Monday, May 27, 2013

Russellville: Taco Villa is Consistanty There.

The original location on 4th Street.  (Kat Robinson)
This is one in a series on historical restaurants in the state of Arkansas. For a look at the Arkansas restaurant timeline, click here.

Russellville has always been the midway point, the place to stop and stretch your legs between Little Rock and Fort Smith along I-40. And for many of us, it was home for a while. It became my home for nearly four years beginning in the fall of 1991, when I began college at Arkansas Tech University.

There are four things everyone who goes to Tech learned quickly at that time: you can stay all night at the Old South if you buy a honeybun; Food4Less is open 24 hours; kite-flying is generally frowned upon in the quad and you can’t get a better taco salad than the big one over at Taco Villa.

These days, the Old South closes at 8 p.m., Food4Less is long gone, the quad is now full of buildings and the new library – but Taco Villa still serves a mean taco salad. Doesn’t matter which one, either.

The counter service hasn't changed a lick.
Location, that is. See, Russellville has TWO Taco Villas. Started two generations ago, Taco Villa on 4th Street has been operating out of a little adobe-pastiche brick shack in the middle of a parking lot. It opened way back in 1974, serving a blend of what has come to be known as Ark-Mex food – which is shorthand for making Mexican-esque dishes the way we tend to do them here in Arkansas. Want authentic? There are plenty of true Mexican places here and there along the way.

A second location was purchased a short time later to take advantage of the great load of Tech students – over on the south side of campus. Boys and girls, you may not know this, but that location started out as the second location for Feltner’s Whatta-Burger. Really!

Nachos fill the entire box.
It’s always been a family operation, just different families. I know when I started in school it was the Spear family that ran the place. The Kittermans bought both locations in 1993, and there was concern that things would change – but as far as I could tell, that didn’t happen. In fact, nothing really changed for years… well, the prices, a little. You can still get that TV salad, or the huge plate of nachos, or the burrito – a two-handed full-of-everything burrito. The meat blend is still the same – not as spicy or salty as other fast food-ish taco places, but consistant – and it’s always served with a heaping pile of shredded lettuce and that American-Cheddar blend cheese.

The soft taco, exposed.  
And the secret about the taco salad? It’s the exact same thing as the nachos, except upside down – the lettuce goes on the bottom with the salad with the chips on the side, while the nachos are the chips on the bottom with the cheese and stuff and lettuce all on the top. Taco Villa also does right by still melting real cheese on its nachos, rather than pouring it on over.

You can still get a Super BS (it’s that two handed Burrito Supreme) after all these years, and you can still feed anyone for under $10 – and I do mean anyone. When you’re in town next time, check it out.

The menu, circa 2009.

Taco Villa on Urbanspoon

Sunday, May 26, 2013

A Somewhat Short Guide to Attending Wakarusa.

Main Stage concert lovers. (Grav Weldon)
So, you’re headed to Wakarusa. Is it your first time? You may be surprised at what you find. Far more than just a bunch of music acts playing before a crowd of campers, the Wakarusa Music and Camping Festival has its own vibe, its own culture, even its own cuisine. Here’s a bit of information that you might find helpful when you go.

Weather and what to wear
This is, after all, Arkansas. We have all four seasons here. However, the season-to-season ratio changes from year to year. For instance, we just came out of one of the longest winters we've ever experienced – with snowfall at Mulberry Mountain on MAY 4TH. Unusual to say the least. Last year’s Wakarusa ranged from rather chilly on Thursday night to downright balmy Saturday afternoon and strongly stormy in the wee hours of Sunday morning.

I wonder if the leg warmers are hot.
Be prepared – for anything. Shorts are a good bet, especially paired with sunscreen. There are few limits to what you can wear, as long as you’re covering the important bits. Sarongs, halter tops, bikini tops, mesh shirts are common in the heat. Last year’s cold snap had many scrambling for something to cover the bare arms – with a lot of sheets twisted into improvised togas making an appearance. For good measure, it might be worthwhile to throw a jacket into your bag.

