Sneak Peek: All is Definitely Well at Baja Grill

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Former Benton food truck turned Heights brick-and-mortar, Baja Grill, is set to open tomorrow at 11 a.m. The cozy neighborhood restaurant, located at 5923 Kavanaugh (the old Satellite Café location), will specialize in Mex-Cali cuisine.

Patrons can expect a menu filled with various burrito, taco and quesadilla options. I’ve eaten quite a few items from their food truck–all were good and some were absolutely spectacular. But none were better than the Cuban burrito; this “most craved” menu item consists of a flour tortilla filled with slow-smoked shredded pork and topped with house made chipotle aioli, red cabbage-jicama slaw, avocado slices and fresco cheese.

At tonight’s soft opening, I ordered the blackened shrimp as well as the Cuban taco. Both were quite substantial and filled with delightfully fresh ingredients. Our appetizer of chips and guacamole was also spot-on. The chips were thin and crisp and held up quite nicely when dipped into the chunky guac. Also, sides of black beans and rice are a must order.  In short, Baja Grill hasn’t skipped a beat. As far as I could tell, they are churning out the exact same quality food as they did during their truck days.

As with any new restaurant, I’d encourage folks to give the place a little time to work out any kinks. But when they do …  watch out.

Notes: Portions were large and prices were more than reasonable. Most tacos will run you around $3.50-$4.75 range and burritos about twice that. Patio and bar seating is available.  Baja Grill has 14 parking spots around the side and rear of the restaurant. Street parking is also available, as is parking at the bank across the street (as long as the bank is closed). Currently, the restaurant offers BYOW with a $7.95 table corkage fee (until their liquor license is approved). In the upcoming weeks, diners can expect nightly “specials” and an expanded dessert menu.

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Around Town: Good Bye, Ashley’s

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By now, you’ve heard that Little Rock’s iconic Ashley’s (located inside The Capital Hotel) is shutting its doors after brunch service on May 4. The closure is probably for the best. I don’t know a single soul who dines at the restaurant even on a semi-regular basis (although rumor has it these people exist). While the food is top-notch, the stuffy atmosphere and “fine dining only” feel has left the restaurant, in a sense, behind the times.

But fear not, the closure isn’t permanent. Change is coming … and sometimes change is a good thing. After a 2-3 month hiatus, expect a much more modern interior, equipped with beautiful hardwood floors. Pieces of wall art will replace the numerous mirrors. Gold fixtures will be gone. Kitchen will be gutted.

The Ashley’s name? Probably gone as well.

My guess is that super chef Joël Antunes will continue to shine in the kitchen, much like he has before and as he did the other night with our group of bloggers/writers. After hotel staff informed us of the impending physical changes to the interior, the chef came out and delivered an elite tasting menu.

Chef Antunes, a quiet, all-business type fellow, demonstrated superior execution on dishes such as: yellow fin tuna tartare with avocado, asparagus soup, and seared scallops with potato gnocchi, artichokes and sundried tomatoes. His closing act for the evening, a chocolate soufflé, was easily among the best desserts in our town.

Little Rock is not a town that enjoys change, but I for one am quite excited about the activity going on inside one of the city’s most historic structures.

It will be very interesting to see how everything plays out. Don’t you think?

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15 Noteworthy Fried Foods in Little Rock

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Duck Wings at South on Main

This is the South … and we certainly know a thing or two about damn good fried food. And while I am constantly trying to decrease my grease intake, there’s just no denying all the wonderful options we have right here in Little Rock.

So I decided to come up with a list of my 15 Noteworthy Fried Foods in our town. Are they the best? Maybe … maybe not. But because this is such a broad category and there are so many dishes I’ve yet to try, I’m hesitant to make this a “Best Of” list.

Enough with the semantics … let’s get to it!

K Hall & Son’s Fried Pork Chop
Never been to K Hall? It’s the grocery/eatery off Wright Avenue serving up one of the better fried pork chops you’ll find. Side note: K Hall marks the first time I ever ate my food while sitting on a curb right outside an establishment.

Torito’s Churros
Torito’s, much like K Hall, is a both a restaurant and a small grocery store. They serve up fresh Mexican pastries, none better than the fried donut sticks covered in cinnamon and sugar, also known as churros.

Banana Leaf’s Samosa
Gosh, I’m just happy that Banana Leaf, the food truck located just a stone’s throw from UAMS, is back in business. I do love me some of their Chicken 65, but when I’m not looking to burn the heck out of my mouth, I generally opt for the potato-filled, piping hot samosas.

