Around Town: Mixed Bag at Samantha’s, Natchez Goes Out in Style

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Recapping my recent eating experiences around Little Rock…

Dinner at Samantha’s
I finally made it out to Samantha’s Tap Room and Wood Grill. I’d heard mixed reviews on the downtown restaurant, and my experience seemed to fall right in line with that. Our table’s smoky shishito peppers and mushrooms with bacon appetizers were absolutely fantastic, but my chicken parm sandwich was boring and poorly presented–sitting by its lonesome on a small plate. The actual chicken, however, was both tender and quite flavorful. Samantha’s menu strikes me as a bit disjointed, but there’s certainly enough about the place that will inspire a return visit. I loved the festive atmosphere, cool vibe, and smartly designed décor. As it stands, the restaurant seems like a perfect place to grab a beer (or glass of wine) and an app after work or before a show. Honestly, we needed a restaurant like that in downtown.

Monkeying Around
We all have fallen in love with Mylo Coffee Co.’s now famous (at least locally famous) KA. However, if you always get the KA, you might be shortchanging yourself on the monkey bread. Mylo’s version is less gooey than the norm, instead relying on a heavy hand of cinnamon. I’m not sure if the monkey bread is a regular daily item, but if you’re there and happen to see it, order it.

Farewell, Natchez
I’m definitely still bummed about the end of Natchez. We literally closed out the restaurant last Saturday night with, not surprisingly, a wonderful meal. Knowing the circumstances, our table ordered numerous dishes, and while the food was excellent across the board, the star of the show was a fried eggplant appetizer with tomatoes and a béchamel sauce. Throughout its existence, I’ve had a real love-hate-love relationship with Natchez, but over the past year, the restaurant, led by chef/owner Alexis Jones, sous chef Joseph Santoro, pastry chef Zara Abbasi Wilkerson, and an excellent wait staff, really settled in and produced amazing food. Here’s wishing everyone associated with Natchez all the best and future success.

Hello, Ark Fresh
I’ve never been to Arkansas Fresh Café. And no, I’m not using the excuse that its Bryant location is too far from my house. That’s bullshit. It’s only 20 minutes from me, and I’ve used public forums before to chastise folks for being too lazy to drive an extra 20 minutes in this town.  Truth is, I just haven’t been and I really need to go. My wife went last week and I begged her to bring me home a sandwich. She did…in the form of The Cuban. Even cold from sitting in the fridge for a few hours, the damn thing was still great. I’ll be heading out there soon for a fresh version.

SoM Sounds Good
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before … I like South on Main … especially on Wednesday nights when I can sit at the bar area, have a cocktail and a few apps, and listen to some local musicians. Last Wednesday, we ordered the fried Oysters with roasted garlic, and English Peas, along with and the truffle crab salad with fried green tomatoes. Both plates were winners.

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The Dish: The Hog Burger and Onion Rings at Arkansas Burger Co.

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Let’s get this insane fact out of the way right off the bat … I’ve lived in Little Rock for three years and yesterday was my first visit to Arkansas Burger Co. Crazy, right? My buddy, Dax (aka The Keyser Soze of LR foodies), has been telling me for months to stop in and order the Hog Burger. Dude is always specific with his directions.

“Get the Hog Burger with cheddar, no mayo.”

Seeing as Dax is batting 1000 on food recommendations, I listened. And once again, he nailed it. The burger comes with thin, crispy bacon and all the traditional toppings like mustard, pickles, shredded lettuce, and tomatoes. The patty is neither thin nor thick and is cooked to a perfect medium. It’s juicy, but not over-seasoned, instead relying on the beef’s flavor and other condiments to elevate the taste.

Simply put, the Hog Burger is a traditional, no frills cheeseburger that is sure to delight. Not to be overlooked were the delightful onion rings. These were of the shoestring variety, and again, like the burger, not an overly seasoned item, but cooked just right. While the fries I sampled were also well prepared, I’d have to rate the rings a tad better.

Is this burger one of the Top 10 in town? I’m certainly no expert, but as it stands, I’d have to slot it on my list.

Worth noting: Great to see a local business packed during a summertime lunch service. It’s obvious Arkansas Burger Co. is a beloved spot among loyal Little Rock burger lovers.

Arkansas Burger Co.
7410 Cantrell Road
501.663.0600
Hours: Tuesday-Saturday 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Closed Sunday & Monday

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Mighty Good Recipe: Cod Cakes with Sriracha Cream and Avocado

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This time of year, like many folks, I lean towards preparing lighter fish recipes. But sometimes I get a little tired of either throwing a tuna steak on the cast iron pan or broiling some salmon in the oven.

