Thursday, June 30, 2011

Yarnell's Goes Under.

UPDATE: Yarnell's took on new life in 2012. Read more here.

I was in the middle of a computer update when the news came over the web this morning. I kept looking at my phone, reading the messages coming across Facebook and Twitter while I helplessly waited for the computer to finish. By the time I could get back on, the rumor had been confirmed. Yarnell’s was no more.

The company’s owners met last night and decided that with no additional funding coming from the bank, with a looming electrical bill and rising ingredients costs, they had no choice but to close. 200 people lost their jobs this morning… many of them not finding out until they arrived at work in the wee hours, only to be turned back and told to go home.

I’ve always had a soft spot for Yarnell’s. Last year I was granted a very rare opportunity -- the chance to tour and report on the behind-the-scenes action at the lone remaining ice cream operation in the state of Arkansas. I grew up on their flavors. Not having their presence available was inconceivable.

Like many others, I went to the store today. I found that the stocks had already been depleted, but I was fortunate. I missed out on Angel Food Vanilla but did pick up Death by Chocolate, Woo Pig Chewy and my favorite flavor from Yarnell’s -- Ozark Black Walnut. I considered purchasing more… but made a very clear and conscious decision to leave the rest for others.

While I was on the radio this afternoon, I watched Twitter and Facebook messages fly by as people called in to tell us about their favorite Yarnell’s memories and flavors. There were postings about the places where you could still find Yarnell’s. I sent out a message to Todd Gold, the president of Purple Cow Restaurants which have for nearly 22 years now exclusively used Yarnell’s ice creams in their confections. They’re switching to Blue Bell.

I haven’t sat down with a bowl of ice cream yet… been too busy writing and working to even think of it. But tonight I’ll share a bowl with my daughter.

A lot of the things we grew up with are going away. I know it’s all part of life and moving on, but it still hurts. At 37 years old, I can remember all sorts of amazing flavors and sensations, places and people that have come through my life. I was cleaning yesterday evening and came across a drawstring bag from Booger Hollow. At the time I just thought “hey, it’s cool I have this souvenir.”

Right now I’m thinking about the people who are going to have to find another job. About a family that’s been involved with ice cream for four generations. And about a loss to Arkansas culture that really can’t be replicated. Some might think the story has been done to death on the airwaves and the Internet today. Not me. I think we’re collectively mourning a little bit of our united experience. It’s a sad day in the Natural State.

Burger joint of the week: JP's Restaurant and Gathering Place.

This restaurant has closed - KR

This one, I should likely call “In defense of a rare burger.” Because I know some folks are going to disagree with me.

JP’s Restaurant and Gathering Place is the restaurant inside the Hotel Seville in Harrison.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Behind the scenes at Arkansas Rice Depot.

There's a lot going on at the Arkansas Rice Depot.
Went out to the Arkansas Rice Depot one Monday in 2011 with fellow bloggers to take a look at the operation from behind the scenes. I learned a lot of neat things out there.

We met with several of the good folks that run the place and learned about the many missions the Rice Depot operates. I think a lot of misconceptions were blown away.

First things first. The Arkansas Rice Depot isn’t just about rice. It’s about helping feed the hungry all across Arkansas through various programs like Food for Kids, Food for Seniors and Food for Families. There’s a Rice Depot program in every county in Arkansas. The whole operation employees just 20 people… and with low overhead the organization is able to turn 99 ½ percent of donations and funds right back around to serving hungry Arkansawyers.

We had a quick lunch with the Rice Depot folks before our tour of the operation. We watched a film and then talked about the mission’s purpose and how it helps. 400,000 people receive food through the different programs the Rice Depot offers. That’s nearly 14 percent of the state’s population.

We took a look at the items offered in the Food for Kids program. It kinda breaks my heart, thinking about kids who don’t have access to food at home for whatever reason. We even talked about kids that are locked out of their homes over the weekend. That just ate me up.

