Soft Pretzels, Mr. Chen’s, and One Awesome Mojito

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Thoughts from my recent food adventures around Little Rock…

I know many folks love Mr. Chen’s, and while I’m not saying the place is bad by any stretch of the imagination, I am saying it gets a little too much credit for being the best Chinese food in Little Rock. I wasn’t overly impressed with the Salted Crispy Chicken dish, which, as expected, was salty, but its real shame was the lack of an accompanying sauce with the chicken. Again, it wasn’t bad, but could have been a lot better. I was also a bit underwhelmed by the Taiwanese Pan Fried Noodles, a plate highlighted by tender beef and shrimp, but there was also this lackluster pile of noodles which proved almost too difficult to cut.

So, just where is the best Chinese food in Little Rock? To me, it’s Fantastic China … and my lunchtime combo of oyster sauce with mushrooms, fried rice, and fried spring roll did nothing do dissuade me from that line of thinking.

Count me as a fan of Flyway’s new array of soft pretzels, which includes a lavender salt pretzel with honey mustard that I devoured with my pale ale at the bar, while my bar mate crushed the espresso salt pretzel with stout chocolate sauce. If you’re looking for a unique sweet treat, this is one is for you. Flyway has a variety of pretzels now on its regular menu which pair wonderfully with a their selection of beer.

A quick shout out to the folks over at Mugs Café. I popped in a few weeks back, and, as always, loved my cup of coffee. The place is so consistent, seems to always have a steady flow of customers, and is a true gem for the Argenta District in NLR.

Am I saying Al Seraj is a Top 10 restaurant in Little Rock? No. I won’t compare it with the likes of Table 28, South on Main, One Eleven, etc. But the $10 lunch buffet of Mediterranean delights makes the restaurant 100%, without a doubt, one of the best fast casual spots in town. BTW … if you’re interested, I think the dinner buffet costs a buck or two more.

I finally tried the frozen mojito at Heights Taco & Tamale and damn was it good. This drink, along with Local Lime’s frozen margarita, proves Yellow Rocket has truly mastered the frozen cocktail concept. Well done. And as for HTT, it really needs to be said … what a gorgeous bar. Also, props on that massive flat-screen television right in the dead center.

After the UALR men’s basketball game the other night, my buddy and I had dinner and beers at The Pantry Crest. The place was hopping but our food orders came out fast, no small feat when a restaurant is that full. My seared salmon with spinach, quinoa, and charred asparagus was absolutely perfect, as was my friend’s burger (so I was told…never got a bite). Seared salmon is not a sexy dish, especially at a place like The Pantry Crest, but if you’re looking for something a little lighter, order it.

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Deluca’s Proves to Have Consistency Down Pat

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I made the quarterly pilgrimage down to Hot Springs for my fix of Deluca’s pizza last Friday afternoon with a few friends who happened to be first timers. It was the same old story … still the best pizza around.

Then in dawned on me, I’ve been coming to Deluca’s for a year now and I’ve never had anything that wasn’t spectacular. And I mean everything, from the salads, to the meat plate, to all of the pizzas, and even the cannoli. It’s all been truly fantastic.

But you already know that.

At this point, you’re sick of reading all of the foodgasms from writers and fans. The addictive pizza and owner Anthony Valinoti’s larger than life personality make dining at Deluca’s an experience like no other in this state.

So, let’s be real … all you really care about is, “When can I get my ass down there to eat this pizza?”

If you can manage to match your schedule up with the restaurant’s fairly limited hours, I can almost guarantee it will be worth the drive down to Hot Springs.

Why?

Consistency.

I’ve been 6 or 7 times and it’s always great–every single time. A lot of credit not only goes to Anthony and his pursuit of perfection, but also to his loyal staff, including, but not limited to his right-hand man, Willy Whitelaw.

There is only two minor hitches. Deluca’s is super popular now and Anthony only makes 75 pies per day, so when he runs out of dough, that’s the end of the show. Also, he only has so much space in that oven, so if you go during peak times, you may possibly be in for a wait.

No worries, however, perfect pizza tends to put you back in a great mood.

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The Tasting Menu Experience at Ciao Baci and South on Main

Beef Carpaccio at South on Main

Beef Carpaccio at South on Main

While we don’t have a ton of restaurants here in Little Rock that routinely offer diners a tasting menu or chef’s tasting, two restaurants, Ciao Baci and South on Main, can certainly accommodate folks looking for this unique dining experience.

