Wednesday, December 26, 2007

A simple goodness even Eric Clapton would enjoy.

Or, maybe not. It is a big assumption. But there can be no talk of Layla without Clapton.

However, you won't find any memorabilia from Cream or Blind Faith on the walls at the relatively new Rodney Parham eatery... just a lot of Mediterranean options on a simple one page menu.

Layla's Restaurant, Grocery, and Halal Meat Market opened quietly a few months ago in the space formerly occupied by Eureka Pizza, across from the car wash near Treasure Hills. Friends of mine, fans of the fabulous Greek Food Festival, have been encouraging me to try out the restaurant for months -- but my travels have kept me on the road and away from Little Rock.

Yet, on a Friday evening in December, I found myself hungry for a gyro. So my traveling companion (my husband) and I headed over to the store.

The restaurant itself is spotless... with ruddy red walls adorned simply with abstract pictures. The creamy peach colored tile has been patched together where walls were removed and reconstructed with the new restaurant. Chairs are covered in blue, tables are a lovely marbled gray, and a long counter lines the west wall. This night, we were the only ones around save for a genial gentleman and a quiet lady, cooking up a storm.

We were directed to take a seat, wherever we wanted to. We chose a spot by the wall so we could observe. The gentleman behind the counter came out and answered our questions about the dishes. We perused a wide variety of ethnic dishes, calzone and pizza, before deciding on more adventurous fare.

While we waited for our meal over large glasses of very flavorful iced tea, we watched as our meals were started up from scratch. Yes, it took a while to prepare. But that was okay. We shared tales of our day as our dinner was created.

A family of four came in and sat at a nearby table. From the accents, it sounded like they weren't from anywhere near the South. A quick conversation confirmed that they were from Great Britain, where Mediterranean fare far outstrips the Olive Gardens and such around America. They were regulars. They chose a selection of calzones and appetizers from the menu.

I went and peeked around at the grocery section... there aren't many items for sale, but what's there is well organized. In another room, another lady worked on butchering meat in the hilal fashion.

Shortly after I returned, our food arrived, along with our host and his many questions. He checked with us over and over again to make sure we had everything we needed.

And boy, did we. Our dinners were palates of artistic color. My traveling companion's Kafta Kabob was enticing. Two lengths of spiced and grilled ground beef graced a generous pile of seasoned rice. They were accompanied by a grilled vegetable selection of sauteed onions, squash, zucchini, carrots, and pepper. The Mediterranean salad was lettuce chopped fine with a vinaigrette, chunks of tomato, and tiny bits of olive. The salad was just the right balance between savory and tangy, and the vegetables complimented the kabobs well. The spicy kabobs are heavy on the parsley, and come with a cool yogurt sauce for dipping. The whole plate ran $8.50.

I would have envied my companion's dinner, but I was blessed with the gyro plate. Instead of the meager offerings I expected, I was greeted with a large pile of meat and a complex selection of accompaniments. The tabbouleh, all green and gorgeous, is heavy on the lemon and parsley -- almost too much parsley for my tastes, but well balanced when taken with a bit of the tangy marinated onions. The hummus? Perfect -- without the vinegar wang of store-bought products. I haven't had such a good tzatziki sauce in years -- full of onion but not overwhelmed with it. The pita was fluffy, and the gyro meat itself packed with flavor and fork-tender.

It was a bit much, though... to the point that I was calling for a take-home box before I was at the halfway point. But for $8.50, I ended up with two sizeable meals of great Greek food... can't beat that.

Layla's sells a variety of other items, including hefty calzones that run in the $6.50 to 6.75 range, and nine inch pizzas that are about $6 each. You can also choose to have your gyros and kabobs as pita sandwiches for $5, and there's a half pound burger for those who must have American fare. There are also the other staples of Greek ethnic food available: hummus, baba ghannouj (baked eggplant puree with tahini and spices), salads, and tabbouleh.

