Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Lost To Time - Browning's Mexican Restaurant.

Browning's Mexican Restaurant as it appeared in the late 1950s.
I'm a Little Rock girl, but my Little Rock memories barely contain anything of adventures to Browning's Mexican Restaurant in the Heights. That may seem a sin to those who regard its influence as a classic amongst Arkansas restaurants. In my defense, I was young, I grew up near Casa Bonita, and when I reached adulthood Casa Manana appeared close by.

But yes, even I have memories of a Saltillo platter at the old standby.  I think that, for a certain set of Little Rock resident, it was something you had to do at least once.

Today, the Heights Taco and Tamale Company opens in the space that housed Browning's for more than 60 years.  I'm sure you've seen the previews... somehow, I didn't make the cut to get in early, but when I do enter the doors as a paying customer, I'll share my experiences.  Before I do, though, I should note the restaurant that managed to imprint itself on Ark-Mex cuisine.

Cheese dip and salsa at Browning's Mexican Grill, 2012.
That cuisine has been a part of Arkansas culture for more than 80 years.  We have good records of Little Mexico, the Donnelly's place in Hot Springs.  You'll remember me talking about Blackie Donnelly, the Irish guy who took his wife to Mexico and brought back the spices they used to create the world's first cheese dip (don't worry, he brought her back, too).  Little Mexico was one of the to-go places for an Arkansas translation of Mexican dishes back in the 1930s.  In West Memphis, Pancho's came along in the 1950s.  In Benton, there was El Cena Casa.

John Tom Browning.
In Little Rock, Browning's started serving in 1946. John Browning and his son-in-law, Boyd Montgomery, opened its doors shortly after the end of the second World War.  It changed hands a few times over the years, but up through the early '00s it managed to maintain a certain flavor and atmosphere.

Ark-Mex food is different from Mexican fare and from Tex-Mex, too.  Ask anyone who's spent a great deal of time in Texas and visited "Mexican" restaurants both here and there.  Cheese dip is a
Boyd Montgomery (on left).
curiosity to those folks.  They don't understand it.  Tex-Mex restaurants put more cilantro and lard in their dishes.  They include more barbecue and chipotle, lots of dry rub and chorizo, and goat is available in some places.  Tamales are pork, often from a pig's head. Chips tend to be thinner.

Ark-Mex food has evolved around the inclusion of cheese dip.  It tends to utilize more pintos than black beans, darker American and Cheddar cheeses instead of white or Mexican cheeses.  Tomatoes are a big part of the equation, fresh and in the salsa.  Tortilla chips are thicker, and there's a prevalence of tamales that include chicken and beef in addition to pork.

When that interpretation was still being worked out, abominations were created.  For some reason, some of our restaurants here never got over the idea of smothering everything, and I do mean everything, in yellow cheese. Casa Viva, the inferior short-lived successor to Casa Bonita, was accused of using Campbell's Cheddar Cheese soup over its enchiladas.  There were waves of interest in different things... nachos in the late 70s, fajitas in the late 80s, quesadillas in the 90s and the fish taco in the 21st century.

Browning's menu from 1949.
Browning's did cater to a lot of that, even from the very beginning.  Its original Browning's De-Luxe Mexican Dinner included a guacamole salad, chili con queso, a meat or cheese taco (the meat being ground beef), enchilada, tamale covered with chili con queso (also all beef),
Interior in the early 1950s.
fried rice, fried beans, with toasted or plain tortillas.  It also came with bread or crackers, a dessert and a choice of hot or iced tea, Coca-Cola or coffee.  It was all of a grand sum of $1.75.

There were many other things on the menu, as you can suspect.  Don't think this putting an egg on everything idea is
One of the original wall murals painted by Mallie Vena.
new... the 1949 menu offers eggs on enchiladas.  There was "spaghetti or rice con chicken," an appetizer of celery and olives, the three layer "Chef's Special Clubhouse" sandwich, pimento cheese sandwiches and a large selection of steaks. fried chicken, fried oysters, ham steaks and the "LIGHT-MEATY-
Vic Slater once cooked at Brownings.
TASTY Chilled Shrimp Plate" as well as individually fried White River catfish, lobster and peach halves stuffed with cottage cheese.  It even served breakfast.  Browning's, after all, wasn't just a Mexican-esque restaurant; it celebrated Arkansas foods as well and threw in the kitchen sink for good measure.

The famed Plato de Saltillo.

And yes, even on that first menu, there's the Plato de Saltillo, the dish the restaurant would be best known for, a meat taco and meat taco and enchilada, smothered in cheese and served with tortilla chips.  Back then, it was only a buck.

