Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Star of India, Where Sami Always Knows Your Name.

Mention Indian food in Arkansas, and chances are the name “Sami Lal” will come up. That’s because no matter how long it’s been since you darkened the door of Star of India, Sami will remember your name. Doesn’t matter if it’s been a week or a year, what you were wearing at the time, or even if you were hugely pregnant one
time and then manage to sneak a night out without the baby the next time. He will remember you.

Sami’s a memorable guy -- but so’s the food. Curries, vindaloos, biriyanis -- if it’s listed on the menu it’s
pretty much a sure bet. Of course, I could be biased (disclosure: my friends threw my baby shower at Star of India. What can I say, they know me well).

When the hubster and I go, we usually knock out an order of Kachumber Salad ($2.50) between the two of us -- tangy marinated bits of tomato,
cucumber, and green bell pepper that is the perfect hot-weather cool-off. He usually has a Taj Mahal beer (“You can take two beers home with you!” Sami will remind you) while I sink decadently into a cup of hot milky chai. We’ll share a Keema Naan ($2.95) full of lamb or an Onion Kulcha ($2.75), a flatbread filled with
ghee-sautéed onion bits. And we dig on the papadum.

We’ve become such regulars that the hubster has his own dish, Chicken Vindaloo ($12.95) served up “Paul Hot,” enough to make me cry and make him sweat. I tend to go on the milder side with a Chicken Tikka Korma
($12.95), with Tandoori roasted chicken in a smooth and creamy almond sauce. Biriyanis also speckle our order history.

Recently I gave the Vegetarian Delight ($12.95, including coffee or tea and kheer) a whirl. The Navratten Curry was
especially good, but I also rather enjoyed the Dal Makhani and the Saag Paneer. And I didn’t have to worry about ordering my kheer extra.

Star of India is open every day for lunch from 11:45 a.m. to 2:45 p.m. and for dinner from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Call ahead to (501) 227-9900 or check out their brand new website.







Saturday, June 20, 2009

Something's Missing...

Ah, peaches. Forget the yellow-orange wedges that slide out of a can. Forget everything you know about peaches from a grocery store. Just think about the blistering heat of summer, the shade of a large tree, the tang of that first slightly-fuzzy bite, the syrupy sweetness of an over-ripe fruit, the way the juice rolls down your chin no matter how neat you are. Peaches are the first true taste of summer in Arkansas.

That's one of the many reasons I hit the road with my traveling companion and headed up to Clarksville for the Johnson County Peach Festival. The state's oldest outdoor festival was certainly worth a look-see.

And like many of the great festivals across Arkansas throughout the summer, we found people from around a community, coming together for a good time. But there was something missing this year.

It was a Friday morning, closing in on noon. We'd arrived a little too late for some of the more amusing entertainments, such as the greased pig race and the frog jumping contest. The terrapin derby had just wrapped up, and folks were starting to find their way over to the food vendors. Hawg Trough BBQ had their catering rig set up, and a couple of churches had booths selling burgers and sweets.
There was kettle corn and funnel cake and fresh-squeezed lemonade (with and without sugar), corn dogs on a stick and fried Oreos and all those lovely festival foods we wouldn't be caught dead consuming indoors or outside of festival time.
The aroma hanging over the relaxed crowd was one of satisfaction and deep fryer grease.

Vendors from around these parts had set up in carefully aligned rows on the Court Square, some hawking T-shirts and purses and jewelry, others with quilts and potholders and rag dolls, still others just handing out pamphlets and water bottles and information.

Kids were playing hard in the kids area, where giant inflatable slides and castles loomed over a lone ticket seller taking money for the right to take off your shoes and go bounce in a bouncy castle.

But something was missing.

We checked the schedule, noticed a gap, and decided to explore a bit around the nearby area. Right across the road from the courthouse grounds was Teeters Pharmacy -- at least, that's what it said on the marquee outside. We crossed the road to investigate, and discovered that a curio shop had invaded... but not entirely. Nestled among the wide range of antiques and whatnots, we found a pharmacy counter (complete with pharmacist and assistant!), a candy counter, a dish registry, and lots of neat little knick-knacks.

