Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Master Chef in Harrison: Throw it in!


 South of where U.S. 62 and U.S. 65 converge (today, above Bear Creek Springs, at what’s now known as the Eureka Springs overpass), the highway goes through town. Today’s path takes it almost to the downtown area before making a hard left at a stoplight and out onto two successive loops of bypass. Before the bypass, the highways converged with Arkansas Highway 7 and rolled into downtown as Main Street. Along this stretch you’ll find the offices for local radio stations, a handful of old motor courts and roadside hotels (some of which are still in operation), shops and even the grand Hotel Seville.

Main Street hits the downtown square a couple blocks later, on which sits the grand restored Lyric Theater. After a couple blocks more, Highway 7 splits and goes south, while U.S. 65B crosses the bridge over little Harrison Lake and heads into the older suburbs.

Not far from where the north end of the bypass hooks in, you’ll find a red-roofed restaurant that’s been hanging around serving the town—and traffic to Dogpatch USA—since 1969. This is Master Chef.
This is not a fine dining establishment with a culinary-schooled chef and white-glove service. This is a community diner with an eclectic menu that’s been around for nearly forty-five years.

Master Chef served up what the community wanted and needed: another dairy diner. But then something interesting happened. Someone would come in and ask for a dish, and the folks there would attempt to make it.

And if it was good, it got added to the menu. So over the years, the menu broadened. There were Ark-Mex dishes like the plato de saltillo (Saltillo plate, an enchilada covered in red sauce, cheese taco covered in cheese sauce, beef taco in a hard shell and tortilla chips with salsa, a long-standing popular combination at many Arkansas Mexican restaurants), fried chicken, cold sandwiches, barbecue sandwiches, shrimp dinners, fried catfish, “diet-centered meals,” fajita plates and even cashew chicken (the latter of which is less surprising when you learn that this popular “Chinese” dish was created just over an hour away in Springfield, Missouri). Baked potatoes stuffed with ham? All right. Raisin fried pie? Sure, why not?

What’s crazy about Master Chef is that items kept going on the menu, and they didn’t come off.

I can remember visiting the restaurant on one of those Dogpatch USA trips as a kid. Even then, I can recall coming in, walking through the waist-high divided lobby and up to the ordering counter and being absolutely overwhelmed by the choices. On visiting in April 2011, when I looked up and my eyes got big at the even more expanded menu above the kitchen, the counter girl handed me a three ring binder full of items to choose from.

Ron and Burlene Hinson bought Master Chef in 1992 from Jerry Sharp.  Burlene had worked at Master Chef since it opened in 1969; she knew what made the restaurant great, and she didn’t change a thing. The Hinsons have kept up the long-established business and it’s still a very important part of the community.

So Master Chef does a lot of things, but does it do them well? The Ark-Mex is good—it’s not the authentic Mexican fare we’re used to today, but it’s not expected to be, either. Burgers are fine, and the stuffed potatoes are pretty dang good. 

And then there are the chicken strips. I suppose at some point, someone came in and suggested that since Master Chef did fried chicken, it should also offer fried chicken strips. Rather than ordering a box of prebreaded pieces to throw in a deep fryer, the strips there are actually hand-pulled strips of breast delicately battered and spiced. It still looks like

chicken, rather than another battered and deep-fried wonder.

***

UPDATE:  Since the book was published, Master Chef has closed and is now up for sale.  Anyone want to buy a well-established restaurant in Harrison?

ANOTHER UPDATE:  Master Chef's been purchased by the folks who own the Ranch House Restaurant and is set to re-open in January 2014.

Master Chef Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Championship Pies at Nima's Pizza in Gassville.

On the other side of the famed Cotter Bridge, past the Cotter community, you’ll find Gassville and a little pizzeria that’s claiming big honors.

Nima’s Pizza opened in the 1990s and served its community well. In 2003, it was purchased from its original owners by a Las Vegas couple, and within a few years, it gained international notoriety. Rick and Jane Mines loved visiting the Mountain Home area and decided to retire there, as well as purchase Nima’s with no restaurant experience. They learned, though, and utilized a collection of premium aged cheeses, oils from the Devo Olive Oil Company in Branson and recipes that required a wait—doughs that take more than a day, well-developed sauces and four-hour roasted peppers.

