Monday, February 23, 2009

A Preference for a Favorite.

Over the past couple of decades, Greater Little Rock has been inundated with lots of new Mexican offerings. But there’s one restaurant I keep coming back to.

It is human nature to choose favorites… and while I have endeavored to keep a clear mind about the places I have been over this journey, there are places that when I am home I return to, like a homing pigeon to its coop.

And when it comes to Mexican fare, I tend to return to Casa Mañana.

I remember when it wasn’t so popular, when it was a little restaurant stuck in an old Taco Bell location near UALR off of Asher. It was 1995, and I was recently out of college and on my way into my radio-to-television transition. We were scrapping to make it, of course, and any sort of good deal that could be found was grasped with both hands and utilized well.

Casa Mañana fit that bill, even then. My meager paycheck could usually squeeze out a visit or two amongst the rent and bills us young folks tended to have. And I could always count on leftovers to take home with me.

Of course, as many of us are wont to do, I moved away and grew up, and so did Casa Mañana. The folks that operated it opened new locations here and there -- and were on-board for the Little Rock River Market -- a dream when I left, a reality when I returned in 1998.

And they opened a location on Cantrell -- which is now the flagship location for a menu that has kept a lot of its charm while growing and expanding a pleasant repertoire.

Human nature also makes us creatures of habit, and for many many years my husband and I would end up with the same plates -- for him, the impressive Casa Mañana burrito (sans guacamole for him, $6.99 with or without), for me the Crab Enchiladas ($7.99). Sometimes we defer and go with one of the delicious combination plates (the Number Nine -- chicken burrito, chile releno, and beef taco with rice and beans for $7.99 at dinner is often ordered) but we tend to stick with what we know.

However, it is also in our nature as human beings to improvise and experiment, to try new sensations and experiences. So on a Thursday afternoon in January, we decided to drop by and try out dishes we’d never considered before.

Early afternoon is always a good time to go (so is late morning -- the restaurant opens at 10 a.m. during the week and 9 a.m. on the weekend). There weren’t many people inside at the time, and those that were there were merrily conversing away in Spanish.

We were greeted, of course, with the traditional bowls of salsa and fresh chips. The chips, of course, are housemade; the salsa as well, redolent of red bell pepper and cilantro and cumin, quite mild and easy on the mouth, the sort of salsa even the most delicate of diners could manage. Usually we also go with the cheese dip as well, white with its light dollop of spices -- but decided to pass so we could indulge in dessert later.

After some discussion, my husband decided to go with the Puntas Enchiltepinadas ($8.99), strips of beef cooked with pico de gallo and dried chiles. I decided on the Mole Poblano ($7.99), which seemed like a real departure from my normal choices. What the heck.

Our waitress quickly brought us out our starters for dinner -- a large salad for my husband, a hot bowl of tortilla soup for me. The salad was an impressive pile of shredded lettuce and chunks of tomato, overwhelmed by dressing (1000 Island). My soup, though, was a dark and delicious delight, a rich tomato and vegetable broth with crispy tortilla strips and a huge scattering of white cheese, the sort of thing you crave on cold winter nights.

Our waitress was ever attentive, as always. We tend to get rather good service -- one of the reasons we keep going back -- though from time to time there is a bit of a language barrier. Some might find this frustrating; not us. There’s never been a time when we haven’t been able to overcome it, and the few times servers have misinterpreted our orders the problems have been quickly resolved.

My husband also decided to go with the traditional American accompaniment to Mexican food, the lime margarita ($4.75, $3 during happy hour), by some accounts one of the best you’ll find in Little Rock. And it’s easy to see why. Unlike some area offerings, Casa Mañana’s margarita is a good blend between tequila and lime. The liquor doesn’t overpower the drink. It’s a great balance between sweet and salty, and a fine accompaniment for dinner.

Our dinners shortly arrived, along with rice and bean sides and a good number of hot, soft tortillas. My husband ranted over the taste of his Puntas, so I also gave it a shot. The spicy meat brought tears to my eyes -- they aren’t kidding when they write “Hot” twice on the menu to describe the dish. The meat takes the spice well, and retains its meatiness without being salty like such dishes often are.

