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Restaurant Review: El Palenque is the Real Deal

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I’ve been to El Palenque, the WLR taqueria tucked in the corner of an obscure strip center off Rodney Parham, several times over the past few years, and I’ve never had anything but excellent meals.

I felt it was time to write a formal review.

So, here we are.

The atmosphere: El Palenque’s atmosphere is everything you’d expect from a traditional taqueria—small, warm and inviting, with a steady flow of adoring customers. The restaurant walls have recently been painted with a beautiful mural that really gives the place a wonderful feel. It’s an open kitchen concept (which I love), so you’ll always see and hear the experienced chef banging around, doing his thing.

The service: Diners can expect prompt, attentive and friendly service. The chip basket is always full, as are the drinks, and the food never arrives more than 10-15 minutes after the order.

The cost: The prices are about as reasonable as it gets. Recently, our table of four got out of there for about $50, and that included tip and an order with three entrees, two a la carte items, guacamole and two alcoholic beverages. In short, given the high quality of food, the prices are more than fair at El Palenque. Heck, it’s downright inexpensive.

The food: The food! Yes, the most important part. What doesn’t this restaurant do well? If you dig guilty pleasure, high caloric gut bombs, opt for the chicken nachos. Split them with a tablemate or be prepared to jog ten miles the following day to sweat out the guilt. This monster plate of chips is covered in cheese sauce and all the standard fixings. Those with smaller appetites should consider ordering the shrimp burrito, which is filled with plump, yet not overcooked shrimp. Nothing annoys me more than those cooked-to-hell, pea-sized shrimp, and happily, you won’t find them at El Palenque. The tortas are excellent, as are the chicken verde enchiladas and the beef tacos. For lovers of spicier dishes, check out the Camarones ala Diabla, a plate filled with a smoky adobo sauce (which the chef can tailor to your desired level of heat). Finally, good guacamole is essential, but El Palenque misses the mark just a bit. While I enjoyed its chunkiness, this guac needed a heavy dose of salt and lime.

The verdict: El Palenque is not only one of the top Mexican food restaurants in Little Rock, it’s one of the top restaurants, period. Yes … El Palenque is that good! And if you don’t believe me, ask anyone of the dedicated neighborhood patrons who come back time after time.

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Impressed with Little Greek Restaurant

Spanakopita

Spanakopita

I met up with a group of fellow food bloggers last night at Little Greek Restaurant (located in the Pleasant Ridge Town Center) for a complimentary menu tasting dinner.

Unfortunately, the traffic/black ice had me running a few minutes late. But by the time I arrived, an assortment of “Starters” were already on the table, which included: homemade hummus, dolmades, spanakopita, and homemade falafel. I recommend passing on the falafel, but certainly don’t on the dolmades and spanakopita. The dolmades ($4.99)—grape leaves filled with a ground beef, rice, tomato and herb mixture—were wonderful. Moist, tender and quite flavorful, this appetizer won’t disappoint and is perfect to share.

Greek Salad

Greek Salad

The spanakopita (spinach pie-$4.49) is a flakey phyllo dough filled with spinach and feta cheese. It’s a heavy start to a meal– especially when you dip each bite (like I did) into Little Greek’s tzatziki sauce–but I found nothing wrong with the rich taste and overall execution of the dish. In fact, it was excellent.

It’s worth noting that both the dolmades ($9.99) and spanakopita ($7.99) are offered under the “Perfect Platters” section of the menu. If you order the hummus ($3.99), opt for the fried pita bread over the grilled. It tastes better and can hold up when dipping into the thicker hummus.

Little Greek also offers a variety of salads. I was particularly impressed with the Greek salad ($6.49), loaded with lettuce, red onions, green peppers, tomatoes, feta cheese, a sliced beet and potato salad. And no…you’re not seeing things. I typed “potato salad.” You’ll be pleasantly surprised with this smashed version, served on top of the greens, resting under a beautiful beet slice. I suggest adding some grilled chicken ($2.49) to finish things off. It’s tasty and provides for a heartier meal.

A sampling of the thinly shaved gyro meat (90% beef, 10% lamb mixture) proved to be somewhat pedestrian. The meat was both moist and tender, but lacked the proper seasoning for it to truly shine. That said, it wasn’t bad…just not one of the more stand-out items on the menu. The same can be said for the lamb skewers, although I was much more impressed with the char-grilled chicken version, which had some bold flavors from an intense marinade.

Lamb Skewer

Lamb Skewer

All and all…I was impressed with Little Greek Restaurant. The fast-casual atmosphere, sizable portions and excellent price point make this restaurant certainly worthy of a return visit.

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Hot Dog Mike Goes Small, Comes Up Short

WOOPIGHOTdog

WOOPIGHOTdog

Yesterday, I paid my first visit to the new Hot Dog Mike storefront, located on 3rd Street in downtown Little Rock. If you’ve been living in Little Rock for any amount of time (and haven’t taken up residence under a rock), you certainly know the story behind this place. Surprisingly, this represented my first Hot Dog Mike experience of any kind.

Upon entry, I was immediately thrown by the size of the space. It’s very cozy. No tables, no chairs … just some real estate to stand, along with a beautiful wooden counter and a work area behind it. Frankly, I loved the joint. It’s what a little hot dog shop should be … just a quaint spot to pop in, get a dog and run out.

Unfortunately, the setting represented the best part of my eating experience.

My buddy stepped up to the counter and ordered two hot dogs–one of which, the WOOPIGHOTdog (bacon, cole slaw, red onion, along with barbecue and sriracha sauce), seemed very intriguing.

