Monday, September 1, 2014

Asian Awesome - Fried Rice in Fort Smith.

Like most travelers, I love finding a great restaurant with a low price point.  It's even better when the food is outstanding.  And in Fort Smith, there are a plethora of these cheap eats - and this one is apparently a local secret.  Well, be secret no more.

I talked about the multi-ethnic diversity of Fort Smith in Classic Eateries of the Ozarks and Arkansas River Valley.  Thanks to the U.S. Army installation Fort Chaffee, all sorts of international influences have been made on Arkansas food in this section of the state - from the brides that came back from World War II and the later peace with U.S. servicement (see Emmy's German Restaurant) to the Vietnamese and Cambodean refugees airlifted to the camp from southeast Asia in 1975 and 1976, to the Cuban refugees in 1980 and later the refugees from the natural disaster of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.  Add in a Mexican influx from immigrants coming north, and Fort Smith is indeed a melting pot.

This pot has a lot of components in its stew, including a remarkable number of Asian restaurants.  They range from Chinese to Korean to Thai, and they're all unique.  This post is about a little place on Midland that doesn't look like much but it's really dang good.

Fried Rice is set in an old dairy diner not far from the fairgrounds.  It doesn't look like much from the outside, with its damaged parking lot, but that lot is often to capacity with cars parked for diners who squeeze into the little dining room inside.

Right before we left, about 20 minutes after closing.
We went on a Friday evening shortly before closing time -- but we were still welcomed warmly.  There's no early closing of the grill here; cooking is done right up through closing time for anyone in the restaurant.  The menu was simple, and it didn't take us long to decide on our dishes.

There were a lot of diners that night, and even more coming in to the restaurant to pick up to-go orders.  The restaurant was loud, both from the chatter of its patrons and a cacaphony from the kitchen, a banging of utensils against pots and the hiss of steaming and frying.  The scent of dozens of spices, heated meats, freshly chopped onions and hot sauces came together in a quilt of senses.

While many of the names on the menu had been similar to what we're used to in Chinese restaurants, the flavors here are identified as Thai.  Indeed, instead of duck sauce on the table, there were homemade condiments such as a spiky hot jalapeno sauce and bowls of sugar and five-spice, ready for application.  There was also a squeeze bottle of soy sauce.

The turnaround on our dishes was very, very quick.  Less than five minutes after ordering, we had our appetizers.  The chicken, vermicelli and vegetable filled spring rolls were massive two-handed affairs served three to a plate with a sweet-and-sour tangy sauce that was best applied by pouring directly into the roll.  They were fresh and crispy and evidently just-made.

Egg rolls came five to a plate, cigar-shaped and golden, with a deep red dipping sauce.  Hunter took to these the most, even clinging to half of one on our way out later.  In amidst the cabbage and carrot were bits of chicken (instead of the beef or pork we've found elsewhere).  Unlike the eggrolls we've previously encountered, these weren't bubbly-surfaced but smooth and flaky on the outside.

Our main dishes quickly followed -- including the house signature dish, fried rice.  The blend of fragrant rice was packed with beef, chicken and shrimp as well as the usual vegetable mix and egg, formed into a bowl before being popped onto the white platter for delivery.  For a dish to name a restaurant, they did quite well.

The pad thai came out steaming, filled with chunks of chicken.  Unlike other versions of this dish, Fried Rice's variation is pink.  Yes, seriously, pink.  I'm not certain why.  It looks odd, but it comes in a very large helping, enough to feed two easily.  Bean sprouts, peanuts and such are all served on the side.

Hunter and I tried a dish new to us -- the beef pad se-iew.  I'd never heard of se-iew before.  Turns out, it's another way of saying phat si io, or fried in soy sauce.  These big noodles matched well with the
beef, carrots, onion,
broccoli and bits of eggs, all brought together in the sauce and a bit sweet.  Hunter, of course, had to claim most of the broccoli and carrots, but all were very sweet and a little crispy on the inside.  I could see becoming addicted to this dish, and I need to find it in Little Rock.

We didn't try dessert -- as it was, we took home much of what was set before us.  But we are planning to make a return trip at some point to sample other delicacies, such as the Phat Pet (meat stir-fried with curry sauce) and the pineapple fried rice.