My bigger surprise came with the Mole Poblano, though, which announced itself to me first through scent. Compared to your average rice-and-beans-and-cheese aroma that greets most diners in Mexican restaurants, I could smell the chocolate and bananas and nuts in the sauce. The taste, however, was something far deeper -- almost a history in a bite, with chiles and raisins and other delicious things partying about. Such a strong and powerful sauce might overwhelm some dishes -- but with the well-flaked and hearty portion of chicken it covered, it made a fine dish. And laid out on a tortilla with rice, beans, and a little sour cream, it achieved ethereal heights for such an earthy and delicious dish. Of course, the little spicy kick that decided to announce itself a few moments after a swallow was welcome, too.

Far too many times desserts are overlooked, but at Casa Mañana they’re proudly displayed in their own menu on each and every table. While we’re both fans of the Flan and dig the Sopapillas, there’s one dessert that’s especially meant for sharing -- the fried tube-like Churros. Six fried pastries filled with a little crema are drizzled with chocolate and caramel, sprinkled with a cinnamon-sugar blend and topped with whipped cream. Eat them with a fork or your fingers, doesn’t matter… the light crunchy pastries are as big as your forefinger and a little bigger around than your thumb, and they’re the perfect little finale to a dinnertime performance.

The taste of Casa Mañana can be experienced elsewhere -- at Casa Mañana Taquiera in the River Market or at La Palapa, the Mexican seafood place out on Highway 10. But we still find ourselves heading to the location on Cantrell Road catty-corner from Stein Mart.

If it’s warm, check out the deck out back -- a nice hidden oasis that peers out over the valley below. Smoking is allowed on the deck, but not inside.

Casa Mañana can be found at 6820 Cantrell Road in Little Rock. You can call ahead to place an order if you wish to (501) 280-9888 or check out the restaurant’s website.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Home Cooking, Capitol View.

The Arkansas Legislature is in session. Lawmakers are coming in from all over the place to make the policies and decisions that will continue to affect us for years to come. Certainly not the sort of thing you want to tackle on an empty stomach.

But choices within view of the Capitol grounds are limited. And chances are, it's not going to be easy to get in and get out in a hurry in these sort of places. That's what makes Madea’s Delicious Home Cooking so good -- it's good food, it's quick service if you want quick service -- and it's right there just blocks from the state's seat of power.

My traveling companion and I ventured there on a Thursday afternoon in November on the recommendation of my best friend and my mother. Can’t go wrong with recommendations like that, can you? Both had been telling me for some time that I needed to check out this little spot off Woodrow that only the locals knew about.

So we went.

It didn’t take long for us to find the eatery, even though we overshot 7th Street the first time up Woodrow (someone’s taken the street signs at that intersection). Doubling back, we found the little restaurant in an unassuming building at the southwest corner of 7th and Appianway -- complete with derelict ancient piano outside. The smallish restaurant seemed humble -- but the cars in the lot did not. A selection of vehicles worth far more than my own were pulled up like noble horses tied to wait outside the establishment.

On entering, we were told to sit wherever we want, and this being the first coldish day of the year I found myself drawn to a table right next to an old fashioned gas heater on one side of the room. No sooner had we sat down than a young woman came and asked for our drink orders.

The menus were a surprise -- simple sheets of white paper obviously rendered off someone’s computer printer first thing in the morning. The complexity of the menu surprised me -- with such offerings as fried chicken, smothered pork chops, and something called a Zack Attack. But one item on the menu got my curiosity right from the get-go -- the Smothered Rabbit ($7 with two veggies and bread choice). I went for it.

My traveling companion saw a listing for “Light Lunch” and went for that… boy, was he surprised!

Our food orders were taken by one Madea Jeffrey, the proprietor and soul behind the restaurant. She deftly answered my questions and, when I asked about the food we were about to be served, offered me a cookbook to peruse while we waited. The cookbook, by the way, is on sale for $10.50, and from leafing through it seemed to be chock full of good advice and home-style recipes.

