Friday, May 22, 2009

Preparing for the Big One.

Spent an early morning at Riverfest. No, Arkansas' largest festival doesn't start until 6pm, but that doesn't mean there's not a whole lot of hustle and bustle going on.

I slipped in (with permission, of course) at the La Harpe entrance by the River Market Pavilion. Riverfest workers, Little Rock Police and representatives of the media were working in concert with the bevy of beverage and produce trucks, food vendors, and whathaveyou for a conglomeration of busy-ness in what will be the
largest of the food court areas. I peeked in on the first vendor I noticed actually cooking, the folks at the Arkansas Philipine Association. They were already cooking up Chicken BBQ Kebabs, lovely bits of juicy chicken dripping with sauce and sweetness. Very tempting -- and I was even given the opportunity to venture close enough to risk salivation contamination. I restrained myself.

I noticed a plethora of Post Familie Vineyard vehicles, including the large wine cooler truck (as in, cools wine, not serves wine coolers). I appreciate that we have a great winery that can take part and participate so well.

This year, Post Familie is sponsoring a big Specialty
Beverage Garden near the foot of the Junction Bridge. I'm sure that's going to be a great landing spot for cool, quiet (well, maybe not quiet) reflection for folks, as well as a first-stop for those who enter from the North Little Rock side and make their way over on foot.

Further along, it's quieter. The first of the vendors are starting to poke their heads out and check the section of Riverfront Park along the KidZone. On the pavement up here (which, by the way, was the original Riverfest strip back when it was a tiny festival in the early 80s) there are all sorts of eats that will be available --

Oriental, gyro stands, and Fat Sam's -- which will soon open as a restaurant in the River Market Pavilion. For now, though, all is quiet.

The river is running high today, as it has been for a while. It's okay, though -- the river itself is cordoned off. Lots of fencing around
to keep folks from falling in -- but on the other hand, it's not so obtrusive as to keep anyone from enjoying its beauty or the views to the other side. A good precaution.

I wandered back up to the food area behind LaHarpe's Landing and found a kettle corn vendor setting up shop. Cola vendors were also bustling about the place.

The Riverfest Amphitheater is being prepared for all the great acts that are coming this weekend. This is where one of my favorite 80s-90s bands, The B52s, are performing tonight. That excites me a lot -- I got to perform on that state with the Arkansas Youth Symphony as a teenager, and there's a bit of "squee factor" in it for me.

Old Tusk sits quietly, smiling his silent grin over the proceedings. Of all the hubbub around, this is the one quiet place I did find where no action was in the making and no craziness abounded. Just the gentle lap of water at his feet and the silent koi below.

The area around the Junction Bridge is still being worked on. But it will be open this weekend for folks to pass by foot from one side of the river to the other. It'll be closed before the fireworks display Sunday afternoon -- but folks are going to be able to view from there. 1000 person limit, so if you want this eagle-eye perch, you'd better be ready.

I did run into some of the friendly folks from Yarnell's Ice Cream as they set up one of their many booths along the way. This year's specialty Riverfest Flavor is Sunny Berry -- a flavor for a festival that should be light and breezy. Hopefully the festival itself will be the same.

About to head back out to get you more information on what's going on out there. Hope you're having a lovely day.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Ode To The Old South.

I wasn't born in Russellville, not even raised there. But in 1991 it became my second hometown, and remains so to this day.

Back then, I was a 17 year old college student, looking for something to do between dusk and dawn and somewhere to go other than Food 4 Less (which once threw me out for inverting the cans of SPAM on an aisle... what a troublemaker I was, eh?) when the city rolled up the sidewalks at 8pm. Back then, there was really only one choice, the Old South.

24 hours a day, you could go in and get yourself some reasonably cheap eats -- or, as many of us Tech alumni recall, spread yourself out in a big round booth with homework and coursework and whatever needed to be worked on. The only caveat was that you had to order food. My favorite -- heck, my most affordable option, to tell you the truth, was the honey bun -- which was warmed on a plate in the microwave and which cost the grand sum of 95 cents.

