Monday, January 20, 2014

El Sol, A Spot of Mexican Sun in Pine Bluff.

On our jaunts, there are restaurants we return to time and time again. When trips take us into southeast Arkansas, we usually make certain we have time to drop in at El Sol on our way back. See why Grav, Hunter and I adore this Pine Bluff restaurant.

Shogun, Arkansas's Oldest Japanese Steakhouse, Still Captivates.

Arkansas’s oldest Japanese steakhouse opened its doors in 1982. Today Shogun has a lot of clones here and there, but it’s still doing a steady job of serving consistently good food and delighting diners.

A lot of cities have their own version of Shogun, but this one isn’t a chain – even though it did open its doors within a building quickly vacated by another chain which has its own place in Arkansas restaurant history. That would be Sambo’s. 

This postcard shows an identical building that housed
Sambo's in Goleta, California.
The franchise, which started in Santa Barbara, CA in 1957, spread across the U.S. over the decades -- with more than 1100 restaurants at its apex in 1981. However, the restaurant’s unfortunate name (a combination of the names of its founders, Sam Battison and Newell “Bo” Bonnett) came to the forefront with the popularization in the 1970s of the book “Little Black Sambo,” written by Helen Bannerman in 1899. Outcry forced many old locations to change their name to “No Place Like Sam’s,” while new locations often bore the new moniker “The Jolly Tiger.”

There were several in Arkansas, including one in Fort Smith’s Central Mall and spots in both Little Rock and North Little Rock. All locations save one (the original) closed in 1982.

Shogun Japanese Steakhouse in Little Rock on a busy
Saturday evening in January.
If you look closely at the Googie-designed building today, you can see remnants of the Sambo’s that came before it – in its arched windows and the distinctive handles on the front door. But the windows have long since been replaced with Japanese-style translucent gridded screens, and a Japanese-styled pavilion has been added to the front.

Shogun’s a place that’s lived long in my memory – a magical restaurant where chefs conjure images with fire and oil, and beverages are consumed from ceramic vessels of warriors and Buddhas. But my last visit more than a dozen years ago had been met with tired wallpaper, yellowed ceiling tiles and decades of slightly burned rice embedded in the scent that embraced me when I entered the doors.

It wasn’t until my restaurant research brought me to the subject of Sambo’s that I decided a new visit to Shogun was in order, and boy was I glad I returned. The occasion? Photographer Grav Weldon’s birthday and the idea of drinking a beverage from a Lucky Cat. I kid you not.

Kimono-clad waitresses will show you to your seat.
We journeyed there on a Saturday night, me under the idea that the tired restaurant I had visited last would have few patrons. In this, I erred. There wasn’t a place to park at the restaurant, or next door at the garage or on the other side at Rack’Em Sports Bar. In fact, we considered ditching the idea until we saw there was no wait, and I parked the car over at the local Fabulous Finds Antique Mall.

We were taken by a kimono-clad waitress back past the renovated sushi bar area and the teppanyaki tables at the front and through the hall to the back room, where three sets of two connecting tables held larger parties. We were seated with two other families at a table where, on the other side, the chef had just arrived to begin serving a birthday party. Across the room, a very large party had also come in to sit, consisting of what appeared to be 20 young men and women.

Note the availability to be "cherished" for $6 in the black box.
The menu has changed little since the early days, except now it’s a laminated bi-fold rather than the old faux-leather-clad paper version from before. The prices haven’t changed much, either – with Teppanyaki Chicken on the low side at $11.95 and the Shogun Special being $31.95. Fried rice is still $2.50 extra, and there’s a $3 shared plate price – which, for a budget-conscious couple, is a great idea (the $3 goes for the separate soup-and-salad set-up).

Before we even decided on our dinners, drums sounded, and kimono-clad ladies and chef-jacketed men came striding in with a bowl in front of them. They went to the table in the middle of the room, placed the bowl in front of one of the young men there and sang a tune, all while clapping hands and beating the drum. The dessert presented, they bowed and returned to from where they came, and hoots and hollers rose up from the celebrations. Ah, a birthday party.

Our waiter came to take our drink orders, and I suggested the Neko to Grav, which he happily accepted. Hunter started claiming to dislike fire at this point, and I reminded her that her first solid food – a wad of wasabi, no less – was consumed in just such a restaurant.