Let me reiterate-- Jane and Rick never made pizzas before.  I'm not joking.  They were coming to Arkansas to retire.  In fact, they had a farm with horses -- and they day Rick heard about the chance to purchase Nima's -- an already established pizzaria -- he called her and told her to clean up from being out with those horses and come into town.  Once they bought the place, the seeds were sown for what was to come.

The 2008 winner: a blend of four cheeses, fresh
tomatoes and Italian herbs.
They started winning at the International Pizza Challenge in Las Vegas in 2008 with a blend of four cheese under fat slices of tomato with Italian herbs -- good enough for a runner-up prize.

The next year they did the same with a sausage and marinated tomato ring pie.

All their hard work paid off in a big way in 2010, when Jane and Rick took their pizzas back to Las Vegas for the International Pizza Challenge. They came home with the title of #2 Best World Traditional Pizza, right behind a chef out of Italy.

They’ve proved it’s no fluke, with good showings over the past few years and another #2 in 2013. The winning pie for this past contest was a simple one baked on a day-rise crust, with a layer of thin sliced black pepper–laced Italian ham covered by a light sauce and then a lattice of roasted red peppers filled in with a five aged-cheeses blend. Simple, yet popular.

Take for instance the taco pizza. It’s spiced ground beef and tomatoes, onions and jalapeƱos with cheddar and Colby cheeses on top of even more cheese, and it’s a sight better than most any other taco pizza I've ever had.

But there are others.  On my most recent visit, I captured the following:

I heard several names for this pizza, a pie with red and green bell peppers cut
into hearts, diamonds, clubs and spades.  Technically, this is a two-topping
pie -- the second being meatballs ground up and layered under the cheese.  It
was the 2011 Mid-America winner for best traditional pizza.  You can't just
order this one -- you have to let them know at least a day in advance.

The 2012 non-traditional entry before going in the oven.

After baking -- one of my favorites.  This is the 2012 non-traditional entry,
It starts with a base of roasted garlic white sauce and spinach leaves, then
ground meatballs and Italian cheeses, atop which sit flowers made from
roasted red bell peppers and petals of mushrooms -- all with a roasted walnut
olive oil sauce.  Amazing.

This latticework pie was the 2010 Best in the USA Traditional winner -- a lattice
of red bell pepper slices between sliced meatballs topped with a special
five Italian cheese blend.

This is a grape pie the Mines' made during this last visit -- puffy yet thick
Italian dough dotted with sweet bursting red grapes.  Simple and delicious.
Rick shows off the 2013 award winner before the
pies go into the oven.
And this is the result -- the 2013 #2 in the world pizza.  It's
called the Flowering Pepperoni.  First the pepperonis and the
mushrooms are sauteed in butter flavored olive oil; then they're
crushed and sprinkled over the restaurant's signature sauce.
Oversized pepperoni are then shaped into tulips and stuffed
into mushroom caps with a ball of the famed Nima's five
cheese blend.  Oh, did I mention those mushroom caps are
dusted with hickory smoked sea salt?

Oh golly, cannoli.
The Mines do believe in the concept of families enjoying pizza together, and they make a special “family sheet” pizza. It’s a seventeen- by twenty five-inch pizza that comes in twenty-four square slices, and it fills the box.



The restaurant is not large... just one room for dining and one for ordering.  They also sell pastries -- including big fluffy cupcakes and marvelous chocolate chip studded cannoli.  Drinks come from a vending machine.  What's it like inside?



Rick and Jane Mines
The restaurant has now been in operation for 10 years.  On my latest visit, the folks from PizzaTV.com were taping -- and Rick and Jane were presented with this special recognition.  Next April, they're going to compete at the World Pizza Championships in Parma, Italy.  I have no doubt they'll make Arkansas -- and the United States -- proud.
Check out their website and head on up.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Arkansas and its Fading Restaurant History.