Shoes? Choose some you can walk in – and that you don’t mind getting dirty. Mulberry Mountain is, after all, located in the great outdoors, which means grass and mud and stones are common. Pack an extra pair or two, and plenty of socks.

If you have that covered, then perhaps you should consider costumes. Yes, costumes. There are actually themed days at Wakarusa, which can be a great chance to have some fun.

The hippies and the hipsters
When I was assigned the opportunity to attend my first Wakarusa, I was given the idea that it was a modern Woodstock. I went expecting hippies… and the images of ‘70s style earth mammas and back to the wilderness folks came to mind.

That’s not quite what I found. While yes, there were some individuals who wore tie dye and had flowers in their hair, there was an overwhelming number of individuals who could best be described as hipsters… irony-free early-adapters, trendy sorts and geeky sorts and overall mostly twenty- and thirty-somethings with cash to spend.

Dancing with abandon is common.
The juxtaposition was interesting. Seeing young men in fedoras and ties interspersed with girls dressed as Japanese animation look-alikes, guys in Utilikilts and backpacks and girls in bikinis and furry hats, and just about anyone in any sort of brightly colored clothing – a cacophony of unusuality. Everyone in the crowd wants to stand out and be different – something that seems to be a hallmark of this strongly Millenial crowd.

Tribes of Wakarusa
One distinguishing factor from traditional concert festivals – that’s strongly developed thanks to the camping element – is the culture of tribes. Sure, we've all at one point or another joined a road trip with friends to some sort of destination. This group camping experience has evolved into a way to demarcate a new social delineation.

A totem.  There's a Mario & Luigi nearby.
The tribe is a unit of three or more individuals, camping and attending together. They may have a camp flag – especially if they’re on the Main Camping plain where tents stretch out as far as the eye can see – to show them where they’re crashing. They may have a totem as well – which is best designed as anything on a stick to be carried throughout the festival by a member of the tribe. Practically, it’s a way for these groups to keep track of each other in an area with questionable cell phone service. But creatively, it’s something more – something to identify the group to others. It may be a cutout of a popular (or even better, a subculture) cartoon icon, a stuffed animal, a flag, a kite, anything. Some even change them out by day and theme, and even from day to night (night totems tend to include things that glow).

Tribes also often dress and play together – wearing everything from like fashions to thematic costumes. In many ways, this is a spill-over of the comic and science fiction convention cosplay culture. And yes, furries have been spotted, but don’t let that worry you too much.

Suit of bears.  Had to be hot.
It’s not necessary for one to be part of a tribe to enjoy the costume play. Some of the more, um, unique costumes I spotted at the 2012 event included a Native American-style get-up with three-feet feathers; ancient Celts; a guy dressed as a pink bunny, complete with knee-high pink socks and a pink sundress; adult lady “fairies” in tie dye leotards and multi-color tutus; and the man who I could best describe as wearing a “suit of bears.”

It’s a performance art festival, too
Which brings me to the Astral Gypsies. Take the costumes of the event and bump it up a notch. These are expert, master puppeteers. They’re advertised as “”Dedicated to opening minds through interactive visionary art, the Astral Gypsies' Giant Puppet Troupe presents a truly "Larger Than Life" experience!” Yeah. That starts to cover it.

Grav Weldon's shot of the Astral Gypsy's octopus.
Mantis and... fish?
What you get is a bit more than what’s on the tin. They have a tent they set up near the main stage where many of their puppets are put on display and yes, yes you can touch them. But the puppets show up everywhere… in line waiting for a grilled cheese sandwich as a mushroom, clamoring down the road as a giant praying mantis, swaying at a concert as a giant bulbous fish. Impressive during the day, at night they’re even more fantastic… take for instance the illuminated octopus animated in the crowd at the main stage, swirling and undulating over the heads of the crowd in an ever-active show bonus.