A flyer from 1976.

As the years went by, the restaurant expanded.  Do you recall the location out on Baseline, or on McCain in North Little Rock, or on the "New Benton Highway?" Do you even recall the New Benton Highway?  There was also El Patio on University, which was within my range (yes, my friends, I am originally an 09-er, and if you know what that means, you know what it means) for us to enjoy that pureed "salsa" sauce with yellow chips in a bag that would always develop grease spots.  The Browning's flavor, after all, did make it out of the Heights.

For a city and even a state that remained secluded and mysterious to the rest of the world, Browning's was a treat.  Once the doors opened, and men like Sam Walton, Bill Clinton and the Stephenses managed to get Arkansas spoken of in terms that didn't include "hillbillies," things changed.  Our palates
The Mexirrito, my go-to dish from Browning's.
changed.  And by the dawn of the 21st century, places like Browning's were having a hard time of it.  The restaurant closed in 2010, only to be purchased, renovated and reopened and eventually fail again.

I noticed on the menu for the new Heights Taco and Tamale Company, amongst the offerings, the Plato de 1947.  It includes enchilada, taco and tamale... but it's no Plato de Saltillo.  No, my friends, that sounds like it may be lost to time.

Then again, Scott McGehee, John Beachboard and Russ McDonough's Yellow Rocket Concepts has managed to bring back other original flavors.  Of note is Local Lime's Taco Kid Tuesday, which revives many of the popular items from the old Taco Kid.  Perhaps, once Heights Taco and Tamale Company encounters its first few weeks of customers, we'll see a revival of the dish most associated with the old Browning's.

One way or another, the Browning's known by generation of Little Rock natives is gone for good, only to remain in the memories of those who congregated at its tables.  If you'd like to take a trip down memory lane, the restaurant's last owners have left a Facebook page active that includes many photos from the eatery's early days.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Taylor’s Steakhouse in Dumas is Dry Aged to Perfection.

If you manage to get down to Dumas and are looking for an epic dinner, head west out of town on Highway 54 until you see a set of stores that appear to be an old grocery store. Inside that plain interior, you'll find what might be the best steak in all of Arkansas, at Taylor's Steakhouse.

Charles and Dorothy Taylor opened Taylor’s Grocery in 1954. The original shotgun-style country house was pretty small, but it functioned like a traditional country store, a place to buy dry goods and foods and share a little gossip. In 1961 the Taylors moved the operation a quarter
mile closer to town into a larger building. They sold that store in the 1970s and opened up a third spot – and in 1983 the fourth moved happened, placing the business where it is now, far from the outskirts of Dumas.

Now, I mentioned grocery store. Taylor’s has always been a place to get a bite. Country stores often had a back counter and a kitchen, and you could pick up a sandwich to take with you when you picked up your bait for fishing or were heading out to the farm.

The 1983 opening of Taylor’s included not only groceries but sporting goods, bait, tackle and just about anything for living in rural Arkansas. It did so well, that Chuck Taylor (Charles’s son, who had by this time been working the grocery store quite a while) opened a liquor store adjacent to Taylor’s (local ordinances did not allow liquor stores and grocery stores to share the same building).

“My mother has always made barbecue. We’ve always done barbecue,” Chuck Taylor says. “You know, when the grocery store sales declined, we branched out and bought equipment and started doing hamburgers and po’boys and the lunch thing, sandwiches and fried fish, shrimp, oysters… and then it started to grow, so we started taking out grocery shelves, taking out sporting goods and adding tables and chairs for people to eat.”

That little spot on the road from Dumas to Monticello started to pick up steam.

“We started out with two tables, and lunch just took over. We became full of tables – we still sold chips and drinks and stuff like that, knick-knacks,” Chuck shares. In fact, Taylor’s cheese dip took on a great deal of notoriety, with people dropping by to pick up dip to take home. The restaurant even developed a big burger called the Double Bertha, which folks would try to eat in one setting.

But burgers weren’t where the Taylors wanted to stop. Chuck and his wife Pam had plans.

“It’s always been our ambition to do a nighttime restaurant. So we started planning on it. We have a daughter in college now. We wanted to get her out of high school because she had activities at school – she was a majorette and we went to all the football games. We kinda held onto the lunch thing until we got her graduated. I perfected my recipes the whole time, for porterhouse steak, crawfish enchiladas, the whole time we knew we were going to do this.

“Once we got her graduated, we let the liquor store license expire and took in the liquor store as part of the restaurant,” Chuck continues. “We connected the two buildings, remodeled and started doing the night thing (in October 2012).”

