Friday, February 25, 2011

Penguins Come To Play.

My daughter Hunter loves to go to the zoo. I don’t indulge her enough in this, I know -- a busy travel schedule and so many articles to write when I am home limits the time I have to take her out for an afternoon here and there amongst the giraffes and elephants at the Little Rock Zoo. I do need to correct this oversight.

But I am glad we were invited for a special sneak peek of the new Laura P. Nichols Penguin Pointe at the zoo this week. It was a very rare opportunity to see something straight off the blocks.

We joined our good friend Kelli at the front gates of the zoo Wednesday afternoon for a short but frisky ride in a golf cart to the new exhibit area. It’s about dead center of the zoo, overlooking some of the great apes and within eyeshot of the tigers. From a distance it’s a big outcropping of rocks under a cast iron mesh dome. Intriguing.

Kelli lead us down a path to a small staircase underneath what appeared to be a wrecked and overturned dinghy. Hunter had no problem making it downstairs, but Kelli and I had to duck underneath. There we found a semicircular window that looked down the exhibit at ground level.

I helped Hunter up the substantial step there and let her take a look. “Mommy?” she asked me, peering about.

“Look close, Hunter,” I told her, and she focused her eyes as she chewed on the nipple of her bottle. “Do you see them?”

She gasped and looked back at me. “Penguins?”

“Yes, Hunter, those are penguins,” I told her. She looked back and pointed. There were just two in view at that moment, sitting on the rocks built up on the far side of the exhibit from where we were standing.

Kelli was telling me all about the exhibit, and suggested I come around to the other side. I helped Hunter down and we exited the other side of the overturned “dinghy” to the sidewalk. I could see a tall tank and a new building topped with plants ahead of me. To my left, big glass panels that held back the water.

“Can you see the penguins?” Kelli asked Hunter, but from Hunter’s perspective on the ground she could see only the water. Kelli climbed up on the step just outside the glass and I helped Hunter climb up into her arms. She gasped again when she saw the birds on the other side of the glass.

“Penguins!” she exclaimed, and proceeded to take in everything she saw with big eyes. For a few minutes I took photos while the two of them looked at the birds.

Another journalist, Jennifer Dixon with the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, had just arrived so we scampered down and back to the golf cart, which Kelli backed up and off-roaded to get around to the front again. Journalist tucked in, we went back and met with a couple of familiar faces, including Zoo education director (and longtime friend) Mark Shaw.

The penguins, more than half a dozen now, were all standing on the edge of the water, trying to decide if it was worth diving in. I do need to explain that they probably weren’t worried about the cold -- though it was in the 50s in Little Rock that day the water in the exhibit was heated, and I’m sure it would have felt splendid to take a swim.

These birds aren’t Antarctic penguins like you see in movies like Happy Feet. They’re from South Africa, African blackfoot penguins to be exact. They’re also called Jackass penguins because their call sounds like a braying mule. They’re sort of tropical birds and they like temperate climates. Of course, to be able to survive in summer heat in Arkansas they have to be pretty hardy fowl.

Hunter had already figured out two and two and calculated that if she could see a swimming pool and the birds were by that swimming pool that they could swim. “Penguins! Penguins! Come on in!” she hollered. “Water is fine!”

They stood on the edge of the water, jostling each other a little closer to the edge. I figured they could probably hear her a bit, but whether or not they were going to heed her, well, that was up to them.

And then suddenly they were in the water, five of the birds, plopping in clumsily on the surface but becoming fantastic black and white streaked torpedoes as they submerged, darting back and forth and playing, even. Hunter squealed with delight and watched them, her hands and face pressed against the glass.

There are nine birds total in the exhibit, seven males and two females. Of the nine, there’s a mated pair. The rest are “tweens,” adolescent penguins not quite ready to mate yet. There are also a couple of other African blackfoot penguins that won’t be joining them in the exhibit. Laura and Skipper will be with the education department. They’ll live behind the Civitan amphitheater stage and will eventually go out to schools and such as part of the education outreach program.

“Where did they go?” Hunter asked. The penguins had darted out of view. We walked back towards the dinghy. Flashes of black and white passed us again through the other panels of glass. Hunter ran down to the end and crawled under the dinghy again.

