Tuesday, February 24, 2015

You Need To Try The Pie at Boo's Bulldog Diner.

We've been doing a great deal of traveling in western Arkansas recently, searching out all sorts of good eats.  Our last stop before returning home this time came at a modest diner in downtown Greenwood, where we found a decent
lunch and absolutely incredible pie.

The Bulldog Diner has been around a little while in Greenwood, on the somewhat unusually shaped downtown square.  Boo Polk bought the place in 2013 and has added her touch to it.  That touch, I'm guessing, happens to be the pies.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

We were headed out of town and decided to grab a late lunch one Thursday afternoon.  We had seen the sign the day before and made a mental note to check it out.  So around one in the afternoon we pull up to where that sign was and proceeded around to the side of the building, where we went in.

I mention that because the front door is not the front door and you have
to enter from the side.  Get it?  All right.

The remnants of the lunch crowd were dining.  We were asked to find out own seat.  Our waitress brought us menus to look through while we got our bearings.  She was patient with us while we cleared our heads, ordered beverages and decided on some Texas toothpicks.  And we were patient when we discovered that the appetizer was unavailable.  So Grav jumped on the idea of fried pickles.

They came to the table breadcrumb-encrusted and with a healthy serving of ranch dressing.  Just sharp enough to the taste but still rather good.

And that's when the looking began.

I supposed metropolitan folks have gotten use to seeing people shoot their food with cameras and phones, but the idea seemed to be foreign to these Greenwood diners, who glanced at us and openly talked about what we were doing.

Our waitress answered more questions before putting in our orders the second go-round.  We weren't there too long before our lunches arrived.

And yes, even confronted with a menu full of burgers, salads and dinner plates, I went for... a chili dog.

Judge me if you wish, but every once in a while even I want a good sopping
plate full of chili-swamped stuff, and this did it for me.  An all-beef weiner on a bun covered in chili and cheese.  That's right.  It was... well, what can a chili dog be?  It was all right.

And so were the onion rings, which I was bound to get one way or another.
I was craving them.  Sadly, these weren't thick rings, just moderate ringlets in their batter.  Okay, I could totally do that.

By this point, no one was eating in the restaurant. Not that the food wasn't good, but the two tables of people who'd come in after we had were gawking at what we were doing, openly watching us switching plates and taking photos.  I noticed.  Grav noticed.  It's funny.

Grav, on the other hand, had gone for the epic, and from the moment I saw his burger I knew I had chosen poorly.  His burger was massive.  He had ordered the Big Daddy Burger, a double-patty burger with cheese and A1 sauce that comes with a double order of fries, and he had bacon added. And as you can see, this was the impressive result.  As far as double-patty burgers go, this one was pretty dang thick and
impressive.  It was low on spicing, but came with two different sorts of melty cheese and of course the bacon.  I dug the crinkly fries, though Grav said they weren't seasoned well enough for his taste.

That'd be enough to say hey, drop in and check out this restaurant.  But then we decided to try the pie.

That changed the entire conversation.  Several varieties were offered, including chocolate pie... but we went for a couple of different choices.  We both wanted coconut, but got it in very different ways.

Grav went with the coconut cream pie... which was lovely and decadent.  Coconut in the body of the pie.  Coconut in the creamy bits.  Coconut creamy and frosty, light and almost airy.  This was a pretty dang good coconut cream pie.

And it had absolutely nothing on my buttermilk pie.  You never really know what you're going to get with a buttermilk pie.  I've had everything from a glorified chess pie to lemon custard to a pineapple-rendered version, and it's always a bit of random what you get.  I should have guessed it'd be pretty good when the waitress
asked me if I'd like it heated.

That made a good pie stupendous.

Think about it -- buttery coconut custard with the almost citrus ting of buttermilk in a homemade crust.  Can you think of anything that would be better? Anything?  I thought not.