Chuck Taylor worked out his dry aging process over the years. While he’d always worked with the grocery store and liquor store, he made a living by supplementing with other jobs –as a cook in a duck lodge during fall and winter, surveying rice levies in spring and summer. “I started aging beef on a commercial scale when I worked a year at the Yellow Dog Lodge,” Chuck says, “I studied up on that while I was doing lunch, too. I got that perfected, I hope.”

Taylor’s steaks have quickly gained renown, not only for their flavor but for their size. Kansas bone-in ribeyes and T-bone steaks run 25-28
ounces. There’s also a 31-25 ounce Porterhouse steak for two. Once the day’s supply is gone, they’re out. There are other great dishes, such as that crawfish enchilada plate and two different lush versions of bread pudding. Of course, there’s the cheese dip. “Our cheese dip is legendary. That’s one of our claims to fame,” he chuckles.

So, with all that history, you're probably wondering about the dining experience. Within the tin-clad walls at Taylors, you'll be seated at a table, either a traditional table in the heart of the restaurant, or one of the
large party tables to the left of the entrance, which are afforded a great view of the dry aging steak facility.

There are many steaks on the menu, but the night we went, Grav and I chose to split the Porterhouse for Two. It came with salads for both of us with
homemade dressing (I chose blue cheese), two side dishes (we chose asparagus and grilled zucchini, bread and butter. These were all ample servings, but they didn't come close to matching the massive slab of meat presented to us.
We ate it down to the bone.

No, literally, DOWN TO THE BONE.

The steak was absolutely magnificent. It was perfectly spiced and needed nothing to improve it. It was cooked close to rare (or, as I usually say, medium rare, closer to rare) and it glistened. There were angels singing when this came to the table, though the tune was more likely to have been O Fortuna from Carina Burana than the Hallelujah Chorus.

Taylor’s has also become known for a magnificent pair of bread puddings – including a chocolate version that often runs out. Many order theirs with their meal so they won’t miss out on the popular dessert, since it takes a while to cook. The Arkansas Delta has its share of great bread
puddings, and this chocolate beauty deserves high ranking amongst the best.

You may be wondering, how does an upscale restaurant manage to make it in deep, rural Arkansas? “Anytime you step out of the loop of interest, as I told my wife
Pam, you realize that you had to draw from a lot of different areas," Chuck Taylor says. "You can’t just make it on Dumas. The food has to be excellent. And it is, and we draw from everywhere – Little Rock, Texarkana, Mississippi, Fayetteville… the Panola people have come up from Louisiana. We’ve had a Saturday night where everyone in here was from DeWitt or Stuttgart. Pine Bluff, Monticello, you name it. People come, they love it, they say ‘we will be back.’ That one person might tell ten people, and they come and they go tell 10 people. It’s kinda like a chain letter, word of mouth is the best thing there is.

“It’s kinda like Field of Dreams,” Chuck tells me, referencing the Kevin Costner movie. “You build it, they will come. Yeah, it’s a dream of mine to do this, but it might become a nightmare, too,” he laughs. Something tells me with the great product he has and this growing restaurant, Chuck Taylor is going to be laughing all the way to the bank.

You’ll find Taylor’s Steakhouse on Highway 54 west of Dumas, headed towards Monticello. It’s open Thursday 5:30-9 p.m. and Friday and Saturday 5:30-10 p.m. The official address is 14201 Arkansas 54, Dumas. Call ahead if you wish at (870) 382-5349.

Taylor's Steakhouse on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Fighting Words About Stubby's Bar-B-Que and its Sauce.

When the random person anywhere in the United States is asked about barbecue and Arkansas, particularly barbecue from Hot Springs, you know what they're going to say.  But there are other barbecue joints in the Spa City, and one of them has been around more than 60 years.

Back in 1952, Richard Stubblefield Sr. started slow smoking pork, beef and chicken over fragrant wood over at 1000 Park Avenue.  He was a master of the hickory pit, smoking up ham and ribs, pork butts, briskets and whole chickens. The sauce conjured at the restaurant was sweet, thick and mild and the customers just kept on coming.

Mr. Stubblefield sold out to the Dunkels from New York in 1977.  Mr. Dunkel worked for a short while for Coy's Steakhouse, and he got to talking with Stubby and they made a deal.  The Dunkels opened a second location in 1978 along Central Avenue just south of Oaklawn Park -- which remains the restaurant's key location today.

