Friday, December 31, 2010

2010: The year of breakfast.

DOUGHNUT TIME:  At Domingos in Springdale
  • DOUGHNUT TIME: At Domingo's in Springdale
I had a crazy idea coming into 2010. I’d given my two cents to Food Network Magazine about breakfast in this state, and I realized my education level on the subject was not as high as I needed it to be. I couldn’t name 10 non-chain restaurants in the whole state that served a decent breakfast. I needed to change that.
Ruminations on an early morning year... on the jump.
All this started with my first Breakfast Week posted here the first week of 2010. That drew so many comments I did it again, and again. Then, bless his heart, Max graced me with the assignment to bring you my suggestions for the best breakfast in Arkansas. Of course it got out of hand. Of course it did.
The final tally, after that mammoth article and even the breakfasts I’ve picked up since then — breakfast consumed in 89 different Arkansas non-chain restaurants. That doesn’t include repeat business to awesome eateries likeAshley’sB-Side and Calico County — the ABCs of breakfast here in our state. For a former breakfast-averse morning show producer (my schedule got me into disliking breakfast food for a while) allergic to pork, that’s saying something.
Anyway, you think that’d be all that I brought away from this crazy year. Not true. I got to do some traveling outside the state, too. I started working for Serious Eats this year in addition to this grand gig with the Times… covering burgers in Mobile and Gulf Shores, AL; Dallas, TX; Ephraim, WI and Memphis. I got to stomp grapes for the first time — and ended up winning a celebrity grape stomp at the Altus Grape Festival. I found out why there is such a thing as too much good chocolate at the Chocolate Lovers’ Festival in Eureka Springs…
And then there was this moment… probably the worst moment food-wise for me all year — the fried beer at the Texas State Fair. To say that was memorable is an understatement.
Anyway, it’s been a good year for me. I wanted to thank you for sharing these culinary adventures with me. And please keep sending your comments and recommendations… this year was all about breakfast and such, who knows what next year will be?

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Burger joint of the week: EJ's Eats and Drinks.

I have never been to lunch at EJ’s Eats and Drinks and it not be packed. There’s rarely a free table when I go in the door, and oftentime I have to share space with others at their table.

Still, as far as burger joints go, this one has some mondo good things to be said about it — not just about the burger but about its chips and onion rings, too.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Wood-fired Up: Za Za in the Heights.

Za Za is a puzzle piece that was missing from the Little Rock landscape for too long. Before the pizzaria-salad-and-gelato shop opened up in the Heights, there really wasn’t a Napoli-style wood-fired pizza available in Central Arkansas. At least, not to my knowledge.

It’s been a couple years since John Beachboard and Scott McGehee came up with Za Za Fine Salad + Wood Fired Pizza Co., the fine little multi-level eatery in the old Heights Theater building. It sprung to life about the time I was getting through my pregnancy and has grown about the same rate as my little girl -- though Hunter hasn’t sprouted a twin in another city (Za Za opened its second location near Hendrix in Conway in 2010). Visits are rare, thanks to my job, but they’re always excellent.

I discovered while I was pregnant that I could not get enough of their Tandoori Chicken Salad, with Yogurt Dill Cucumber sauce and chick peas and mango and the like. Nor could I stay away from the Feta Potato Rosemary pizza… starchy and sweet with those caramelized onions. It was good food at a good time for me.

Of course I’ve gone back. Hunter usually digs on the breadsticks -- complimentary, thin rods offered in a big bucket, as many as you like -- which she dips into whatever is being eaten at any particular point.

There is somewhere out in the ether a story I wrote about Za Za’s salads; I’m afraid it’s gone the way of the dodo, being eaten by some site upgrade or another. I needed to talk about the pizza, though. A revisit is in order.

I’ve thought a lot about writing specially about Za Za since I was contacted back in February by Serious Eats. An editor for Slice (the pizza lovers’ blog) wanted to know what pizza was available in Arkansas. I was able to tell her all about the biscuit-dough varieties and the cracker-crust version -- and then she asked me about Za Za and I just blubbered along. Yes, we love it. Yes, we’re thankful for having it.

