Archive for category Misc.

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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November Edition: 10 Dishes You Need to Know

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For reasons unbeknownst to me, certain dishes seem to fall under the radar. Every few months I’ll highlight some of these dishes, tell you what makes them so good, and hopefully inspire you to check them out for yourself, if you haven’t done so already. In no particular order, here are the 10 Dishes You Need to Know.

Skillet Bread at South on Main
This is a rotating menu item, so you’re best option is to ask for it and see if the restaurant has all of the ingredients to whip some up. Think of this as a doughier naan covered in shredded brisket, cheese, and whatever else chef Bell wants to put on top. Next time you’re at SoM, cozy up to the bar and polish off this skillet bread with an Old Fashioned.

Fried Quail at Natchez
Certain restaurants are just good at frying things. Natchez is one of those places … and nothing tops their fried quail–a small, delicate bird which holds up well to the deep frying and is typically paired with a faro and diced root vegetables at the downtown Little Rock restaurant.

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Pork Tamales at La Regional
I am constantly on the prowl for good, traditional, non-Delta tamales. La Regional’s pork variety are the absolute best I’ve come across in the area—better than Izzy’s and better than the Jalisco food truck in front of Colonial on Markham (which are both excellent). The pork-to-masa ratio is damn near 1-to-1, the meat is super tender and each tamale is about $1. This is the time of year to really enjoy tamales, so bring it on down to La Regional in SWLR.

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Mama Chi’s Spicy Fish at Chi’s on Markham
I’m guessing this dish is often overlooked by the general public, but the delicate pieces of white fish resting in a thick and spicy sauce, makes it a must-order each time I’m at this Chi’s location. It’s certainly not a stand-alone dish, but rather, it’s best paired with other dishes like beef chow fun and moo goo gai pan.

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Egg White Omelet at Mugs Café
Sometimes you just want a good ol’ omelet for breakfast and it’s nice to know you can get one that won’t clog your arteries at Mugs Café. Frying an egg to perfection should never be taken for granted and Mugs knows does it better than just about anyone in the area. Remove the egg yolks, add some roasted veggies, and you’ve got yourself a fine breakfast.

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Mixed Grill at Desi Den
Never heard of Desi Den? This Indian restaurant located near I-30 in Bryant is a hidden gem! If you’re unfamiliar with the cuisine, opt for the mixed grill, which is a sizzling skillet full of chicken vindaloo, shrimp, broccoli, asparagus and other assorted items.

The Works at Trio’s
Technically, this sandwich probably shouldn’t be on a list like this. I’m guessing most Little Rockers know The Works, but hey, maybe you need a reminder of the sandwich’s excellence. How does grilled pimiento cheese on sourdough bread with poblano peppers, thin, fried green tomatoes and bacon, sound? Creamy, crunchy, tart and a little spicy—it’s all there!

Broiled Atlantic Salmon at Ciao Baci
This dish has my name written all over it. I love both salmon and grilled Romaine, and the chef Owen gets all crazy and adds fried onion rings and beet hash to the mix. I’m in. It’s also doesn’t hurt that Ciao Baci isn’t stingy with its fish portions.

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Black Cod Samfaina at The Terrace
Speaking of fish, my goodness, have you tried the black cod samfaina at The Terrace? Also, why has it taken me damn near three years to eat at this restaurant? Shame on me! This beautiful piece of pan-seared cod is accompanied by a deliciously salty ragu of tomatoes, peppers, eggplant and onions.

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Calzone at The Pizzeria at Terry’s
Do you love a classic, Neo-style pizza? Well then, The Pizzeria at Terry’s is the place for you. And if you enjoy said pizza but instead like it folded in half and stuffed with various ingredients and topped with Bonta Toscana Garlic Sauce, then order the calzone. It’s both chewy and crispy, with just enough char on the edges to impart that wonderful smoky flavor.

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10 Dishes You Need to Know in Little Rock

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For reasons unbeknownst to me, certain dishes seem to fall under the radar. Every few months I’ll highlight some of these dishes, tell you what makes them so good, and hopefully inspire you to check them out for yourself, if you haven’t done so already. In no particular order, here are the 10 Dishes You Need to Know.

Bibimbap at Hanaroo
Bibim…what? Bibimbap is a very traditional hot pot Korean dish filled with rice and vegetables and topped with a soft-boiled egg. While most folks order Hanaroo’s sushi, the often overlooked bibimbap is where it’s at. This is Korean comfort food at its best, and if you’re willing to branch out just a bit, Hanaroo’s bibimbap is a great option.

Greek Salad at Little Greek Restaurant
Yes, save the speech … I know Little Greek is a chain, but it’s a really good chain. Is it better than Layla’s? No. But their Greek salad, loaded with onions, beets, fresh greens and potato salad, is dynamite.

Meat Pies at Maddie’s Place
Heck, pass on the shrimp and grits and fried catfish for once and order the meat pies as an entrée. They’ll be sure to please. Rich cuts of beef inside a flaky, buttery empanada-like crust doesn’t sound like a bad lunch to me.

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Cheesecake at The Pantry
Cool name aside, forgo The Pantry’s chocolate salami in favor of their cheesecake. This is coming from someone who isn’t a huge fan of cheesecake. It’s the best I’ve come across in Little Rock, due in large part to that insanely awesome brûléed top. The thing is a work of art.

Chicken Sandwich at David’s Burgers
Why on earth would you walk into David’s and order a chicken sandwich (instead of a typical beef burger) every now and then? Two reasons. One, your fat ass might be interested in living past 45, and two, it’s pretty tasty. David’s does things differently by putting a slight grind to the chicken. This yields a thin patty that stays juicy throughout the grilling process.

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Chicken Tostada at Taqueria Karina
This beauty is comprised of a crispy fried tostada lined with a thin layer of refried beans, then topped with marinated chicken, diced tomatoes, lettuce, grilled onions, cheese and sour cream. Resist the temptation to smash the entire concoction into your pie hole, as most of it will end up on your khakis (speaking from experience).

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Cheeseburger at Terry’s Finer Foods
Yes, I’m a hypocrite, but sometimes a good cheeseburger can cure all that ails you. We love our burgers here in Little Rock, but I’m not sure many people know about the one at Terry’s. It’s a thicker patty covered in cheese (of your choice) and served on a soft bun with all the usual fixings. It’s classic and simple and oh so good.

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Sauteed Mushroom in Oyster Sauce at Fantastic China
I adore this dish’s simplicity. All you’re talking about is some chopped mushrooms and green onions in a delicate, sweet and savory oyster sauce, but it really hits the spot. This light dish makes for a perfect during-the-week lunch.

Rabbit Fettuccine at Natchez
Granted, you might walk into Natchez and the rabbit fettuccine isn’t even on the menu that day. But switching things up has always been a trademark of the menu, and the rabbit fettuccine’s inclusion on this list is really just a general endorsement of Natchez’s fantastic handmade pasta.

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Cherry Shaved Ice at Le Pops
Everyone goes into Le Pops with one thing on the mind … popsicles! But have you tried one of Laurie’s hand-shaved ices? Get the cherry (real cherry syrup) and watch how fast you gobble up the powdery snow.

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