Thursday, September 29, 2011

Egg Custard Pie and Pan Fried Chicken.

Big families aren’t the norm any more.  Used to be a family of ten or more would be common -- since families needed to be big to run big homesteads and the like.  Not these days.  As a mom in a single child family, I’m kinda the standard there.

How about a couple that had seven kids just over a year after they got married -- and then went on to have 14 more?  No, it’s not some sensational crazy multiples story.  It’s the story of the Jefferys out of tiny Casscoe, AR.  George and Girstine Jeffery started off shortly after their marriage as surrogate parents to seven children.  They then went on to build their own family, having ten girls and four boys along the way.  Girstine was known as “Dew-Baby,” and it’s after her this little restaurant in Stuttgart is named.

I went on a Friday to seek out something fantastical -- an egg custard pie of some renown.  I was very happy to see it on the menu.  Egg custard is one of those great cultural pies that doesn’t seem to ever have caught on with the frou-frou set.  It’s very pedestrian, very rural… and very comforting.  A good egg custard pie is filling, too.

We pulled up to the well-used building on Michigan Street (next door to, of all things, a gyro shack) and went on in.  Dew-Baby’s is two separate dining rooms… the one you walk into with the counter and the buffet bar, and the one on the side where the restrooms are.  It was 11 o’clock dead on and we were apparently the first customers of the day.

I talked with the ladies a bit before ordering that pie.  They’re all daughters (and one daughter-in-law) of Dew-Baby, and they work together lovingly.

Thing is, even though I was planning to dine somewhere else (I had a busy day planned) I couldn’t resist the scent that struck me when I walked through the door.  Fried chicken.  Pan fried chicken at that, the sort that comes from a cast iron skillet.  Oh, I was having lunch.

I asked for dark meat chicken with my meat-and-three ($7.25) -- and the two sisters working the counter that day mentioned they always preferred the breast meat, I suspect since they make theirs nice and juicy -- but I got my dark meat chicken and three sides.  I chose French fries, baked beans and a pre-made lettuce-based salad that had a number of items in it.  My other choices were corn on the cob and hush puppies, and fried catfish for the main course.

And of course I ordered up that egg custard pie.  I was going to have me some of that.  Desserts are $2.50 each, well worth it.  The other choices that day was sweet potato pie, Pineapple Upside Down Cake, Chocolate Cake and Cream Cheese Cake.

My photographer and I had a seat while we waited for the plate to be made up.  We sipped briefly on iced tea before one of the sisters brought the plate to the table.  It smelled heavenly.

The fried chicken… okay, we’re going to have to put some debate to this.  I have eaten what I thought was the best fried chicken in the state -- which has been either at AQ Chicken House in Springdale or at the Monte Ne Inn Chicken Restaurant.  This chicken… wait for the blasphemy here… was BETTER.  It had the tenderness and flavor of being buttermilk-soaked, a very light bit of spicing that I felt had to have included some lemon pepper, it was juicy, it was flavorful, it was tender and it was golden.  And yet still it was nothing in comparison to the pie I was about to receive.

The side dishes were odd but good.  The baked beans were of the same sort you normally find in Pork N’ Beans but were flavored instead with brown sugar and ground beef, almost identical to the Settler’s Beans my mom makes each Thanksgiving.  The fries were about average.  The prepared salad was interesting -- bacon (which I avoided), shredded Cheddar cheese, iceberg lettuce, cucumber, slices of hard boiled egg and English peas in what tasted like a version of Miracle Whip.

And then there was the egg custard pie.  It was pretty.  It had sliced clean, indicative of a balanced hand in its construction.  It was substantial… I mean, well, it’s like eating an omelet as far as the cholesterol and calories go, frankly.  But I tell you -- I was won over by three facts.  The pie was created with a homemade, folded over flour pastry that was slightly salty.   The custard was homogenous and perfect -- very firm and very smooth.  And the top had been browned to an almost crème brulee perfection.  I have yet to find a better pie.

We talked with one of the sisters, who came over to talk with us about The Lord and how He takes care of us, no matter our troubles.  It was a bit of good conversation to have while enjoying a good meal, and we saw it repeated with the only other first-time visitor who came in the door.  Regulars they all greeted by name, asking about families and how work was going and all sorts of things like that.