The deliberate nature of this sort of restaurant is cause for waiting – there’s nothing about Shogun that cries “fast food.” I had ample time to inspect the new tables and chairs, the recently changed wallpaper and the fresh new lanterns…
Neko is one of seven beverages that
can be ordered in a commemorative
porcelain container.  The menu
provides illustrations for your
ordering convenience.
and to notice that one of the original gigantic artworks was still located in the long hallway between front and back. We amused ourselves with conversation and answered questions about our large cameras at the table. And we watched the preparations by the chef entertaining the other half of our area.

I must admit, I was first disappointed at the arrival of beverages to see that Grav’s Neko had come in a plain daiquiri glass. I voiced this to the waiter, and he mentioned that the porcelain containers were an additional charge. Heck, we were celebrating a birthday here! We sent it back for proper cladding.

And when it was returned, here was our Neko, a gorgeous little cat full of Midori, peach schnapps and pineapple juice – a sweet treat of a mixed beverage.

And the drums went off again, as the quintet of kimonos and chef’s coats breezed by again, this time with two pineapple boats for the two individuals celebrating at our shared area’s other table. Seems there were a lot of birthdays going around in this room.

Grav and his Neko.
Our orders were finally taken at this point, and the couple next to us both voiced concern at the stretched-out service. I don’t believe they’d been there before, and hadn’t expected the wait. It was… well, it was a bit long, 30 minutes from our seating til the orders were taken, and they’d been there longer than we had been. Other restaurants in the market, such as Kobe and Koto, were far quicker.

Mushroom soup.

Soup arrived. Listed as Mushroom Soup, this was simply the traditional miso-type soup topped with fresh slices of mushroom. Hunter’s recent aversion to mushrooms was noted, so I got her ‘shrooms. Grav’s suggestion of a dash of soy made it all the better. Best of all, it was warm – the room was a bit cool, thanks to the chilly weather outside and the draft coming from the grill vent overhead.

And then the drums went off again, but this time for someone in the front room of the restaurant. Boy, were there a LOT of celebrations going on!

We kept hearing the drums go off. We talked with the other families at our table, and watched as other groups came and went. There were just three chefs on duty, and with each performance taking anywhere from 30 to 45 minutes, a wait was bound to be in order.

Salad with ginger dressing.
Our chef came in his own time, and quickly got to work confirming our orders. Our salads arrived simultaneously, big bowls of mostly iceberg lettuce topped with dressing. I had gone with the house ginger dressing and was glad for it, the deep salmon-colored topping just about right for what it topped. Grav went with Thousand Island and Hunter with ranch. We dabbled in our salads our chef got started.

He began by swabbing down the griddle and then drawing a heart with oil, complete with an arrow through it. This he set afire, proclaiming “heartburn!” to the table, which awed some of the kids and made a few of the adults groan.
The roll of flame consumed the oil and the chef got to starting up with vegetables, expertly slicing and dicing through zucchini and mushrooms and onions.

There was the creation of the flaming volcano, of course – rings of onion carefully separated and stacked, then filled with a little oil before ignition. The clang of the dual spatulas of our chef rang out in his interpretation of a train. This isn’t somewhere you go if you’re not expecting to smell your food, or if you don’t care for a lot of noise.

There was the cracking of eggs, then the heaping of rice upon them along with a mound of butter and then a dousing of soy sauce. Our chef cupped the fried rice into bowls before depositing them upon our plate. I was a bit surprised to see that my daughter’s child-sized beef order came with the same amount of rice as my Geisha Special (beef and chicken) and Grav’s King Sized Steak.

The vegetables were completed and shared out to all diners, and then the real cooking began. I was asked how done I wanted my steak, as were the other steak-eaters at the table – and then chicken (accompanied by chef clucking) and steaks were plopped onto the hot surface. The chef sliced each steak, seasoned it and slid it from spatula to plates effortlessly – which reminds me – Shogun’s not the place for you if you don’t like your foods to touch.

Shrimp were pulled out, dropped on the griddle, seasoned with soy sauce and a salt-and-pepper blend and lemon juice, quickly fried and shared out (the shrimp “appetizer” from the menu). Chicken was similarly shared. And soon the chef was cleaning the griddle top as we consumed our meals.