The octopus puppet serves as sunscreen during the day.
There are others. Last year’s set included a light show erected on Saturday inside a giant white globe. Painters work on canvases, on silk, on even bodies. Everyone’s part of the art.

Better than your usual festival food fare
And then there is the food. Much to my surprise, Wakarusa didn't mirror the festival routine when it came to dinner. I’m a veteran of multiple state fairs, country festivals and community events – and I assumed the usual corn dog and funnel cake routine would be followed here. I was ever so wrong, and ever so glad. Wakarusa’s food is just as varied as its clientele. Crepes and quesadillas are popular, being great hand-held food. Pizza is also popular, with every sort of topping – and, in a different turn, lots of French bread pizza as well. Stir-fry dishes, noodles, one-pot dishes… all available.

Grilled cheese, any way you want it.
Then there’s the grilled cheese sandwich. Let’s face it – after you've spent a great deal on a ticket to the festival, bought a camping pass, paid for gas and got all your gear together, saving a few bucks is a good idea. Many of the vendors offer varying degrees of the classic grilled cheese sandwich – from the plain cheese and nothing else to gourmet cheeses, bacon, meats, vegetables and just about anything in-between the two slices of bread.

There are a good number of Wakarusa food photos located here.

Low on funds? You can always bring your own food to the festival – even bring your picnic right into the concert zone itself. It’s suggested to bring a camelbak and keep it filled (don’t worry – there are plenty of water stations all over Mulberry Mountain, and Arkansas water is pretty decent). All beverages seem to start at $3, so save yourself some money and bring your own (but do try the fantastic teas, hand-squeezed lemonades and other “exotic” beverages). Just don’t bring glass bottles. They’re not allowed anywhere at Mulberry Mountain – because broken glass sucks, especially when it gets into the grass and buried.

Oh golly, the music
The music. It goes on… and on… and on. If you have trouble falling asleep if it’s not quiet, bring the best dang earplugs money can buy – because the music goes on all night long.

It starts before it starts – that is, the first jam sessions happen Wednesday night, even before official activities start. There’s a Backwoods Stage performance to skuttle on down to, if you can draw yourself out of one of the spontaneous parties that pop up all over site. The official start is Thursday late in the morning – and the music goes on until full daylight the next day… and the next. There is a quieter time, from about 7 a.m. to noon each day, when you’ll hear bits of acoustic music from musicians in the camps, but pretty much expect to be listening from the get-go.

A daytime jam in the Revival Tent.
There’s almost always someone playing – and if the main stage is in the middle of a change-out there’s other performances in the woods. It’s a steady walk from one venue to another and there’s no possible way for a single individual to hear it all – but that’s all right.

There are lots of folks who will talk about nothing but the music – and that’s fine. That means I can move on and cover other things!

Such as what to bring. Honestly, being an outdoor festival, there’s no seating. Most folks stand and watch, dance, or bring their own items to sit on. A lightweight bag chair is not a bad idea… a sheet for the ground is always handy. For this and many other reasons, you’ll see people with all sorts of backpacks. These are fine, too – but expect to have them searched. It’s all in the name of safety.

If you’re wanting to catch all of a show, though, and you’re coming in from your camping area, leave early. Lines at the gates tend to back up 30 minutes before the biggest shows – and they can take an awful long time to clear. The same goes for coming in from off-site, but I’ll address that in a bit.

The Ferris Wheel offers great views.  I'm scared of heights.
Not just for the shows
Wakarusa is very much a participation event. Yes, you can just go for the concerts, but there’s far more to do. Each morning at 8 a.m. at the Satellite Stage, there’s yoga, open to all. There are disc golf competitions, music lessons – heck, even lessons on space and time. You can fish one of the several ponds on the Mulberry Mountain property. There’s a Ferris Wheel and a waterslide. You can catch the bus down to the Mulberry River for a swim, and there you can rent a canoe or a kayak or a raft and go for a float.

