Archive for category Misc.

The Coexistence of Restaurant and Writer

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Gone are the days of the nameless, faceless food critic. Hell, formal food critiques, in general, are a dying breed. Food critics are now mostly food writers or food bloggers.

We highlight farmers, make lists, write about deals around town, and yes, occasionally give our opinion on food. Budget constraints often prohibit visiting a restaurant more than once for a specific piece. In truth, it’s not very fair to the restaurant, but you do the best you can.

We now rarely duck into restaurants wearing low baseball caps. We enjoy the attention our newfound hobby and/or career gives us. Canon’s have replaced small notebooks. Attention has replaced anonymity. Twitter has replaced silence.

So few food writers are experts. We think we are, but we’re not. I am not. We haven’t been to culinary school, and we’ve spent no time in a professional kitchen. But we do have a forum to give our opinions.

I imagine if you asked for the absolute truth, most restaurant owners and chefs aren’t too fond of writers. And that’s fine. Professionalism on both sides usually wins out. In a perfect world, I guess we’d almost never come in contact with one another. But we coexist, because no sooner than a writer criticizes a chef’s brisket, we are emailing him or her for a quote about a restaurant special.

Emily Van Zandt, a local writer, recently wrote a post on the topic of not being friends with chefs. Whether right or wrong, it’s human nature to tie yourself into an article that involves your field. I did so with this piece. Personally, I enjoy being friendly with chefs, much like I enjoy being friendly with most humans I come in contact with. This friendliness gives me satisfaction, not unlike the same satisfaction I get from being completely honest in my writing.

I’ve covered food in Houston, Boston, and now Little Rock, and can tell you that without question, Little Rock is a different beast. It’s small. The food community is even smaller. It’s this smallness that gives me big pleasure. I’m no longer one of two hundred writers (see Boston). I’m now one of a handful. My words can make an impact, giving me a satisfaction that can rarely be captured in a larger market.

Is there a little ass-kissing across the board on the part of food writers? I imagine so. Are the lines blurred? Probably. It would be hypocritical to say otherwise. When we do things like judge a food contest at a restaurant, have our faces plastered on Facebook, and attend free media tastings, of course the lines are blurred.

In the end, it’s about enjoying your craft, treating people fairly, and being honest with the reader.

I hope I do that, and if you think otherwise, please feel free to let me know.

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Admit It, You’d Miss These 10 Dishes

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If you moved tomorrow, have you ever thought about the dishes in Little Rock you’d truly miss–the ones you’d absolutely crave months, heck, years later? I think about it all the time. These dishes are not only delicious, but also scream Little Rock. Finding such food and drink might not necessarily be the easiest task in other areas of the country. Here are my 10 Most Miss-able Dishes:

Smoked Turkey Salad at Burge’s
If I had to guess, this smoked turkey salad would be on the top of a lot of folk’s lists. Often referred to as “crack salad,” it looks like a pile of mush to the untrained eye. Burger’s is able to somehow transform a mundane menu item into one of the most crave-inducing bites of food in town. The smoky, pulverized meat is just too hard to resist.

Fried Duck Wings at South on Main
I’m sure you’re reading this and thinking, “Fried duck wings? I’ve never seen those on the menu at South on Main?” I think they used to either be a bar-special or a seasonal menu item. All I know is I’ve never seen them on a menu anywhere else. Couple that with the fact that they’re fan-freaking-tastic, and you see why they make my list. Think chicken wings, but a little bigger, and a lot tastier.

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Chocolate Glazed at Mark’s Do-Nut Shop
We always end up missing sweets. Think back to your last vacation. I bet there’s a dessert you just can’t get out of your head. Mark’s is like that for me. You could travel far and wide and not find better. The fresh glazed at Shipley’s (610/Ella) in Houston are a close second.

Baked Pimento Cheese at Boulevard Bistro and Bar
This is a Little Rock list, and at least one pimento cheese representative had to be on here, right? In general, I’m not the biggest fan of pimento cheese, but there’s no denying the awesomeness of Boulevard’s warm, melted version.

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Any Pizza at Deluca’s Pizzeria
This is the best pizza in all of Arkansas, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it on a few prominent national lists in the near future. The pizza is just that good. It really doesn’t matter what toppings you order–they’re all great. The true miss-able quality is the light, crisp, yet chewy crust. After we moved from Boston, my most missed dish was the pizza at Regina’s. And Deluca’s is better, so I know for a fact it would drive me crazy.

Soaked Salad at Doe’s Eat Place
Yeah, yeah … I know. How does a simple side salad make such a list? Well, I happen to love soaked salad, and it’s my list, so deal with it. Heck, I didn’t even know what soaked salad was before I moved to Little Rock, and I enjoy how this Doe’s version doesn’t have bits of green olives like many of the others.