That dinghy, strangely enough, is made out of concrete. It’s a nice little kid-friendly observation point under there. There’s an observation point for the land section of the exhibit up top for the adults and of course those grand glass panels along the sides, but this area is just for the shorter-statured. Hunter clambered back up on the steps and squealed when she saw the penguins come up for air.

The dinghy and the rocks are all concrete, fabricated concrete gunite that should hold up well over time. The small mesh that’s over the upper part of the exhibit allows people to see into the exhibit and for the penguins to enjoy Arkansas and its climate -- but that mesh is also small enough that items such as coins can’t make it through. A single penny would be enough to choke a penguin to death, so it’s important to keep those items away. It will also keep other birds from getting in and harassing the penguins, though I have no idea if that’s a problem or not.

All of the birds in the exhibit come from the Species Survival Program -- a program shared with other zoos in which species like these are preserved through breeding programs. The birds all come from one place or another -- four from the Pueblo Zoo, three from Steinhart Aquarium in San Francisco, two from the Hogle Zoo in Salt Lake City, and one from the Tulsa Zoo. While just nine birds will share this enclosure for right now, it’s big enough to house 20 -- the 1500 square feet of surface space is about the size of a typical ranch house.

Keepers were coming down to work with the penguins, and it was time for the birds to get out of the water. But we noticed they really didn’t want to get out. I couldn’t blame them -- playing in a nice warm pool or getting out into the chilly wind? I know which one I’d choose.




Mark tapped on the window lightly with the pads of his fingertips and a couple of the birds came up to the window, fascinated. They also peered through to Hunter, darting in front of her until they needed to go up for air and then coming back down. They seem to be naturally curious, just like us.

That tank I’d seen earlier, Mark explained, was for the exhibit, a water tank just for that pool. Inside the little low-rise building next to it were sand filters, pumps, a water chilling system for summer, ozonator and such. It’s lit by skylights and is buried to keep heating and cooling costs down, and the plants on top are local plants chosen to fit in with the whole African veldt theme that section of the zoo has picked up.

Thing is, Penguin Pointe is rather neat. It may be the only sort of exhibit of its kind, certainly is around these parts where you can view the penguins both in the water and on the land. The tank holds 20,000 gallons of water, plenty for the birds to play in. There are nesting boxes in the back almost out of sight where the males will keep eggs warm to hatch (that’s a penguin thing, the males doing it) and there’s a viewing area on the indoor section of the exhibit where keepers will work with the animals. It’s a pretty impressive $2.3 million dollar exhibit -- and all that money was raised and the whole thing built over four years thanks to donations, grants and other fundraising efforts.

Well, we’d been there a while and it was time to move on. We quickly toured the zoo before heading home… it was chilly and coming up on Hunter’s naptime. I buckled her into her carseat and climbed in, and moments after I started the car I looked back I noticed she’d fallen fast asleep.

She’s been talking non-stop about the penguins ever since, looking at the photos I took and telling her daddy that we’re going to go out and see them again soon. Soon will be about a week from now -- when the exhibit opens to the public on Saturday, March 5th. I’m sure there will be other little girls going up to the windows, wide-eyed and gape-mouthed in wonder, and a few who’ll be calling “penguins! Penguins!” and pressing their faces against the glass, watching the birds play.

Oh, and parents -- a really neat little photo opportunity? Up on the main walkway just outside the exhibit there’s a great cut-out panel for you and the kids to pose as penguins. I caught this shot of Hunter there before we left. Cute? Of course.

For more information, check out the Little Rock Zoo’s website or call (501) 666-2406.