Postcard from Best Western Alamo Court and Davy
Crockett Restaurant in Walnut Ridge.
I've been working on a new project over the past nine months… another book, to be exact.  This one was to be an all-encompassing book called Classic Arkansas Eateries:  A Delicious Tradition of Dining Out.  But as I compiled my research, I realized something – 40,000 words wasn't going to do justice to the food and restaurants of The Natural State.  Thus was born Classic Eateries of the Ozarks and Arkansas River Valley, the first of what I expect to be four books covering the classic restaurants all around Arkansas.

I've learned a lot, and I’m expecting to learn a lot more.  The very first thing I learned, though, was that there’s no good repository of information about these older restaurants.  Outside of Little Rock (which, thanks to the Arkansas Gazette and Arkansas Democrat, saved its restaurant history fairly well), little of the restaurants that have closed remains.  Frankly, our Arkansas restaurant history is fading away.

There are a few places to find bits here and there.  Phone books from the past give addresses, names and the number – which is a starting point.  Eateries that had money for advertising are represented in newspapers of the time where archives are available.  There are privately held photos and stories, and there are the extant restaurants that often keep their own history (though, as in the case of the original DeVito’s at Bear Creek Springs, circumstances can erase that memorabilia).  And then there are the postcards.

Hank's Dog House on Roosevelt Road in the 1960s.
The average restaurant, diner, drive-in or coffeeshop wasn’t likely to have its own postcard unless it was part of a hotel or if its owner was looking for publicity and good word-of-mouth.  Postcards cost money.

There were dozens of companies all across the United States that would create postcards and send them to these restaurants for a nominal fee.  Often these were sold at the register – for a nickel, three for a dime – add a stamp and off went a memory shared with someone back home.

Today postcards are swapped, sold and traded on sites such as eBay and CashCow.com.  Many have made their way into historical records and private collections.  And what I’ve discovered is a preserved history.

Back when I started working with photographer Grav Weldon, what each of us shot wasn’t very similar.  Grav’s preferred body of work is entropy – gravesites and cemeteries, abandoned buildings, that sort of thing.  Mine?  Well… food, of course.  Over time we’ve found some of our work merging – especially when it comes to this restaurant business.  And now I’m really starting to feel this call – this entropy of lost places that once fed communities.  It’s important.  These sort of places deserve to be remembered.

Shadden's Bar-B-Q in Marvell, August 2013. (Grav Weldon)
One of these images came this past summer.  On a research trip through the Arkansas Delta, I drove Grav by Shadden’s Bar-B-Q in Marvell.  Three years earlier, Mr. Wayne Shadden wasn’t feeling good, so he shut down for the day and went home.  The next day, he died – and the restaurant remains as it was.  I was surprised how well kept the exterior is – but the family’s watching over the place.  Most places aren’t so lucky… just see what happened to the smokehouse at Booger Hollow within a year of its closing.

Scrapping together history like this starts with a little logic.  I have images of several postcards in my collection.  Part of the new book talks about the history of The Old South in Russellville – and its predecessors.  The modular site-assembled restaurant idea created by William E. Stell at National Glass Manufacturing in Fort Smith apparently took hold.  There were hundreds of the buildings placed in locations all over the United States.  At least two of them were in Little Rock -- under the name Gordon Adkins' Fine Foods.
Gordon Adkins No. 1 on Roosevelt Road.

The restaurants had to have come after 1946 (the date the first location of The Old South was opened in Fort Smith) but before Hank’s Dog House.  I’ll get to that.  What we have of the first Gordon Adkins is not a photograph but a line drawing, complete with an address of 3614 Roosevelt Road.

Hank's Dog House in the 1950s.
Later photographs show the same building – same signature spine and rounded windows – with the name Hank’s Dog House.  The original was a little whitewashed building that was a dead ringer for The Old South. 

Building in 3600 block of Roosevelt Road.  Note the windows.
Today about three buildings down from what is now numbered as 3614 Roosevelt Road, you’ll find an orange and red building with those same rounded windows.  At first I was sure this was the same business.  But then I noticed the architecture was different – a vestibule was added on, and there was one window on the left side that’s far forward of those on the right.  Is it the same building or were the windows removed from another property and moved?


Hank's Dog House sketched postcard.
If you type in 3614 West Roosevelt Road today, you come up with an empty lot.  I checked with the city to see if there had been renumbering in the intervening years – no dice.  This Google streetview shows the lot and a building off to the right.  Compare it to this postcard,.  The building on the right appears to be the old Hank’s Catering House next door.