With stomachs rumbling (and my never-ending search for good food continuing) we walked down a bit to see what else we could find. We passed a shoe store, an antiques market, and turned down next to Fred's. No food to be seen.

We thought we'd hit the jackpot with this
little place called Joco Java that was on
the next corner. Indeed, it looked inviting
-- a two story building that had obviously
received much care, grape and
muscadine trellises overhead, a little oasis.


Sadly, strange signs greeted us, and we discovered we were looking at a defunct business -- that, for the humble price of $50,000, could be yours to "rock" the area.

Well, looked like it was definately fair fare for us for lunch. No problem.


We wandered back over to one of the stands operated by one of the church groups.

I always like this sort of stand -- the food tends to be cheaper and somehow enhanced by the humbleness of its nature.

Fried pies were being turned out of a deep fryer, and we couldn't resist ordering up a pair of blackberry.

The lady working the pies flicked a brush into a Cool Whip container, coated the pastries with something that was somewhat but not completely unlike Cool Whip, and we were handed very hot morsels of delight.

You just know when you're getting something homemade -- outside of the obvious crimping and icing of such pastries, there's that taste... that wild blackberry taste you can't replicate with pie filling.

Someone, maybe this year or the last, had hand-picked those blackberries, maybe on the side of the road or out on someone's farmland, but those berries had been obtained with scratches and bug bites and a lot of love.

I love summer blackberries.

The pies... were excellent. But yet, there was still something missing.

We went over to the gazebo for a seat and a chance to consume our pies. I watched one of the booths nearby for a while, where hair garlands and yarn puppets were being sold. Little girls clamored for the wreaths of artificial daisies.

I saw a young man "walk" a black chicken puppet across the lawn with a great deal of skill.



Another customer bought a little pink poodle puppet -- which was apparently lifelike enough to draw the attention of a nearby woman and her fine example of a miniature schnauzer.

After our soujourn in the shade, we went back out for more.

We perused a tie-dye T-shirt stand, looked over some local arts and crafts,

and peered in on the making of funnel cakes.



But still, something was missing... something essential. Our curiosity piqued, we entered the courthouse to find out what was really going on here.

And that's where we discovered the sad truth -- this Peach Festival, sadly enough, had no peaches. More than a month's worth of rain (six or seven inches' worth in some places) had delayed the crops. Peaches were still green on the trees, and it's likely to be the second week of July before the majority of this year's crop are ready.

Wow... a Peach Festival without peaches. Yet no one's enthusiasm had seemed to flag. There were still all sorts of things going on for everyone to do. I suppose it had turned into more of a celebration of the peach than anything else.

One o'clock was approaching, and we ventured out to the courthouse steps, where children of all ages were gathering. And that's where we actually saw our first peach -- a half-bin-full provided by Holben's Triple D Farms, a local operation that had sent over its first ripe fruit of the season. Yay, there would be a peach eating competition after all.

The kids were sorted into an older (8-12) and younger (under 8) age group. They each signed up for the contest and took a peach offered to them.
The rules were explained -- each competitor was to eat the peach all the way down to the pit, then hold it up. They were told that these were cling peaches, so don't be surprised if some of the yellow stubbornly held onto the pit. Heads were counted, roll was called, and then they were off! The splat of juice at the feet of competitors was barely audible over the cheers and encouragement of parents in the crowd.


In under a minute, several of the kids had held up their pits in glory.

The next heat was organized, with the younger kids.

As the rules were being explained, a couple of the kids misunderstood and started eating when "ready set eat" was mentioned -- and then they were all into it.





The younger kids seemed to go after the peaches with even more zeal... and even when the winners of the heat were declared, most of the kids continued to eat, enjoying and savoring their peaches with vigor.