Pieday: Lemon icebox at Rita's


HUMBLE PIE:  Ritas Lemon Icebox is simple, satisfying
  • GRAV WELDON
  • HUMBLE PIE: Rita's Lemon Icebox is simple, satisfying
When I was in college, my future husband and I often took to the roads around Russellville and just went and drove when we had free time. A summertime drive brought us to Hector, where we found Rita’s Restaurant. The year: 1993. The temperature: well above 90. We were hot, we were thirsty and we needed a bite to eat.
I do recall at the time how pleased we were with the air conditioning, the sloppy wet roast beef sandwich we shared and the waitress who never let our glasses get past half-empty. And I remember a certain strawberry ice box pie that was just delightful.
Of course, that was nearly 18 years ago. I am old, or at least I feel like it running around after this toddler we share these days. My journeys haven’t taken me past Hector in a long time.
However, working on assignment for Arkansas Wild, we decided to take the scenic route up to Marshall and passed through Hector this past Sunday morning. And there it was, Rita’s Restaurant (since 1989), on the south side of town, west side of the road. Of course, I had somewhere I needed to be, so we didn’t stop.
Yet that afternoon coming back I kept thinking about Rita’s and wondered if it would be anything like what it was. Already having ate, I wasn’t hungry for a big meal, but passing through the communities of Welcome Home, Tilly and Nogo I had that familiar sensation. I had a hankering for pie.
So once we were back in the big time city limits of Hector (population 534) we headed to Rita’s for some iced tea and whatever pie they had on hand.
When we walked in, one of the ladies behind the counter told us to sit where we like. She asked if we’d been there before. When I told her it’d been more than a decade and a half, she mentioned that the folks running the place now had taken it over a few months earlier. That was a slight cause for concern.
I needn’t have worried. With the exception of an added Pizza Pro menu (why are so many places doing that? I need to do THAT story at some point, and besides it might have been on long before the takeover, but I need to get back to the story and out of these parenthesis) it had barely changed — a variety of sandwiches, burgers, home cooking and such. And the desserts were still listed on a wipeboard at the front. The day’s options included Lemon Iced Box (their spelling), Coconut Cream, Cheesecake and peach and apple fried pies.
I wanted and needed some pie, and the ice box pie sounded good. So that’s what was ordered, along with some fried mushrooms to balance out some sweet. That’s the sort of thing you do, right? Or maybe I’m just weird.
The pie came to us first (for $2.59, in case you were wondering), an ample tall slice of homogenous whipped pie. It didn’t look like a whole lot, I will give you that, sorta yellow but more beige on a tan crust. I felt differently when I tasted it, though.
Unlike the error so many places make when dealing with lemon, this was not overly sweet nor overly tart. It was a simple blend of lemon zest, cream cheese and perhaps sour cream, sugar and whatever other goodness was in there, all piled into a crushed vanilla wafer crust. It was light and it was mild, not very sweet or tangy but substantial in its flavor-weight, cleansing the palate. Refreshing. Simple. Beautiful.
I had to set down my fork and look at it. It was so humble but so good. My my. The flavor didn’t leave me when I’d stopped, it just stayed there on my tongue and hinted at lemon a little longer. Not too cloying, just there.
The fried mushrooms were good and plentiful enough, cooked golden brown and served with ranch dressing. They were great to share, too. But I still kept looking at that pie, and had to go back and finish it off.
There was nothing over-the-top about it. No sprinkles, no whipped cream, it wasn’t a la mode or set aflame or anything else. Now, why can’t more places serve up pie like that these days? This is Sunday potluck dinner pie. This is the sort of pie people bring to spring picnics. I want some more.
Of course, there’s no guarantee that pie will be there when I get back. All pies at Rita’s Restaurant are made fresh each morning, and when they’re out they’re out. If they sell them all before you get there you can console yourself with a milkshake.
You’ll find Rita’s Restaurant on Highway 27 in Hector. It’s open Monday through Saturday 7 a.m. to 8 p.m., and the same on Sunday except they stay open until 9 p.m. — which is unusual, since places tend to close earlier on Sunday. It’s to get the after-church crowd in. I can dig it. (479) 284-3000.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Burger joint of the week: Hunka Pie