Google Streetview image of location, October 2013.
From this information, I’d surmise that Hank’s moved in after Gordon Adkin’s moved out, then later the restaurant moved down the street.  But that’s all supposition.  So what do I do?  I asked my mom – who came to Little Rock in the 70s to live but who visited the city several times during her childhood.  Her response?  Hank’s was a bit above her price point back in those days.  I have other interviews to come about the place, but that’s where I started.

(You know where else I find restaurant history?  Obituaries.  For instance, I learned that Ruth Brannon worked at Hank’s Dog House for 50 years – which, if I knew nothing about restaurants in Little Rock, would tell me this one was likely a classic.  That obituary is here. I also found a recipe for the famed Hank's Dog House Blue Cheese Dressing on Food.com.)

But if you go to the internet today to do research, all you see are the postcards (and obituaries) for this landmark restaurant.  And without postcards?  Well, Hank’s might just be a memory.

Gordon Adkins No. 2.

But I digress.

I mentioned Gordon Adkins.  The restaurant on Roosevelt was Gordon Adkins #1.  A second location was opened at 10th and Broadway in Little Rock.  It later became the Ritz Grill. 

Ritz Grill.
Can’t find it today… 10th Street through downtown was all but obliterated with the construction of Interstate 630.

I could go on quite a while for this, but what I’d really like is to engage you in some thought.  Are there restaurants in your past that no longer exist?   Special memories of a dinner?  Do you have photographs of these places that have passed into history?  Now’s the time to record that information.

Here’s a small selection of restaurant postcards – some with views of what’s at those locations today.


Best Western Alamo Court and Davy Crockett Restaurant
in Walnut Ridge, historic postcard.
The same Walnut Ridge property today.  The restaurant building is for
sale and the former motel rooms appear to be in use as apartments.

The old Pine Bluff Motel and Plantation Embers Restaurant at
4600 Dollarway Road.  The back mentions featured items at the
restaurant:  charcoal broiled steaks, Prime Ribs and Lobster.

Today the location is home to an America's Best Value Inn.

The Deese Motel and Restaurant in Beebe at the intersection of Highways
67 and 64 boasted 20 "completely Modern rooms.  Air-Conditioned - Steam
Heat - Tile Baths - Telephones - Beautyrest Mattresses - T.V."
The property still exists (and about 15 years ago I actually stayed there one
night!) -- but today as you can see in this Google Streetview image, the
motel is the Budget Inn, and its former restaurant is a tattoo parlor.
Powell's Motel at Highway 167 and Main Street
in Batesville served up the "finest of food" at
its somewhat elegant restaurant.
Today the restaurant is Kelley-Wyatt's, which itself was one of the trio of
Kelley family restaurants in Arkansas (the others are at Wynne and Bald
Knob).  Note that this Google Streetview captured two men atop the eatery
at the cupola.
Bald Knob's Market Cafe was celebrated on this postcard as "Just A Good
Place to Eat" at the intersection of Highways 64, 67 and 167.  It also mentions
that the restaurant is air conditioned.
I took this shot in July while researching stories for the upcoming books.
This is the interior of Kelley's Restaurant at Bald Knob.  It still bears the Kelley
name, but was sold several years ago to another family.  The image in the
postcard above is the reverse position in the dining room.
The popular Ritz Motel at Highways 67 and 70 south of downtown Little
Rock was, according to this postcard, "recommended by Duncan Hines."

The restaurant is long gone, and though the Ritz Motel still retains the name,
the comfort level has... well, gone down a bit.
UPDATE:  After being reminded about the fantastic Remember in Little Rock Facebook open group, I cleared up a bit of memory.  The orange building in the photo may have been the first location of Gordon Adkins No. 1 and possibly even the first Hank's Dog House location (MAYBE) -- but it certainly appears to have been one of the locations for Bruno's Little Italy.
Note the rounded windows -- common to The Old South-style restaurants,
certainly evident on the orange building on Roosevelt today.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

2013 Arkansas State Fair Food Preview.

As you know, I try to give you an idea of what's new, interesting and available each year at the Arkansas State Fair.  This year is no exception.  Here are items you can try at the fair this year.  Do note -- this year, there's a fair fried food contest on Tuesday.  Yep, you guessed it -- I've signed up to judge.  Heaven have mercy on me!