Hard to think that half my life has passed since those days. Also hard to think that the old restaurant would even still be standing, let alone serving famous steaks and fried chicken. But that's part of the charm of the place -- the ability to rise like a phoenix from figurative ashes to retain not only a place in the memory but also a place in our dinnertime lexicon.

And yes, honey buns are still 95 cents -- $1.05 with tax.

But some of the finer points I failed to digest in my college days were some of the more impressive items on the menu. And that menu hasn't changed a whole lot -- except now, instead of being inside a binder, it's laminated with the story of what happened in those years after I left college.

Seriously.

Well, no, it's not a tribute to me, but to the folks who worked hard to make sure the Old South stayed in business. Because in 1999, the Old South was named to the National Historic Register. Isn't that something?

Story goes like this. Back in 1947, Russellville businessman Woody Mays thought it might be a good idea for people headed from Ft. Smith to points east and vice versa to have a place to stop and get a good bite to eat. He got together with William Snell, who worked with National Glass and Manufacturing Co. in Ft. Smith and who designed the Art Deco diner for him. Pretty soon, word got out that it was a swell place to stop for a bite along the route.

Of course, Interstate 40 put a kibosh on the best part of business, but the restaurant managed to keep going. That, and of course us Tech folks with our backpacks full of paper (what a concept -- not a laptop in sight those days!) and our little opened packets of sugar and artificial sweetener spread out like confetti around our always-full coffee cups as we pulled one all-nighter after another in the effort to survive college.

Things change, as they are wont to do. Other 24 hour eateries opened, first the Waffle House (that was actually before my time up there), then the all-night truck plazas like Pilot and Flying J and then the International House of Pancakes. Pretty soon those college kids were spending more time in their state-of-the-art dorms and apartments built during Tech's boom in the late 90s, and the Old South stopped being a 24 hour dining establishment.

But you can still find lots of those diner delights and distractions between the hours of 6 a.m. and 9 p.m., seven days a week.

For old time's sake, I dropped by to pick up a bite to eat and a few memories recently. I almost went in for breakfast, but as it was already 8 p.m. I decided to go with convention and eat dinner instead. After ordering and while knoshing on the carrot-heavy salad that came with my dinner (along with the heaping container of 1000 Island dressing and the obligatory rack of crackers prefered in most old-time Arkansas dining establishments), I looked through the menu.

The appetizer list held a lot of memories as well as new items I hadn't recalled... onion rings, stuffed jalapeno peppers, cheese sticks, fried dill pickles, Buffalo wings, cheese fries with bacon, mushrooms, fried green beans, and something called “chicken fried bacon” -- hand breaded bacon deep fried to golden brown and served with gravy for $5.95. Yeah, I passed.

That "world famous" K.C. Dinner Steak, a seven ounce top sirloin with sautéed onions and fixings, runs $7.50. The breakfast special, two eggs any style with oatmeal, grits, or hash browns and a choice of toast, biscuit, or English muffin with bacon, sausage, or Petit Jean ham is $4.27. And for those truly Arkansawyer dishes, chicken livers with cream style gravy run $6.25 and fried "Arkansas steak" (Petit Jean bologna on bread with pickles, onions, ketsup and lettuce) is $2.95.

I almost regretted my order when I saw one of the Chef Salads go by. I'd forgotten how big those things were -- like half a head's worth of shredded lettuce and toppings in a 12" bowl, served with dressing and once again those crackers for $5.25.

Nope, I'd gone for the fried chicken (¼ or ½ Southern fried chicken with potato, soup or salad, and bread for $6.25/8.95), the smell of which hung in the air long before it made it to my table. There's just something about that pan-fried chicken that just huddles in your memory and tickles the ganglia.

Which is kinda unfortunate, since for those with grease issues it's just too much. The skin is heavy with the batter, and the chicken inside is very very very moist and even peppery in bits. But I found that the fowl needed to be drained a bit more than how it was delivered to me. I made do.

And I rewarded myself with a big old slice of Lemon Ice Box Pie, definately the star of my meal. Worth every bite of creamy tart goodness.

Yeah, the Old South is much more upscale these days. There aren't any duct taped holes in the upholstery, there's fresh Route 66 artwork and wallpaper on the walls, and the restaurant has banished smokers to outside. But there are some bits of the experience that remain the same. It still very much feels like one of those college-days haunts that you recall with fondness and a little mist in the eyes.