NICE MEAT:  Hunka Pies burger patty is substantial and tasty
  • KAT ROBINSON
  • NICE MEAT: Hunka Pie's burger patty is substantial and tasty
You have probably already read the review in the current issue of the Times. I will own up to it. I stand by it all the way.
I will also stand behind the fact that to me, Hunka Pie's nascent burgers have already won me over. They are some of the best burgers in the city, and while I still have to say Capital Bar & Grill's ground sirloin burger is my favorite, Hunka Pie has slid into a firm second.
First off, there's the bun. Pairing up with Boulevard Bread Co. for the bun-age was genius. It's a soft pliant yellow bun and it carries a nice sheen. It's also extraordinarily soft — not what I usually look for in a bun but so welcome here. Burger juice takes a while to soak through to your fingertips.
There's the regular Hunka burger. The patty on that burger is the closest thing I have had anywhere else to approximate how I make burgers at home. That's why I assume there's some Worchestershire sauce, some onion and garlic in there. It's a nicely spiced burger. The meat's a little more well done for what I usually go for, but then again I've never asked for medium rare off that grill. You ask for cheese, you get a heck of a lot of cheese. Chris'll put any of those ordinary toppings on the burger you want.
And there's the Bombay Burger. Chris actually came out to my vehicle to ask me about the chutney. Says it's inspired by the chutney Masala Teahouse + Grill offered up. I can so get behind that. First burger I've ever had that's cured a bit of Indian food craving for me (and I get those a lot). Now, on its own the meat has a nice cumin-turmeric-cardamom flavor, not too strong but definitely not a traditional American-style burger patty. But dip that burger in the slightly minty cilantro-yogurt sauce on the side... and you've left the confines of burger city and headed straight to Kofte Kebab-land. It tastes just like, I kid you not, the kofte kebabs over at Ali Baba's. My favorite kofte kebabs in the city. And it's a smegging BURGER.
There is one other odd thing I didn't think I'd like. I don't care for French fried onions — the sort from a can. To the point I won't touch green bean casserole during the holidays. When I noticed the patty on the Bombay Burger was sitting on a pile of them, I was a little off-put. But I can honestly say I have finally found a way I like them. They added a nice substantial crunch to an already exotic burger.
So I went back yesterday and tried the Asian Turkey Burger and got a completely different experience. Save the bun, of course — that same good Boulevard Bread Co. burger. The meat, though, had a nice soy flavor to it. What really made this burger, though, was this slaw made from chunks of cabbage and carrots. all drizzled in this great peanut sauce. It gave a whole new dimension — between the tangy pickle of the "Thai crunch slaw" and the creamy peanut sauce and a firm meat patty. It was packed tighter than the ground beef patties, but otherwise I could not tell a difference.
So there you go, three burgers at a pie shop. You really should try it out. I'm serious. Hunka Pie is located at 7706 Cantrell Road in Little Rock. Call (501) 612-4754 or check out the website.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Ode to pie.


JUST PIE:  Er, Chess Pie at Guss Famous Fried Chicken in Memphis
  • KAT ROBINSON
  • JUST PIE: Er, Chess Pie at Gus's Famous Fried Chicken in Memphis
It has recently been suggested to me that if I'm going to write about a different burger every Thursday, that Fridays should be Pie-Days. And you know, that might be a good idea. Or it might not.
Thing is, I do know a lot about pie. It comes from being raised in Arkansas, I'm sure, a state where there's a pie on almost every menu (there's even a pie CASE at Panda Garden, go figure). I've even been collecting photos of pie for some time now. Got a whole album full on Facebook. You can go look if you want.
So come Friday, watch out. I have a pie to tell you about that I doubt most of you have ever consumed. It's a good one. You have one I should check out, let me know.

The Wonder of the Headwaters.

Did you know the 10th largest spring in the world is located right here in Arkansas? Barely, but indeed it is. It’s within spitting distance of the Missouri border in the aptly named town of Mammoth Spring. That’s also the spring’s name.

You can’t see it -- because it emerges from the earth 70 feet under the little pond that caps it. You shouldn’t drink it, thanks to high concentrations of different chemicals that have seeped into the groundwater in the area due to runoff. But you can visit it and paddleboat on the small lake right by it and even feed the ducks there. Let me take you to Mammoth Spring State Park.

The spring itself has been a stopping point for centuries. Osage peoples lived in the area and fished the Spring River, which is formed by Mammoth Spring and the Warm Fork right there. Geologist David Dale Owen inspected the spring back in 1850, and soon afterward it started to draw tourists fascinated by its enormous size. The St. Louis and San Francisco Railroad came through in 1883, sidling right up to the side of the spring. And in 1887 a dam was built, creating the small lake you see there today.

It wasn’t all about the water, of course. The spring’s abundantly quick flow pretty much brought the idea of mills right to the mind. There was a grist mill right before the point where Mammoth Spring flowed into the Spring River in the 19th Century, and in 1925 a small hydroelectric plant was built there to supply electricity to the area. It stayed in operation until 1972; you can still tour the old damhouse today.