If you get the chance, run over to Layla's for a bite for lunch or dinner. It's located in the Treasure Hills Shopping center at 9501 Rodney Parham. Call ahead and order if you wish -- that number is (501) 227-7272. They're open from 11am to 8pm Monday through Thursday, til 9pm on Friday and Saturday and from noon to five on Sunday.

Monday, December 24, 2007

The Fudge Will Go On.

An update on a previous story:

On Saturday the 22nd, the Pickle Barrel Fudge Factory and Snack Shop cleared out and closed its doors.

But this isn't the end for great fudge at the popular stop.

For decades, people have been stopping off at Pickles Gap to peruse the neat memorabilia and souvenirs, and to take home a chunk of sweet, tasty fudge. In the early years, Ralph and Janis Mack made the fudge in addition to owning and running Pickles Gap Village. But eventually, it
got to be a bit much, and other fudge makers came in to practice the art.

Earlier this month, I happened to be passing through and found out from a talkative store clerk that the Fudge Factory was shutting down. I asked why, and she shared that the lady who ran Sweet Temptations -- who made the fudge -- had a great business now making all sorts of fudge for all sorts of people. And running the store day-to-
day was more than she needed to handle.

The potential loss of fudge along Highway 65 was a bit of a shock to me. For years, I'd passed Pickles Gap on my way hither and dither, and stopping in for a sample and a block to take home. As an adult, when I needed a unique gift to
send to someone, I'd stop
in and pick up some fudge or have them send it off for me. It was a great way to do things, and the prices were reasonable.

We swung back through on the 22nd to see if we could determine the fate of things... but it was busy. The lovely lady
who made the fudge was there, and was telling us about one gentleman who orders 300 pounds of fudge a month, just to send over to Iraq for our soldiers there. That's cool.

We loaded up on fudge and headed out to a family gathering.

Not having a definitive answer, I decided to go directly to the source today and find out. I gave Janis Mack a call... and found out, to my delight, that fudge will continue. The popular confection will still be sold at Mack's General Store -- right across the parking lot from the old Fudge Factory. There's no danger of it going away, thank goodness.

What's more -- Mrs. Mack is looking for someone new to come in and take over the old shop. She has a vision for the business, and I think it's a good one. She thinks it'd make a lovely tea room, and I couldn't agree more. Imagine -- a highway oasis, where one could nibble on sandwiches and drink flavorful beverages before meandering over to the other neat shops in the Village. That'd
be just dandy.

Because there are really neat things to see there. In addition to Pickin' Porch Music and the knife and card shop, the General Store is just a great place to pick up all sorts of Arkansas things. And it's not just jams and
jellies, though I did pick up a bunch of those to send off to friends (the miniature jars are just 69 cents!). It's all sorts of cookbooks, local products like jerky and Juanita's peanut butter brittle and candles, Red Hat lady stuff, quilts, and mugs that inform you that Conway is between Pickles Gap and Toad Suck (doesn't sound weird to us, but it does to others!). There's all sorts of unique
handmade jewelry, Coca-Cola merchandise and John Deere memorabilia. And there's always something going on in the back, a seasonal room where Christmas stuff is currently on display. In fact, if you're looking for that particularly special gift that just screams "Arkansas," this is definitely the place to find it.

One way or another, know that the fudge is safe and sound... and that you can still find it at Pickles Gap.
To get there, just head north from Conway or south from Greenbrier on Highway 65. It's on the west side of the road, in a hollow. You can also find out more by checking out the website or calling (501) 327-8049. And if you're interested in helping out with that dream the Macks have for that tea room, better call double-quick.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

A block of Malvern.

Ask some about Malvern, and they'll tell you it's the home of Acme Brick. Others will say it's a place to stop on the way from point A to point B.

But downtown Malvern offers some interesting possibilities.

One December afternoon I found myself a couple of blocks off the intersection of Highway 67 on Highway 9, just a block and a half from the big rail bridge. I decided to get out and take a look around.