Hot Dog Mike wasn’t in the shop, but a very kind, yet tad overwhelmed worker began to slowly construct the dogs. What ensued was disappointing beyond words. The boiled hot dogs were scooped from a huge pot of water, loaded onto a pedestrian bun, and topped with cole slaw, chopped red onions and the aforementioned sauces.

I expected some delicious handmade slaw, but what I received was the creamy, straight-from-the-grocery-store-tub version. Its greatness was only surpassed by the strip of pre-cooked bacon, delivered from a Hormel bag. The hot dog, itself, was thin and resembled that of an inexpensive variety.

But let’s get something straight…a hot dog is a hot dog. Most of us have grown up eating these cheapo ones and have been quite content. The overall taste of the WOOPIGHOTdog (yes, I just ended up only eating half of my friend’s hot dog) was pretty darn good—sweet, salty, creamy and even a tad spicy. It’s obvious HDM knows his flavor combinations. Sadly, however, the hot dog was just a reflection of the laziness that permeated throughout the entire business model.

A look inside

A look inside

Scooping cole slaw from a tub that’s sitting in a cooler (that’s sitting on the floor,) (*correction, 6-inches off the floor), is a huge turn off. That slaw, along with other ingredients, should have been sitting in easy-to-access bins. And how about frying up a little bacon or mixing some fresh slaw right there in the store? The smell alone would draw in customers. Heck, even some nice store background music would have elevated the experience.

In years past, Hot Dog Mike’s food obviously went over quite well in the Little Rock community. Those days are over. A permanent storefront brings higher expectations. And whether it’s duck confit over a sweet potato hash, fried catfish, or something as simple as a hot dog, people in this town now desire better ingredients that are executed with care and precision.

Sure, the WOOPIGHOTdog tasted fine…but I could have gone to the grocery store and re-created nearly the exact same dog, at a fraction of the $4 price tag.

Make no mistake, the Hot Dog Mike storefront has a world of potential. A super cool, hip, hot dog shop (with a philanthropic owner), serving dynamite food, is exactly the type of place Little Rock needs.

Here’s hoping HDM gets there.

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Restaurant Review: Mr. Chen’s Authentic Chinese Restaurant

Pan Fried Dumplings

Time for another Little Rock restaurant review!

This is a story about a little boy…a boy who, for 30+ years, lived in a big city. The boy then moved to another big city. Months after his arrival in the new, big city, the boy stumbled upon one of the greatest culinary creations known to man. But alas, the little boy was once again asked to move…this time to a small city.

Fearing the worst, the little boy said good-bye to this magnificent, still newly-discovered food and set off for a new life.

The little boy loved his new, small city dearly, but often yearned for the dish he worried would not appear.

Then…months later…the little boy had the great fortune of walking into Mr. Chen’s Authentic Chinese Restaurant…and all was right in the world again. Why? He was reunited with vaunted steamed buns (a.k.a soup dumplings). What a beautiful tale.

In reality, it still depresses me that all my many years in Houston I never stumbled upon the sacred soup dumplings. They’re all over the place in Boston, which is why I practically lived on them last year. Who can resist a nice steamed dumpling? No one, right? Now imagine injecting that dumpling with flavorful broth. It’s damn near a religious experience.

Steamed Buns (a.k.a. Soup Dumplings)

I’d practically given up on the idea of ever finding them in Little Rock. But, low and behold, good ol’ Mr. Chen’s has them ($4.95 for 10-count) and boy are they good. Not the best, but nevertheless a great showing. The dumpling was filled with ground chicken, which is a bit surprising since most are with pork. The warm broth kept the meat most and was just the right temperature where you should feel comfortable about popping the entire dumpling in your mouth. In fact, there really isn’t another way to eat them. If you bite the dumpling in half, all of the broth will dump out. In the world of soup dumplings, that’s what we call a total fail. Mr. Chen’s also has pan-fried dumplings (again with ground chicken) and they too are a nice representation of this classic Chinese appetizer.

Egg Drop Soup

We tried the egg drop soup ($3.95), which oddly only comes in a 2-person serving size. Unfortunately, the soup was below average, laced with frozen peas and carrots, big chunks of mushrooms, and thin, under-seasoned broth.

Sesame Chicken

My tablemates ordered two lunch combination plates: orange chicken ($6.50) and sesame chicken ($6.50). While the orange chicken was underwhelming at best, the sesame chicken was downright terrible. I found the actual pieces of chicken to be tough and over-breaded. The accompanying egg fried rice was adequate, but the test-tube shaped generic egg roll, which is found in most Little Rock Chinese restaurants, was not.

It all sounds like a mixed bag, doesn’t it?

A little bit, but not really. I haven’t gotten to what I ordered yet, which was the beef chow fun ($7.95). The chow fun is a stand-alone dish, not found on the lunch specials portion of the menu. Please don’t let that deter you from ordering it. Quite simply, it’s one of the best things I’ve eaten in Little Rock, and, for that matter, any Chinese restaurant in the country. Yes, the chow fun was that good! Tender pieces of beef are mixed with flat noodles, Napa cabbage, sprouts, and green onions…forming a near perfect plate of food. I really can’t imagine going to Mr. Chen’s and not ordering this dish.

Beef Chow Fun

Did Mr. Chen’s have some misses? Absolutely. But they also had several hits…and those were home runs. In my opinion, the soup dumplings and chow fun easily make Mr. Chen’s the best Chinese restaurant in Little Rock.

Those dishes have officially become my ordering staples, but I also look forward to trying various items off Mr. Chen’s somewhat eclectic, yet reasonably affordable menu. Our entire bill came to $37.35 and that too is a dream come true.

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