But the idea for writing this piece sat a while. My photographer, Grav Weldon, was recently lamenting that Arkansas has no good pizza, and I just had to correct him on that assumption. I mean, yeah, boy spent years in Chicago amongst some of the best pizzarias in the world. But that doesn’t mean our state’s irredeemable in the pizza realm.

We went on a Wednesday afternoon, catching the tail end of the lunch rush. There was not a free table to be found inside on either level of the place, and there was an extensive line. We decided to split a Quattro Stagioni ($11.75) -- roasted artichoke hearts, prosciutto, black olive and mushrooms on a pie to share. He found a lone table on the balcony above. I grabbed a house blend iced tea.
We figured there’s be a wait, but at least there was a show going on below. The glass-enclosed balcony offers a great view right down onto the salad station, where each salad is assembled. There are a dozen salads already on the menu but you also have the option to create your own. As each salad is ordered, an attendant carefully gathers up ingredients in a stainless steel bowl, adding such things as one of a dozen meats, vegetables ranging from carrots to snap peas to corn, fruits like cherry tomatoes and mango and mandarin oranges, all sorts of crazy things.

Below and to the east there’s an integrated wood fired pizza oven, and two guys were alternating between assembling the pies and shoving them in and out of the oven with paddles.

One of the guys who was making sure tables were quickly bussed and cleaned also delivered pizzas to tables as they came out of the oven. I counted in my head the trips he made up and down the stairs while we were there -- easily four dozen in that hour -- and marveled at how fit he must be.

The party that was at the table next to us got up and left. I was shocked at the amount of food left behind… it was incomprehensible to me, not only because the food at Za Za is excellent but because there are all sorts of available take-home containers -- pizza bags and salad boxes and sacks and everything else you might need. Why in the world? I suppose they must have been in a position where food storage wasn’t available. I have to admit, I lusted over the remnants of their Zapreme pizza left behind.

At least, until our pie arrived, hot and still bubbling from its three minutes inside the 700 degree oven. The scent of roasted artichoke hearts was fantastic. Our host kindly offered “this pie, it usually comes out in quarters with one topping on each section, but the ingredients are all together here. Except the prosciutto, on half.”

We smiled thanks and pulled out the cameras. He looked amused. We both snapped away the way we always do when there’s something to shoot. It’s our way.

The pizzas aren’t huge -- they come in a single irregular size ranging 12-14” with nice bits of char from the quick heat. This particular day the center was soft, but the edges were nice and crusty and the simple sauce starred.

Grav admitted now there was a place he thought the pizza was decent in Arkansas; I guess that will have to do. I adore it, though.

He went down for a salad and came back with a big bowl of green matter with avocados, black olives and such and some Caesar dressing. Make-Your-Own salads start at $5.35 for greens and dressing -- you choose what else goes in, vegetables for 50 cents each and meats individually priced. He was impressed with this, proclaiming this a very good deal for the amount of salad received. I coulda told him that. In fact, I mentioned it before -- in that darn article I can’t seem to locate any more.

Now, salad and pizza is all good and fine on its own, but the real clincher and the reason people still keep coming back to Za Za is the gelato. There are usually a dozen fresh-made flavors to choose from. Some are seasonal, some are standards. I’ve had many of them - pumpkin pie, dulce de leche, Belgian chocolate, tiramisu and Bananas Foster. They’re all fabulous… and really, really rich. I warned Grav he should only get a small cup. He went for Sicilian Pistachio, which he immediately commented on as being the least green pistachio cold confection he could remember trying.

I had the Honey Yogurt gelato… and the first bite was like a cold wind in my face, so clear and cold and solidly sour. It was splendid. The local honey drizzled in was just the right amount of sweet to the tartness within. It was a clean and comfortable flavor that is now on my favorites list.

You’d think in the hour we were in there that things would have slacked off. But they didn’t, not really. The salad station would be busy, then the pizza station, then the gelato station. It was like a series of waves. We captured photos of the people passing below -- and a few looked up at the big camera and grinned.

I have yet to go to the Conway Za Za. I should. I need to. But then again, why should I when I have one right here in town?