The Geisha Special.
And here went the drums again. It seemed odd, just how many people were being feted this night. And still, they didn’t approach our table.

In fact, Hunter had turned to me, declared her exhaustion and passed out against my side. We’d been there nearly two hours. Our take-home boxes arrived and were loaded – and the drums sounded again.

Pineapple boat at Shogun Japanese Steakhouse.
And this time, they were for Grav. The quintet came forth with drum and song and a pineapple boat, and set it before the sleeping Hunter before being directed that today it was the 43-year-old celebrating another year. There were giggles and then they were gone, leaving behind a boat of fresh pineapple and orange with a parasol-stabbed cherry on top.

Our souvenir photo.
Hunter never woke. She would tell me the next morning her disappointment in missing out, and I reminded her that we tried to bring her around, but she was done for the day. I even have photographic proof.

It wasn’t but a few minutes later that we heard drums AGAIN, as the drum progression marched over to the far table in the room – where one of the diners was celebrating a 31st birthday. Cheers went up all around, and a few minutes later the crowd posed for a photo.

And we were on our way out the door. Mind you, this wasn’t a cheap feast – our total with tip came out over $100, far outside our normal dining budget. But we’d had entertainment and a good meal, and we were taking home a Neko cat for Grav to include amongst his many cat-themed possessions. And my daughter now had a new set of neat memories, even despite falling asleep.

Shogun has been around about 32 years now, and while it might not be shiny and new and may lack in new tricks, it’s consistent and it’s apparently become a traditional place to celebrate birthdays. The packed parking lot showed me that the popularity hasn’t waned much. I suspect it’ll be around for generations to come.


One more note -- the only restaurant review posted in the restaurant (and on its website) is that from Max Brantley, a young writer who covered restaurants for the Arkansas Gazette -- back in 1983.  Makes you wonder what became of him...

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

Shogun Japanese Steakhouse on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Taking a Bite of the Gillett Coon Supper.

Gillett is a town of just 691 people along Arkansas’s Great River Road, a small community built around agriculture and southern tradition. But on one day each year, the town doubles in size in the first act of a year’s political drama.

This is not that story. As Alton Brown has so succinctly put it, “I’m here for the food.”

Every Arkansas politician of any renown has come through
Gillett at one time or another, including the most famous of
our native-born sons.
To talk about Gillett’s Coon Supper is not to reference one event, but two. The larger event happens each year as it has every year since 1933 (except during World War II) in the old high school gymnasium. The smaller event, though…

See, there was a gentleman who lived across the street from that high school. And starting back in the 1970s, he and his wife would open their home to a party before the annual get-together. That young man eventually decided to run for office, and the party became a political fundraiser. When Representative Marion Berry came home from Congress, the party became a different sort of fundraiser – one that sends two Gillett high school seniors to college each year.

The party remains a part of Arkansas tradition, though now it’s held on the Berry Farm rather than in the house in town.

Photographer Grav Weldon and I headed to Gillett on a brisk January Saturday to take in the two events. He gets a pass on never having gone before, but I don’t. Over the years there’s been every sort of reason I’ve missed out – from having to work at my television job to having a personal commitment to not being ready to head out again after having Hunter to being on the road. The biggest reason I’d not been before, however, stemmed directly from the timing – the event is usually held the second Saturday of January, and by the time I remember, I’ve failed to secure a ticket to the events. They always sell out.

We came into the Arkansas County town from Stuttgart via DeWitt with the singular direction from my friend Gabe Holstrom, to “follow the Berry signs.” The first signs we saw, though, were the Arkansas-shaped pickets for Pryor, in this case Mark Pryor, the U.S. senator who rightly used his daddy’s campaign logo as his own, a modern version of medieval heraldry passed father to son. Past that, we saw the “Berry for Congress” sign, big and blue by a gravel road, which we turned in to right after a massive black SUV before us.

Down the gravel road, still somewhat slick from the two-days-ago rain, way out into the verdant and soggy plain of an Arkansas field planted this past year with corn, a right turn past a rice paddy, a left turn onto a road headed out to a set of outbuildings.