More photos added below over the weekend!

Also, check out the 2012 new foods guide and the 2011 guide (which includes EVERY old favorite as well) for a comprehensive look at all those state fair goodies.
Deep fried pineapple upside down cake on a stick.

Fried catfish on a stick.

Cinnamon and sugar dusted fry bread.

Deep fried banana split.

Peanut and pecan caramel nut rolls.

Fried avocado slices.
This stand purports to sell a bacon-wrapped all-beef hot dog covered in
nacho cheese, sour cream and fried "taters."  No examples found today.


Citrus Blast, a yummy and refreshing beverage.


Grazzi Grinder.

Deep fried Rice Krispie treat.

Paizi's famed gyro.

Chocolate dipped Twinkies.
Inside a chocolate dipped Twinkie.
Philly Cheesesteak.


Frybread taco.
A fried what.

Inside a fried what.

Though I didn't see one, I did talk with the guy running this booth.  The Fried
Klondike Bar on a Stick is created by freezing a Klondike bar to 50 degrees
below zero and then dipping it in batter and deep frying it.
Fried Jell-O.

Fried chicken on a stick.

Fresh squeezed lemonade.

Beer battered fried pickles.

Beef and chicken kebabs.

Barbecue pork sandwich.

Barbecue chicken pizza.

Burrito, quesadilla and torta from
Taqueria Samantha.

Deep fried chicken and waffles on a stick.

The Mega Burger.

Apple pie funnel cake a la mode with the works.


Hog Log -- a pork steak battered and
deep fried, on a stick.

Deep fried S'mores Pop Tart a la mode.
Another view.

Rice water.

A multitude of chicken wings in various flavors.

Deep fried cream cheese filled sausage ball.

Caramel apples, the standby favorite.

Giant chicken fried steak dinner.

Pineapple whips.

MY pineapple whip.

Photos taken at the fair:

Hunter and Grav finishing their pineapple whips.


Chicken and waffle on a stick with
maple syrup -- much better fresh and hot!

Cougar juice:  A blend of ginger ale and pineapple juice and
a secret ingredient.

Breaded and fried pickles.

Barbecue chicken pizza.

Citrus blasts in a variety of flavors.

S'mores on a stick.

Hot buttered corn.

Gator on a stick.

Fried avocado slices.

Hot boudin on a stick.

Meat and onions on the grill at Paizi's Gyros.

Nachos at Kathy's Kabana.

Candy apples.

Caramel nut apple.

Turkey legs.

Beef kababs on the grill.

Grater taters with nacho cheese sauce.

Blooming onion with sauce.

Grilled sausages and onions.

Krispy Kreme bacon cheeseburger.

Fried Klondike bar.

One minute into a fried Klondike bar.

Termpura battered fried pickles.

Angry Dawg.

Grav consuming an Angry Dawg.

The turkey leg guy and his wares.

Red velvet funnel cake.

A smorgasboard of meaty things.


Italian sausages.

Midway snack food.

Devon Brooks, the first (and so far only)
guy to make it through the Mega Burger.

Pineapple whip and soft serve
vanilla ice cream.

Superdog crew.

Fry bread taco.  Yes, I ate ALL of this.

Coconut doughnut.

Old fashioned sodas.

Roasted sweet potato with brown sugar and
cinnamon.  This son of a gun weighed more than
a pound!

A combo plate of deep fried mashed potatoes, fried macaroni
and cheese, fried pickles and fried ravioli.

Fried apples with caramel sauce.

Chocolate sundae.

Chocolate soft serve on a cone.

Chocolate and nut covered cookie dough balls.

Fried catfish plate.

Ground beef balls.

Breadsticks.

Italian chicken tenders and Philly cheesesteak.


Wine glasses at the wine competition.

Cougar juice.

Devon Brooks post-Mega Burger

Hunter with chicken and waffle on a stick.

Angry Dawg.

Hog Log.

Grav consumes Angry Dawg.

Mega Burger.