Though the spring itself was declared a state park in 1957, the first bit of land for the park wasn’t acquired until 1966. In 1971 the old rail depot became part of the property and the rest came through in 1975.

An oddity about the park -- it’s home to a national fish hatchery. The facility was created in 1903 across the railroad tracks from the spring and lake, and its cool waters are fed into the ponds on that side. Today the hatchery maintains the only captive spawning population of Gulf Coast striped bass in the world. Fish from Mammoth Spring are used to stock national wildlife refuges.



The spring itself is an interesting visit. I like to make the hike around the lake starting with the south side, which takes you across the dam and into the old hydroelectric plant. You can still see much of the original equipment inside, carefully preserved.

Around the end of the lake and back along the shoreline, you come to a paddleboat dock. The depot is right there, the old 1886 Frisco depot full of neat exhibits about life at the turn of the 19th Century. For $2.25 ($1.50 for kids) you can have a guided tour of the artifacts and such.

The lake trail hugs the shoreline and quickly darts back into the undercover a short distance from the picnic pavilions on the east side. I usually step aside for runners who seem to like the loop around the lake. It’s nice and shady on hot summer days.

And then there’s the trail leading up to the island by the spring itself, which we of course can’t see. There are usually ducks about… I’ve spent a good deal of time watching mother ducks and their trail of ducklings darting back and forth across the water.



It’s peaceful on the little island, quiet for where it is but still not so removed that you don’t hear road noise on nearby Highway 63. It’s a good place for contemplation, especially on warmer days when the cool of the constantly 58 degrees water seems to lift the heat from the water’s edge. To stand on the edge of the 10th largest spring in the world, one of nature’s wonders… it’s a moment to reflect and to think about how massive 9.78 million gallons of water an hour really is.

If you’d like to check out Mammoth Spring, make it a day. From Little Rock it’s about three hours -- Highway 67/167 to Bald Knob, Highway 167 up to Hardy and then Highway 63 right up to the border. The state park there also doubles as a welcome center.

Be sure to check out the Arkansas State Park website for more information.


Thursday, February 17, 2011

Burger joint of the week: Penguin Ed's BBQ


BIG BUN:  Tight burger at Penguin Eds BBQ.

I’m always willing to try a new burger with promise, even at a place that’s known for something else. That’s how I ended up eating a burger and not the famous barbecue at Penguin Ed’s BBQ in Fayetteville this past weekend.
To be fair, I was looking neither for barbecue or burgers but for pie, my latest quest (which I’ll tell you about later). But by the time we ended up rolling up at Mission and Crossroads I was ready to eat just about anything.

