Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Say, Have You Tried The Uncle Roman at Steffey's Pizza?

Not to retread followed paths again, but I have to come back to my favorite pizza in Arkansas. More beloved to me than ZaZa's Forager, Damgoode's Artie or even Rod's Lil Heifer, comes the Uncle Roman at Steffey's Pizza, a double-crusted stuffed pie baked in a 12” cast iron skillet. And though I've written about it before, by gum I'm going to write about it again, because it's been nearly four years, and because you should know the history of the place.

Yes, I already shared that history in my second book, Classic Eateries of the Ozarks and Arkansas River Valley. In case you missed it there, here 'tis again.

Back in the 1950s, Glen Steffey was stationed at Fort Chaffee, where he was assigned the position of baker. Between Fort Smith and Delmont, PA he developed his very own crust and sauce recipes, and he opened the first Steffey’s with his wife Ruth there in 1963. After a few years she decided to be a stay-at-home mom and he decided to pursue a career as a truck driver, so they shut the place down. But Glen really enjoyed making pizza, and within a few years they were making and selling pizza out of their basement a couple of nights a week.

The trucking business started slowing down in the area in 1980, and Glen went to Stiegler, OK to work. He went one day over to Lavaca to visit his friend Don Ray, and something about the area convinced him he was meant to be there. So he moved the whole family down – and in 1981 opened Steffey’s Pizza. Glen eventually taught his daughter LeAnn the recipes he’d developed, and today she operates the place with her husband Shayne and daughter Briar.

Steffey’s Pizza started out in a location west of the current store before being moved downtown where it thrived for a couple of decades. The new store opened in 2008. It’s clean and homey with four big pizza ovens exposed in the kitchen that’s right in front of you when you walk in the door. There’s a game room with a pool table, an old fashion Horwitzer jukebox (that plays for free) and arcade to the left, and a dining room featuring tables lit with lights ensconced in cheese graters to the right.

There are many pizzas available at Steffey’s with all sorts of toppings. There are sandwiches, big sub sandwiches baked in the ovens. There are nachos and breadsticks and salads. But all these pale compared to that one specially featured pie in the middle of the menu.

The Uncle Roman hasn't always been on the menu — it was something that was put out on the buffet early in the week on Monday through Wednesday that caught on. Because it takes an extra 15 minutes to cook, the folks who run the restaurant were afraid it wouldn't catch on. But people are understanding when they see that direction on the menu to expect a longer cook time. There’s just one size for the Uncle Roman, and you choose the toppings. It’s cooked in a cast iron skillet between two parmesan-dusted crusts, sauce and cheese gluing the whole mess together.

Since my first visit there four years ago, we've dropped in -- Grav more often than I, since his family's in the Fort Smith area and it's close by. Has it changed? Well, today Steffey's sells some really cool tie dye shirts advertising the place, but it's still pretty much the same -- an arcade room to
the left when you walk in, a giant dining room to the right.

This time around, we decided to change up our Uncle Roman order, going for a filling of beef, mushrooms and green olives. It was a hit. It was such a hit that neither of us could eat more than a slice and a half. But that works -- because a visit to Steffey's always means breakfast is taken care of for the next morning. Sometimes lunch, too.

One thing I don't think I mentioned before is that ranch dressing accompanies the Uncle Roman. This is a little unusual, but with that cornmeal-
dusted crust, it totally works.

Lavaca may not be on your direct line to get from anywhere to anywhere else, but it is a great place to visit and this is a pizza you really have to try. The recipe may be in the book, but the real experience is in downtown Lavaca, and you owe yourself a trip.

Steffey's Pizza
627 West Main
Lavaca, AR 72941
(479) 674-2300
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Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Good Grub at Grandma's House Cafe in Winslow.

I'm a sucker for a good piece of pie. Having several pie options will always get my attention. All-you-can-eat pie? I've just fallen off my chair.

There is, among other things, an actual pie buffet at Grandma's House
Cafe in Winslow. The little place has been around a long time, but it hasn't always been Grandma's House. Except it has. Wait, what?

See, back in 1991, Ernestine Shepherd opened the Blue Bird House Café right next to a scenic overlook on US Highway 71. Being on the east side of the road, its clientele often included Razorback fans heading north on game days. After all, Highway 71 was the busiest way to get from Little Rock to Fayetteville back in those days.

