Monday, July 27, 2009

Lost Sandwich.

For centuries, man has searched for the almost forgotten lost city of Atlantis. Sure, there have been references through works of literature over the millenniums, but the urge to seek out this subject of our dreams comes more from our cultural longing and traditions, a latent image, a memory to recreate.

Strangely enough, I can understand this urge… when it comes to a certain sandwich from my childhood. Sound silly? Let me tell you about it.

Back when I was a young’un, from time to time my mom and I would head out to the Otter Creek area. And there was this place we’d stop on Stagecoach Road to get a bite to eat to take home with us.

And it was there, back in the early 1980s, that I had this amazing combination of ingredients, of Genoa salami and ham, of white cheeses and French bread, and especially of this green concoction that tantalized me at such an early age. That very first… muffaletta.

It wasn’t from some high-class joint or a coffee shop or even a regular restaurant. It was from this little service station in a white building. And for a couple of years there, it was that special treat meal I was always surprised and excited about.

Of course, we grow up and the world moves on. Somewhere along the way, the whole area grew up and developed, and what used to be on the outskirts of town became an intown location. After my own travels and return to Little Rock I looked around for the place with those great sandwiches, but not recalling the name of the business or exactly where it was located, I figured it had become a victim of passing time.

I’m glad I was wrong.

One afternoon recently I found myself cutting across town for an evening’s engagement, and I found myself along that section of Stagecoach Road. And I spotted that little white building. At first I shrugged it off -- but then the big red sign confirmed it. I had found my Atlantis.
Dropped in just to check and see if it was the same place -- and yes, it had to be, been there since 1971. I was in no position to grab dinner at that point, so I made a mental note to stop in when I could.

And when I did, I was happy to discover I didn’t have to completely obliterate that childhood dream.

See, something happened between here and there. When I was a kid, I was blessed with having no allergies. But as I aged I changed, and when I was 19 I discovered that I was becoming allergic to pork. That allergy’s pretty bad now, though I hope it will ease as I age further.
So here I had the chance to experience the muffaletta again, but no way to do so safely myself. And though I could replicate the taste of things like ham and salami with turkey, that seemed like way too much to ask.

I ordered a muffaletta to take home, along with an Italian Beef sandwich. Six inch lengths of said sandwiches are $4.59, and come wrapped in first that flimsy waxed paper and then heavy white butcher paper, taped shut for the ride home, just like I remembered. I also picked up a couple of No-Bakes (that unique cocoa and oatmeal stovetop cookie) for $1.09 and a fried apple pie for $2.09.

Getting home, I unwrapped the still-warm sandwiches and photographed them -- after all, you know me, I shoot everything I eat. And then my companion had the chance to try this sandwich I’d been raving about over all this time. And happiness was shared.

Meanwhile, I was enjoying my own happiness -- the Italian beef sandwich, with big chunks of juicy pulled beef with its own topping of Olive salad. That salad that came out of a Mason jar with no label, that concoction that brought back memories of a lost time before. Unlike other versions I’ve had elsewhere (including the French Quarter), this version comes up crunchy and sweet, not too tart. It was a revelation.

The No-Bakes, by the way? Pretty darn good, too.

I know Stagecoach Grocery serves up a lot of other stuff, too -- po’boys and big burgers and plate lunches. It’s a gas station, and has all sorts of things you’d find in a convenience store too -- but to me, being able to enjoy that green goodness again is just about enough. I’ve done gone and found my own Atlantis. Pretty darn awesome.

You’ll find Stagecoach Grocery at 6024 Stagecoach Road in Little Rock. Phone number’s (501) 455-4157.

Barrow Flower House.

I'm not sure which is stranger -- all the plastic flowers on and around this house on Barrow Road in Little Rock, or the fact that there's a "For Sale" sign on the tree right next to the house.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Burgers are great at the Wagon Wheel.