And the Hula hoops. They’re everywhere. Never Hula’d? You can learn. Folks will teach you. I swear, I have never seen so many Hula hoops in my life – and never have I seen so many that are lit at night. Amazing.

Yup, anything goes.
Dang dirty hipster
All those activities, you’re going to want a shower, right? Here’s the bad news. You can purchase a shower pass or pay $10 for a shower – or you can go without. Flushies also don’t exist for campers at this event. It’s Porta-Potty time, and you should be prepared.

Yes, you can bring a camp shower. There are a lot of ways you can prepare. But know in advance that you won’t be able to enjoy the pleasures of hot water unless you pay extra – or if you've brought your RV.

That also goes for electricity. While there were RV spots with electricity available (long gone at this point), it’s not readily available. You’re camping, for goodness sake. You’ll survive.

But what about those cell phones, cameras and other items you need to have charged? Well, you do get to camp right by your tent, so get a car charger. Small generators are allowed as well. I suggest a solar charger.

Solar power’s lovely, and free after the initial purchase of the solar item. Some camps utilize solar Christmas lights and garden lights on stakes to differentiate from the other tents and to direct exhausted concertgoers back to camp in the late night hours.

Oh, it's always smart to bring your own TP.
Speaking of camping…
If you’re not used to camping, you need to refresh yourself. Make sure your tent is ready to go. Bring an extra tarp, just in case. Remember your battery operated air pump if you’re on an air mattress. Remember your clothes, sunscreen, bug spray, chair, cooler, flashlight and whatnot.

Ground fires aren’t allowed, so if you plan to cook you’ll need to bring your own fire pit, stove or grill. Be smart about it – don’t dump live coals on the ground, don’t leave anything burning when you go run off to see that favorite musical act. Use your head.

When it comes to valuables – lock them in your car. That’s just smart. Yes, most concert-goers are good folks who wouldn’t dream of going through your stuff when you’re not around, but with 20,000+ individuals you’re bound to get a bad apple or two.

Getting to site
If you’ve purchased a pass for the whole shebang, you already know that you can’t get on-site until 4 p.m. Calm your jets. Don’t set your GPS or your Garmin or your Siri to get you there right at four – you’re going to find yourself sitting on the Pig Trail for a couple of hours as other folks who thought ahead get checked through the gate. It takes time to do a quick look-through of a vehicle to ensure there’s no glass bottles and whatnot within – to do that whole ticket and wristband thing and get directions to campsites. If you absolutely MUST NOT miss a moment, you need to get to Ozark or Fayetteville early and be prepared to head over long before the four o’clock hour.

The Pig Trail? That’s Highway 23. It runs through the beautiful Ozark Mountains and gets its name from the University of Arkansas mascot, the Razorback. Used to be, more adventurous Hog fans would take Highway 23 from Little Rock to Fayetteville to bypass the traffic that would always back up along Highway 71 (this is now averted with the construction of I-540).

Better gas up. Coming from the south, there’s a number of gas stations at Ozark (even one that serves good pie). Coming from the north, your last shots are Huntsville and Fayetteville. There’s just not much around in-between, and what you’re going to find is going to be more expensive.

Closest amenities? Well, there are camp stores at Wakarusa, but if you need more than that there’s tiny Ahart’s Grocery not too far up Highway 23. There’s a decently stocked CV’s in Ozark, a full sized grocery store – and the other way there’s a Harp’s on the outskirts of Fayetteville. There’s also a small Walmart (not a Supercenter) in Ozark.

Ozark is also home to a fantastic barbecue restaurant, Rivertowne Barbecue, half a block off the town square. Arkansas Wine Country is two exits east on I-40 at Altus – and all four wineries there offer tours and tastings. Altus is also home to a great little pub called Kelt’s.

If you’re sticking around after the event, check out Dickson Street in Fayetteville – packed with bars, restaurants, book stores and jam joints, right off the U of A campus. Go get a great burger at Feltner Brothers.