One young lady was oblivious to the crowd and ate every bit of her peach, bent over to keep the juice from rolling down the front of her shirt.

The third heat began, and... well, see for yourself.





It was, indeed, a sight to behold.

Afterwards, we went inside the cool courthouse to await the beginning of the food competitions -- jams, jellies, and cobblers. It took some time before we saw the first of the cobblers laid out on a table, and we waited with anticipation for more. And we waited. And waited. And then we finally realized -- the single cobbler and single jar of jelly was all there was for the competition. The rules clearly state that the peaches used in the recipes have to come from Johnson County... and perhsps that's why there were so few entries.

The crowd that had formed around the judges table watched as the judges were interviewed -- Jennifer Breedlove, Queen Elberta 2008; Arissa Griffin, Miss Arkansas Valley 2008; and Miss Arkansas 2008, Ashlin Baston -- who told a reporter that she had better have some peach cobbler! When he mentioned that there was just one cobbler and that three of the judges were big burly law enforcement officers, she told him "I made it through 47 other girls at the Miss Arkansas Pageant; they have something to worry about."

The cobbler samples were passed around, notes were taken, the winner announced.
Hopes for more peaches were shared all around.
And this is where we left off, heading out the doors and back home. Another trip out west on I-40 is planned soon, as soon as we hear that peaches are ruddy orange and ready for picking, and we can savor that fruity delight on our own.
This was the 67th festival... and Arkansas' oldest outdoor festival gathering. I bet it will continue, peaches or not. Most years, the rain and the weather are agreeable to synching up on having the peaches ready. So they weren't this year? That's AOK.
If you'd like to learn more about the festival, peaches, or whatnot, contact the festival organizers.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Summertown, Arkansas -- Hot Springs.

There are a lot of good reasons to stay in Hot Springs this summer -- from outdoor fun on one of the area's three big lakes (Lake Hamilton, Lake Ouachita, and Lake Catherine) or at Magic Springs Crystal Falls Amusement and Water Parks -- to air conditioned action at Oaklawn Racing Park. Here's a quick rough guide to great places to eat, stay, and visit while you're in the Spa City.

Eating Hot Springs: Breakfast
Most hotels in the area offer some form of continental breakfast. And of course, what is a bed and breakfast without your first meal of the day? But if you must venture out, you’re making a mistake if you don’t try out The Pancake Shop on Bathhouse Row. Plate sized pancakes, fluffy omelets, and ham steaks grace the simple and inexpensive menu. Arrive early on festival days -- the restaurant fills up fast and you might have to wait.
Pancake Shop * 216 Central Avenue * (501) 624-5720 * pancakeshop.com

Staying near the racetrack and don’t want to head downtown? Among the area’s many chain restaurants, Perkin’s has a great variety. And the franchise’s popular Mega Muffins are easy to pick up and take with you.
Perkin’s * 3630 Central Avenue * (501) 624-5000 * perkinsrestaurants.com

Eating Hot Springs: Lunch Near The Track
Perhaps it’s the long ties Hot Springs has to its gangster history, or maybe it’s just local tastes. But the best places to grab grub near the track are of Italian flavor.

Facci’s is a longstanding tradition. A varied menu of pastas and sandwiches won’t strain your budget. And you can’t get a cheaper fill-up than the restaurant’s $2..99 spaghetti and garlic bread lunch special.
Facci’s Italian Ristorante * 2900 Central Avenue * (501) 623-9049 * faccis.com

For pizza, don’t miss Rod’s Pizza Cellar. The venerable institution’s legendary Rod’s Godfather pizza is a tribute to the pig -- with Canadian bacon, pepperoni, and pork toppings along with peppers and onions on a thick, hearty crust. Rod’s also sports one of the better appetizer platters in the area.
Rod’s Pizza Cellar * 3350 Central Avenue * (501) 321-2313 * rodspizzacellar.com