These kids don’t have to apply for the backpack program. Their teachers or counselors will make a recommendation to the person coordinating for the program at the school, and that person might take them aside and let them know it’s available to them. They go by in the afternoon as they’re leaving school and pick up a backpack. Depending on the situation, the backpack might contain enough food for an evening or for a weekend — and in some situations, for multiple children in the household. They’re all unmarked backpacks (the clear ones in this photo are just there to demonstrate what goes inside). The items inside are for the most part single servings that can be opened by a child — and in most cases, don’t require heating. We’re talking fruit and pudding cups, vegetable cups and cans, cereal and granola bars, macaroni and cheese that only requires water, canned items with pop-tops that come fully cooked and jars of peanut butter.

This could be the difference between a hungry, distracted student and one that’s eager to learn. We heard stories of how children improved after having that one extra meal made available to them.

We also peeked into the Coat Closet, a room that's full of coats, gloves, hats and other clothing to distribute to those who need it. All of these items are brand new with tags. We learned that for many of the kids who are on Food for Kids, this might be the only new item of clothing they receive each year.

From there we went back into a large room filled with all sorts of products. This is where kits are assembled for the different programs. One wall contained bins filled with items for the Food for Seniors program. Unlike the Food for Kids program, the items in the Food for Seniors program kits include items that need to be cooked or assembled. The idea is that seniors who are on the programs need the independence of putting together their own meals. Volunteers take 50 pound boxes of food out to seniors once a month; for the most part, it’s the same volunteers visiting the same seniors, giving the chance for interactions and friendships to grow.

There were a lot of cans in the center of the room. Joe Rogers, the volunteer coordinator, told us the cans had come in without labels. A lot of the donations are like that — they may be a little bent up or dented, but they’re still viable. Volunteers had been securing new labels to the cans to let the recipients know they had a can of green beans on their hands.

Joe explained that a lot of the donations that come in must be repackaged — for instance, potato chips that needed to be repacked into individual packages. Makes sense to me.

He also showed us disaster packs, like the ones that went out to the folks in Vilonia after the storms this past April. Each one of these little packs has enough food to get someone through a day, plus three pre-pasted toothbrushes. The cases of these products are assembled and set back just in case of a disaster so they can be distributed quickly.

We went from there back to the big warehouse… which looked amazingly full of items. There are two major non-refrigerated sections and a freezer in the middle. Turns out, the Rice Depot has to pay $1500 a month for off-site refrigerated space to store a lot of those donated goods; a future capital campaign will address that need.

While we were in the warehouse, there was a group from the Otter Creek Assembly of God there to pick up stuff for their pantry. The pantry program, Food for Families, is largely run by volunteers from church groups, businesses and local charity operations all over the state.
They come to the Arkansas Rice Depot or to a designated drop-off point to pick up food that they’ll then distribute to families who come to those pantries.

We ended our tour at the Simple Pleasures gift shop. This is probably what you think of when you think of the Arkansas Rice Depot — a lot of rice, right? These mixes have been individually created, mostly by Depot president Laura Rhea (and a couple by Lilly’s Dim Sum Then Some’s Kathy Webb). They range from Arkansas Dirty Rice to Hillbilly Chili to Presidential Parmesan, and just about everyone I’ve tried so far has been good.

They’re cheap, too — and if you go straight to the Rice Depot you don’t pay tax or shipping on them. You can even make a box of your own — fill it up with a little crinkled paper filler, bags of rice and bean mixes, wassail mix, J&M cheese straws, cute teddy bears and the like. What a great quick gift idea?

So, are you interested in touring the Arkansas Rice Depot? Won’t take much to schedule a visit. Check out the organization's website or call (501) 565-8855.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Weiner tales: Just Deb's.

This restaurant has closed. Dangit.

SOGGY:  Not a bad thing for Just Debs Italian beef
  • SOGGY: Not a bad thing for Just Deb's Italian beef
Funny how food trends seem to come to the mind. As most of you know, since my visit to Chicago last month I’ve been craving some very specific Chicago-based dishes — in particular, Chicago dogs.
Yes, I found another place that serves them up. However, I found something else there that comes from Chicago — that’s even better.
The place? Just Deb’s, a Chicago foods restaurant in a red building on the main drag through Mountain Home. What caught my eye when we went by was that bright yellow Vienna Beef sign. There we go again.