Here there were cars parked side by side near what appeared to be a hangar – far too big to be a storage shed. Outside, three men tended a smoker, while two young boys threw rocks in a puddle.

My daughter, Hunter, had come along for the ride, and she played shy with the kids while I made introductions and found my direction. The men were lording over long skewers of bacon-wrapped meat in the chilly air.

I realized the vest that was enough to keep me warm in Little Rock with its trees and hollows and tall buildings wouldn’t stand up to the constant wind that stuttered unimpeded across the Mississippi River alluvial plain, and headed inside.

It was 3:30 on the dot. Concerned that we would be late to the party, we’d arrived on time, and within there were just a scattering of people tidying up the last minute details. These included making sure sponsor banners were in place, a bar was fully stocked and a long table loaded with food.

Of course, it was the food I meant to cover. Gathering information for an upcoming book and for this very blog, I knew the food would be what my readers would find curiosity in. I had already been warned about the coon coming tonight, and had been told to find good sustenance at the Berry Farm party before heading into town.
Grav and I darted about, checking out the edibles before the onslaught of attendees came through the door.

And my, weren’t there a lot of vittles – gourmet, yet more of a relaxed Delta gala than a high-dollar luncheon. Each item appeared to have been brought in by someone local – presented on someone’s kitchen service. There were cubes of cheese, thin slices of salami and smoked ham and a duck prosciutto that was absolutely divine. Someone had brought homemade pancetta, naked-looking and soft.

There were vegetable trays and fruit trays, a spread of crackers and a cheese ball and that strange blog of cream cheese covered in sauce you see at any gathering these days. There was a large cooler of peeled and deveined shrimp with sauce and a pile of soft rolls. There was a roaster full of venison stew packed with onions, carrots and potatoes.

And then there were the meats – not the deli meats but the hearty, bone-sticking meat you’d expect to sustain yourself in this sort of weather. From the smoker came big pork butts, which the ladies in the back would break open and shred and platter. There were big links of sausage. And there were Duck Bites.

The Arkansas Delta, after all, is known for its duck. Nearby Stuttgart is the Duck and Rice Capitol of the World, and the season is still underway. But this was no ordinary duck. I realized I had seen it already -- the skewered bacon-wrapped parcels on the smoker contained parmesan-breaded jalapeno-stuffed slices of wild duck that were only pulled off the grills when they started to char.

Gabe had told me these would go quick – and they did, even though it seemed like there might have been 50 pounds pulled from the smoke, they went quickly into the mouths and onto the plates of these individuals who came to the line, sometimes with a dollop of remoulade. And when they were gone, they were replaced with fall-apart good smoked turkey and chicken.

At 4:08 on the dot, the crowd swelled in. The first were individuals who had pulled up in their own vehicles and who’d been chewing the fat when they saw the big Little Rock Tours bus make its way through the field. They came in a rush ahead of the next rush, that of 60 men and women who had come down with another driver to take in both the events.

The empty farm hangar went from hollow echoes to a solid block of sound in seconds. They all came through the door, man and woman, a collection of suits and padded vests and ties and young men bearing campaign stickers for every flavor of Arkansas politician. After all, this is among all things a political event.

Amongst the politicians and business leaders, there were folks like me, camera and pad in hand, jostling about. The journalists, the TV crews and the newspaper folks and the radio guys, we found ourselves suddenly surrounded by subjects. Interviews commenced left and right as fellows clapped each other on the back and young ladies giggled and cameras beeped – oh, to say snapped would be an antiquity – as the crowd filed in and filled out.

Congressmen, state representatives, farmers, businessmen, mayors… they were all there. I spotted fellow Arkansas writer Rex Nelson by the buffet, ran into Arkansas Museum of Discovery Executive Director (and fellow food writer) Kelley Bass by my table, even chatted with one of my former fellow producers from Today’s THV, Monika Rued. This was a place to wave and say hi and share a glance as it got louder – yes, I see you there, you see me, we’ve been here. The room was so loud a coherent conversation between any but the most able lip-readers were left smiling and nodding.

And then a break, as if the crowd had simultaneously reached the moment to take a breath or a swig of a beverage. At the door, there was a rustle and former congressman Marion Berry came in the room. And a swarm of people formed the most disorganized circular line in an effort to get a chance to thank him for his hospitality.