I could go on, but others have done that and this piece is plenty long as it is. I just suggest if you’re in Little Rock you should give Za Za a try. And let me know when you do -- I might join you for gelato. Seriously, it’s worth a stop in itself.

You’ll find Za Za in the old Heights Theater building at 5600 Kavanaugh. You can call ahead, I suppose, to (501) 661-ZAZA but better yet check out the website and get an idea of what you want before you go. It’s open every day at 10:30 a.m., until nine on the weekdays and ten on the weekends. See ya there.

ZAZA Fine Salad + Wood-Oven Pizza Co on Urbanspoon

Caffeine in the air at Guillermo's Gourmet Grounds.

MASSIVE BROWNIE:  Goes well with Guillermos
On a rainy day, I enjoy indulging myself in guilty pleasures — an open window when the weather is warmer, or a hot cup of coffee and sugar biscuits.
If I really want to indulge myself, though, I could do much worse than spend a few hours inGuillermo’s Gourmet Grounds, savoring a latte and listening to the pop and sizzle of the coffee roaster.
At Guillermo’s, it’s out in the middle of the place. Well, it is now. A group of my friends would gather at Guillermo’s over several months last year on Friday nights, taking over the lone couch and sharing gossip over little craft projects. The tiny little coffeeshop was the perfect place to chill out and do so. The coffee roaster in the corner was usually silent on those Friday nights.
Eventually live musical acts started coming in and so did customers, and we modified our Friday girl nights elsewhere. So it has been some time since I’ve darkened the door.
I decided today was the perfect day to find a latte and something sweet while getting some work done. The first thing I noticed was the fact that the place is about three times as large now. It’s spacious now, with a lengthy bar and plenty of tables and a fireplace and couches and…
Anyway, I wanted some wintery flavor, so I ordered up a Brown Sugar Cinnamon Latte and pulled a mammoth brownie out of the jar and paid up. I found a nice corner in which to work, plugged in and wired up.
I was interrupted by the clatter of coffee beans. Hans Oliver is in today, and he was getting the beans together for roasting. I knew who he was because of John Tarpley’s excellent article from a few months ago.
Typing away to the sounds of roasting was pleasant. There’s no music overhead here, just the quiet din of conversation and the rattle and pop of beanery. And though I was writing about pizza and brooms (you’ll see), the thought of coffee never left my head thanks to the roasting soundtrack.
At one point during the roasting there was a sizzle and pop that continued for nearly 30 seconds. I can only imagine this was a change in the state of the beans themselves.
The scent of the coffee changes as it’s roasted. About 30 minutes after I observed the beans going in there was a heavy salty scent in the air, sort of like popcorn but more robust. The scent spread through the room and perked me right up, even more than the coffee. At this point another amount of beans was dropped into the giant funnel on top of the coffee roaster. The rattling sounded like a big wave in the machine that grew quieter and quieter.
The machine itself sounds like a dishwasher going, not too loud. At times the beans sound like popping corn; at others like pennies in a piggy bank being rolled over and over again.
It went on most of the afternooon — the constant hum, the occasional rattle. It was fine music for my writing and for the consumption of the excellent brownie I had acquired. A full inch and a half thick and three inches square, the slightly moist chocolate confection was sufficiently dense, studded with semi-sweet chocolate chips and graced with that lovely crusty end on two sides. The top had that perfect brownie crisp. It was rich, almost painfully so, and I nibbled on it for over an hour.
There’s no rush to get you out the door… Guillermo’s is excellent in that regard. In fact, no one pestered me all afternoon after I picked my order up at the counter. I had my little corner table to myself, and while I could envelop myself in the coffee-and-a-show aspects of the coffee roasting, I could also divorce myself from the scene with my earbuds, typing out more about salads and drum sets and all the things that have consumed my day.
You notice I’ve said nothing about the coffee. I shouldn’t have to. But in case you just haven’t had the experience, Guillermo’s does the classic coffee designer beverages well. If I hadn’t been craving sweets so strongly, I’d likely have gone for my favorite of their roasts, the Monk’s Blend. Smooth yet hearty and nicely bold, a shake-you-by-the-shoulders wake-up cuppa with excellent body. Well, there you go.
Guillermo’s is also offering sandwiches and such for more substantial fare. I guess I’m gonna have to try that at some point or another. Watch this space.
Guillermo’s is north off Rodney Parham at I-430 next door to Chili’s. It’s open 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday-Friday and 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday. Get your grounds on. (501) 228-4448 or check out the website.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Reader Railroad: End of the Line?