The building that caught my interest was the old Ritz Theater. It's taken a little remodeling over the years, but is still housed in the same building from years past. Unfortunately, the box office doesn't open until late in the evening.

Just west of the Ritz are a couple of buildings and a lot. The building on the corner announces itself as the Main Street Soda Fountain, which sounded great. But my dreams of a chocolate phosphate were dashed when I walked up to the darkened front door and noticed the For Sale sign.

The side of the building bears a massive two story Coca-Cola advertizement. I remember seeing this when I was a kid. I wonder if it's been retouched some... it's still clear after all of these years. The sign proclaims to all passers-by that the popular beverage is sold everywhere at the bargain price of a nickle.

Up and down the street, the old fashioned light posts are adorned with all manners of Christmas and holiday cheer. Some of the posts have seen obvious wear, and lean a bit one way or another.

I crossed the street and started looking into storefronts. There's a thrift shop on the corner with all manners of clothing and dishes inside. I passed on it, and strolled down further.

A couple of doors down is an attorney's office, nestled in an old bank building. How can I tell? Oh, maybe the big stone archway
that still proclaims the building's original purpose. The gray granite is striking against the deep red bricks.

Next door, there's the Picket Fence, a consignment shop that carries a variety of antique and craft items. I went in for a look, and came out with a remarkable scarf of many colors that my husband immediately claimed when I got home!

Past the Picket Fence, there are several empty buildings. The construction looks fine, but the businesses here petered out, for whatever reason. There is a gym housed in one of the units.

Down the block and on the other corner, is a pharmacy. Miller's Drug Store appears from the front to be your average, run of the mill store from the outside.

But step within, and you're transported to an art deco age unblemished by time.

A giant cashier's bureau huddles against one wall, its scrollwork lightly guilded, the big bureau pinned between glass and wood cabinets for cosmetics and colognes. Before it, displays of all sorts, including alarm clocks still encased in their 80s plastic.

Two rows of fluorescents light up the store, illuminating the deco headings on the wood toppers to the cases. On the east wall, drawer after drawer conceal the little items that make a drug store run. There's everything you could expect here, from analgesics to heat wraps to candy for the kids. Every area is clearly labelled for your perusal.

Straight back is the pharmacy counter -- which has been in use since the 20s. Three generations have run this drug store, and little has changed. Patient prescriptions are still held in the little boxes along the west wall cabinet, each in precise alphabetical order.

Miller's Drug Store started out in the late 19th century in another facility. It was moved here during the 20s and hasn't moved since. Unlike other places that might have felt compelled to keep up with fashion, the decor hasn't changed.
If it wasn't for the newer products here, you could mistake this for stepping back in time.

Back by the pharmacy, there's an odd display of old toys and knicknacks -- a metal play horse, an old truck, rubber figures -- displayed right along
with antique packages of hair nets and rain hoods. They bear the wear and tear of toys, not collectibles, and I could just picture what it was like to have children playing in the aisle, rolling toy cars along the lower shelves.

And halfway back up the west aisle, there's an honest-to-goodness bottle vending machine from decades earlier. I remember using this exact sort of vending machine as a kid -- dropping in change, opening the door and grasping my selection by the bottleneck. You can even still see where people who didn't know how to properly use the bottle opener splashed soda down the front.

The old drug store is far from full. Many of the shelves are empty, and some of the merchandise is ancient. But the whole place is neat as a pin. It's obvious that the pharmacy is what drives this store and keeps it open.

And that's amazing. Just a block down the street, a Wal-Greens has moved in. With its commercial selection and drive-thru, you might think the store isn't long for its days. But the folks seemed to be determined to keep on going.

I spotted this old postage machine on the cashier's bureau. The better deal was apparently to get the five 5 cent stamps for a quarter, rather than the two four cent stamps for a dime. The "sanitary" notation comes from a time when dispensing from a machine must have seemed more civil than taking stamps from some postal clerk.