The governor was there. The networks – ABC and MSNBC – were there. A progressive Country act was playing in the corner, providing a soundtrack for the whole mess. And I quickly learned that the best way to have a conversation was right outside the doors, where the serious talk seemed to be happening.

Some 220 people turned out for the pre-supper party -- and the resulting crowd brought around $20,000 into the scholarship fund.  This particular gathering could be considered nothing but a success.

But, as I said, I came for the food. And soon enough it was time to head for the other event.

We arrived at the former Gillett High School a few minutes before six. There weren’t a lot of people in town at that point, and we were able to park in the lot. I hustled over to the gym door quickly with Hunter, jogging a bit to get there as I saw the glint of metal. I had expected to see cooking on the premises, but I realized at that moment that the cooking was already done.

What I was seeing was a line of men, young and old and wearing white aprons, darting back and forth from a truck into the building with aluminum trays of food. They were swift and organized, passing through the double doors into the gymnasium’s hall in shifts. I snapped a few shots and tried to keep out of the way.

Inside, two ladies sat at a table offering caps, ties and T-shirts by the main door to the interior. Across from them, a uniformed man stood at the ticket counter. This was for people to claim their ticket – the dinner had been sold out long before.

Within, the finely orchestrated work had begun. The tables were already set with commemorative glasses, Styrofoam plates and numbered programs, 800 in all, along two-sided tables. On either side of the gym, there were tables in the concrete bleachers – I suppose, what should be bleachers but which were really just a couple of sets of benches along each side. A musician was warming up on the stage – and there were places set right up to it as well. Every inch of space seemed to be taken.

The men worked in teams – the shifts of aluminum tray-carrying guys were directed to tables, where they sat deep tins of coon, ribs and brisket. Other men were working in sets – one man holding a tray of sweet potatoes while another dolloped out a serving on each plate. The same went for the cakes, the rolls and the rice. They were working as fast as they could – the doors would properly open at 6:30, and they had to finish before then.

I spotted amongst them a familiar face – Jason Grantham, who I met a decade ago or better. Ah, yes, the THV Wedding of a Livetime, a promotion we had run the first time back in the spring of 2001, I believe. Jason and Melissa, his bride, now have three girls – who he stopped to show me on his cell phone. I pointed Hunter out where she was standing in a corner by the bleachers, holding my notepad.

The pace was picking up, with all the tins at the tables and the dolloping still going on. I noticed something about each setting. They were all identical – plate with sides, glass with cup inside, tins… what was different were what sat under the rolls. Each of the rolls sat atop a slice of cake, individually wrapped in plastic. But the cake slices were different. There were so many – golden vanilla cake, Chocolate bundt, chocolate iced (not frosted) vanilla, peanut butter, chocolate-chocolate, strawberry, spice, carrot, cream cheese-topped butter cake. So many varieties.

It turns out the cakes are all made by ladies in town. They each make a cake or three, slice it and wrap the slices before handing them over to the Farmers and Businessmen Club, which oversees putting the Coon Supper together. In fact, everything at the Gillett Coon Supper is donated or sponsored.

And then, there’s the coon. Do people really eat raccoon at the Coon Supper? Why, yes they do.
I had stepped out of the main gym for a moment. I had caught glimpse of something crazy – a young man dunking a large cheesecloth sack into a garbage can filled with water on a big turkey fryer burner. He was making coffee for a crowd in the quickest way possible. He and the ticket keeper joked about it… but I suspected from the can’s coloration that this was not the first time it had been used to boil coffee.

The ticket keeper gave me some background. Used to be, only raccoon was served – 2000 pounds of it for up to 1200 people. But over the years it had changed. No longer was the eating of the coon something that political candidates needed to try… like a freshman hazed into a fraternity. No, today babyback pork ribs and beef brisket are also offered – thanks to Jennings Osborne. The beloved Arkansas philanthropist sponsored the dinner for many years, bringing in his epic grills and smokers and serving up barbecued meats alongside the coon.