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     The family dining experience… hometown restaurants that include ads for local businesses on their menu, where trophies and plaques for school sports dangle on walls and there’s sometimes even an item on the menu named after a school mascot. Many of these places bear a lot of merit. Others are simply intown way stations of food, a place to eat when one does not want to venture forth outside of city limits.
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      Wagon Wheel Restaurant in Greenbrier is a good family sit-down with a wipeboard on the wall advertizing the day’s specials and the choice of vegetables. There’s a cooler case with meringue-piled pies within easy eye distance, tempting from afar. The restaurant is loud with the buzz of conversation and alive with a varying cast of regulars and road-weary travelers looking for a place to light and hover for a bit.
      Fortunately, good sustenance can be found in such a location. The restaurant offers a fine selection of breakfast items and dinners. But on one particular Monday, we were craving burgers… big ones, hand patted ones, and we were not disappointed.
      More on the jump.
      Of course, one of my companions had to choose the namesake burger for the place, the Wagon Wheel Delight ($5.25 with fries). It sounded odd to me, a burger of sour cream, mushrooms, and green onions, but it was indeed a delight and worthy of a place of honor on the menu.
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        I chose the Cowboy Delight (also $5.25 with fries) and was delighted with a long sesame seed roll filled with plenty of hand patted and seasoned ground beef, Monterrey Jack cheese, and sautéed peppers and onions. I opted out of the offered mustard but ended up with pickle on my burger (also comes standard) but this was not an unwelcome thing. In fact, it gave the burger an unexpected tang that was pretty decent. The accompanying fries were big almost unseasoned planks of hand cut potato that sat up and begged for ketchup.
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          My other companion was the bravest… going for the Hotty Burger ($4.25 without fries) and adding on an order of onion rings ($1.95). His fat burger patty was smattered with pepper jack cheese and jalapenos and plenty of them. It was fun to watch him start to redden and sweat as he savored the peppery goodness. The onion rings, by the way, were similar to some I have experienced lately where the batter includes what tastes suspiciously like French onion soup mix. Here it works okay in a cornmeal and flour batter with chunks of hand-cut onion sections.
          I wanted the pie… I really did… or shall I say my eyes did, because my belly wasn’t having any more of it. Too much food! I was only disappointed when I saw one of the waitresses change a selection on the wipe board from “Ham” to “Country Fried Veal.” THAT would have really been interesting.
          Oh, we also tried the squash, and were very happy with the salted and battered deep fried rounds. Within the batter the squash was mush, but good flavored mush.
          You’ll find the Wagon Wheel Restaurant on the right side of the road as you head up Highway 65 into Greenbrier. (501) 679-5009.

          Saturday, July 18, 2009

          Pickin' & Grinnin'.

          There are some foods you just can’t replicate in a grocery store environment. Sure, you can purchase watermelon nearly year-round now, and big swollen hard peaches and even quarts of blackberries from retailers who drag them in from all over the world.

          But you really can’t replicate the taste and feel of a handpicked Arkansas blackberry.

          There’s something about crawling down into a briar patch with your pants tucked into your socks, tick repellant worn thicker than a teenage boy wears Axe spray, big hat to keep the sun from burning your scalp. Like going fishing or hunting around these parts, there’s a costume to be donned, and it may look damn silly but I guarantee generations before you did the same thing -- or not, and paid for it with briar-ripped skin and chigger bites.

          Went up with a couple of friends on an early July day to a patch west of Alread, out on land that never sees an orange glow in the sky from civilization. The heat, thankfully, had broken, and we hustled out around 9am to start filling baskets and bags and buckets.

          The wet weather had apparently delayed the season, same as it’s delayed peaches in the groves and watermelons in the fields. But there were still plenty to be culled from the briars.
          Some were the bigger wild blackberries, on erect vines that wound themselves around sassafrass saplings and honeysuckle bushes and underbrush. Others were the smaller dewberries, little harder berries that could be flicked off vines that hugged the ground. We carefully tugged off the darkened ripe berries from in-between green and red ones, hoping for another day of berry harvesting later on.

