“I met the pig that’s in this sandwich,” says Jeffrey Palsa, owner of The Food Truck, as he slides a huge stack of ham, Swiss, and American cheese onto the small griddle in the back of his truck. Confusion is obvious on my face, and he laughs as he continues, “His name was Spot. And the little girl that sold him to me said, ‘Spot was a good pig – but he makes better pork chops!'” And that, in a nutshell, is the University Market at 4Corners, Little Rock’s new food truck court at the corner of University and Colonel Glenn – excellent local food served up by talented cooks out of small mobile kitchens. I’ve been hearing about the locavore movement for years, but The Food Truck really brought home to me what local food is all about. And as for old Spot? Well, that little girl didn’t have the whole picture in mind: he made good ham, too.
The University Market is the brainchild of Hot Dog Mike (Little Rock’s Coolest Hot Dog Cart), and the Mosaic Church, who plan a church and community center for the old K-Mart building in whose parking lot the Market sits. And as I talked briefly to Pastor Mark DeYmaz and others behind the project, the word “community” was spoken again and again, and I realized that there was something more going on here than great food: these folks were coming to a part of town that many in Little Rock avoid, and they were intent on creating an environment that was welcoming to people of all races, creeds – and yes, all tastes. I’ve worked just a few blocks away from the Asher/Colonel Glenn/University intersection for several years, and there’s not been anything quite like this in that entire time – and it’s awesome to see. But this is a food blog, so let’s answer your burning question: how’s the food?
Well, we haven’t had a chance to try everyone involved with the University Market, but since Jess is finishing her last semester at UALR, and I’m just down the road, we’ve managed to try a few of the selections. On the first day the food court was open, Jess braved the crowds to try Red River Catering, a barbecue and catfish truck. She got the three succulent pieces of catfish you see to the left, and spoke highly of how mild-flavored and tender the fish was. I can’t wait to try their ribs, because the smell of barbecue from their truck is very tantalizing. Since our only options for fish in the University District up to this point have been Long John Silver’s, Captain D’s, and the McDonald’s Filet O’ Fish, I can say with some certainty that Red River Catering has easily improved our options by over 100% in the seafood department. Make sure you try the hushpuppies, as they’re fresh and taste like homemade.
Of course, we already mentioned The Food Truck, but these sandwiches are good enough for some elaboration. The Chicken Pesto, seen right, was a wonderful combination of savory chicken, ripe tomato, and one of the best pesto sauces I’ve ever eaten. The pesto complimented the chicken well without even trying to get overwhelming. Jess tried the My Mama’s Sandwich, a turkey, red onion, and avocado treat that I have to admit is one of the only turkey sandwiches I’ve ever eaten that made me want to go back for more. Keep your eye out for when The Food Truck offers chili – I added a cup of the tangy beef chili to my sandwich the other day for just a buck and was impressed by the flavor. For less than the price of a Subway combo, you could be eating a sandwich that isn’t mostly bread coupled with fresh made sweet potato chips and a drink – The Food Truck is a steal.
As good as The Food Truck’s sweet potato chips are, and as good as Homegrown’s (more on them in a minute) rosemary and parmesan fries are, my vote for favorite side dish goes to Papa’s Burgers and Dogs’ onion rings. I bought a tasty Angus beef burger and an order of onion rings from Papa’s and took it with me back to the office for lunch, realizing halfway back that I had forgotten to get any ketchup – and anybody who knows me will tell you that I tend to drown things in ketchup if left unsupervised. Tentatively, I snuck an onion ring from the box and tried it…and no ketchup required! These onion rings are have a soft, flavorful onion middle with a light, crisp batter that was like a cross between tempura batter and funnel cake batter and wasn’t soggy on one single ring. Papa’s does hand-dipped corn dogs, too, and if they can batter those as well as these onion rings, I’m sure they are incredible.
The Homegrown Gourmet Food Truck is the most “high brow” truck in the market, offering gourmet burgers and tacos. I can’t resist crazy tacos, and so I tried the Mongolian Pork taco with Granny Smith slaw and fried avocado and the Jerk Chicken taco with Pineapple slaw and fried avocado. The Mongolian Pork was heavenly; tender and flavorful, with sweet, spicy, and savory all mixing together into something pretty special. The jerk chicken wasn’t quite as good – the pineapple slaw tended to overpower the chicken, and I craved a little bit of the Scotch Bonnet heat that indicates really good jerk chicken. The breaded and fried avocado slices on both tacos were a revelation, though, as I’ve never had avocado cooked in this manner. Crispy fried guacamole? I would have been doubtful before trying Homegrown, but now I’m a fan. I can’t wait to try their Ahi Tuna Tacos with Wasabi Slaw next!
So what’s the take-away from the University Market at 4Corners? Well for starters, let me assure you that I’ve only scratched the surface of what food is available there. And I haven’t tried a food truck yet that wasn’t A) extremely clean, B) staffed by very friendly folks, and C) serving up some of the best food I’ve had in Central Arkansas. This is food with character, served by people who make it with pride. The folks who run the University Market are trying something bold in an area that has been too often neglected in the past 20 years: they are trying to bring diverse tastes at affordable prices to the diverse folks who make up the University District. As one of the working class folks who make that district my home for 40 hours a week, I welcome them with open – and hungry – arms. Here’s to the continued success of the University Market: Peace. Love. Food Trucks!