You'll find Fried Rice on Midland north of downtown Fort Smith, a few blocks south of the fairgrounds.  It's open Monday-Friday 10:30 a.m. - 8 p.m. and 10:30 a.m. - 7 p.m. on Saturday, closed Sunday.  Call (479) 783-7500.

Fried Rice
3758 Midland Blvd.
Fort Smith, AR 72904

Fried Rice Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Sushi Thursday - Sakura Japanese Steakhouse, Bryant.

Sushi is a very divisive food.  There are people who like it, people who can't stand it and people who refuse to try it because of their mistaken conception that sushi is nothing but raw fish.

In Bryant, you'll find a roll that may change your mind about sushi, especially maki rolls.  It contains no raw fish, is covered in steak and burns with a great wasabi spice.  And for novice food lovers wanting to try something new, I have to recommend the Distinguished Gentleman roll.

We've been meaning to go to Sakura Japanese Steakhouse in Bryant for quite a while.  Many of our friends love the place, especially during all-you-can-eat sushi times.  I've dined there before at the hibachi grill and appreciated the skilled chefs on hand.  But this trip was all about the sushi.

Grav and I went with Hunter and met our friend Leif there.  The first thing that caught my attention was the open kitchen, where hibachi orders are prepared for those who aren't interested in a show with their dinner.  Two accomplished chefs expertly fried rice, grilled meats and vegetables and plated up dishes behind a counter that could be seen from one of the interior dining rooms.

Sakura is quite large, and any time I've gone in the evening it's been packed.  There are the hibachi tables in a chamber to the right of the entrance, and the remaining space is separated into separate dining by dividers -- from the left, a large window-lit dining room, an inner room that faces the kitchen and a sushi bar with barstools and booths.

We sat in the daylit dining area and ordered up Tempura Vegetables to nibble on while we decided on rolls.  This took some time.  Sakura's
menu is 10 pages, and its sushi offerings cover half that space.  Most rolls are pictured for convenience (you can see those menus at the bottom of this page).  It took us a little while to determine the selection of rolls we'd get.

The tempura, by the way, was fantastic, and suited us well.  Hunter especially approved of the broccoli.

Leif received a well-ginger soaked salad while we waited for our rolls, and then his hibachi also arrived.  He said it was done well but wondered if he would have received a bigger portion had it been created at the hibachi table. It was gorgeous, though.

Grav, Hunter and I chose to split five rolls, and they arrived all at once.  We had chosen the Dinner Special -- three rolls for $14.95 (Lunch specials are two rolls for $9.50 or three for $13.50) and had gone with a shrimp tempura roll (normally $6.50), tuna avocado roll ($5.50 on its own) and Philly roll (also normally $5.50).  We also ordered two specialties, the OMG Roll ($9.95) and the Distinguished Gentleman roll ($14.95).

Hunter decided she just needed to claim the three roll platter, diving in and getting all but a single piece of the shrimp tempura and tuna avocado rolls.  She also decided to take on the pickled ginger, which is normally a favorite.  This time, though, she not only got a piquant wad, she stuffed most of that wad into her mouth at once and learned an important message while turning a rather rosy shade of pink.  Bless her heart.

Grav was enamored with the OMG roll, which really is, frankly, oh ma gawd.  The roll was filled with spicy tuna and tempura shrimp, deep fried and then covered in scallions, tobiko and that crazy Japanese spicy
mayo.  This roll achieved just the right balance between crispy and warm on the outside and cool and savory within.  The pieces came in a pyramid stack, just gorgeous.

But then there was my Distinguished Gentleman.

Mine, because while Grav did try a few bites and liked it, he was far more interested in the OMG roll, which left me to savor all those marvelous flavors.  Topped with sliced filet mignon (cooked to order, by the way), it's packed with spicy fried crawfish, tempura crumbles and scallions and topped with the steak and jalapeno slices and doused with wasabi cream sauce.  It's sweet, spicy, hearty, meaty, a little salty and savory all at once. It is a meal unto itself, and I was thrilled to have it.

It is certainly the sort of roll you could use to introduce yourself to what a non-fishy non-raw maki roll is like.

You'll find Sakura Japanese Steakhouse off the Alcoa Road exit on the south side of Bryant.  It's open Monday-Thursday 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and 4:30-9:30 p.m, Friday and Saturday 11 a.m.-3 p.m. and 4-10 p.m. and Sunday 11 a.m. - 3 p.m. and 4:30-9 p.m.  Check out their website or call (501) 778-9585.