What about cod?

I’ve cooked it many times at home, but never was the end result met with rave reviews (even when I lived in Boston and got it fresh). Nowadays, I buy the monster package of frozen filets at Kroger. They work just fine in a pinch, but I was in search of a recipe that would really elevate cod.

Found it.

I used this cod cake recipe as a base, making several minor adjustments to end up with a final product that will definitely be in our dining rotation. First and foremost, scale the ingredient amounts down quite a bit, as the listed recipe feeds about 50 people.

First, boil three large cod filets and a halved lemon in salted water. Remove, let cool, and mash fish into little pieces. Boil four large potatoes, then mash with salt, 1/2 cup of milk,  2 tablespoons of butter, and a pinch of salt. Let cool as well. In a separate bowl, add sour cream, panko bread crumbs, garlic powder, Worcestershire sauce, green onions, Dijon mustard, and pepper. Mix well, then add cooled potatoes and fish. Mix well again. Take a small handful of the mixture and form patties. Heat canola oil to medium-high and fry the patties for 3 minutes on each side. Top with a sour cream/sriracha mixture, some diced avocado, and sliced green onions.

The subtle tasting cod is just a perfect pairing with the buttery potatoes. I think you’ll also find the sour cream and avocado toppings to add both a little spiciness and a creamy texture to the dish.

This recipe, although a bit labor intensive, is not difficult, and is ideal as either an appetizer for a dinner party or a main entrée for a family dinner.

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Does Chuy’s Deliver on Good Tex-Mex?

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Guest Post by Jim Rassinier
Ah, Chuy’s. That amazing place we consistently go back to for… their creamy jalapeno sauce. My dining critic even posted the best response ever regarding such: “Best thing on the menu. Literally. The best thing in this place is literally on my menu.”

Alas, the Southwest is starving for anything Tex-Mex these days, so Chuy’s, which started in Austin in 1982 (Same place where Torchy’s started. Culinary folk … you’ve been warned.) has branched out to 12 States already, most in the past decade.

Now, my ex-wife being from Tennessee when we were together, I knew how desperate y’all were for any, literally, ANY kind of decent Tex-Mex. We went to a grand opening of what equated to a Chipotle and they were out the door. It was at least a 30 minute wait for a Chipotle wannabe. I knew then that Taco Cabana would go gangbusters in these areas. Unfortunately, Taco Cabana wasn’t willing to expand or franchise (I tried), so now you all are stuck with what people outside of Texas consider “Tex-Mex.”

Well, pardner, that’s like saying that Taco Bell is true “Cali-Mex” (Btw, it is, much like Chuy’s is true “Tex Mex.”)

Point is, you would have all been better represented by Taco Cabana being represented as your true Tex-Mex than Chuy’s; which nobody outside of Austin considers Tex-Mex at all.

That damn creamy jalapeno sauce…

You see, Chuy’s is far more about New Mexico food. Sure, they try to say they incorporate South Texas and Mexico flavors, but nobody outside of a true Texan buys it.

And the decor. Looks like Chili’s, Bennigan’s and Elvis paintings vomited on each other. Not exactly a Reese’s Peanut Butter cup moment.

But the worst part was that I had gone to a Chuy’s in Central Houston and had the chile relleno. It was one of the best I’d ever had, and I advised my dining partner about such.

And then when it came to the table on my recent visit to the Woodlands, Texas location, it didn’t taste remotely the same. It is nearly impossible to recommend something when it tastes so different at two separate locations. I totally understand that certain chefs are better than others, but at the end of the day, standards have to be met. Mine was lacking in flavor, and honest to Pete, do they have to pour sauce on everything?!? Kids! When you’re serving fried foods, sauce on the side!

My dining partner had to say this about her own meal: “The chicken got most of its flavor from the Boom Boom sauce. The breading and chicken was actually a bit bland, and of course everything is better with an over easy egg. This would have been just as good with just grilled chicken, but I’d order it again considering it’s one of the few things I’ve eaten from Chuy’s that I halfway liked.”

So… what am I to say to the Little Rock folk? I can say this: You are being denied of great Tex-Mex. Yes, Chuy’s is mildly good, and probably better than most out there, but anyone who has ventured into Texas knows there is not only better Tex-Mex. There is FAR better. And even if you only make your way to Dallas (ugh) you can enjoy a TRULY good Tex-Mex place: Pappasito’s.

Until then, enjoy the creamy jalapeno dip. It really is the shit.

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