If you’re coming in from the west, Fort Smith is south on I-540 – but you’re better off going in through Van Buren (where you can take advantage of the trip and try Arkansas’s largest doughnut) to get to downtown. Alma’s also a good choice – I’d suggest grabbing a Dagwood and pie at the Red Rooster Bistro.

If you’re planning your trip or need a recommendation, drop me a line at kat@tiedyetravels.com.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Burge's, Smoked Turkey That Took Over The World.

The original Burge's location in
Lewisville. (Kat Robinson)
This is one in a series on historical restaurants in the state of Arkansas.  For a look at the Arkansas restaurant timeline, click here.

Most restaurants begin with a concept or a family dream.  Burge's began with a backyard smoker -- and a whole lot of friends who loved what came out of it.  It took nearly 10 years to get to a restaurant, but what was created there has endured generations.

Back in 1953, Alden Burge moved from Shreveport to a little town south of Hope, called Lewisville.  Burge was a hand in the oil fields, but he also liked to dabble in meat smoking, so he built a smokehouse in his backyard.  It didn't take long for that smoke to travel, and eventually Burge started sharing the benefits of the little smokehouse, bringing smoked chickens to Friday night ballgames along with baked beans and coleslaw.

Burge's Dairyette in Lewisville, circa 1960s.
Some nine years later, Burge was offered the chance to run a little dairyette at the intersection of Highway 82 and Highway 29.  It seemed a prime opportunity for his family -- so he and his wife and their three kids jumped in to create this family-run barbecue joint.  It caught on quickly -- fueled by the great wonders of smoking Burge had refined and paired with a magnificent round of burgers, ice cream desserts and family traditions.  The place became well known for its smoked hams and turkeys -- which some folks passing through would take with them -- and for smoking goat and serving peppermint ice cream on Independence Day (smoked goat seems to be a theme with Arkansas family-run barbecue joints).

Burge's in the Heights. (Kat Robinson)
Now, Lewisville is about 130 miles or so from Little Rock... but it lays along a road (Arkansas Highway 29, which becomes Louisiana Highway 3 on the other side of the border) that connects Arkansas's capital with Shreveport.  It became the best place to stop and refresh along the route, and many a weekend traveler would end up back in River City with a smoked turkey or some of that ham or even some smoked cheese.  There was definitely a need for good smoked meat in Little Rock, right?  And in 1977 Alden Burge opened the second location on R Street in Little Rock's Heights district.

The smoked turkey lunch plate comes with
two sides and a grilled cheese sandwich.
(Kat Robinson)
Now, if you're not an Arkansawyer, none of this might tick a memory box.  But you might be familiar with the products offered at both restaurants, anyway.  See, that smoked turkey is something that cannot be compared.  The brine, the smoke, everything about the preparation of a Burge's smoked turkey is meticulous -- and the meat comes out so flavorful, it bears a resemblance to ham.  Indeed, many people I know -- and I am one of them, imagine that -- take their post-Thanksgiving or post-Christmas turkey carcass and utilize it for the seasoning in New Year's Day peas.  Salty, sweet, it's addictive.

As is the understated dish you'll find in the cooler at the restaurant.  It's the turkey salad.  It doesn't look like much -- chopped turkey and mayo and not much more. But trust me.  It's more addictive than crack.

The Lewisville location is well known for burgers,
too.  (Kat Robinson)
Thing is, turkey may be the overwhelming product Burge's has given us (the website is actually smokedturkeys.com, after all!) but there's so much more on the menu.  I think the Lewisville location does the better burger, but that comes more from its dairyette roots.  Likewise, I think the better ice cream is served in Lewisville.  But the Little Rock location does pimento cheese in its cooler, and almost always has fried pies in the heated case.

The unsung delight: a smoked brisket
sandwich. (Kat Robinson)
And the Little Rock location always has whatever I am looking for to add to my immediate larder -- smoked meats, smoked cheeses, tubs of the pimento cheese and the turkey salad and even Mexican Coke for me to enjoy while I'm gnawing on a smoked beef brisket sandwich (enormously underrated, in my honest opinion). Plus, it is far closer.