We had to finish up and get on the road, but I made a note I need to return, probably on a Tuesday when all the vegetables like the PurpleHull Peas and such are out.  I was thrilled to finally find a really great restaurant in town, and I’m looking forward to going back and hearing more about this neat family.

Turns out there’s a book on the matter called “Ten Sisters” by Rose Stovall, one of the sisters, a collection of stories from each of the sisters about their mom and dad and growing up in Casscoe.  I’m going to seek this book out and read it.  I think it might give me more insight into life in the Delta.

You’ll find Dew-Baby’s at 813 E. Michigan in Stuttgart.  It’s open 8 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday through Friday and 10 a.m.-6 p.m. on Saturday.  (870) 672-7333 or check out the Facebook page.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Pieday: Lemon Meringue at Neal's Cafe.

Tart and thick, Neal's Cafe's lemon meringue
pie appears like a snow-covered Peep
atop a nuclear explosion. (Kat Robinson)
Have you ever driven somewhere just for pie? Well, yes, I do that — but usually I get something else to eat along the way.
This time around, no go… I was already stuffed. I was working my way through the Fayetteville-Springdale area and had already consumed portions of four other slices of pie and half a burger at other establishments visited. I shouldn’t have been hungry. The game plan, as always: take two bites, put it in a box.

Except at Neal’s Café in Springdale, I just couldn’t. That pie dun got ate.

Neal's Cafe:  Classic sign, pink exterior,
hard to miss. (Grav Weldon)
Nope, didn’t make this trip on my own. My photographer and I had six destinations and seven pies to hit that day, playing catch-up for vacation time. My Texas journey and his Alaskan sojourn had taken precious time from our important and time-cinched search for the best pie in the state of Arkansas. We had to cover ground quick.

We’d already tried the coconut and chocolate meringue pies at Mama Z’s in Tontitown and the strawberry chiffon and Awesome Possum pies (and lunch) at the Front Porch Diner in Springdale and still had to hit Feltner Brothers (not for pie but a check-in to the new College Street location), Sassy’s Red House and Greenhouse Grill in Fayetteville. So yeah, we were watching our consumption.

Masculine, green tiled and PINK.  Neal's Cafe is quite
certain of its masculinity.
Still, Neal’s Café. Pink. Old fashioned in a very Lodge-meets-Automat sort of way. Did I mention it was pink? Wood topped tables. Big deer and elk heads on the wall. And a pie case on a counter in the center back of the room…

So, the menu actually gives a little history, which didn’t help my growling stomach. As I mentioned, I’d already had lunch and bites of four pies. But hearing that this place was known for its pan fried chicken… I wanted to try it and I couldn’t. I couldn’t risk not being able to sample all those pies and I didn’t want to explode along the way. Made me sorta sad.

So, turns out the place has been open since 1944 and has been in the Neal family all that time. Their motto is “Serving the Best of Better Foods.” It’s a timewarp. A lovely, lovely timewarp.

There's no color correction here.  That really is it.
Those pies, though. At first, from across the room at least, the pies looked as if someone had piled meringue atop those Peeps chicks. Big tall peaks. Closer in they were more marvelous, big tall peaks of perfectly toasted meringue.

We asked which was the favorite flavor and got a list. We passed on the Tropical pie, which is bananas and coconut and pineapple together, and went for the Lemon Meringue. And I tell you, it’s a rare thing to see such a pungent yellow meringue anywhere. It’s piquantly lemon with substance and heft, a thick deep yellow custard that clings beautifully. The custard was topped with an equally texturally thick meringue with the most beautiful toasted top on it. The crust: folded flour, barely flavor but built on those tight thin layers for the perfect cut.

See, this is a pie you wouldn’t want to see mangled. Because of that firm custard, tight meringue and layered crust, you can get a perfect slice every time out of one of those pies. Every one of the pies has six perfect peaks, and each slice contains one of those peaks. Beautiful. Tops as far as diner pies ever go.

I would have liked to had the fried chicken, and I bet I will before I die, I’m certain of that. I settled for the pie and for encouraging my photographer to try one of the ancient and odd Cajun Chef brand sport peppers (which to this point I thought were a Chicago thing) from the on-table set-up, which also included North Little Rock’s own Fischer Honey.

This historic postcard MIGHT be Neal's.  Still investigating.

You’ll find Neal’s Café on Thompson (the main north-south drag through town). It’s open Monday through Saturday 6 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. and until 2 p.m. on Sunday. (479) 751-9996 or check out the restaurant website.