Outside, I took a closer look at the tile facing. There's a neat octagonal window that lends light to the staircase leading to the upper stories, but I couldn't tell you if the top floor is in use.

There are more empty shops along the way, along with a home decore store and a taekwondo academy. An electronics shop stands quiet and dark next door to the Ritz, full of all sorts of TV and stereo equipment that may be obsolete.

The Ritz Theater has shows at 7:30 nightly within its single 700 seat theater -- and sometimes a second show. It's closed on Mondays. I found out that the theater was opened in the 30s, and someone told me it had been for sale on eBay, but it's open now and seems to be in good order. The theater's phone number is (501) 332-2451.

Miller's Drug Store is at 231 South Main Street. It's by far Malvern's oldest pharmacy. You can find out more by calling (501) 332-2351.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

One Stop Shopping in Donaldson.

In big cities, you have Wal-Mart Supercenters. In smaller towns, you'll find Fred's or Family Dollar or Dollar General.

But in Donaldson, you'll find the Donaldson Country Store.

Highway 67 bypasses this little section of life with an overpass that takes drivers over the rail line. Most of downtown Donaldson has dried up... but there's still this little bit of life along the trackfront.

Good thing, too. This handy store has more stuff than you can imagine.

Walking in on a December Wednesday, I noticed a pack of regulars sitting at a table at the far end of the store. They nodded my direction, and went back to their conversation. I asked for permission to take pictures, and got a chuckle and a sure! go ahead!.

Within the store's aisles, you'll find all sorts of neat stuff. Paper products and Brillo pads share an aisle with car necessities. A big bin of nails and screws anchors the west wall. Nearby, all sorts of handled instruments, including gigantic snow shovels (in Arkansas?), rakes, and brooms.

Aisles bear yard signs, flour, and plumbing odds and ends in all sorts of shapes and sizes. I passed from aisle to aisle, gathering in the view of a fine spread of items you might find at a well-equipped mega-store. There might not be all that many of each item on display, but the variety was compelling.

I even managed to find galoshes... big overboots to wear in mud. They shared an endcap with gloves, machetes, axes, insect repellent, and flashlights.

Above the ice cream freezer and cola fridge, there's a brag board, featuring many of the local deer hunting heroes with their prize kills. Picture after picture taped up to the wall, featuring a guy or gal with his trophy, proudly seated in the back of his truck, complete with name and date.

Talk about one stop shopping. In addition to the wide variety of items for sale, the Donaldson Country Store also sports a proper lunch counter, complete with fine selection of lunch meats and a daily special. The store is open for breakfast and lunch, with a complete compliment of Southern staples.

The meats and cheeses are displayed with honor, the bologna and turkey and ham all properly and tightly sealed with plastic wrap, accessorized with fake ivy and cutting boards.

The eating experience isn't limited to sandwiches and biscuits, though. On each table, there's a bottle of ketchup, a bottle of hot sauce, and something I haven't seen much of around -- pickled okra. Free for the munchin' with your choice of the day. I saw several of the regulars knoshing on the tart, slimy wonders while I was there.

I was very surprised to see, featured next to the Karo syrup and local favorite Autrey's honey -- something out of my childhood. I remember my grandfather soaking biscuits in Johnnie Fair syrup and a bit of margarine, and the sight of the syrup here sparked the memory.

To get to the Donaldson Country Store, take Highway 67 to Highway 51 in Donaldson and head east. Turn left after you cross the railroad tracks. It will be on your right.

A couple more interesting notes -- though the street is a ways over, there's a stop sign at the corner of the store. No good explanation for that at all.

And there's one item outside the store that's a rare and dying breed -- an actual pay telephone. Seeing it here reminded me of how few I've seen lately.

Catch this story, along with other Tie Dye Travels, on by listening to the Tie Dye Travels podcast.