Doe’s Fried Shrimp
Well smack my ass and call me Charlie … Doe’s does some pretty mean fried shrimp. The soft, lightly fried crust is what I enjoy most about these jumbo-sized bad boys.

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Gus’s Fried Chicken

Gus’s Fried Chicken
Did you really think I’d make a “fried food list” and not include Gus’s fried chicken?

Lassis Inn’s Buffalo Ribs
These are massive, fantastically fried fish ribs. Take a moment to process that information. The mild white fish comes off the bone with ease and is best washed down with a nearly freezing 40-oz beer. Lassis Inn is a must-visit for any Little Rockian.

The Faded Rose’s Wedge Fries
Regulars to this blog know the love affair I have with these oversized hunks of potato goodness. Soft in the middle and crispy on the outside, the fries are best eaten after a good dipping in the accompanying ranch sauce.

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Buffalo Ribs at Lassis Inn

Ciao Baci’s Fried Chicken
I LOVE the thick, crispy crust chef Owens is able to achieve on his fried chicken. It ain’t cheap, but he uses a quality bird and you can count on it being fried just right.

Bossa Nova’s Mandioca Frita
Say that three times in a row. These boiled, then deep fried chunks of yucca root are just so awesomely addictive. Deep each piece into the spicy ketchup, and you’ve got an excellent appetizer for two.

Table 28’s Fried Brussels Sprouts
Deep.fried.Brussels.sprouts.

Chi’s Sweet and Sour Fish
Maybe it was a dream, but I’m pretty sure my wife once ordered this off-menu dish from the Shackleford location, prompting me to then re-new our wedding vows. Thin cuts of white fish are deep fried and served up with some typical sweet and sour sauce. Oh so good!

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Table 28′s Brussels Sprouts

Franke’s Chicken Tenders
I could literally eat these five times a week. Thick, juicy (when they haven’t been sitting in the bin for a long time) pieces of monster chicken tenders, with that flakey salt and pepper coating, are paired best with the honey mustard.

Hillcrest Artisan Meats’ Pan Fried Pork Loin Sandwich
I haven’t seen this on their menu in a while, but if they put it back on, go get it. A thin piece of pork loin is pan fried in extra virgin olive oil, then topped with Dijon mustard, aioli, and all the fixings. Like all of HAM’s sandwiches, it isn’t over the top, rather, just well-constructed from the finest ingredients.

South on Main’s Duck Wings
First, imagine a fried chicken wing…only bigger, meatier, richer in flavor, and just plain better. Then, roll it around in some house-made Buffalo sauce. Finally, thank little 8-pound, 6-ounce new born baby Jesus that chef Bell comes up with fun food items. You’ll only find the fried duck wings on SoM’s bar menu, and even then, you won’t see them very often.

The Southern Gourmasian’s Fried Egg
No one, I mean no one, does a better fried egg in Little Rock than chef Patterson. His poached version is pretty damn spectacular as well, but that’s a post for another day.

OK Little Rock, when fried foods did I miss? Would love to know in the comment box below.

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Buzz Word: Terry’s Cheeseburger Hits the Spot

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BUZZ WORD … where each month a word is posted over on The Mighty Rib Facebook page, followed with a request for reader suggestions centered-around the term. One of the suggestions is randomly picked, dish is eaten, and a review is written.

This month’s BUZZ WORD was “burger.”

The cheeseburger at Terry’s Finer Foods was suggested by Jacquelyn, which was cool, because I had no idea Terry’s even had one on its menu.

Turns out, it’s a pretty damn good representative in the wildly debated burger field. A sizable patty (I’m guessing at least a 1/3-pound) sits atop a soft bun and comes with all the essentials, including: red onion, Romaine lettuce, pickles and tomato. This is a French restaurant, so the cheese options are plentiful, as is the amount of it they layer on your burger. I opted for the Swiss, which proved to be an excellent choice. As you can see, the abundance of cheese really made for a visually appealing burger. I’m guessing this is what originally captivated Jacquelyn.

I asked the burger to be cooked to “medium.” And although it was juicy, I’d say the burger was just a tad overcooked and under-seasoned. Also, I’m not a fan of the bulkier Romaine lettuce as it creates a somewhat messier eating experience.

But these are very slight criticisms, and as a whole, I’d say Terry’s fresh ground beef cheeseburger ($11.50) probably falls in the top 20 range in Little Rock.

The bottom line is that Terry’s cheeseburger certainly won’t blow you away, but it deserves a try. You’ll find that it’s definitely respectable enough to inspire a return visit and a repeat order.

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