          After the patch was exhausted, we went out on the backroad for a while and spotted patches. We’d drive along and park further and further up the road, hopping out to fill up a few more bag’s worth and then retreating for a few moments to the air conditioned comfort and a good swallow of water.

          Along the way, we also spotted immature wild muscadines, a personal favorite of mine from my picking days. There were all sorts of moths and butterflies out, and from time to time we’d leave a patch alone because of hornets or wasps making themselves known.

          This is the sort of picking that I remember from childhood, hopping into the back of a pickup truck with cousins and pickle buckets and paint buckets and heading out onto rarely used country roads to find brambles. It was always a team operation then -- and when you finished picking the berries that were reachable by the road, you backed the pickup into the briar patches and picked from the safety of the truck bed. I can remember the blackberry stains on sunburned skin, the heat of the metal beneath my feet as I’d reach over and grab a briar and pulled it in so I could reach berries. There was a certain plopping sound as berries were dropped into buckets. Older members of the search party could manage to make it sound like a typewriter, quickly grabbing vines with gloved hands and thumping berries off with a flick of a middle finger and thumb.

          We’d take our bounty back to the house, where womenfolk past the berry-picking-for-fun age would take our bounty and wash it and sort out leaves and bad berries and ticks. Then quart by quart they were packed away in plastic containers and stuck in the freezer, or boiled with sugar and other makings by the gallon on burners on the stove, bound for jam. Us kids were rewarded for our efforts with small bowls full of berries topped with sweetened condensed milk. There was always something about road berries and that little bit of gravel grit that always managed to make it past the washing.

          There was also the glory of Sunday after church blackberry cobblers, the once piping hot crust congealed a bit in places where the blackberry essence had popped through. The pairing for this was usually just fresh milk but sometimes we were lucky enough to have one of those big gallon sized tubs of ice cream to get a dip from, and the adults would have theirs with coffee.

          Well, I ended up being a city girl, and I don’t spend much time out in patches or rural gardens or fields. But one taste I wanted to share with my daughter was that thorny-picked Arkansas blackberry that still very much reminds me of South Arkansas red clay dirt and dusty afternoons in the sun.
          We took in our bounty, divided it up and washed it.

          After our lunch, I held my six month old daughter Hunter in my lap and offered her a berry. My friend Leif had the camera ready for the big moment. We were expecting what most parents may expect from their young child -- a dribble of blackberry juice down the chin, the shock of tartness crossing a young face. Instead, it was as if I had held the little berry in front of a vacuum. She sucked it right in, thought about it a moment, and started clamoring for more.

          Berry after berry she inhaled, until my other friend Lara decided to make the shot we were seeking a little easier. She found a very plump berry and mashed it a bit, so that the juice ran down Hunter’s fingers when she reached out for it. The juice didn’t deter her at all, and she ate a good share before she stopped clamoring for more.

          I’ve talked with farmers who show up at the Certified Arkansas Farmers Market in Argenta about blackberries and the picking thereof… and they tell me today that cultivated blackberries have no thorns. Somehow, that feels like cheating.

          Tuesday, July 14, 2009

          Arkansas Gold.

          Everyone has an odd quirk, some strange food or combination of foods they really, really enjoy that might make others squeamish. Sometimes it’s just something that makes people scratch their heads and wonder. Other times it’s a true “you have GOT to be kidding me” sort of thing.

          I feel this way about my husband’s “dream team” sandwich of salami, American cheese, and peanut butter. Makes no sense to me whatsoever. The food I eat that does the same for him? Pimento cheese. I seriously dig on a good Cheddar-based PC. Not the stuff you get at the grocery store that’s a mixture of pasteurized processed foodstuff with a few red flakes in it, but the sort of thing that a home cook has actually put together in their own kitchen with a big spoon and that little jar of red pimentos that’s about the size of a baby food canister from the store.

          Hard to find a good pimento cheese sandwich around these parts. Forget about anything you might find in a truck stop; anyone brave enough to eat a truck stop pimento cheese sandwich had better have a lead-lined stomach. For a short while, St. Vincent’s had one in their cafeteria, but like so much of the good stuff that used to be served their it’s gone (they still do a mean Reuben, though).