The richly blue painted building drew drivers off the road for good country-style vittles. For ten years it was a staple, but bad health forced Mrs. Ernestine to close the place down in 2001. The traffic drawn away by I-540 when it opened in 1999 didn’t help matters.

Eventually Mrs. Ernestine decided to put the Blue Bird House Café up for sale – and she had a buyer right off the bat – her own daughter, Elaine Bowlin. Elaine and her husband Jerry renamed it Grandma’s House Café, under the idea that Elaine wanted the place to feel like eating at your grandparent’s home. They painted it gray and they've had to expand it a couple of times.

The Bowlins serve up the foods of the Ozarks four days a week on a classic country-style buffet – breakfasts of baked ham, fried bacon, sausage, eggs, fried potatoes, biscuits, white and chocolate gravy and pancakes cooked to order. Lunches are also buffets and they come with a variety of possibilities, including ham, pan fried chicken, chicken fried steak, meatloaf, pork chops, barbecue chicken breast, meatloaf and some of the best chicken and dumplings you’ve ever had in your life. You’ll always find mashed potatoes, cream gravy, green beans, corn and brown beans, and amazing yeast rolls.

I dropped in at Grandma's House Cafe one Thursday afternoon for a sustaining meal before a long trip. It was about one in the afternoon, and if there had been a rush, I sure didn't see it. I took a photo of the view before going in. Though the season meant no leafy trees in the valley below, I found beauty in the blues, grays and browns of the undulating hills beyond.

Just inside the door, I was greeted fondly by a hostess who directed me to sit where I like. She suggested a table for four, a lace-covered round dinette beside one of the front windows. She also directed me to have what I wanted from the buffet, unless I really wanted to look at a menu. I had no idea Grandma's House Cafe ever offered a menu, but I wasn't even tempted. The buffet looked good.

The offerings for the day were plentiful -- with both fried chicken and chicken dressing, meatloaf, mashed potatoes, three different types of gravy, peas, beans, corn, squash, fried cabbage, bright yellow squares of cornbread, green beans and so many other good things. There was also a small salad bar, a station for hot rolls and of course the pie buffet. And even with all that, there was in the corner a stand where a cobbler and a chocolate cake stood.

It's very overwhelming to decide on what to eat at Grandma's House Cafe. Much like the family dinner at Thanksgiving, the choices are widely varied and there are big spoons everywhere, and what is one to choose? Unlike at commercial big buffet operations, the setting here with all its ancient china cabinets, linens, mismatched chairs and quaint family heirlooms encourages one not to waste food. Maybe it gives one the idea that someone will admonish them for not cleaning their plate?

To be honest with you, the variety of foods is not what I recall encountering at either of my grandmothers' houses, except on holidays and the occasional Sunday lunch when a preacher had been invited to dine. I suspect if I had been exposed to so much food at that point in my life, that I might not have exited adolescence and have died happy from too much amazing and rich food.

I dither.

I selected some of my favorites and a smattering of other things, collecting them on my plate and then putting a salad together in a bowl. I went simple, with a salad of lettuce, tomato and carrot with blue cheese dressing. My dinner plate was quickly filled with a fried chicken leg and thigh, a
small piece of meatloaf, mashed potatoes with white gravy, fried cabbage and chicken dressing.

This food's the sort of stuff you should be getting from time to time at home, or at your parents' or grandparents' home. If you are deficient in such vittles, a visit to Grandma's House Cafe is in order. The fried chicken had that great buttermilk and flour flavor, where someone actually took the time to carefully place each piece in a hot skillet and turned it when it should be turned. The meatloaf was nice, compact and with the proper amount of ketchup on it (it may not have been my favored honey-cumin-brown sugar-ketchup combination, but I can live with that). And oh golly, I really needed the buttery fried cabbage -- it's been so long. I should fry cabbage at home, but it tastes far better than it smells sometime.

And here's where I have to get onto Grandma's House Cafe. See, there's the chicken dressing. My grandmothers, neither one of them, made dressing like this -- but my mom does, and I have never, never, NEVER encountered it elsewhere. I want to know who coerced the recipe out of my mother, because dang it, that was my birthright to have it FIRST, right?