Susan Dunkel is still involved in the operation today, but it's her son Christopher's shop now.  Still, people keep on coming in, and there are locals and Arkansawyers who frequent the city who say Stubby's beats everything else by far. And while I have been blessed with the gift of Stubby's sauce (which is available in retail stores and by mail order), I hadn't been back there to do a story since I started this blog.  It's time to remedy that.

I dropped in one Wednesday morning before opening time and sat in my car waiting.  By the time the doors opened, the vehicle had been permeated with the amazing, fragrant scent of hickory smoke and roasted meats, and I was dying for a tasty bite.  Even arriving early, I was about fourth in line through the door to push a tray through the line and pick up what I wanted.

Inside the case on that line, one can view shiny, smoked black butts and briskets next to vats of beans, sauce and shredded meats.  The outside "skins" of the smoked meats are black thanks to the tomato in the sauce -- these meats are doused, swabbed, rubbed, wiped with that magnificent sweet sauce during the smoking process, and if you're in it for flavor, you'd be smart to ask for a bit of the "crust" when you place your order.

Though I dallied over the thoughts of a jumbo shredded beef sandwich, I changed my mind after reading the menu board. Turns out, everything -- and I do mean everything -- is affected by smoke in the place.  Not only are the meats smoked in the hickory pit - the potatoes are as well, big red-skinned potatoes used for potato salad and for the gigantic potatoes available for stuffing. The beans, legendary in their own right, come from a big bean pot at the bottom of the pit, which is the beneficiary of the dripping juices from each of the animals whose flesh is smoked there... sadly, this means I cannot eat them, but every other person I know who's endeavored to try Stubby's reminds me of the masterpiece I am missing.

There's also the matter of the quality of the meat.  I have been informed that the hams are the pride of Arkansas themselves, right from Petit Jean Meats in Morrilton.

There are three degrees of potato: the smoked pit potato, which comes with butter and sour cream; the stuffed potato, which comes with beef or pork and sauce; and the supreme, which is a potato stuffed with meat and sauce, beans and slaw.  I went for the middle and asked for a stuffed potato.  I was asked if I'd like one lump of butter or two (one would do, I reasoned) and then I watched as the gentleman behind the counter ripped brisket from one of the husks of meat behind the glass and shoved it inside the potato.  Sauce was ladled over the top, and the whole mess was handed to me.  I also opted to try a couple of deviled eggs while I was at it.

The sheer heft of the potato became evident to me when I took that plate.  It was likely two pounds of potato and meat, far more than I had expected.  I was handed a packet of sour cream and sent down the line to the register, where a lovely woman rang me up.

Within the walls at Stubby's, everything is remarkably clean... surfaces are carefully lacquered without a hint of greasy buildup.  This is quite unlike most barbecue joints I have visited, where conditions range from cleaning attempts made to greasy walls to... well, to the
point where one closes one's eyes and tries not to look towards the kitchen for fear of what matter of animal or ash might lurk beyond.  Stubby's, while decorated eclectically with a hundred different license plates, aged signs from around the area and other decorations, is neat as a pin.

I know Stubby's burned a few years back... in 2007.  As sometimes happens in barbecue joints, the fire got away from the pit and ate the place.  But the rebuild, from the outside, simply looked as if someone hit rewind and then threw a fresh coat of paint upon the place.  There's no real change.

Still, you are wondering about the food, as well you should.  I had to take my photographs, of course, and all the time the sweet and tangy scent of ketchup, sugar, vinegar and spices from that sauce taunted me.  I wanted to drool.  I wanted, actually, to lay lips to the potato's filling and slurp, but there were other customers, and I was dressed nicely, and heaven forbid someone get a photo of THAT.  No, moments such as that are reserved for standing in my own kitchen with no witnesses to be found.

The deviled eggs, I sadly found, were very good for someone who likes a lot of mustard and dill flavor to them, which I do not.  They were good examples and should not be criticized for my particular tastes.

The potato, though, once I managed to break out of my reverie and adequately
document the mammoth shoe-sized spud, was a delight.  The brisket was smoky, tender, moist but not too greasy, with little crusty bits of that sauce-swabbed
outer crust that were just heavenly.  The sauce, sweet and thick, clung to the meat and the potato better than ketchup and with such a rich and full flavor... you know, I could eat the sauce on a bun and be quite happy, meat or not.

But the real surprise was
the potato itself, with its permeated woodsy hints of flavor.  This perfect vessel... well, it's a two person job to properly respect this spud, and the folks at Stubby's will not fault you for asking for a box to take home the half you cannot bear to ingest for fear of gastronomic puncture.  It's big, it's hearty, it's tasty... you should share.