One thing I’ve learned: if you’re eating these Chicago foods, you order at the counter. My companion was all about the Chicago dog, and that was fine. I ordered myself an Italian beef sandwich and we had a seat.
My photographer struck up a conversation with a couple of older ladies at a table. He was scouting the walls to see if there were Blackhawks and White Sox memorabilia amidst the Cubbies and the Bears and the Bulls. Turns out both ladies are native Chicagoans who have migrated this way. They actually started searching the walls too to find the different team hats and merchandise.
So, “just” Deb’s. I was talking with the girl behind the counter, and she says it started out as Gil and Deb’s, but Gil’s long gone. So, it’s just Deb’s. Fair enough.
Got our food. The Chicago dog ($3.25 with fries) … spot on. The sport peppers were fresh enough that they didn’t smack you in the face with a pepper jolt. Good balance of relish (the good green-blue Vienna Beef style), mustard and tomato. Poppyseed bun. What more could you ask for?
The fries were good too — cut and fried on-site. Crisp. Brown — which as I keep telling people, it’s fine, it’s natural. I was all about those fries.
But moreso, I was all about the Italian Beef ($5.75). Got mine with giardiniera (the mild version, not the hot stuff). I got this packed out beef sandwich on a soaked French roll. It had been wrapped twice in foil wrappers, once in paper and it was dripping wet. Lovely.
That drippy bit was from the dunking. Just Deb’s does it right — dunking the whole sandwich in the jus after it’s made.
So, here’s the thing. It didn’t quite taste like what I’d had at Carm’s up in Chicago. And I thought it was just me. To me… it tasted better. It was a bit saltier, and the beef had more substance to it. The jus soaked in the bread was just utterly delicious. I loved it.
But I thought my spent-time-in-the-Windy-City photographer would get all snobbish about it. He tried it, thought about it, had another bite. Thought about it some more. And then pronounced it the best Italian Beef sandwich he’s had.
Oh, there’s a rhyme and a reason to it. We stopped back by Just Deb’s the next day to have a few questions answered. Turns out Deb doesn’t use the Vienna beef to make the Italian Beef sandwiches. She makes her own, and she makes her own jus. She found that down here people like their beef a little less sweet and a lot more savory, so she adjusted for that. Her beef is boiled and shredded, not sliced and boiled. Get that? I do. Works for me.
Just Deb’s does a large variety of other Chicagoan dishes, such as gyros, Polish sausage (Chicago style and Maxwell style), chicken parm, Italian meatball sandwiches and Italian sausages too. I’ve been told the pulled pork sandwich is da bomb.
You’ll find Just Deb’s at 1610 Highway 62B East in Mountain Home. It’s open for lunch and dinner every day except Saturday. (870) 425-1700 and there’s a Facebook page, too.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Own Your Own Natural Bridge.

I spent a lot of time as a little girl traveling up and down Highway 65 north of Conway for family obligations.  I remember those treks with some trepidation.  They were long drives on curvy two-lane roads, many of which were steep and treacherous. 

Of the things I recall most vividly along that road were the green and white signs promoting Natural Bridge.  Signs, sides of buildings, barn roofs -- all painted to draw visitors to a particular site along the side of the road.  On my first visit to Chattanooga years later, I would see all the signs that cried out  “See Rock City” and instantly be reminded of the Natural Bridge signs.

I had a vague memory of actually visiting the place… which, as I found out this weekend, was a completely different Natural Bridge near Eureka Springs.  Meh.

As I grew older, those signs started to fade.  Many were bypassed as Highway 65 was straightened, widened and bypassed left and right by the new roadway.  The kinks were knocked out and a lot of the interesting things along the way suddenly weren’t on the way any more.

Still, Natural Bridge remained. 

I noticed on this most recent trip that the signs had been repainted, and I was glad for this.  It was a sign that something good was happening, that one of these old roadside attractions was being saved.

Or so I thought.

On the way back from my trip I noticed a big yellow sign under the turn-off for Natural Bridge.  I had to stop and go back and look at it.  Sure enough, there was a sign saying the place was going to be up for auction.

Well, I had to go check that out.

I drove down the paved lane past a few houses, saw another auction notice sign and passed through a gate.  Suddenly the road became very strongly curved and treacherous, a tight zig-zag down into a valley hundreds of feet below.  It was extraordinarily steep.  I prayed the road didn’t suddenly go to gravel.  I’d slide all the way down.