Closest to the park itself is Rocky’s Corner. The area pub features fantastic grinders (try the sausage), Chicago style pizza and cold cheap beer.
Rocky’s Corner * 2600 Central Avenue * (501) 624-0199 * http://www.rockyscorner.netfirm.com/

Not in the mood for Italian? Stubby’s BBQ is known for prok ribs that reportedly put those at Memphis’ Rendezvous to shame. A rich, sweet sauce and homemade side dishes are great food and easy on the pocketbook, too.
Stubby’s BBQ * 3024 Central Avenue * (501) 624-1552

Lunch Elsewhere
Head south towards Lake Hamilton, and you’ll find Fisherman’s Wharf. This local favorite, not surprisingly, features Southern style seafood and steaks and a legendary carrot cake served out in a building protruding above the lake.
Fisherman’s Wharf * 5101 Central Avenue * (501) 525-7437 * fishermanswharfhs.com

Out west, you’ll find the barbeque President Clinton had to have when he came to visit his childhood home. McClard’s Arkansas style barbeque comes in beef and pork, and the signature side dish is the restaurant’s own version of the tamale.

Don’t miss out on the homestyle malts.
McClard’s Bar-BQ * 505 Albert Pike Road * (501) 624-9586 * mcclards.com

Eating Hot Springs: Dinner Dining
Signature South American fare and fusion cuisine are tops downtown at Rolando’s. The colorful and bright eatery is one of the most romantic spots you’ll find on Bathhouse Row.

The shop’s legendary quesadillas and burritos levitate those normally plain offerings to a whole new level. Don’t skip Rolando’s Bananas -- the menu says they’re “Heaven in a Bowl” -- and that’s right.
Rolando’s Nuevo Latino Restorante * 210 Central Avenue * (501) 318-6054 * rolandosrestorante.com

Beautiful food can be found at Belle Arti, where Arkansas meets Italian. Handmade pastas and the best veal dishes in town paired with a formal, elegant atmosphere make this a great place to take anyone you’d like to impress. Try the tiramisu for a perfect dessert nightcap.
Belle Arti * 719 Central Avenue * (501) 624-7474 * belleartigroup.com

One of Arkansas’ few Three Diamond restaurant as cited by AAA just happens to be something of a secret as well. But you really shouldn’t miss out on Chef Paul’s. The exterior may be unassuming, but inside you’ll find elegance and extravagance with intricately prepared dishes and well-paired wines. Everything is prepared when you order from the finest and freshest ingredients available. Take your time to enjoy lamb, duck, scallops, and more, trusting yourself to the epic epicure’s fantastic creations.
Chef Paul’s * 4330 Central Avenue Suite #A * (501) 520-4187 * chefpaulsfinedining.com


*Tip*

Take your own bottles to fill at one of the many Hot Springs filling spots, like this one along Central Avenue. It's free.



Stay The Night
Planning a longer stay? Depending on your situation and the time you have to spend in town, there are several good options.

Looking to be close to the action, save a little money, but be comfortable? Check out one of the many hotels along southern Central Avenue. Among the more complete offerings: Comfort Inn and Suites. Its location at U.S. 270 (the MLK Expressway) and Central Avenue make it easy to find; an expanded continental breakfast buffet takes care of your first meal of the day, and businesses on the premises take care of your basic needs.
Comfort Inn and Suites * 3627 Central Avenue * (501) 623-1700 * choicehotels.com

If you’re more concerned about making your racing days luxurious, try out the Embassy Suites and Hotel. The hotel offers spacious suites with lots of room to spread out. There’s also a cooked-to-order breakfast for guests, a free shuttle to Oaklawn, and Spa Botanica -- a world class full service spa perfect for relaxing after a day at the track
Embassy Hotel and Suites * 400 Convention Boulevard * (501) 624-9200 * hotsprings.embassysuites.com

Many will opt for the more intimate comforts found at a bed and breakfast. Lookout Point Lakeside Inn is one of several in the area offering customizable packages for your stay. Ray and Kristie Rossett have created a secluded haven for travelers, complete with spectacular views from every comfortable room (named for Arkansas towns) and gourmet breakfasts catering to your needs.
Lookout Point Lakeside Inn * 104 Lookout Circle * (501) 525-6155 * lookoutpointinn.com