I was wise this particular day.  I asked for the box early on, thanks to the pan I had noticed when I was at the register.  There's one food item that doesn't go into the pit at Stubby's, and that's the peach cobbler.  It goes into the oven and then it's scooped out on a plate or in a bowl for individual consumption.  Rich, buttery and a little crusty (I LOVE the crusty cobbler bits), speckled with canned peaches, it's an old school dessert for an old school restaurant, and I cannot imagine anything else being served.

As I mentioned, the sauce at Stubby's is available a whole lot of places, or online at the restaurant's website.  And applying it to your own smoked meats is a good call.  It's a very good sauce.  But I still think you're not going to get the whole effect until you get down to Hot Springs and have yourself a plate or a potato packed with smoke-soaked meat doused in that thick, sweet sauce.  Get yourself down there and try a bite.  And then make your own decision about what might be Hot Springs' best barbecue.

Stubby's Hik'ry Pit Bar-B-Que
3024 Central Avenue
Hot Springs, AR 71913
(501) 624-1552
Stubby's Bar B Que on Urbanspoon

Thursday, April 9, 2015

The Hollis Country Store, since 1930.

Alongside Scenic Arkansas Highway Seven, in one of the more remote sections of the Ouachita Mountains, sits a classic community store made of local stone. At first glance, one might think the place is old and lost to time. But no, the Hollis Country Store is still in business.

The original building was constructed not long after Arkansas renumbered its state highways to comply with the then-new Federal Highway Administration back in 1926. The store was opened to serve the resident of Hollis, a mountain community named after Hollis Britt Aikens, a Union soldier who served in the Civil War. A year after it first started serving residents, construction began on the structure we see today - a sturdy and everlasting single story structure created from layers of mismatched rocks and mortar with an overhang porch. It was built by Mike Gross and William "Bill" Furr. Gross, a country doctor, operated the store and the local post office, which was south of the grocery. Electricity came from a Delco generator housed in a shed behind the building.

The store was sold to Dennis and Lillie Crain in 1940. They lived in the back of the building and their children grew up there. Their daughter Gulelma and her husband Loyd Hawks took over in the 1950s, and the store was expanded with frame additions.

When Dennis Crain died in 1980, Lillie Crain sold the store to their son Harold and his wife Louise. In 1989, they sold it to Loyd and Gulelma Hawk's son Berl and his wife, Connie. Berl died in 1999, but Connie still runs the store to this day.

The site is up for historic preservation. You can read more about its history here.

On our trip up Scenic Arkansas Highway Seven during Spring Break, Hunter and I spotted the store and looped back to check it out. There's really not a whole lot between Jessieville and Ola on this stretch of highway, just a series of Ouachita Forest trails and picnic areas and a whole lot of gorgeous views.

The first thing I noticed when we got out was that there was a truck out front... and a gentleman operating the late-1960s era gas pump. I haven't seen one of these in operation in years.

Hunter wanted a snack, and I was willing to oblige her, so I opened the old screen door and we went in. Before us were three well-laid-out aisles stocked with almost anything you might need, from soup to laundry
detergent. A counter sat to the left, and a small kitchen stood to the back right.

Hunter immediately gravitated towards the chips stand, and she perused the selection while I looked around. I haven't seen a store like this in ages, but recall many set up like this when I was a kid. There was everything available, including fishing equipment and bait, motor oil and baking supplies.

What really caught my attention was an ancient cooler alongside the north wall. This ancient double-sided cooler was marked Top Mark Refrigerator Company of Blytheville, and it had shelves in it for storing meats and cheeses. It's still being used for this purpose. It was packed with Petit Jean Meats bologna, peppered loaf and ham along with red wax cheese and some lettuce and tomatoes, jars of pickles and mayonnaise and tubs of mustard and butter. There were also individual packages of cheese and bottles of chocolate milk for sale.

Hunter chose a bag of Cheetoes puffs and I paid at the register, and we were back out the door. I made a note to add it to my travels, and caught Hunter at the old fashioned pay phone out front before we left.

Our stop was quick, but we'll be coming back to learn more. One thing I have learned since is that the place is up for sale, along with the three bedroom, two bath house out back. There's no cell phone signal, as far as I could figure, and it's a good stretch to anything close, but it's a lovely oasis, a throwback and a historical landmark, and I would suspect with all those folks who use Highway Seven to get from Russellville to Hot Springs that business is good. Here's a link to the listing, if you are interested.

And if you want to keep up with the Hollis Country Store, check out this page on Facebook.