Sakura Japanese Steakhouse
7307 Alcoa Road, Suite 201
Bryant, AR 72015

This article brought to you by First Security Bank. For more great Arkansas stories on food, travel, sports, music and more, visit

Sakura Japanese Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Click on menu pages to enlargen.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

14 Better Desserts To Represent Arkansas Than Red Velvet Cake.

The marvelous sweet potato pie with real
whipped cream at Wilson Cafe, Wilson.
About once a quarter, there’s another insane creation put out on a website or in a magazine, that quantifies each of the 50 states by a particular food item or idea. As you may recall, I took Thrillist to task for overlooking a heck of a lot of great Arkansas start-up chains in this particular piece. Today, my target is Slate, which has chosen Red Velvet cake for Arkansas’s signature dessert. Slate is wrong.

Mind you, I like Red Velvet cake. I really do. But it’s quite clearly a Louisiana food. We have no need to borrow desserts. We have oodles of our own.

The problem I have with lists like these is that without significant research they’re, frankly, crap. I can understand where the poor reporter who was assigned this story was going through. Chances are, this was a quick assignment that didn’t cover travel expenses. I’m sure there was some scanning of the web and some juggling around, and maybe even a conversation with other people who like to eat desserts. However, without visiting a place or knowing its cuisine, how the heck can you make some blanket determination about what sort of dessert should represent that state?

So, Slate (and fans of Arkansas food), here’s a quick list. Yes, there are a lot of pies on the list. Hello? Please comment with your suggestions. Perhaps we can educate folks everywhere about some of the glorious bounty of sweets we produce right here in Arkansas.

And no, I’ll save possum pie til the end. You know it’s coming.

Cinnamon Roll at Your Mama's Good Food, Little Rock.
Cinnamon rolls. A classic that came along long before biscuits-in-a-can, the cinnamon roll (along with fudge and smoked meats) once lined our highways with one stand after another, claiming to have the largest and best. There are still numerous amazing cinnamon rolls across the state, from the largest at Burl’s Country Smokehouse in Royal and the almost-as-large at Ferguson’s in St. Joe to the icing-less variety served with every meal at Calico County.

Chocolate rolls at Misty's Shell, Leslie.
Chocolate rolls. Searcy County in the Arkansas Ozarks has named itself the Chocolate Roll Capital of the World, and for good reason. This long-time homegrown favorite has recently emerged as a contender for great dessert across Arkansas. Similar to a cinnamon roll, its cocoa-and-sugar essence has become the must-stop food for folks traveling through Leslie and Marshall. Get yours at Misty’s Shell on U.S. 65.

Butter roll at now defunct Madea's Kitchen, West Memphis.
Butter roll.  If you have no clue what a butter roll is, I am so very sorry.  A divine combination of cream, butter and flour elevated to the highest essence of richness, it is a divine dessert you will rarely find on a restaurant menu.  Created from a biscuit-type dough rolled out, dolloped heavily with real butter and sugar and nutmeg, rolled up and baked and then smothered in more cream, sugar, butter and nutmeg (and sometimes cinnamon) and let to rest until every sweet drop is absorbed, then often topped with MORE cream, sugar, butter and nutmeg... this Arkansas delight is incomparable.

Fried pies at Rhoda's Famous Hot Tamales, Lake Village.
Fried pies. Oklahoma cannot have fried pie. It ain’t happening. Yeah, it’s sweet, the little story about the lady who fried pies. We have dozens of those stories. Our fried pies have been made in the Delta for generations.

Butter cake at Bonnie's, Watson.
Pound cake or butter cake. The first recipe my mom taught me to bake was a pound of flour, a pound of sugar, a pound of butter and a pound of eggs. She simplified this for me as a cup of flour, a cup of sugar, a stick of butter and an egg. Pound cake, or butter cake, became part of my life early on, and to this day I keep seeing it in restaurants, at potlucks and wherever. No one else has it, let’s claim it.

Coconut meringue pie at Papa Joe's, Humnoke.
Meringue pie. Generations of home cooks in Arkansas have beat the hell out of egg whites in efforts to create the perfect halo of essence over a variety of creamy fillings for these angelic pies. While Ed and Kay’s Restaurant has closed, ending decades of its fine standing with Mile High Pies, purveyors such as Brothers Cottage Café in Van Buren and Charlotte’s Eats and Sweets in Keo still serve up slices of marvelous meringue pies, from the traditional chocolate and coconut pies to caramel (Charlotte’s), peanut butter (Southern Grill, Batesville), cherry cream cheese (Hillbilly Hideout, Ozark), lemon (Neal’s Café, Springdale) and more.

