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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The Dish: Ensalada Del Sol at Heights Taco & Tamale Co.

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Last Friday marked my third visit to the popular Heights Taco & Tamale Co. in the Heights neighborhood. Admittedly, I’ve still yet to try some of the more popular dishes like the tamales, cheese dip, Ark-Mex enchiladas, or the pulled pork tacos. My first visit was a quick, late evening pop-in to try the chocolate cake. The second time around, I sat at the bar and downed a plate of bean and cheese nachos.

So, here I was with part of my fam on a blistering hot early afternoon in Little Rock, and the thought of eating enchiladas and tacos was none too appealing. I scanned the menu in search of some lighter options and came across the Ensalada del Sol. The description hooked me, “Grilled Citrus Shrimp, Mango, Avocado, Smoked Tomato Vinaigrette.”

The Yellow Rocket knows a thing or two about creating dynamite salads (see Big Orange and ZAZA), so I had high hopes for HTT’s Ensalada del Sol ($12.50). The salad was beautifully presented with skewers of medium-sized, well-seasoned shrimp resting atop a bed of crisp, chopped romaine lettuce. Perfectly ripe slices of avocado and mango sat on the edges. I quickly removed the tails of each shrimp, cut the mango and avocado into smaller pieces, poured the dressing, and tossed all of the ingredients together.

Ten minutes later, I had polished off the entire plate. In short, the salad was fantastic. The shrimp were cooked just right, and together with the fresh mango and creamy avocado, along with the light vinaigrette, provided for a perfect summertime lunch. It’s worth noting that the mango was so good, I almost ordered another side plate of the fruit.

Would I order this salad again? Absolutely. And it’s nice to know I can walk into a restaurant like this and be able to order a lighter option when I’m not in the mood to be weighed down by heavier bean and cheese based dishes.

Worth noting: On Friday at noon, our party of three was able to sit immediately. I mention this because waits during peak times have reached upwards of 1.5 hours. Also, the service was excellent throughout the meal.

Heights Taco & Tamale Co.
5805 Kavanaugh Blvd
501.313.4848
Hours: Sunday-Thursday 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Friday-Saturday 11 a.m.-10 p.m. (kitchen) 11 a.m.-11 p.m. (bar)

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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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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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