First thing that caught my attention was the large number of vegetarian options on the menu posted on the wall. A full quarter of the menu is dedicated to the non-meat-eating sort, something I find very odd (though refreshing) from a barbecue restaurant. I mean, I have been places before where the only thing that didn’t include pork was the coleslaw (a pork BBQ joint that had bacon in the potato salad, alas) so to find one where not only I but many of my friends could eat too was very nice.
Yet still, that quest to have a fresh burger pic for you each and every Thursday was strong, and the listing looked great, a third-of-a-pound charbroiled burger with lettuce, tomato, onion and pickle and mayo with the admonition “Please allow 15 minutes cooking time.” Hey, a place that does made-to-order, right? And for just $4.95 I couldn’t go wrong.
I was also pretty jazzed on the side items. In addition to the expected coleslaw, baked beans and potato salad there’s also pasta salad, brown beans, green beans, and home fries. I went for the last two — broccoli and mac and cheese. Hey, they were there. I like both. Side items are $1.25 each, $1.95 a pint or just $1.50 for two if they’re part of your dinner.
My traveling companion went for the regular Sliced Beef Brisket Sandwich ($4.50, 5.75 for a Jumbo) and chose BBQ beans and
home fries as his sides. We had a seat and waited.
While we were sitting there, we got let in on the secrets thanks to the helpful history sheets placed under the glass at each table. Seems Penguin Ed’s began in July 1993 at that very corner in a little trailer, the brainchild of Ed and Diane Knight. The couple had decided to leave the corporate world behind to take up ‘cue, and so they did, with a tiny little trailer that was sometimes 10 to 20 degrees hotter inside than it was outside. In 1996 the business moved into the new shopping center built at the same intersection where the trailer was located (the crossroads of Highways 45 and 265). There are two other locations — the old B&B BBQ location taken over in 2002 and the one out on Weddington near Double Springs in 2007.
And the penguins? Well, back when the restaurant was still in a trailer, Ed would put these four paper mache penguins on the roof. Sometimes they’d end up on the picnic tables nearby. People started to give Ed other penguins — stuffed ones, ceramic ones, slightly lewd ones, unusual ones. So when it came time to move into the restaurant space it was only natural that it be called Penguin Ed’s.
So my name was called, and I answered back, not thinking. Our order was brought out to the table. And let me tell you what. The first thing that struck me was that the broccoli had been grilled. The second one was “I don’t think that burger’s medium rare.”
I had indeed received a burger atop lettuce, tomato, pickle and onion with a little mayo on the extraordinarily large fluffy bun. But the proportion of bun to meat seemed a little… off. It kinda looked like a kid wearing a grown man’s hat. And it wasn’t cooked medium rare. But it wasn’t bad, either.
The broccoli I found fantastic, but then again I like plain, unbuttered or cheesed broccoli. Roasting it had added a nice flavor. The mac and cheese, a big pile of elbows in a ramekin, were average in appearance and tasty.
My companion’s beef brisket was served up naked on Texas toast, a big pile of meat right there with some nice coloring. The brisket itself seemed strangely thin but that just made it far easier on the teeth. His order of beans  were far more like Pork ‘n’ Beans than the smoky strong beans I’ve had elsewhere, very tomato-y and low on spice. But the home fries were spot-on, big well seasoned butterey chunks of potato in a more than adequate portion slathered halfway across the plate. I had to steal a few of those.
We discovered early on that brisket was going to need some sauce. And there are two. The mild house sauce is a very sweet paprika and black pepper flavored sauce with notes of both honey and brown sugar. The spicy, on the other hand, is a strong mustard based sauce with a good swig of vinegar to boot that smacked with a late heat. I didn’t care for the spicy on its own and thought the mild was lacking something — but putting the two together was serendipitous. They matched so well, I wondered why they weren’t combined in the first place.
I also discovered that the addition of a little of both sauces took my burger to a new dimension. I ended up consuming the rest of my burger with the doubled condiment.
What I didn’t get while I was there were the Whoopie Pies. I know, they are technically pies, right? But I was sweeted-out from the Chocolate Lovers’ Festival over in Eureka Springs and couldn’t bear the thought of more sweets. Still, after looking at the photos I will have to go back for these big soft cookies adorned with toppings sandwiching a decadently thick white cream. They’re too pretty not to be sampled.
So the verdict? I think Penguin Ed’s has something good going on with its barbecue. And the burger was pretty good too — I just wish it had fit the bun a little better and have been a little less cooked through. Going to have to give the place another shot.
To get there from Dickson Street (which apparently everyone knows how to get to), head a block north on Highway 71 and turn right on Highway 45. It’s a bit of a ways down but it’s the first major sign of shopping center-age right there on the right-hand side before you get to Crossroad. They have awebsite or you can reach the restaurant at (479) 587-8646. The restaurant is open 10:30-8:30 Sunday through Thursday and a half hour later on Friday and Saturday. Oh, there’s Ed’s Penguin CafĂ© next door, serving breakfast… I gotta get back to that, too.

Apples to apples


GOLD & BLACK:  Opals and Blackapples
The end of the season has just about come for our beloved Arkansas Blackapples. Our state’s finest arrive at fruit stands and the occasional local grocer in the fall and we scoop up what we can. But by February the honeymoon is over. Only the most carefully preserved last this long with their firm, sweet and starchy flesh — and here at Chez Robinson they are bound for bread and pie (though I did sneak one into the oven with a little cinnamon and nutmeg this afternoon… yum).
I was sent a box of apples today — a box of strange, strongly bronze beauties from Washington State. They’re a new breed of apple I’ve never encountered before called Opal. They’re like a Honeycrisp or Golden Delicious but slightly sweeter — and they don’t brown hardy at all. I think these apples are going to be eatin’ apples — chances are they’re not going to make it to the oven in any sort of application. They taste like spring — very sweet-tart and really crisp. I’m digging on them.
How about you? What sort of apples do you like? Is there a particular best apple for eating, baking and whatnot?