You'll find the Old South Restaurant on Highway 64 next to the Electric Moo (or, properly addressed, at 1330 East Main). You can call (479) 968-3789 if you need better directions or want to warn them that you're on the way.

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Monday, May 11, 2009

Anticipation Baking.

Behind the scenes at the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church -- the scene of this weekend's 25th Annual Greek Food Festival.

It's a big tradition here in Little Rock... really, a BIG tradition that started out in a small way back in 1985 and has continued to grow and grow and grow. Now it's the grand-daddy of all Arkansas food festivals, and it has a lot that the other festivals lack.

For one thing, it's not just about the food. It's about celebrating culture -- not just of Greece but also of the Middle East. I can remember a time in my life where it was the only place -- the only place -- where I could obtain a gyro and baklava. Sure, today we have restaurants and grocery stores and the Internet and all sorts of other ways to get these sorts of items, but back then it was quite different.

The folks at the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church didn't just throw a festival on their parking lot back then. They also set up at Riverfest (which is a week later now -- whew!) and at Fort Smith's Riverfest as well. But as the Greek Food Fest grew, it became harder and harder to manage all of that. Which is just as well, because this event is something else.

Dancers. Costumes. Coffee (oh, I could go ON about the coffee). An Old World market. The pastries. The lamb. The neat things for the kids. It's been a big thing to me since my early teenage years, and I was so glad to get the chance to go behind the scenes and sneak a peak at what was going on.

When I entered the kitchen, I encountered a group of gentlemen in the process of packing up the final bottles of Pete's Famous Greek Salad Dressing. The lovely green essence of Greek-dom is a highly-sought commodity in Little Rock kitchens. Packaging of this sort has been going on for months.

Over in the gymnasium, a couple and their young daughter had already arrived to start assembling the Jerusalem pastry plates -- lovely things like harisa and kataifi that are a break from the baklava and Greek pastries we have all grown to love and adore.

As I watched, they set up a rather well organized assembly line to place the pastries on plates and then wrapped and sealed them in plastic before adding that all important 25th anniversary sticker.

On one wall, there were rows and rows of plastic boxes filled to the brim with already packaged baklava, sourota, and other pastries. Easily more there than you could eat in a
lifetime. Hard to believe looking at that monstrous wall of pastry, but it will all be gone come Sunday night.

That's right -- every bit of it. Looking down into the tubs and seeing the amazing amount of food that's been prepared by volunteers over a series of months, it's hard to imagine that come Sunday evening the festival will run out of almost everything.

No joke. That's not to say they're underprepared -- it's a testament to the hard work of those who attend this church and who want to give back to this community.

Community, after all, is what it's all about. Christina Martin met me at the church for my tour, and she told me about the efforts that happen each and every year to make the festival happen -- and why it happens.

“People come three days in a row and keep coming back,. I think that really says a lot," says Martin. "It’s a family atmosphere, it’s safe, everything is kid-friendly, there’s no alcohol served…"

Not a lot of festivals can say that -- certainly not Riverfest coming up the following weekend, which will feature dozens of musical acts and crowds of tens of thousands. This festival is all about community.

“Se are grateful the community lets us do this," Martin shares. "Everything we bring in goes back to local charities.”

That's right. The church works with seven charities each year -- including The Centers For Youth and Families and Easter Seals. The other five charities are chosen based on need and timeliness each year -- this year those charities are CARTI, Love*Truth*Care Inc., Miracle League, Youth Home, and the March of Dimes. That's right -- this isn't small change. It's a force of nature that brings in hundreds of thousands of dollars to community causes each year.

What makes this amazing is that it's all volunteer-powered. There are no companies coming in to run things, no pre-packaged generic foods. Everything you see out there was made by someone's grandmother or sister or uncle. There's no middleman. Martin mentioned that ordering the ingredients to make the food was an incredible task, and I could see that -- with all those rows of cans and bags of flour and sundries all ready to go for this weekend.

Volunteers start in March putting together things like the baklava and the spanikopita -- which can be frozen. Every evening in-between then and the festival there are people at the church, working to cook, divide, and package things up.

And after this coming Sunday, it will all be a memory... until next year, of course.

Yes, there are new things this year -- like the new lamb sandwich on pita and the Middle Eastern pastries. The coffeeshop is being expanded this year and will take a good deal of indoor space (oh, but I am ALL about that!). On the non-food front, this year's special guest artist is Vivian Karayiannis, an expert in iconography. You know, like all those neat haloed depictions of the Madonna and Child that have been popular in churches since the Dark Ages? I am especially looking forward to meeting her.

And there will be dancing -- some by professional troupes, some by students, some even brought together at the spur of the moment -- average people like you and me swayed by the music and the food and the atmosphere.

Ah, yes.

Arkansas is fortunate to have a great deal of free festivals. This is one you don't want to miss. If you're daunted by the traffic, never fear -- trolleys run every 10 minutes from Ashbury Methodist Church and Pulaski Academy down the street. There's even a drive-through for those who don't have time to partake of the festivities but can't miss out on all that great food.

The 25th Annual Greek Food Festival runs May 15-17, 2009. Be sure to check out the interactive website before you go.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Organically Yours.

Newton County has some fantastic finds and special attractions, such as elk watching in Boxley Valley and floating the Buffalo National River. A local restaurant is another treasure to seek out – Arkansas’ only full-organic restaurant.

Arkansas has some fine restaurants – some that fall into haute cuisine, some that dwell in the comfort food region, some that have specialties that rival those in large cities. Many have staples like farm-raised catfish, greens, and fried pies. Some even dabble in new directions with slow-movement foods, produce from local farms, and organics.

But as far as I’ve been able to tell, there’s just one all-organic restaurant in Arkansas. And you won’t find it in Little Rock, Pulaski County, or even Central Arkansas. In fact, it’s a three hour drive from my Little Rock home to get there. But it sure is worth it.

The Boardwalk Café overlooks the Little Buffalo River in Jasper. It’s part of a block-long complex that includes The Arkansas House – a rather nifty bed and breakfast, a hair salon that specializes in pampering guests, and the only health food store in all of Newton County. Joseph and Janet Morgan started the café three years ago, and it’s a great place to stop on any Scenic Highway Seven trip.

The Morgans are doing something difficult in what might seem a rather unlikely place – offering a completely organic menu in a town that’s not easy to reach by 18-wheeler. They’re doing that by reaching out to area farmers and offering those farmers a chance to sell their produce locally, where it can be enjoyed at the peak of freshness. Most of the meat and just about all of the produce the Morgans serve, comes from 35 area farmers. The beef they cook up comes from their own organic farm, and most of the spices they use come from flower and herb beds on the property.

I’ve been by several times… and being the stealth food writer that I am, usually enjoy the atmosphere and take my pictures without comment, and leave with the contentment of a good meal. When I was pregnant, it was an especially great stop – I had developed an allergy to corn syrup (which has thankfully left me!) and was excited by the idea of a restaurant where I could order something other than iced tea from the beverage menu. Each time I have found a similar experience – a warm atmosphere, clean restrooms, lovely artwork from local artists available for purchase, and unique and delightful items of culinary delight to savor.

Such as the Flame Broiled Buffalo Steak ($23), a tender New York strip from free range American buffalo raised on nearby Ratchford Farms. It’s cooked medium rare and served up with potatoes, salad, and soup. The meat is similar to a beef steak, and not quite as gamey as I expected. It’s served up very lightly spiced, not at all salty, so what you taste is the meat itself. I like that. The Fresh Dug Potatoes Grilled In Olive Oil and Spices (comes with the meal or $3 a la carte) are perfectly done, home fries that are meant to be savored and that don’t have that heavy cling of grease to them.

One of the more popular house specialties, the Elk Chili over Cheese Enchiladas ($15) is another guilty pleasure. A normally pedestrian dish such as enchiladas is elevated to an entirely different level when the enchiladas are good farm-fresh organic white cheese wrapped in a sprout grain tortilla and covered with a hearty but not overwhelming chili. Once again, the salt is underdone on the dish – but that’s just fine, welcome even. It’s served up with a vegetable and rice stir fry full of cauliflower and carrots, and with a basket of organic tortilla chips and a housemade tomato and cilantro salsa that pairs wonderfully.
Salads are made with fresh greens plucked the same week from local greenhouses. The New England Clam Chowder sometimes offered is a light broth with whopping chunks of skin-on potatoes and fresh clams so pink you might mistake them for salmon.