The chicken dressing would never be mistaken for that strange Yankee concoction called "stuffing." This is a proper dressing with bits of sage and parsley and other herbs amongst the cornbread crumbled into its liquid base. Okay, so maybe Grandma's House Cafe isn't using grits like my mom does, but it's DANG close.

If I didn't mention the pies now, you'd wonder if I'd taken ill or if someone else had snuck into this blog. The pies... of course the pies are magnificent. They're all homemade. And I don't mean thrown into a commercial pie crust. I actually overheard kitchen conversation about taking the crusts out of the oven before they got too dark. This particular day's offerings included a no-sugar-added apple pie and a variety of cream pies -- coconut, peanut butter, chocolate, pineapple and cherry, each topped with an ample light, frothy meringue.

 I went with one of my favorites there, the pineapple cream, and a bit of the cherry cream. In both cases, these were real cream pies -- no cream cheese here. The rich, eggy, decadent custards provided perfect balance between buttery crusts and light meringue tops, the pineapple incorporated throughout in its slice, the pie cherries floated atop the custard base on that slice. I wanted some chocolate and some coconut too, but I have just one stomach and that just wasn't going to happen.

My kind hostess actually came by as I was daintily trying not to eat both half-slices of pie and suggested I try the chocolate cake, since it had come out very good that day. I had to resist. It was so hard, but I did.

There were perhaps a half a dozen diners in the restaurant while I was there, but I saw few of them and heard little, thanks to the cavernous stretches of dining room that extend to the back of the cafe and out to its side, twice. But I do recall visits to the Blue Bird House Cafe when I was younger on game day weekends, and I suspect on such weekends today, even with all the seats available, it'd be standing room only.

The buffet is $7.75 during the week, $8.75 on Saturday and $9.45 on Sunday... and the breakfast buffet is $6.95. Do be sure to take cash, since Grandma's House Cafe does not take plastic. And do give yourself plenty of time to eat, because there's no rush at this lovely little place.

Grandma's House Cafe
21588 South US Highway 71
Winslow, AR 72959
(479) 634-2128
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Monday, March 2, 2015

Quick Bite: Barbecue and Graffiti at Roadside BBQ.

Graffiti is usually considered an act of vandalism.  At Roadside BBQ at Proctor, it's considered the height of decor.

The red-and-white shack a block from Interstate 40 welcomes all comers
looking for a bite to eat.  Once you duck through the front entry (it's just six feet at the front eve), a long chest-high counter spreads out across the mid-section of the place, with a window into the kitchen beyond.  And on every available surface -- walls, floor, even the ceiling, there's graffiti.

A Foursquare user even says if you mention it's your first time there, they'll tack a dollar bill to the wall in your honor.  Well, we didn't do that.  We ordered our lunch and had a seat.

There weren't many people in or through, which was strange, since it was noon on a Friday.  We'd noted the Hot Tamale signs when we pulled up, Grav lamented forgetting that fact.  He had asked for barbecue pork instead.  We sat across from each other checking messages we'd missed while we were on the road, the hum of a high-powered shop heater being the only music in the air.  The lovely woman who'd taken our order brought us oversized Styrofoam cups of iced tea.

Everywhere we looked, there was graffiti, mostly in black magic marker or Sharpie, a few places hard to read scribbled in ball point pen.  There were phrases I didn't understand in Spanish, inked cartoons and caricatures, hollers out to Moline, IL and Nashville, proclamations of love and
several "wuz here" listings. At Roadside BBQ, diners routinely join an encouraged act of vandalism that serves as decoration & design. We did not add to the editorial fray.

A bell rung, and our tray was ready, two clamshell boxes, two forks and a handful of brown paper napkins.  Grav claimed it and brought it to the table.

Inside his was a small pile of sauce-drizzled pork, a toasted bun, beans and potato salad -- nothing more or less unusual than any other place we'd ever dined at that had advertised barbecue.  The sauce, Grav said, was good but the meat was very plain, without the heavy amounts of smoke
and rub we've become accustomed to.  The mayo-mustard potato salad was pretty good, though, and the beans were decent.