          A few weeks ago, I did stop in at the one place I knew that still did good pimento cheese -- a little place out in the boonies (re: south of Sheridan) that caters to the hunting and fishing crowd.

          Gibb’s is a combination of sports stop, convenience store, restaurant, and bragging post. It’s the kind of place where old men go to brag about how many points were on that big deer they bagged 20 years ago, where people lie about fish. Where you expect the customers to have dirt under their nails from digging up their own worms in the backyard.

          The walls are adorned with year after year after year of Polaroids of people and their scores -- the bucks draped across the back of a truck brought in for tagging and that notch on the license plate -- generally in the same pose with the guy or girl who bagged their buck holding its head up by the antlers for that snapshot in time. The pictures on some of the walls are so old, teenagers in the shots are now grandparents.

          It’s a great little stopping-in joint, and about the last good place to pull in before you get down to Fordyce. There’s a counter there, and lunch specials and lunchmeat… and almost always on the bottom of the case there’s an oblong casserole dish full of pimento cheese. A sandwich costs a couple of bucks, but load me up with that and a container of chocolate milk from the case and I’m off to nostalgia-ville. The pimento cheese from Gibb’s is very much on the tangy side, and I wouldn’t be surprised if their mayo-based concoction is laced with the juice from those pimentos as well as the little red slivers of happiness.

          You know, when I was a small child, I didn’t realize that pimentos were actually slivers of a variety of red chile pepper? I thought olives actually came that way, with little red centers. I think I was a teenager before I realized that olives came with hard pits. That’d be almost unheard of today… but you gotta remember, the culinary world as we know it didn’t really exist in Arkansas back in the 70s and 80s, not for most of us. It’s a recent phenomenon, this pedestrianization of haute cuisine. But I digress.

          What got me on to thinking about pimento cheese was an encounter with a variety that I daresay rivals my mom’s mix, in a somewhat unlikely place. Pimento cheese, that stalwart of lunchboxes and fishing trip coolers, that most humble of Arkansas delights? Can be found at a Greek fare restaurant.

          That’s right… you can find pimento cheese at Tazikis, the fashionable (and not too expensive) Greek place on Cantrell across from Pavilion in the Park. Right there, right along with hummus and taziki sauce, is pimento cheese. As a dip. Further down the page, it’s a sandwich, served on toasted buttermilk bread with Romaine lettuce. There’s even an offering of take-home pimento cheese by the pound or half-pound.

          I discovered this one evening when I and a few of my traveling companions went to the eatery for a knosh. Lamb was ordered -- one chose the Sliced Chargrilled Leg of Lamb ($9.25) “Greek Feast,” while the other went for the Greek Surf and Turf ($12.25). I decided on my own light lamb dish and went for the Taziki’s Roasted Lamb in Fresh Pita ($7.95)… but I was also curious about the pimento cheese ($4.50) so I ordered it as an appetizer. Since it was paired with dips, I expected it to be more like a dip.

          Instead, moments after I’d placed my order at the counter, a more-than-sufficient bowl of pimento cheese was brought out to us, along with a healthy pile of baked pita chips and Kalamata olives. My traveling companions shied away from such a pedestrian dish, but I nervously tried it. And I have to say, though my lamb gyro was awful good, I would have been as happy as a dead pig in the sunshine with just that order of pimento cheese. It put me in a happy place. The Cheddar cheese was slightly sharp, and the pimentos were plentiful, and even better there were chunks of green olive, too. It’s the closest anyone’s come to my mom’s recipe.

          The rest of our Taziki’s fare was pretty darn good, too… the lamb still pink in the middle but charred beautifully and delightfully seasoned. The shrimp was just cooked past the point of not being done at all, perfect mouthfeel and salty in its seasoning. The tomato-cucumber salad is reminiscent of Star of India’s Kachumber Salad but with Parmesan cheese instead of garam masala and other spices, vinegary and tinged with slivers of red onion. Dinners come with a Greek salad and a choice of roasted potatoes or Basmati rice… gyros with potato chips and a choice of the tomato-cucumber salad, the potatoes or rice, a pasta salad or fresh fruit.