Several short hairpin turns later I arrived at the bottom.  There… well, nothing looked familiar (which made sense later on when I realized I had the wrong Natural Bridge in the back of my head).  There were restrooms on one end of a little lot and an old hillbilly style shack on the other.  I stopped, took a few pictures and went in.

Turns out, the folks who run the place want to retire.  They’ve had Natural Bridge open for tourists since 1973, and they’re done.  They charge a little for the chance to go see the natural wonder ($4 at this recording) and that’s what paid for that paved road into the valley.

Being in a rush, I snapped a few more photos and headed out.  A less powered vehicle wouldn’t have likely made it back up that hill.  We’re talking straight up and down steep.  Worse than the approach up Mount Nebo, that sort of steep.

Back home, I went online and checked out the auction listing -- and realized I hadn’t actually been to the attraction.  Natural Bridge is actually about the length of two semi trucks parked end to end.  It’s… there.  Probably decently neat in person.  There’s also a moonshiner’s shack and some other stuff along the trail.

So here’s the listing for it.  The property -- all 101 up-and-down acres of it -- will be sold to the highest bidder on the morning of July 22nd.  It’s being advertised as a great property for deer and turkey hunting, with all city utilities.  The part that surprises me is it’s being advertised as a great RV park opportunity.  Wow.  Really?

They’re asking for a $40,000 cashier’s check up front, then it’ll go to the highest bidder.  I hope it goes to someone who’s interested in keeping the attraction open and not some shale oil operation or the like… while it is way down in the valley, it’s a gorgeous descent.  Besides, I kinda want to go back and stand under that bridge now, just to see what it looks like in person. 

If'n you're lookin' for it, you'll find it between Dennard and Clinton on Highway 65. Can't miss the signs.


UPDATE: My friend Suzi Parker covered the auction for Reuters; turns out, the property sold for $207,900 to Jack Smith, a retired Navy vet from Conway. He purchased it for his son James (the actual buyer), who currently works on a military base in Georgia. No word on the exact future of the attraction.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Undiscovered Treasure: Psistaria Greek Taverna, Chicago.

This Lincolnwood staple is a couple blocks off I-94 at Exit 39B, a block and a half west of Cicero on Touhy Avenue.  It’s worth a drive from downtown -- and there’s free valet parking, to boot.

A family operation for decades, Psistaria is not much to look out on the outside.  Inside, though, it’s straight out of Santorini… complete with fresco.   The real smashing décor, though, is what you can order off the menu -- Chicken Breast Spanaki (stuffed with spinach), Triple-Cut Lamb Chops, Roast Leg of Lamb; a selection of seafood including Stingray, Sea Bass and Giant Scallops; Sweetbreads, Loukaniko (Greek sausage) and Baby Octopus.

But the best deal is by far Psistaria’s Family Style Plate.  For $20.50 a person, three or more people can enjoy a veritable feast of Mediterranean delights.  The show starts with the fiery delivery of Saganaki (imported Kefalotyri cheese flamed with ouzo) to the table.  It’s accompanied by an Italian style bread with butter; a Greek salad with tomatoes, cucumbers and Feta; and a gyro appetizer with gyro meat, tomatoes, pita quarters and some of the richest Tzatziki sauce I’ve ever encountered.

You could easily fill up on just the starters.  They’re followed by massive platters for each person that include tender slices of roast lamb or chicken, a choice of fabulously hearty pastitsio or opulent mousaka -- plus a selection of sides including a fragrant golden rice with saffron, citrus-spiced potato slices, savory peas and fresh stuffed dolmedes (stuffed grape leaves).

Add in coffee and your choice of dessert -- a popular and well known rich baklava, crème caramele or galactobouriko (a phyllo-crusted milk custard pie covered in honey syrup) -- and you have one of the best dinner deals you’ll find in the area. 

Psistaria Greek Taverna * 4711 W. Touhy Avenue (Lincolnwood) * (847) 676-9400 * 

Psistaria Greek Taverna Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Burger joint of the week: Cotham's Mercantile.

UPDATE: Cotham's Mercantile burned May 30, 2017. You can still get a hubcap burger at Cotham's in the City in Little Rock.

It’s been half a year since I started posting these burger joint recommendations, and you’ve probably wondered one thing: why haven’t I covered the most famous burger in Arkansas?

Well, frankly… I was out trying all these new burgers....