I had a completely different experience.  From the moment I opened my box I was smiling.  I had spotted an
Arkansas-unusual side item straight out of Memphis -- spaghetti.  This pile of sauce-swamped noodles were very soft.  The sauce itself was a straight tomato red with more than a hint of sweet barbecue to it, along with almost fine particles of ground beef throughout.  This was a real treat.  I not only ate the noodles, I dipped all the crispy fries in them as well.

My pile of beef brisket was similarly drizzled, but here it worked.  Unlike what I've encountered at other places, the fat was obviously not trimmed before smoking, and the flavors from the fatty crust blended throughout the meat.  I was very satisfied, even having it on a toasted buttered bun without even a hint of coleslaw.

We didn't go for dessert (we were on our way across the South and didn't have much time to stop) but I did note the enormous slices of yellow cake on a rack by the register.

Roadside BBQ
196 Arkansas 147 (one block south of Interstate 40)
Proctor, AR 72376
(870) 733-9208
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Sunday, March 1, 2015

Quick Bite: Drunken Noodles at Sala Thai.

I could use this post to waft wind into the eternal fires of my soul set by my ever-developing rant about Vietnamese food in Arkansas, specifically the idea that Little Rock has very few place that serve pad Thai, yet in both Fort Smith and Fayetteville there are places where you can find four or five Thai restaurants in a square MILE.

In Fayetteville, one such area exists south of Dickson Street, where you'll find Taste of Thai on the square, Thai Express down the hill to the south, Sala Thai a few blocks down and Thep Thai just a little further
on. Each has it good graces.

This quick bite, though, was at Sala Thai, a little mom-and-pop style Thai diner (not to be confused with Thai Diner, another Fayetteville Thai noodle shop) not far from university and not the least bit fancy. This is the sort of joint you just stumble into after an evening of running around, where one collapses into a puddle at a plain table to be doted on by sweet ladies who bring you tea and keep checking to make sure you still have a pulse....

wait, let's talk about the food.

The menu at Sala Thai, like at Thep Thai down the street, is a book, with a load of combinations of noodles and rice and sauces and curry and meats and tofu, all of which are hard to comprehend when one's head is pounding and one's feet are sore.

A good bet is to start with the fried spring rolls -- which, turns out, come in either chicken or vegetable portions. The dark rolled cylinders
come piping hot with a translucent sweet pinkish sauce topped with finely minced garlic. Within the sauce was a tiny spoon, perfect for dolloping the sauce directly into the rolls. It was slightly spicy and somewhat sweet, similar to a Chinese duck sauce but thinner and more pungent.

A couple of young ladies came in and claimed a table. One was apparently a regular; the other had never been. Recommendations came flying at her, and at me, in quick succession. Though I was already sold on the palative powers of a good pad Thai, I quickly changed my position when I heard her mention "the Drunken Noodles are the absolute best thing in the world."

That sounded like a great unsolicited opinion, so when my hostess returned, I asked for Pad Kee-Mao (the given name for Drunken Noodles) with beef as its protein. I also wienied out and got it mild (one star) instead of higher on the five star range.

What came to me was a burgeoning dish of flat rice noodles, swamped in an aromatic brown sauce and crowded with broccoli florets, slivers of red and green bell pepper, crinkle-cut carrot spears, bamboo shoots, big pieces of Thai basil and pointed lengths of ginger. And one bite reminded me immediately of beef Stroganoff, a texture and
base that continued to press on my mind later that evening. Of course, every bite of ginger or basil wiped the thought away, only for it to return strongly moments later as I let the brothy sauce relax me.

Half of it went into a box for late consumption. When the box arrived, my hostess had already prepared a small white paper sack and a cup of the sweet-spicy sauce for the remaining spring rolls. Hours later, still exhausted but craving the meal, I awoke to find myself eating the remaining Drunken Noodles straight from the Styrofoam with my fingers.

The menu, as I mentioned, is a book at Sala Thai, but I will have a hard time ordering anything else again. Drunken Noodles really are the best thing in the world, or at least, an amazing creation from within those diner walls. I'll be back.

Sala Thai
701 S. School Avenue
Fayetteville, AR 72701
(479) 575-9311
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