If you’re more interested in combining history with gaming, then you’re likely searching for the venerable Arlington Hotel and Spa. The rooms may be smaller than franchise offerings, but they’re packed with history. And the location is prime for those interested in visiting the bathhouses or shopping along Bathhouse Row.
Arlington Hotel and Spa * 239 Central Avenue * (501) 609-2514 * arlingtonhotel.com

*Tip*
Traffic can get hairy on Central Avenue. If you’re going somewhere other than the track, consider using alternate arteries Grand Avenue and the MLK expressway

Go Do Something
Searching for something to do while your traveling companion is watching the ponies or wanting to fulfill some other vacation desires? There are a lot of options.

The Gangster Museum of America opened last year along Bathhouse Row. This still-expanding museum covers the history of bootlegging and gambling in the Spa City, along with a big chunk of history. And it’s the only facility of its sort in the USA. Bring along your camera for a chance to pose with a life-size replica of Al Capone.
Gangster Museum of America * 113 Central Avenue * (501) 318-1717 * tgmoa.com

Check out the cheapest exhibit along Bathhouse Row for a heavy dose of history about the healing waters of the springs that gave Hot Springs its name. The Fordyce Bathhouse is run by the National Park Service and offers all sorts of information about Hot Springs National Park. Best of all, it’s free.
Fordyce Bathhouse Visitors Center * 369 Central Avenue * (501) 624-3383 * nps.gov

To take in everything from a better perspective, head up the mountain behind Bathhouse Row for an overview from Hot Springs Mountain Tower. The view from the 216-foot tower includes Oaklawn Park, Lake Hamilton, all of downtown Hot Springs, and much of the Ouachita Mountains. And yes, there’s an elevator.
Hot Springs Mountain Tower * 401 Hot Springs Mountain Drive * (501) 623-6035

Closer to the Earth but further from town, you’ll find Garvan Woodland Gardens, a little bit of paradise. Whether it’s for a few hours or all day, you’ll find acres of beautiful plant life, considerately placed flora, and gorgeous water gardens. Be sure to check out the striking Anthony Chapel. And if your trip takes you to Hot Springs on a Tuesday, see if you can join in a Tuesday Tea.
Garvan Woodland Gardens * 550 Arkridge Road * (501) 262-9300 * garvangardens.org

Want to bring the kids along? Children and adults alike will enjoy MidAmerica Science Museum on the western end of town. Adults who visited in their youth will rediscover many of the exhibits that once captured the imagination -- and also find new adventures and features to enjoy.
MidAmerica Science Museum * 500 MidAmerica Boulevard * (501) 767-3461 * midamericamuseum.org

Of course, you can’t call it the Spa City without talking about the spas. Many of the hotels in the area offer their own spa experiences. You’ll also find independent operators who specialize in different aspects of the spa experience.

The Swan Song Spa comes highly recommended. While not a traditional experience, the spa offers uniquely private baths and massages for individuals and couples with handmade soaps and rituals.
Spa Song Spa * 504 Park Avenue * (501) 623-5597 * swansongspa.com

One of Hot Springs’ newest attractions to check out is the Quapaw Baths and Spa. Recently opened in the renovated Quapaw Bathhouse next door to the Fordyce, the Spa hopes to welcome visitors to a historical and restorative experience with public baths and intimate massages and facials. The Spa will soon open new private baths to take in the waters to compliment the public baths.
Quapaw Baths and Spa * 413 Central Avenue * (501) 609-9822 * quapawbaths.com

*Tip*
Hot Springs is a mecca for artists. A plethora of galleries dot downtown. Whether it’s contemporary or traditional, paint or glass, sculpture or photography, you’ll find it here. Be sure to check out some of the many art events and happenings in the area at hotsprings.org.