Neal's Cafe on Urbanspoon

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Burger joint of the week: Hamburger Barn.

Arkadelphia is light on non-chain restaurants. Since the closing of Bowen's a few years ago, families have been left with few options for good eats. That's part of the reason I'm glad Hamburger Barn has survived.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

How to Start A Green Market, Right.

Fairhope, AL’s Windmill Market takes green to the extreme.

With the advent of the locavore movement, more farmers markets are springing up. Groups like our own Certified Arkansas Farmers Market are making sure that what comes from the field and ends up on your table is as organic and pure as possible.

But what about the physical structure of the farmers market experience? Need it be just simple pop-up tents and pickup truck beds?

Fairhope, AL has gone a step beyond. Opened in October 2009, the Windmill Market takes advantage of a facility vacated by a car dealership. Architects and owners Marc and Gina Walcott built into the existing structure and outfitted it with green ideas of all sorts. Today the market is home to Westside Grocery, which purchases all of its offerings from local farmers, fishermen and livestock producers. It’s also home to a great barbecue joint called Moe’s Original and to a four day a week arts and crafts market utilized by home and regional crafters.

It’s the building itself though that provides the most interest. With just $200,000 in pocket, the Walcotts retrofitted the 6600 square foot dealership into a LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design)-approved structure. Walcott Adams Verneuille Architects in Fairhope designed the project with the assistance of their green consulting firm Watershed.

The Walcotts wanted to go as green as possible with the project. They enlisted the help of Gulf Coast Green Power in bringing in the windmill that stands today not only to reduce the market’s draw on the power grid but which serves as a landmark to guide visitors to the market itself. It’s almost silent as it oscillates in the wind. The 45-foot towering windmill provides all the power the market needs -- and more. There’s even a jack available to power your electric car with windmill energy.

The building itself was reconstructed with use of recycled and repurposed materials to cut down on construction costs and waste. When it’s hot, a geothermal air conditioning unit cools the area. The roofline was extended out to create more shade, and solar panels reside above to collect even more energy. Low VOC paints were used for the interior. Skylights throughout reduce the need for lighting. Busted up parking lot asphalt was used for low walls around the garden.

Westside Grocery composts all vegetative matter collected at the Market. Rainwater is collected and used not only for the community garden available on site but to flush the low-water toilets in the restroom. The gardens themselves host a variety of great produce, herbs and flowers available to Fairhope visitors and natives.

It’s an interesting project that’s already grown. Not even two years old, Windmill Market has become a destination for eco-tourists who are looking for ideas to take home with them. Westside Grocery is now open seven days a week, taking in fresh produce, baked goods, eggs and meat to sell as well as providing a marketplace for local packaged goods such as pizza sauce from the popular Ravenite Pizzaria around the corner and locally combed honey. There’s always a packed house on market days, when local vendors come in and utilize booth space for a small fee.

Windmill Market has become part of the community, with evening concerts scheduled during the weekend and an open gathering space that draws folks together. It’ll be interesting to see if similar structures pop up in our market.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Pieday: Key Lime at Rolando's

In case you haven’t figured it out yet, all my entries right now are focusing on places that have cheese dip on the menu. Technically, this is not the case for Rolando’s, since what you read on the menu is “Queso Flamado.” And that, my friends, bears little similarity to native Arkansas cheese dip. Doesn’t mean it isn’t good…
The pie, though, bears special mention.

I have to say, I love and adore Rolando’s. I usually over-order just so I have something to take home with me. I could easily just sit and enjoy the El Plato Cubano ($7.25 at lunch), billed as Castro’s favorite with just rice and beans and cheese and guacamole — and be happy as a clam. But I usually get the same dish every time. Sad of me?

Well, if you’ve ever tried Rolando’s Quesadillas de Chivo ($7.95 lunch, $14.95 dinner) you would understand why. This beautiful dish is… well, beautiful. Goat cheese quesadillas. Oh my oh my oh my. The almost tart, always fresh goat cheese pressed between two flour tortillas is simply fantastic. I paid a buck more and had chicken added and I don’t know why — because while the chicken was good, it was completely unnecessary. The real secret to the goodness behind the dish is the complex flavors brought on by drizzles of a chimichurri style green Argentinian sauce and a pureed mango salsa. The triangles of quesadilla are served up with a big pile of vegetation — corn and beans and rice and some tomatoes and a lot of sour cream and more of the sauces — and some beautiful red tortilla chips.