For starters, what is a tasting menu? Well, it’s a multi-course progression of small plates that typically allows the chef to flex his or her creative muscles and really gives the diner a true essence of the menu. The chef can either pick and choose from dishes already on the current menu or they can go totally off-menu … or even do a combination of both. In short, you put the meal in the hands of your trusted chef, and to me, it doesn’t get any better. In bigger cities, chef’s tastings are fairly common, but in Little Rock, this is unfortunately not the case.

In terms of Ciao Baci and South on Main, you can expect each restaurant to offer very unique tasting menu experience. Ciao Baci advertises its tasting menu right on the actual menu. It’s a 5-course tasting typically devised from the current seasonal menu. I’ve done this tasting on two separate occasions over the past six months and can tell you it’s not only an amazing value but the food is nothing short of spectacular. My recent dinner included courses like mussel chowder, gravlax, a slow cooked egg with salmon roe, and a cherry upside down cake. Chef Owen, who, in my opinion, is now one of Little Rock’s best chefs, is a stickler for detail … and that shines through in his sophisticated plating and overall execution of each dish.

South on Main’s tasting menu is a tad different from Ciao Baci’s in that it’s not publicized and you can tailor the meal to more of your specifications. You’ll need to contact the restaurant a few days in advance and let Chef Bell know the number of courses you desire and any ingredients you’d like to shy away from. Outside of those things, you really put your meal in the hands of Bell and his staff, as I did last Saturday night, when they decided to go completely off-menu with a Creekstone Farms Beef tasting. This included a short rib carpaccio dish with fried leeks, shiitakes, and an olive oil powder that was truly the best dish I’ve eaten at South on Main. It was an absolute work of art. As was the case with Ciao Baci, every course from the South on Main tasting was spot-on, like the beef cheeks with twice baked potato, grilled steak with poached shrimp, and the donuts with peanut butter powder.

Please remember, a chef’s tasting is a true dining experience, one that can last up to three hours … so take your time, enjoy, drink some good wine, and let the restaurant treat you to its best work. I think you’ll find it makes for a truly memorable occasion.

Gravlax with Rye Streusel at Ciao Baci

Gravlax with Rye Streusel at Ciao Baci

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Unique Randomness: News, Views, and Fried Chicken

Fried Chicken at CBG

Fried Chicken at CBG

 

My random thoughts and ramblings about food…

Good Food in NLR plans to close on January 30th as Chef Donnie Ferneau will be taking over the kitchen at The Club 1836. This new club has been a source of conversation throughout Little Rock over the past few weeks, and it will be interesting to see how everything plays out once the new spot opens in the old Packet House. As for soon-to-be-former Good Food space … any thoughts, ideas, or suggestions on what you think would work? Seems to have a load of potential.

Sweet Love Bakery has officially closed, but on a more positive note, Daniel Walker did turn me on to one of Little Rock’s newest bakers. Please go read about Honey Pies.

My second visit to Flyway Brewing was just as good, if not better, than the first. I’ve pretty much tried all of their beers (maybe 10) and can tell you that they are churning out some of the best brew in town. In fact, with brewers like Flyway, Moody Brews, Lost Forty, Blue Canoe, and Stone’s Throw, our local beer scene has definitely made me a fan of craft beer in a short period of time. It’s really quite remarkable how far we come as a beer town in just a few years.

Let’s get the slightly bad news out of the way first. The Faded Rose will be closed on Sunday, February 7th for “deep cleaning and routine maintenance,” but the good news is that February 9th (Fat Tuesday) marks the start of crawfish season at TFR.

For the quality and price, is there a better meat counter than Edwards Food Giant on Cantrell? I say no. My most recent purchase was several links of the chicken sausage. I’ve got my eye on you, bone-in ribeyes. It will happen, soon.

I’ve literally driven past Diane’s Gourmet Luxuries hundreds of times without ever stopping to check the place out … until last week. It was a nice spot filled with various artisan food items, wares, and prepared meals. I end up grabbing a chicken salad wrap for lunch, which was fairly forgettable, but my package of oatmeal raisin cookies for dessert was delightful.

Just in case the super efficient Chick-fil-a drive-thru didn’t do it for you, Chef Shuttle recently partnered with the insanely popular fast food chain to have the tasty treats delivered right to your face. Talk about a big account for Chef Shuttle. On the other end of the spectrum, CS recently teamed up with Grass Roots Farmers Cooperative.

It’s Wednesday, go eat some fried chicken at Capital Bar and Grill … the Wednesday Special.

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