Have the last days of the last exclusively-steam-powered common carrier standard gage railroad left in North America passed us by?

You may not know about Reader Railroad, but I do. Not the property on that old Monopoly board in your rec room -- the Reader Railroad operated its short route for more than a century, completely and exclusively with the power of steam.

It all goes back to Lee Reader’s sawmill opened back in 1880 just north of a little community that would become Sayre. Reader’s sawmill took in loads from Nevada and Ouachita counties. To bring the wood in to be processed, dozens of miles of standard rail track was laid out in spurs here and there into the forest. A single small steam-powered locomotive pulled the haul in… aided from time to time by an oxen team to get it over hills.

In 1884 the St. Louis Iron Mountain and Southern Railroad laid a line from its main line at Gurdon down to Camden some 30 miles away. It ran by the mill, and that’s where the community of Reader was formed.

The Mansfield Hardwood Company bought the line and the mill in 1923 and started to diversify in oil, recently discovered in the area. The Possum Trot Line was created since Mansfield was carrying products it didn’t own.

Tom Long bought the property in 1956 and ran freight on it, interchanging with Missouri Pacific at Reader. He probably would have continued to just run that freight, but word got out that he was still using steam engines to pull those loads, and people came down and begged him to let him ride the train through the Timberlands. He obliged them.

It’s not surprising that Long decided the real money was with the tourists who were coming down and filling his caboose on each run, so he bought some passenger cars and started selling tickets in December 1962.

Mr. Long’s freight days were drying up when the Barry Asphalt Plant closed at Waterloo, the other end of his line back in 1973. He started pulling up track and abandoning the right-of-way. That didn’t settle well with enthusiasts, who formed a corporation and bought the railroad in May of 1975. The old rail station at Wheelen Springs, built in 1887, was relocated to Reader.

My folks are from that area, and I can quite recall the way the railroad used to sit on the side of Highway 368. There was a seven mile round trip tourists could take from the station all the way down to Camp Dewoody and back. The wood-burning steam engine would drag the train down there and get turned around on a giant turntable and sent back along its way. The old Reader Railroad website says that engine is the No. 7, a 2-6-2 Prairie Locomotive built in 1907. That website also says it’s the only such locomotive still in regularly-scheduled service in North America.

I also remember my excitement sitting down in front of a TV in 1985 to watch the John Jakes mini-series North and South, which filmed its railroad scenes on the old Reader Railroad. The locomotives and track have also featured in other productions such as Summer’s End and Boxcar Bertha.

This summer I went down to Reader, recalling my fascination with the train and interested in writing a story about a trip on the train. I was disappointed to find the site all but abandoned, piles of track and old rail cars littering the old lot. I was startled to see a passenger car on what appeared to be flatbed tires. But I also noticed the newly refurbished engines and cars barely visible from the front of the property.

I’ve had no luck finding recent information on the railroad. The website hasn’t been updated since 2008 and there’s little information elsewhere. I did hear that trains from the yard were sent out for the filming of 3:10 to Yuma but that’s where the end of this mental track lies.

The Enclyclopedia of Arkansas says the track ceased operation in 1991 because the railroad could not meet new federal standards. But if that's the case... why has the track been in operation since then? From what I understand, the ceasation of operations has to be a relatively recent thing. I’d love more information on it, if only to provide a final chapter to this rail story.

The idea of having the last standard grade steam powered passenger train providing regular service in Arkansas is attractive. Will it come back? I don’t know. Maybe I’ll know soon.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Chocolate, the Arkansas way.