Osborne passed away a few years ago, and the Farmers and Businessman Group managed to find other sponsors. And the coon? It’s harvested by people in the community who set traps for the furry mammals. For a couple of months before the event, there will be a stand alongside Highway 1 where you can turn them in. They’re purchased for $1.68 a pound – and a normal sized raccoon will garner three to four pounds of meat. Some years are better than others. This particular year, 700 pounds of raccoon had been trapped, purchased and smoked.

By this point, a line had started to form outside, and the other journalists were arriving to find their spots. Many of them were seeking out the politicians – to share later the who’s who attending the event – such as Senator Mark Pryor, Attorney General Dustin McDaniel, former congressmen Asa Hutchinson and Mike Ross (who are both eyeballing Mike Beebe's gubernatorial chair) and Representative Tom Cotton.  But Arkansas politicians weren't the only lawmakers on the guest book.  U.S. Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois was in attendance.  So was Senator Angus King of Maine and Senator Joe Donelly of Indiana -- all three of which came as guests of Senator Pryor.

If you haven't figured it out yet, I'll lay it out: the Gillett Coon Supper might as well be a mandatory campaign obligation for any lawmaker planning to make it in Arkansas.  Governor Beebe says this one was his 32nd -- and it's like as not part of the reason he keeps getting elected to office.

Grav and Hunter and I tucked ourselves out of the way in a corner while things got started.  Each person had a ticket -- either one given them in advance or picked up at the ticket keeper's counter -- and the mayor himself welcomed people into the gym and pointed them towards their seat.  Each row of tables sat 50 to a side, and helpful volunteers ushered folks into place.

I did get out amongst the crowd myself as the event filled in.  I met a lovely couple who read this blog, and asked if I might shoot a plate of coon.  They even offered a taste to Grav... who describes the flavor as such:
"It starts out nice and smokey, but there's too much smoke, and then it's just something I'm not sure I should have in my mouth."

Yes, I do chuckle at that.  Raccoon is, in my opinion, a dish best served stewed or soaked well in broth with dumplings.  It's a wild meat, of course, gray and a bit stringy.  You have to be hungry to eat it like this -- which, of course, these politicians are, very much so.

I happened to catch sight of the governor as he came in, laughing.  He was telling a reporter from one of the newspapers that this was like to be his last Coon Supper, since his days in office are nearly over.  Mr. Beebe gets this crowd, though, and he did his own measure of chuckling as he shook hands and posed for photographs.

His tenure here may be long, but it's not unprecedented.  I met one gentleman who's been coming for 56 years, and a lady who had attended or cooked at the supper for more than 60.  I also met beauty queens that squeamishly nibbled at their perfunctory piece of coon meat, grimacing for the cameras; young boys who relished the adventure of eating as many animals as possible in a sitting and young men attending with their camoflauge-and-booted girlfriends.  There was far more talking than eating, for sure -- but there was indeed eating taking place while hands were met and flesh was pressed.  Eating and listening and a whole lot of talking.

Old fashioned country music was but a note in the background as the volume swelled through the evening.  There's no alcohol served at the Gillett Coon Supper (unlike the Berry Farm party) -- for a multitude of reasons, which I'm sure have a lot to do not just with community preferences but also the lack of places to put up those that might need to sleep it off (the Rice Paddy Motel on Highway 1 only has 14 rooms) -- but there's really no need to lubricate tongues in a crowd like this.

We ended up leaving ahead of the crowd.  Hunter, bless her heart, had been patient through the evening, but when she told me she was ready to go home I was about ready to as well. And that gave us another view of what this event means to the community.  For six blocks around the school (located on the southwest corner of town) there were cars lined up on both sides of the road, with barely a car's width in-between to squeeze through.  Past the parking, the town was quiet and empty, block after block of silent homes lit by streetlamps and the ancient Christmas decorations still lining the roads.

Gillett is a town of just 691 people.  Its school today only offers classes for kindergarten through the fifth grade.  Older kids go to DeWitt schools 12 miles away.  There's just one restaurant in town -- the friendly diner at the Rice Paddy Motel, which offers a sustaining buffet often and has catfish on Fridays.
It's flat as a pancake and its downtown is a collection of lonely buildings without tenants, save the local bank.  But the sign on Arkansas Highway One says it all: Welcome to Gillett, Home of Friendly People and the Coon Supper.  And for one day each year, it's the center of Arkansas.