My companion, completely overwhelmed with the choices, decided to give the Plato de Aventura ($9.25 lunch, $18.95 dinner) a spin… and was greeted with so many different variations. There was of course a tamale on top, fat and cornhusk wrapped, savory and delicious. There were plump highly seasoned shrimp, a delicate chicken enchilada, a goat cheese quesadilla wedge, guacamole, black beans, rice, corn, pickled onions and a grilled chicken breast. Way too much good food and all of it just splendid.

Now, that “cheese dip.” We’d ordered a half order of the Queso Flamado without the chorizo (since I can’t have the pork) and were greeted with a tortilla-lined bowl of soft, fragrant melted cheese — which was set aflame when it came to the table. The flames didn’t last long, and neither did the cheese. It was… well, it wasn’t much of being dip-able. I ate it with a fork, pulling off bits and stuffing them into soft flour tortillas while my dining companion did the same with his corn tortilla chips.

It’s queso cheese… it’s good cheese, and it has magnificent pull. What sort of pull? THIS sort of pull. As in able to stand up and walk upstairs and still carry on this string of cheese pull. Amazing. Tasty.

So, I was going to tell you about this pie. Now, mind you, our drop-in on Rolando’s came in the middle of a pie trip to the Hot Springs area, and we’d already eaten four pies that day (and would have another three before the afternoon was over). Each of these pies (except the one at Red Oak Fillin Station) we’d take a single bite of, rate and then put in a box.
We sorta did that. The entire time we were sampling this pie we were arguing over how much we should eat. It was fabulous.

I’m not much on thick crust pies, but I was able to overlook the overenthusiastic graham cracker crust with this one — because the custard within was so good. Fresh key limes, very tart, made not just the traditional custard base but also the whipped layer above, giving two entirely different texture sensations. It was topped with generous dollops of whipped cream and a nice counterpoint drizzle of raspberry couli that somehow wasn’t as tart as this pie.

We ate most of it. Some went in the box, sure, but it was hard to stop. Still walked out of there with three big take-out boxes of food.

Ah, here’s the thing. We went to the Hot Springs location… and there’s this patio. It was way to dang hot to sit on the patio that day but today would be perfect for it. It’s a grand oasis away from Bathhouse Row and Central Avenue, and you should enjoy it. Sometimes there’s live music. Always there’s great food.

You’ll find this Rolando’s at 210 Central Avenue in Hot Springs. There are also locations in Fort Smith and Rogers. Go check out the website.

Rolando's Nuevo Latino Restaurante Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Best Place To Chill in Eureka Springs: Sparky's Roadhouse Cafe.

I have been holding out on you for a long, long time. And I’ll tell you why. I like going to Sparky’s Roadhouse Café anytime I am in Eureka Springs -- and once I give it an official review, then I don’t have a reason to go again, right?

Of course, I still will. Sparky’s is a nice, comfortable casual place that always feeds me well. And the burger? Make that burgers… are always good. And so’s the cheese dip.

But that’s not all the goodness served up at the popular red and white and black dive on the main drag (Highway 62, for non-locals). There are fine dishes and common dishes and truffles, too. And the place is always open -- even when it snows.

It was recommended to me by Edwige Denyszyn over at Keel’s Creek some great time back… which was funny, since I had expected asking the great French winemaker where to go eat that a more expensive locale would be recommended. Not at all. She told me I had to try the cheese. And I have, so many times over.

Last summer I went over to Sparky’s for lunch with the hubster. We wanted something light to deal with the heat, so he chose the Miami Tuna Dinner ($12.95) and I went for the $6 Lunch Enchilada special. His tuna was a beautiful pink thing under a canopy of peppers and onions and spices that went awesomely well with his rather large dinner salad. Yay.

Still, I got the much better deal with the special. The lunch special is one enchilada and two sides… yet the portions were large. The enchilada was about double the size I expected, filled with tender shredded chicken and a creamy sauce. There was a whole pile of black beans, and the fries (my other side) came out in a full size basket.

I went by myself while covering the Chocolate Lover’s Festival in 2010. It was a blustery cold winter night and snow was on the ground, but I knew I’d find my warm solace inside at Sparky’s. I was right, of course.