          I know it sounds crazy to talk about a single, simple dish from a restaurant so much, especially when it’s something so… humble. But it really impressed me, and even if I hadn’t liked anything else there I’d be going back for more of a childhood favorite.

          You’ll find Taziki’s Greek Fare at 8200 Cantrell Road in Little Rock. I understand they’re a chain but that all the other locations are in Alabama, how about that. They have a website and are open from 11 a.m. for lunch every day, and dinner every day except Sunday. (501) 227-8291.

          And in case you’re curious, you can find Gibb’s Grocery and Hunters Outpost at 7781 Highway 167 South, about six miles south of Sheridan. It could be the busiest place in the world on the opening day of modern gun deer season in Arkansas, but that’s another story. You can also call if you like -- (870) 942-5284.

          Gibbs Grocery on Urbanspoon

          Sunday, July 12, 2009

          Rich Bounty, Vast Variety.

          Winthrop Rockefeller was a big man, a heck of a man. His footprint on this state is legendary. This is not his story. This is how my visit went to the land atop Petit Jean Mountain that was his spread, for a very specific event called Bountiful Arkansas Day.

          My luck not being with me, I found myself having to make crazy transportation arrangements early on, which delayed my arrival until around 10:30am. I nodded through registration and was met by two individuals.

          The first, David Davies, welcomed me heartily to the top of the mountain with a bear of a handshake. He’s the executive director of the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute, a project of the University of Arkansas system. The second, Kathy Edgerton, became my tour guide for a good portion of the day.

          First stop, the Tomato Tasting -- which was just opening to attendees. For $5, anyone who wanted to could come up and try 20 different varieties of heirloom and culinary tomatoes.

          The color and spread of tomatoes was vast. I have seen some of these before, but like many who have perused the aisles of fancy stores and markets I didn’t realize that there were so many varieties of what we call “heirloom” tomatoes available. Some I recognized, like the old Brandywines I used to see in south Arkansas gardens as a child. All of these varieties are grown in Arkansas.

          The difference? Heirloom ‘maters are those that were here a century ago -- and they’re disappearing, sadly enough. It’s estimated that 75% of the original Arkansas heirloom varieties may be gone.

          Culinary tomatoes are newer varieties, some of which have been specially cultivated to taste or grow in a certain way.

          I tried several of the varieties, and was surprised by the difference I encountered. For instance, to me Yellow Pear tomatoes (which are a little larger than cherry tomatoes and shaped like pears, hence the name) are sweet and strong, while the Orange Fleshed Purple Smudge has a lighter, saltier flavor. Juicy, bright Carbons and tangy Thai Pink Egg and all the rest, a varying palate of tomato varieties that certainly make you think there’s more than whatever sort of red globes end up in that commercially prepared spaghetti sauce or salsa.

          Next stop, the Heritage Farmstead, where a garden grows. The gardens and buildings here are recreating the small family farms of 1933-1953. It’s where I met Adena White, who toured me through the farmstead with helpful answers.

          Vendors from Arkansas businesses and farms had set up here for Bountiful Arkansas Day. There was an information tent with several organizations offering advice on everything from finding organic locally-grown food in the area to tips on growing natural and legacy varieties of garden plants.

          The folks from Post Winery had set up with their wines and juices and were offering grapevine starters for $15. Bean Mountain Farms had out row after row of fresh herbs and plants to take home and start in their own gardens.

          Some growers offered heritage varieties of produce, such as squash and eggplants and tomatoes and peaches.

          There were professional hoes for sale (I had no idea there was a professional variety of garden hoe, did you?) Willow Springs Market Garden offered soaps and garlic and radishes, while Hocott’s Garden Center showed off great plants and lots of garden soil and fertilizer varieties.

