all its delicious glory once a year in these parts — at the Little Rock Jewish Food and Cultural Festival. It’s rich, earthy, and somehow creamy while still being kosher. Total alchemy.

Where you can’t get it in Central Arkansas is in a decent New York-style deli, mostly because we ain’t got one. This seems to me to be one of the biggest oversights in my part of the world — we’ve got decent sandwich shops, sure, but we don’t have an honest-to-Jehovah deli. It’s a shame.

Well, for Thanksgiving this past year, we trekked ourselves out to Colorado to spend the holiday with Jess’ brother and his wife, and one of the “must try” places that my brother-in-law took us was New York Deli News, and there, on the menu, I saw it: pastrami with chopped liver, available on pumpernickel. I may or may not have squealed like a little girl.

The sandwich was a monster, full of flavorful liver, salty pastrami, and all tucked between two slices of dark, rich bread. In the end, it was too much for me to finish, but I made a damn good try at it. The liver wasn’t too strong or gamy, and while the proportions of this sandwich were almost cartoonish, it was still one of the best sandwich experiences of my life. The rest of the family had equally as delicious of a time with their respective orders, and we all left the restaurant groaning and stuffed to the gills.

Liver might make you squeamish, but I say eat more of it. Eat it until you learn to love it. And if you get the chance, eat it with some pastrami at Denver’s best deli — because you sure can’t eat it in Little Rock. Happy Eating!

New York Deli News on Urbanspoon


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 (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