We were a little late on our lunch, not arriving until nearly 1 p.m., but the restaurant was still more than half full. At the table next to us, two well dressed men argued about whether it was worthwhile to finish lunch and ache later or to stop where they were. I noticed before they left they did their best to clean their plates.

Other customers came and went, and I noticed a young man who diligently appeared and cleaned each table as it became vacant. He also checked on us several times to make sure we had plenty to drink.

Didn’t take long for our entrees to arrive. Madea brought out our plates separately -- first my traveling companion’s lunch -- a plate with a grilled piece of tilapia situated among wedges of tomato, egg halves, carrot sticks and cucumber slices, and another plate with a couple of dark pieces of pumpkin bread. He was asked what sort of dressing he’d like for his salad -- and chose Thousand Island.

My plate arrived right on its heels -- and surprised me -- three rabbit quarters breaded and drenched in a dark roux gravy on a plate with peas and a bowl of white beans. Honestly, I wasn’t expecting so much food!

And this is really where the home cooking shines -- in these simple yet hearty dishes. My rabbit was hot and falling off the bone. Some folks don’t like to tackle rabbit because there are bones everywhere, but it didn’t matter here. The meat flaked off with a generous dose of its gravy and breading, and tasted of care and gentle cooking over hours of time. There was no rush put into making this creation. The white bread roll offered with the rabbit was the perfect sop for the dish.

I found the white beans to be on the salty side, but not from the expected ham or bacon. Instead, soft translucent pieces of onion floated in the white bean broth. The peas, which had obviously spent much of their life in a can, were mash soft and reminiscent of dinners at the house when I was a kid.

My traveling companion’s tilapia was a buttery surprise, completely soft yet well done, with a good and thorough seasoning that went well without being overdone. The veggies were a nice choice instead of a traditional salad and easier to manage. But it was the pumpkin bread that truly amazed. Instead of the soggy, overly sweet breads many restaurants serve up around the holidays, this firm offering was buttery and slightly salty, a hearty ingredient of its own to add to the mix. I could have lived on that bread alone for the day.

The problem with large home cooking portions is that you don’t have much room left for dessert, so we had to pass. Which is a shame, since I really wanted to try out the 7-Up Pound Cake on the board for the day. Other offerings included Red Velvet Cake,. Coconut cake, sweet potato pie, and something on the board named “What You Call It” cake. Desserts are just $2 and are already sitting out on the counter on Styrofoam plates, wrapped in plastic. If I’d been thinking I’d have grabbed one to eat later.

I did notice quite a few locals come through and order from the hot bar to take with them. Indeed -- it seemed like about half of the clientele chose to pick up and depart in this manner. That’s all right -- it left more room for us to enjoy our meals and relax a bit.

Madea’s is only open for lunch Monday through Friday in the Capitol View neighborhood. Don’t let appearances fool you; I’ve paid four or five times as much for similar dishes at fancier restaurants that didn’t taste half as good. It’s open from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday (and Friday is catfish day!) and you can check out the day’s menu at the restaurant's website.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Dig That Diner.

Nearly 69 years old, The Pancake Shop is still flappin’ jacks and offering a great traditional Southern breakfast cheap and with a smile.

I grew up with an idea of diners that came from prime-time TV. Diners were a world where waitresses wore matching uniforms, where chrome barstools and Formica-topped tables were the norm, where the coffee was always hot and the eggs always cooked to order.

Yes, I thought all diners were like Mel’s Diner on Alice.

When I got older, I didn’t see that when I went out for breakfast. Oh, sure, Waffle House has uniforms and coffee, but it’s not the same. Waffle House doesn’t evoke thoughts of a community, or warm feelings about the past. It wasn’t until years later that I’d find the place that met my mental image of a diner.

When I think of a place like Mel’s Diner, I think of The Pancake Shop.