A good hearty favorite for a cold day or a long ride (Jasper is a popular destination for motorcycle enthusiasts) is the Chicken, Elk and Okra Gumbo ($9). Now, I have to admit – I fall on the gumbo file side of the gumbo debate – usually I can’t really appreciate an okra gumbo. But here it is done well. Chunks of elk sausage and chicken are sautéed up with okra and onion in Cajun spices and served over rice. It’s a nice, warm, savory way to warm up.

And I can’t help but mention the Black Walnut Pie ($5 a slice or $24 for a whole pie). I’ve dropped in before just for that pie – that burnished sweet warm treat that recalls cool autumn days in front of a stone hearth, shelling walnuts and thinking about Thanksgiving pie. Unclouded by ice cream or whipped cream or any other embellishment, the meaty English and Black Walnuts within balance well with the mix of cane syrup and sorghum molasses. It’s a masterpiece of comfort food.

Now, you might look at the prices and reconsider the “comfort” of such a meal. While not as pricey as many urban eateries, the menu is a bit more expensive than the average casual roadfood restaurant. But the Morgans have taken a heck of a chance, reviving a restaurant in a spot once occupied by the decades-old Dairy Diner, and creating an oasis of natural, organic food while utilizing the rich natural resource in Newton County’s farming community. Such things don’t come cheaply.

The Morgans are doing something else, too – they’re trying to save the environment while serving up good food. They use to-go containers made from biodegradable recycled materials. Their salad containers are made of corn. They use Seventh Generation toilet paper and paper towels. They only utilize all-natural cleaning supplies – which don’t leave a toxic residue.

On the other side of things – they recycle cans, newspaper, and plastic And this year they’re planning to re-roof the buildings in the complex with solar shingles and replace the traditional outdoor lighting with solar-panel lights.

Of course, if you want to get technical, not everything is organic – the restaurant does sell Coke and Pepsi products alongside the joyful Blue Sky sodas, organic coffees and teas, Goji shots and fruit juice. It’s not 100% local, either – clams, shrimp, and crabmeat are flown in from elsewhere. But it’s an incredibly good attempt, and one not to be passed up when you’re in the area.

You’ll find the Boardwalk Café just south of the Little Buffalo River Bridge on Highway 7. For more information, check out the complex website or call (870) 446-5900.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Deal with it at Taco Villa.


click to enlargeunknown.jpg
    Yes, indeed, that there is a clamshell box filled to the brim with nachos.  A whole heck of a lot of food.  Quite a deal.
    And it's what diners in Russellville have come to expect from a hometown favorite.  Taco Villa on 4th Street has been there as long as I can remember, back through my college days and a staple of my husband's memory from childhood days.  During those lean years where we were trying to scrape by through school with roommates and pinching pennies for gas, we could always depend on a Taco Villa taco salad or Nacho Supreme for two or three meals.
    Dropped in the other day, and very little had changed... outside of the word "chalupa" that had appeared on the menu.  I ordered that there box of Nacho Supreme ($5.45) and had to not only split it with the hubster but take some home, too.  Yeah, it doesn't qualify as haute cuisine, but if you're looking for a filling meal on a budget, here ya go.
    More on the jump.
    click to enlargeunknown.jpg
      He ordered the Burrito Supreme ($3.60), like he always does. That's one of those big 32 ounce drinks next to it there in the photo. This burrito is two fistfuls of beef, cheese, lettuce, cheese, sour cream, and cheese. They offer it in a dinner ($5.80) but I've never seen the need. Even with a monster appetite, this will conquer it.
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        You're not going to see a whole lot of advertizing for it. But most of the locals can tell you where it is and how to get there. Order ahead during the lunch rush at (479) 968-1191 -- that little parking lot gets packed. Taco Villa is open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, closed Sunday.


        Taco Villa on Urbanspoon