Old Fashioned at South on Main
I had to include one cocktail on the list, and it doesn’t get any better than David Burnette’s Old Fashioned. Those who’ve tasted one know what I’m talking about. If I left Little Rock tomorrow, I’d be craving one of these by the following Tuesday. Again, it’s a standard cocktail you could find at any bar, but good luck finding one better than at South on Main.

Thin Fish at The Faded Rose
I only had this dish for the first time a few weeks ago, but damn would I miss it if I moved to Tucson or Omaha or Providence. Thin, perfectly fried catfish filets don’t grown on trees in other areas of the country. Nor would you want them to.

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Leek Salad at One Eleven
Hey, look … it’s another salad! I love leeks, and what they do with them over at One Eleven, pairing with bits of bleu cheese and pecans, is simply brilliant. Can you get leeks at a million other restaurants across the country? Yes, but they probably won’t be this good.

Coconut Cream Pie at Charlotte’s
Have you had better coconut cream pie in your life? I haven’t.

Others I’d miss: Deviled Eggs at The Pantry, Banana Pudding at Capital Bar and Grill, Fried Alligator Bites at Maddie’s Place

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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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Exciting Times in Little Rock’s Food Scene

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By all accounts, 2014 was a damn good year for Little Rock’s food scene. We added some excellent new establishments like The Pizzeria at Terry’s Finer Foods, Good Food by Ferneau, Butcher & Public and Three Fold Noodles and Dumpling Co. We even saw seasoned restaurantuers like Scott McGehee, Tomas Bohm and Jerry Barakat expand their footprints with the already successful ventures of Lost Forty Brewing, The Pantry Crest and Kemuri, respectively.

Our beer scene has exploded. We have a baker turned chocolatier (and still baker). Heck, we even have a bakery that makes crazy things called kouign amanns.

Hidden gems like Zaffino’s, Super 7 Grocery Store, Mike’s Café and La Regional impressed.

And places that have been around forever, including The Faded Rose, Scallions, Milford Track and Brave New, all continue to delight customers.

I was cautiously optimistic this time last year on what the future would hold for Little Rock’s food scene. Good things were happening, but not enough to cause genuine excitement. With 2015 quickly approaching, it’s obvious that things have improved tremendously over this past year. Will we ever be a New Orleans, Dallas or even Memphis? No … but Little Rock is slowly making strides to becoming a true dining destination.

I say “slowly” because it really does take time.

So, what needs to take place for the culinary scene to continue to move forward? In my humble opinion … it would be great to see these things happen:

We need places like Natchez, South on Main, One Eleven and Capital Bar and Grill to keep churning out great food and to step outside the box every now and then. These restaurants are so important, as they not only house some of our top chefs, but also are quite popular with tourists/out-of-towners.

The Southern Gourmasian must transition from being Little Rock’s best food truck to an elite brick-and-mortar. Chef Justin Patterson is truly one of our best chef’s in town and I’m guessing his passion and creativity will only expand with a permanent home.

The old Starving Artist spot needs a new tenant. Capeo, Mugs Cafe and Good Food are all strong, but the Argenta District could use another shot in the arm with a dynamite eatery in that space.

Whether it’s for the development of a limited edition product, the coordination of a charity function or just a couple of talented folks sharing ideas, we need the collaborative efforts between chefs, bakers, ice cream makers and brewers to continue.

We need a chef/restauranteur to take a chance on Park Hill. The neighborhood is charming, beautiful, historic … and, most importantly, is close to the epicenter of Little Rock. For all those reasons, it has the potential to be the next “big thing.”

Most (not all) local restaurants must step it up on social media. Even something like a simple webpage and a decent presence on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook go a long way in connecting with an audience and potentially improving sales. The excuses of not having the time and/or money to do these things are tired and weak.

Food writing, in all honesty, must continually strive for improvement. Those of us writing- myself included- should challenge ourselves to cover all places–new, old, popular, and hidden gems–and not only praise but provide constructive criticism when warranted.

In general, Little Rock diners need to not only be willing to support local restaurants, but also do so by getting out of their comfortable neighborhoods every so often, driving an extra 10-15 minutes, and “spreading the wealth,” so to speak. Does this sound familiar?

“I live in Midtown. When are we getting a Local Lime, because I hate driving all the way out to West Little Rock.”

or

“North Little Rock? I’m not driving all the way up there for dinner.”

or

“You drove out to Benton?”

The fact of the matter is that almost no place is too far, especially when you take into account that Little Rock has minimal traffic most of the time. If we want to see these restaurants thrive, it’s going to take a conscious effort on diners to, at times, literally go the extra mile.

Finally, adding more and more ethnic cuisine restaurants will only help improve the diverse offerings in Little Rock. Just in the past few months, we’ve added two new Thai restaurants (Oishi and kBird), and it would be wonderful to see more of this in 2015.

Did I miss something or am off base with any or all of my opinions? Please let me know in the comment box below.

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