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Last Ferry in Arkansas.

The view from Arkansas 125 east of Highway 14 (photo: Grav Weldon)
Way up in north central Arkansas, all the way up Highway 14 and across Highway 125 to one of the many fingers of Bull Shoals Lake, out past a tiny town called Peel… is a last vestige to a different time.

When my home state’s wildernesses were still wild and the roads still soft, there were a great number of ferries. Most of them were for river crossings here and there. Many of the names that have stuck with us through time recall those ferry days -- Greers Ferry Lake, Toad Suck Ferry, Jenkin’s Ferry and Beaver Ferry among them.

Ferries stayed with us where they were needed. But as the highway system progressed and grew, they became obsolete. From time to time one might be called into service to aid an area where a bridge was out or under repair.

Back in the 1970s there were still close to 30 ferries across Arkansas. They’ve all gone away, all but one. That ferry is the Peel Ferry, connecting Highway 125 north of Peel to the same highway on the northern side, just south of Missouri.

The old tugs St. Charles and Spring Bank after their retirement.
Spring Bank will go to a museum in Doddridge.  The new Peel 1
tug can be seen behind St. Charles.  (photo:  Grav Weldon)
The Little Joe tug and Lady Marion barge took people across a midsection of Bull Shoals Lake for generations, up to six cars at a time (eight if they’re small). Marion County purchased the tug and barge and took over the operations in 1968, charging a buck a ride; the state took it over the next year and made it free.

But Little Joe has long since retired. Its replacements, Spring Bank and St. Charles, served at other ferry sites and were moved to Bull Shoals later. But after 150,000 and 182,000 hours respectively, they have been retired.

I ventured to this ferry site 30 miles north of Yellville on June 22nd, 2011 -- the day of the dedication of two new tugs that have effectively replaced the old tugs. Peel 1 and Peel 2 have been purchased at a combined cost of $388,114 -- some $350,000 of it from Federal Stimulus money. Folks from all portions of state government had come out for the dedication… along with ferry staffers… and my photographer and I.

In a way, it seemed like such a judicious occasion required more pomp and circumstances, big banners and hollering stands of people. But quite honestly… Peel’s Ferry is in the middle of nowhere-ville, AR.

Still, that didn’t keep most of us for boarding the Toadsuck Barge and heading across the lake and back for a celebratory ride. The barges? They’re the same barges as before. Toadsuck is a 1956 model; Lady Marion (yes, she’s still in use) is newer, a 1968 selection. I would suspect I know where Toadsuck originated.

As we pulled away from the bank, I talked with Howard Kitchen, one of the many folks who had attended the dedication. Howard works with the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department. I peppered him with questions about the ferry’s operation.

The elevated water level is evidenced by the tree line stretching
beyond the current access point.   (photo:  Grav Weldon)
First thing I had noticed was the platform that sat at the water’s edge on the road. Turns out, that platform is moved up and down with the lake -- and the lake, right now, is about 40 feet above stage. There was a line of trees partially submerged a good way down from the water’s edge. “Now normally, you take the road all the way down to there,” he indicated with his hand. “Right there where that last tree is, right past it.”

“So how often does the ferry go across?” I asked.

“It makes the run in about 45 minutes there and back. Fifteen, twenty minutes across, depending on the water and weight, and then time to unload.”

“It’s not choppy at all out here,” I commented. Indeed, the weather was beautiful; a light wind added to the 84 degree temperature made riding across while standing on the barge kinda comfortable. “So, these are both brand new tugboats?”

“These tugs are a lot bigger and a lot better,” Kitchens said. “The cabs are three times larger, they have air conditioning, they’re operator friendly. They run about 300 horsepower.”

We were about mid-lake already, making very good time. In the distance I could see the other barge and tug at the shoreline. “We’re not far behind.”

“No, we’ll piddle around out here for a little bit while they get loaded.”

“Are there always two ferries running?”

Kitchens shook his head. “No, usually just the one.”

“So the other is backup?”

Marky Grozis, the ferry supervisor, had overheard our conversation and jumped in. “Yes, I mean, you have to have another ferry in case one has a problem. You can’t have traffic stuck on the lake.”

“But why not just build a bridge? Is it an engineering issue?”