No, I’ve never heard a waitress there tell a customer to kiss her grits, and there’s no grumpy cook hollering at folks. But the food is good, it’s decently priced, there are regulars that come through on a schedule, and you won’t find a better cuppa joe in Hot Springs National Park.

This isn’t some fly-by-night Johnny-come-lately trendy joint trying to take advantage of nostalgic tourists. The Pancake Shop has been a Bathhouse Row fixture since 1940. It had been located at 133 Central Avenue (where the Downtown Hotel & Spa is located today) for many years, as Mason’s Pancake Shop. Later it was bought by the Conway family of Chicago and moved across the street to its present location. Tom Ardman and his wife Ruth ran the place from the sixties onward, until Tom passed away in 1980. Ruth kept up the fantastic service and drew in even more customers. She died in 2004, but her daughter Keeley DeSalvo and Keeley’s husband Stephen still maintain the business and its great record of good food at decent prices.

I’ve had lots of chances to become acquainted with the eatery. I’ve visited many times over the years, and during my TV days even had the opportunity to bring in the morning show I worked on for a morning. The staff was splendid, opening up at an ungodly hour to allow all of Hot Springs to come in and meet our anchors and enjoy a good breakfast.

And that’s the thing -- TV news anchors are just regular folks here. So are just about every sort of celebrity you might imagine. Lots of folks have darkened the doorstep -- including generations of horseracing’s finest, musicians of the like of Liberace, and who knows who else. No matter the magnitude of your own shining stardom, you’ll always get the same warm welcome.

On my most recent visit, I arrived after the morning rush. I ordered my usual, iced tea, which was served up strong with a handful of Sweet & Low packets and a chunk of lemon in a bowl. I looked up and saw the smiling countenances of my former anchors on the wall, right alongside Barney the Dinosaur. Well, you never know what sort of company you’ll end up keeping when your face is peering down from a wall.

The Pancake Shop’s big thing is breakfast, and that’s what you come to order. The choices are simple -- pancakes, French toast, breakfast meats, eggs, and omelets, drinks and fruit. Almost everything is served with toast, and toast is served with grape jelly and apple butter in individual services. Apple butter is so extraordinarily Arkansan, and it’s so fitting here.
It's very easy to over-order here. But that's okay, there's no hurry. The furnishings are straight out of the early 60s -- Naugahyde beige benches, green cushioned wooden chairs and melamine topped tables. Locals and celebrities also have eaten here look down. Pictures obscured by large flourishes of autographs and thanks. Lots of horse racing memorabilia, too.

It’s just one more item that’s normal here, where it might not be normal elsewhere. You can have any meat you want, as long as it’s pork -- but there’s also lots of fruit and juice choices. Where else can you get bananas and blueberries, stewed prunes, or grapefruit? Oatmeal, cream of wheat, or cereal? Your choice of five types of toast? Buckwheat pancakes? Buttermilk or chocolate milk? These are the staples of a good Southern breakfast buffet, yet here they’re all available and for a reasonable price. And yes, there are grits.

My favorite? Banana pancakes -- real bananas in the batter, too. Pancakes are thick, hearty, and the size of a dinner plate. One is enough for a side, two for a complete breakfast -- yet it’s not unusual to hear a neophyte order a stack of three and see the same customer give up halfway through his food. Gargantuan gobs of grub, indeed.

Another favorite -- because you never can just have one -- omelets, fluffy and fresh with a hearty offering of American cheese. Some folks want to add in things like ham or sausage or sautéed onions in theirs -- I like mine simple, and could dine on just omelets with glee.

It may sound like I’m in love with the restaurant. Perhaps I am. There’s just something about the simplicity of a place where the most expensive thing on the menu is Ham Steak and Eggs ($7.85). And where the wait staff still refers to customers as “sir” and “ma’am,” not in that smarmy way that teenagers sometimes manage but with the honest respect that good businesses try to foster.

The Pancake Shop is open every day from 6am to 12:45pm. You’ll find it across from the Arlington Hotel at 216 Central Avenue in Hot Springs. Check out the restaurant on-line at or call (501) 624-5720.

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