Peanut butter pie at Overcup Diner, Overcup.
Peanut butter pie. We can’t claim to be the original home of Skippy Peanut Butter, but in Little Rock we make tons of it. Whether that has anything to do with the plethora of peanut butter pies offered across the state or not, I don’t know. You can find it on restaurant menus a little bit of everywhere, from Jonesboro (Gina’s Place) to Mabelvale (Three Sams BBQ).

Even Governor Mike Beebe loves Yarnell's Ice Cream.
Ice cream. Yes, I noticed that not a single one of the Slate state suggestions covers ice cream. Sure, there are desserts that contain ice cream, but none that cover the creamy goodness. So sure, we’ll claim that. We have Yarnell’s, which produces such delectable and honestly scrumptious flavors such as Homemade Strawberry, Butter Pecan and Ozark Black Walnut. Thank you, just put ice cream on that list for us now.

Lemon icebox pie, Skillet Restaurant, Mountain Home.
Lemon icebox pie. How can there not be an icebox pie on this list? The simple, easy to make marvel should have made the list somewhere, and as many cooks who delight in this cold confection as there are, let’s choose to name it a source of Arkansas pride.

Watermelon. I realize that yes, this is a fruit and not a created dessert, but WATERMELON.

How can you deny watermelon as a great dessert after seeing this face?

Chocolate chess pie at Alley Oops, Little Rock.
Chocolate chess pie. Virginia can lay claim to chess pie… after all, it’s just pie… but we’ll take the credit for putting chocolate into that baby and baking it up. Impossible to resist, simple to make and a frequent guest on restaurant menus all across the state.

Blackberries on the vine, Faulkner County.
Blackberries in sweetened condensed milk.  Another item you will never find on a restaurant menu, this simple yet decadent sweet is well known to kids who have grown up in rural Arkansas.

Pies in general. There is no other state that reveres pie like we do. And we do it so well and in so many different combinations: PCP (Pineapple, Coconut, Pecan), Dang Good (Pineapple and Coconut), Bourbon Chocolate Pecan, Tang (yes, the astronaut drink), grape, Grasshopper (chocolate mint), old fashioned
Chocolate and coconut cream pies at the Ranch House
Restaurant, Harrison.
fried (cocoa-sugar-butter filled), lemon-coconut, Black Bottom, blackberry, cherry cream cheese, Dreamsicle, strawberry icebox, strawberry cream, strawberry cream cheese, baked strawberry, peach, peach cream cheese, peach-blackberry, blueberry, Turtle, Almond Joy, caramel apple nut, Karo nut, sugar pecan, sweet potato, chocolate pile, chocolate cream, chocolate chocolate chocolate, possum pucker, raisin, shoo-fly, pecan, oatmeal, cushaw, four-layer, toasted coconut, caramel, coconut pecan, Bradley County pink tomato, chocolate caramel cream, brown sugar, egg custard, hot fudge, walnut, pineapple cream, banana cream, lemon custard… I could go on all day. Pie belongs to Arkansas. We are the pie state.

Possum pie at Stoby's, Russellville.
And of course, that brings me to possum pie. I direct you hither to more. Or to the book Arkansas Pie: A Delicious Slice of the Natural State. This one eponymous pie has been seen all over Arkansas and appears in menus across the state. It’s simple (here’s the recipe). It’s definitive. It probably should be considered as the state dessert, in my opinion.

What do you think? Have a better choice for Arkansas’s definitive dessert? Share it, please.

For this piece, I did my best not to duplicate other desserts listed in Slate's article.  There are a lot of other Arkansas desserts that could be considered, including but not limited to: pecan pie, apple pie, hummingbird cake, chocolate gravy (more of a breakfast item than a dessert), Earthquake cake, dutch oven cobbler, strawberry shortcake, sweet potato pie, apple dumplings, peach cobbler, strawberry shortcake, strawberry cobbler, mayhaw jam on biscuits (also another breakfasty thing), banana pudding, coconut layer cake, Pig Lickers (chocolate covered bacon), Ozarkies (more of a candy than a dessert), peanut brittle (same thing), cream pies and plain juicy, syrupy peaches.