Kitchens answered. “It’s a matter of money. You have 60, 80 people a day that cross Bull Shoals here. A bridge’d like to cost $30 million dollars or more.”

“So, is this just local traffic?”

“It’s more people who are wanting to see this free ferry,” Kitchens said.

Grozis explained. “We have folks that ride their motorcycles from Harrison and Branson. I’ve had people call and ask me how they get from old Branson out here.”

“Most people think of a ferry as a temporary thing,” Kitchens said. “They think of it as a way to cross a creek or a river for a short while if a bridge is out or unavailable.”

The new tug Peel 1 makes the run south.  (photo:  Grav Weldon)
The other ferry was heading back. My photographer and the guy from the state who was shooting the event leaned out over the side of the railing and shot it as it passed.

“So, before this was a lake, did this highway just go straight across?”

“Yes, there were roads that connected.”

We started pulling up to the far dock. On this side, there was no gateboat, no facility. Kitchens told me there was no staff on the far side. I’d wondered that. I mean, how would someone know if there was a car waiting on this side? The answer is, they don’t know.

“So what do you do if there are thunderstorms,” I asked Grozis.

“Ride it out.” He grinned. I guess you do what you have to do.

“This one’s so much quieter,” Kitchens added. “The other tug, it was so loud you couldn’t carry on a conversation.”

“And it holds six cars?” I asked.

“These do. But later this year, we’re getting two new barges that can hold 12 cars apiece,” said Grozis.

The playground in the park on the north side of the ferry site
is mostly submerged.  (photo:  Grav Weldon)
After a moment at the far side, we shoved off again and headed for the other side. Most everyone seemed talked out. The wind had calmed down and the water was less active. The crossing had been pretty quick, only about 15 minutes, and without having to unload and reload we’d end up making our round trip in about 30.

“The trip shaves 20 miles off the drive around the lake,” Grozis told me. “Some of the traffic is folks who are curious.”

“So does the ferry operate all the time, or does it shut down at a certain point?”

“It runs daylight til dusk, pretty much,” I was told. That made sense. I think it’d scare the tar out of me to make that crossing on a moonless night.

On the other side we all made our salutations and parted ways. I noticed right before I got back to Highway 14 this sign that told people coming on what time the last ferry was set to depart for the day. That's a good thing.

There’s no big secret to finding Peel’s Ferry. It’s 30 miles north of Yellville on Arkansas Highway 125. To get there, take Highway 14 north and turn right on 125. Not hard at all. It’s a several mile trip from there, but it’s all on the same road.

On the subject of cold summer salads.

When the weather turns nasty hot like this, the idea of a hot meal at noontime can be oppressive, maybe even nauseating. The foods we love in the middle of winter aren’t meant for summertime consumption; very few people are going to go out looking for hot pumpkin soup or hot chocolate this time of year.
Cold summer salads, especially here in the South, make up for this. Kept in the icebox (that’s fridge to you youngsters), mixed salads of everything from potatoes to tuna to Jell-O can be made in advance and served up on one’s preferred bread quickly and without a heck of a lot of work. The body stays cool when cool food is ingested.

I have a few favorites when it comes to cold salads around here. Mentioned Taziki’s a while back for its pimento cheese (CBG and Gibb’s Grocery as well) — which fits the definition of a summer salad.

I know I talked aboutOW Pizzarecently; their tuna salad with capers is salty and savory. A little extra saltiness is a good thing with sandwich salads — makes you drink more, which is what you should be doing during summer anyway. The potato salad there with its heavy dose of dill is always a winner in my book.
Now I’ve been introduced to the chicken salad at Trio’s. Here’s a chicken salad that doesn’t have to be sweet to be a treat. Tarragon heavy, the chicken and walnut salad has a hearty zing to it that gives it heft.
Trio’s is also doing something I haven’t seen at any other restaurant in a long time. When you order a chicken salad plate you get banana nut bread with cream cheese — that’s not too unusual — and a bing cherry Jell-O. Jell-O. An upscale restaurant in Little Rock is serving Jell-O. But it works. The real cherries in the dark cherry flavored gelatin is somehow soothing, taking on the whole comfort food ideal. I dig it.
So, what’s your favorite cold summer salad? Tuna? Pimento? Chicken? Potato? Who serves up your favorite?