          We peeked in on a horticulture workshop covering what vegetables are best to grow in your garden. These classes were offered throughout the day, along with workshops on what fruits are best for your property, for $15 a session. WRI had added several more of the 30-person workshops as the demand had increased.

          The classes were held in the Teaching Barn, which has this great “dirty” classroom with a cement floor that can be sprayed clean after use. That makes it great to use for a gardening lecture space. Best part? The air conditioning, of course!

          The day was rather hot, but that wasn’t keeping people away. Dozens of people were spread out in groups here and there, checking out the farmstead and the gardens.

          The gardens themselves were healthy and full of life. Watermelon varieties from all over Arkansas are already gaining bulk and growing big. Master gardener G.M. Greene told me that around here, melons get into the 40-60 pound range, and last summer some of the melons hit 70 pounds. He also mentioned that this year’s plantings were late because of all that wet weather we had in April and May.

          I did check out the rows upon rows of tomato varietals while I was in that section of the garden. Looks like the start of a beautiful season.

          In addition to the traditional gardens and melon patch, there’s also a vineyard and orchard in the Heritage Farmstead. There’s a lot more information about it that the WRI website can explain far better than I can!

          The temperature was rising, and it was time for lunch. Adena took me back over to the central part of the campus for lunch at the River Rock Grill. For the special event, a buffet lunch featuring all local foods was being offered -- BLT wraps featuring Petit Jean bacon, Caprese Salad wraps with heirloom tomatoes and local greens, a medley of fresh Arkansas grown vegetables, potato chips, iced tea, and an Arkansas berry bread pudding that was just divine.

          I also had the chance to meet Executive Chef Heather Welch. She talked with me about some of the demands the kitchen handles. For instance, in addition to the folks who came through for Bountiful Arkansas Day, there was another conference going on at the center. Add in that the restaurant is open to the public, you have a whole lot of people coming through.

          She mentioned that the turnaround for dinner had started the day before -- with the smoking of massive amounts of meat for the barbeque dinner that night. We also talked about the “regular” fare of the place, which is shown on the WRI website. Adena also mentioned some of the fabulous specials that Heather whips up… one day specials that suit a whim and that are also really, really good. I have to find my way up for a night with the hubster to enjoy this mountaintop jewel.

          The River Rock Grill operates as a private club, which means it’s one place you can actually find a full bar on the mountain. Several people mentioned to me the peach daiquiri, which apparently is constructed over 24 hours. I passed this time, mostly because I was on assignment, but it sure was tempting.

          Of course, I couldn’t go all the way up the hill to cover food and Bountiful Arkansas Day without checking in on the Second Saturday Chefs Series that was underway. As the title implies, every second Saturday of the month, there’s a daylong workshop for those interested in learning about the preparation of a theme ingredient or the like. Fitting this particular occasion, participants were learning about preparing dishes with local produce. Chef John Leonardis was instructing a group of 35 people on the finer points of dishes like Watermelon Soup, Three Potato Salad, and Peach and Berry Cobbler.

          I like this set-up. Each participant had a work area that included a burner. They had all the tools they needed. Better than that, participants are encouraged to bring their own containers so they can take home what they cook. Lunch comes with the workshop, and then of course there’s the tasting of all that good food. And there’s a packet including all the recipes that goes home with folks. Not a bad deal. The price varies depending on the workshop, but seems to run in the $60-70 range, which is a pretty good deal and a lot less expensive than some of the “professional” cooking schools I have attended.

          I found myself really wanting to stay longer, but scheduled demands being what they are I had to leave before the evening’s activities -- which included a lecture on eating within a 100-mile radius, an evening concert by Runaway Planet (on a stage built by UA students), and free beer from Diamond Bear Brewery. When I left out, there were close to 800 people who had gone through registration -- lots more than they had expected, but all the volunteers and UA staff that were running the event dealt with the hassles seamlessly. One of these days I have to get back up there, though… and maybe that’ll be a good day to talk about the Arkansas Rockefeller, and his big farm in the sky… well, close to it.