However you slice it, two locations of Burge's are just close to being enough to make any Arkansawyer happy.  Fifty years of restaurant success sure confirm that.


This article brought to you by First Security Bank. For more great Arkansas stories on food, travel, sports, music and more, visit onlyinark.com.




Burge's Hickory Smoked Turkeys on Urbanspoon

Burge's Hickory Smoked Turkeys & Hams on Urbanspoon

Friday, May 3, 2013

The Scent of Memory: Klappenbach Bakery.

Klappenbach Bakery in 2010. (Kat Robinson)
This is one in a series on historical restaurants in the state of Arkansas. For a look at the Arkansas restaurant timeline, click here.

Fordyce is known for three things – Paul “Bear” Bryant, the Redbugs and Klappenbach Bakery. They represent three ideals: determination, tenacity and community.

Well, the Redbugs are still playing, and Bear Bryant’s legacy is still held dear. But Klappenbach Bakery is now a delicious and fondly favored memory.

For 36 years, the red brick bakery stood sentinel along a stretch of pavement downtown, not far from the railroad tracks. It was a great spot for hot coffee, warm pastries and sweet conversations. Past the pastry cases in the foyer, one would enter a red-washed room decorated with gas station memorabilia and mismatched tables, often packed with the guys from down the street, or local farmers shooting the breeze, or the local civic club. There were lunches taken here, many – but it was breakfast where the place really shined, home to buttery Danish and tiny miniature doughnuts. And oh golly, the monkey bread.

The bakery’s story started 2000 miles away, in the burg of Walla Walla, WA. It began its Arkansas chapter in 1975, when Norman and Lee Klappenbach moved to Fordyce (Lee was originally from Dallas County). Their son Paul was still a kid, ten or eleven years old, when they started up the little bakery that grew a huge following. The family started baking up fresh pastries, bread and doughnuts in the area because fresh baked goods weren’t locally available. It didn’t take long for folks to find them… following the aroma of cinnamon rolls that would waft blocks away. By the time the Klappenbachs threw in the towel in 2011, they averaged 75 people each day for lunch – an impressive ratio for a town of just 5000 people.

Breakfast, lunch… a community can live on that. It can thrive on baked goods, though, and Klappenbach has plenty: miniature doughnuts for a quarter apiece, big fat fresh loaves of bread, the aforementioned monkey bread, fritters and cinnamon rolls, raisin bread, pies, brownies, cupcakes, pecan rolls, bear claws, cookies and cakes. In 1991 the bakery started doing mail-order, and the orders started rolling in from all over the country – first from ex-pats who wanted a taste of home, then from folks who were lucky enough to share in that bounty, then from people who’d never stepped foot in Arkansas but had read about the place in Southern Living.

It became tradition for travelers passing through town on Highway 167 to make it their pit shop – and for some, like myself, it became a culinary destination. I used to find reasons to divert up to an hour off my path just to pick up a moist cake or a box of brownies to take with me wherever I was going. Long before culinary tourism became a “thing,” there were so many practicing that art with their own paths through south central Arkansas.

When a fire shut down the bakery in 2009, we all feared the end had come and eulogized our happy spot in town. But we were treated to a coda, a little window of opportunity, when the place reopened a few months later. For one more year, there were tiny doughnuts and massive cinnamon rolls again.

And then it was over. Norman Klappenbach was 80, his wife Lee 77, and they were done. Son Paul was 47. He’d spent seven years working 65 hours a week to keep the bakery open, but it just wasn’t in him anymore. With no one else left to take up the reins of business, the bakery shut its doors October 1st of 2011.

There’s still no replacement for that heavenly scent that would sometimes waft as far as the bypass. But there are good memories… and I keep hoping one day I’ll see mention somewhere that I can order a box of bread (three loaves, or a loaf and a cake) through the mail. I sure miss that monkey bread.