I found that solace in a bowl of the restaurant’s Queso Rojo (at the time both Queso Rojo and Queso Verde were sold, the latter later being taken off the menu), served up with a basket of tricolor chips. The only red cheese dip I know of, it’s actually more of a yellow but with a nice color from paprika, cayenne and cumin. This… this is my favorite cheese dip in the world, better than anything I have ever found in Little Rock.

I had my cheese dip and chips served up on the side with my Rockin‘s Deluxe Cheeseburger ($7.95). What makes it rockin’? The cheese -- your choice of pepper jack, imported swiss or New York State Sharp Cheddar, the latter of which I chose. SHARP Cheddar. Ah, wow. Good sharp cheddar served melted atop a prime Creekstone Beef half pound hand patted patty grilled to medium. Yes, the cheese was slightly overpowering. That’s fine. It’s so dang good. It like all the burgers at Sparky’s was served up on a soft Kaiser roll with green leaf lettuce, pickles, tomato and white onion ringlets on the side, along with a pile of potato chips. You can upgrade to French fries for a buck more, by the way.

I even had a Chambord truffle, which was fabulous. At $2 you might wonder how the place is able to sell these tiny chocolates, but they are very, very good.

Well, this past January I was back in town to work on a story… and it was snowing. There was more than a foot of snow on the ground, and Sparky’s Roadhouse was the only place anywhere still open at 7 p.m. on a Friday night. And it was packed. There was little space to do much of anything for that 20 minute wait, but the staff was still happy and friendly and joking about the “immobilizing” storm and all the people who’d come out of the woodwork to come out to the restaurant. That was something.

My dining companion and I were seated at a booth in the corner of the main dining area and were almost overcome by the voices -- so many people crowded into the restaurant, communing. Still, we were able to place an order for a Havana Heat Wave Burger ($8.95), a Barbara’s Reuben ($8.50) and a basket of fries between us (our side item on both, which came out to $1 more each). We also ordered that cheese dip again, since I wanted someone else to taste it.

Now, we had debated on a hotter burger… there are a whole string of hot burgers on the menu, ranging from the Kid Creole Burger with its Cajun butter to the Stupid Hott Burger that requires a waiver to be signed. Not having an idea of the scale of heat, my dining companion went midway and went with that Havana Heat Wave Burger -- which turned out to be about a little bit of sweat on a very cold and snowy winter night. The onions were
nice and grilled soft, the habanero and red pepper salsa was smooth and the burger was its usual half pound of greatness.

But that Reuben… oh my. Instead of the traditional corned beef-Russian dressing-sauerkraut, it had been tampered with. The corned beef was there and fresh on the nice fresh and toasted rye bread. The sauerkraut had been grilled and had achieved a nice caramelization. The whole thing, though, was tagged together not with Russian dressing but with Remoulade sauce, a different take on it all.

And of course my skin-on fries went right in the dip, that great red cheese dip that’s now stood the test of time and will hopefully always be available at Sparky’s.

Does this mean I’m done eating there? Nah. While I always choose to sample as many of the great culinary offerings as Eureka Springs will throw at me on each visit, I still have a soft spot for Sparky’s and things I want to try on the menu -- like the Chicken and Goat Cheese Quesadilla. I still haven’t gotten around to Edwige’s suggestion for the cheese platter, so that might eventually happen. One way or another, you should consider this an endorsement. Sure, when you’re vacationing go do the frou frou and the unusual. And when you’re done with that and want some real food, stop in to Sparky’s Roadhouse Café.

You’ll find Sparky’s Roadhouse Café on Highway 62 east of downtown. It’s open Tuesday through Thursday 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. and an hour later on Friday and Saturday, closed Sunday and Monday. Call (479) 253-6001 or check out the website.

One more tip.  Go use the restroom.  For some strange reason, the folks that run Sparky's thought it'd be a great idea to decorate the women's restroom in less-than-classic album covers.  Wow, man.  Albums such as Banjo Spectacular!  String along with the Banjo Barons!  Like the All Star Color TV Revue.  Vinyl-known little-spinners such as the Jimmy Peace Singers' He Rescued Me.  Music for Listening and Dancing.  The Julie Andrews Christmas album.  Caribbean Holiday by the, I kid you not, Gay Desperados Steel Orchestra.  The Four Prep's less-than-popular Dances and Dreaming.  Phil and Louis Palermo's We Want To Sing. Finally, children, we now know where bad LPs go to die.

Sparky's Cafe and Ultra Lounge Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato