Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Big Ol' Hunks of Catfish.

Local favorites are an interesting phenomenom. If you were to, say, go to the Amazon and were offered a local favorite, you wouldn't be surprised to find it was baked pirahna. Or if you were up in Maine, clams wouldn't surprise you.

So in Arkansas, when you're asked about local favorites and are offered catfish, you tend not to bat an eye.

Mississippi may have the cinch on being the capital of the U.S. catfish industry, but it's a pretty big deal here in Arkansas, too -- as evidenced not only by the plethora of catfish farming operations but also by the abundance of fish fry houses. In fact, when folks from out of state (and country) talk about how much fish the British must eat because of the popularity of the "fish and chips" shop, I just kinda smirk. If you think about it, that's exactly what we have.

And while there are many places around that do catfish and fries and hush puppies and a while lot more, Uncle Dean's in Cabot pretty much sticks to the staples. That is, if you don't count the egg rolls.

That's right -- I said egg rolls.

The mom and pop operation on Second Street in Cabot sits in-between the city's parks and recreation department and a place that sells nails and live bait. Can't get much homier than that. But it's been recognized by the Catfish Farmers of Arkansas for serving only American farm-raised catfish. Has to be pretty good, since the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette has apparently reviewed them three times (as evidenced by the framed newspaper articles by the register).

You go in, you order at the counter, you sit down. An incongruous mix of country diner, Oriental restaurant decor, paintings of Christ and upholstered captain's chairs suit the carpeted dining room, while a room-length mirror is featured on the eastern wall.

We placed our orders and sat, and within moments out came our fried pickles ($2.99 for four). These are of the Vlassic variety, still crisp and coated with cornmeal batter and served up with Ranch dressing. While above average, our biggest complaint was that they were served way too hot. As if that should be a complaint, right?

Our dinners soon followed. We had both ordered the Catfish Dinner (3 pieces for $6.99). The catfish is a tiny bit on the salty side, but the muddiness is light, and the cornmeal-heavy batter is neither overpacked nor underdipped. Best of all, the portions are large and thick full filets, which means you actually get more fish than crust.

Dinners are almost identical -- fish, fries, slaw (which is similar to KFC's in its appearance and runny-ness but less sweet -- which is fine), hush puppies (made from buttermilk and spices, which gives them a savory kick that is neither sweet nor dry) and onion wedge. The only difference is how many of the filets you choose.

The pickled green tomatoes cost a dollar more -- but for me, that's an Arkansas staple that goes with catfish like rice with beans. Here they're both crisp and tangy, with a late heat to them that doesn't interrupt too much.

One complaint we did have was the temperature at which everything was served -- just as hot as it was coming out of the deep fryer. Hopefully, no one will get the idea of a McDonald's style coffee lawsuit

The pie special disappointed, though. I guess I've been spoiled by my travels, where every destination seems to have some sort of magnificent homemade dessert. I went back to order it, and was shocked to discovered my $2.19 pie was a pre-packaged foodservice carton containing a wedge of sweetness.

Well, I guess there's something for everyone out there. And while yeah, that was a surprise, it's not enough to sink the catfish at Uncle Dean's Catfish and Such. Gotta try the fried wings next time I go, since that (and the egg rolls and a cheeseburger and something incongruously called Heeya's Steak Sandwich) seems to be the entirety of the menu. I suppose it's a matter of "do one thing, do it well." And this is some mighty fine catfish.

You'll find Uncle Dean's Catfish and Such at 818 South Second Street in Cabot. They do take call-in orders -- (501) 941-FISH.

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.