There’s a lot of chocolate in the state of Arkansas. Believe me, I’ve sampled a whole lot of it. Some of it comes from out of state. Some of it, like Cocoa Belle and Simply Delicious is more recent and gourmet.

But the deepest roots of Arkansas chocolate span back 86 years to one man -- Martin L. Greer. He made candy on his family farm and sold them in town along with the family’s produce. The next year he was hired on at a Greek candy shop out of Texarkana.

Greer started out apprenticing here and there and worked his way across Texas doing so. He started off with hard stick candy and worked into the softer candies and eventually, in the early 50s, into chocolate.

Greer inspired not one family of chocolatiers and candy makers -- he inspired two, the families of two separate sons heading different directions in the world.

One of these was Martin Greer, who specializes in all sorts of chocolates, brittles and the like in a little shop outside of Gateway, AR. You draw yourself a line between Pea Ridge Battlefield and Eureka Springs and you’ll find yourself there.

In the middle of nowhere is this little neat white shop that emits the smell of chocolate that can be picked up a half mile away. I’m not really exaggerating there.

I’m a frequent visitor to Martin Greer’s. His wife Jeanette dips candies. His son Uriah sells it, does the computer part of the business and is learning the candy making secrets from his dad. And there’s something about the chocolate there that keeps me coming back. You know you done good in my world if I gift you with chocolates from Martin Greer’s; it is my favorite chocolate in the whole world and I tend to bogart it.

I mentioned that there are two families of Greer chocolatiers… the second one’s a lot closer to a modern city. That’d be Tommy and Berry Ann Greer, who took Kopper Kettle Kandies in Van Buren over from his dad and continue to run it today. Their grandkids work with the shop some, which gives them the right to mention that they’re a four-generation shop.

There’s a location of Kopper Kettle in Fort Smith now, but I wanted to go to the original store out east of Van Buren on Highway 64. It’s a much larger store than Martin Greer’s, full of not just chocolate and candies but memorabilia and dollies and baskets and whathaveyou.

Kopper Kettle Candies range through the candy scale -- chocolate covered cherries, divinity, pralines, toffees, truffles, peanut brittle, fudge, creams and chocolate covered nuts and something called “Ozarkies,” a light vanilla cream center covered by milk and dark vanilla chocolate and pecans. They carry other sorts of goodies made elsewhere, like lollipops and jelly beans. There’s all sorts of stuff inside.

I suppose part of the difference in the stores comes from the dates involved. Martin Greer’s, while still referencing the patriarch of the family, dates its recipes back to 1897 and emphasizes candies made with Old World methods. Kopper Kettle dates its traditions back to 1925 and emphasizes its ingredients and confections. Well, maybe they really aren’t that different.

I don’t know what caused the split between the two candy makers -- I’ve never done the official interview thing with the families, just casually asked about the heritage when I’ve dropped in on one and the other. When I asked at Martin Greer’s about Kopper Kettle, I just got a cryptic “yeah, they’re related” from the seasonal (Valentine’s Day) help running the register. At Kopper Kettle this December I got a little more from the hostess of the day, who told me that Tommy and Martin are brothers. Well, to each his own. There’s probably a really good reason that one doesn’t advertise the other. I’m sure some of it has to do with competition.

Which brings me to Kopper Kettle’s fabulous chocolates. While their barks are, to me, a shade less tasty than Martin Greer’s, their truffles are something to make you cry, sweetness in so many varieties as to boggle the mind. The Ozarkies are wonderful and addictive. The pralines some of the best you can get in our state.

Will I lean more towards one than the other? Overall I cannot. Kopper Kettle is far more convenient as far as pick-up goes (two and a half hours from home rather than the four plus hours to Gateway) but Martin Greer’s has a more comprehensive website and seems easier to order from. I think it’s important to talk about them both, though, when mentioning Arkansas’ most representative chocolate makers.

You’ll find Martin Greer’s Candies on Highway 62 in Gateway. Don’t worry, there are signs that warn you to slow down for the turn. (479) 656-1440.

And Kopper Kettle Kandies can be found on Highway 64 between Van Buren and Alma on the south side of the road. (479) 474-6077.