This is the sort of pie one injures oneself on.  It was just exactly the sort of pie one should consume to brace for a cold front, or to warm a heart.  It's almost shareable.

Almost.

Even Grav had to admit, my pie was better, and that was saying a lot.  Both pies are definitely Arkansas Pie-worthy.

We'll probably return in a few months to try the dinners... which includes country fried steak and country pit ham.  For now, it's back on the road for us.  For you, here's a great place on Highway 10 in Greenwood to drop in on when you're in the area.

Boo's Bulldog Diner
3 Main Street
Greenwood, AR 71936
(479) 996-9097
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Friday, February 20, 2015

Quick Sip: Chocolate Malt at the Charleston Dairy Diner.

There is nothing, nothing in this world that satisfies like a good, old fashioned chocolate malt.

Arkansas Highway 22 parallels US Highway 64 from Fort Smith to Russellville, rolling south of the Arkansas River through some of the most picturesque settings in the River Valley.  Great stretches of quiet farmland are interrupted by small, charming towns and unique locations, such as Subiaco Academy and the town of Paris.

When you're traveling this route, it might be easy to overlook the tiny town of Charleston.  Located between Ratliff and Barling just northeast of the far corner of Fort Chaffee, the diminutive town's residents have a lot to be thankful for -- including King's Fried Rice (a Thai/Asian shop in an old gas station), Main Street BBQ, and the breakfast-and-lunch diner Kat's Kitchen (I need to review that place some time, eh?).  There's a brand new state-of-the-art middle school, and a brand new Walmart convenience store on the west side of town.

But across from the Middle School, you'll find the Dairy Diner.  Open since at least the 1980s, this white-washed building with the impressive car-fin style sign overhead is divided into three, with a kitchen
separating the dine-in section from an old fashioned video arcade.


(Pardon me while I pause and reflect my old age and the fact I just called a video arcade "old fashioned.")


The Dairy Diner, like so many other community dairy bars across Arkansas, serves burgers and fries and soda and ice cream.  Its menu may not seem unusual, nor should it - with its hot dog and dressed burrito and tater tots.  A nod to more recent times, the chicken wrap, is offered, but still, this is steady, normal food you'd expect anywhere.

However, its friendly young hostesses manage to pull off a beautiful example of such a simple, fussless creation, the chocolate malt.  Yea, though I have toured all over the state, dining at establishment large and small, expensive
and cheap, I have found a distinctive lack of malts offered throughout the land.  Perhaps the malted barley flavor fell out of favor with the majority of diners here - or, I more strongly suspect - the simplicity of offering fewer flavor combinations, reducing options to chocolate, vanilla and the occasional strawberry - became the norm.

This homogenized frothy creation did cross the counter in Styrofoam topped with plastic, with paper-wrapped straw accompaniment, in exchange for $3.45.  With good graces and smiles, we were out the door and soon in the car to our next destination, our shared chilly malt experience bathed in sunset's glow, We both voiced our surprise at the creamy yet hearty flavor within our grasp.

Six miles down the road, as I determined our next turn-off, Grav grasped my hand and muttered wantonly... "if you don't sip some more I'm going to finish it off right now."

Something so simple, yet so decadent, a marvelous finale to a burger-and-fries meal or even as a between-repast beverage to cut the edge of hunger, or even a shared beverage between affectionate companions, should be celebrated.  In Charleston, the place to fete the pedestrian yet beloved malt, is at the Dairy Diner.

Dairy Diner
420 East Main Street
Charleston, AR 72933
(479) 965-2254

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Thursday, February 19, 2015

You Should Eat Breakfast at Sweet & Savory Cafe in Eureka Springs.

Eureka Springs is dotted with great restaurants, and with good cause. Though just 2000 people call the tiny Ozark burg their permanent home, around 100 restaurants manage to make ends meet and serve up delicious food with great regularity.

In the winter, though, many of those eateries close their doors and darken their windows.  After all, while the town quadruples and even quintuples in size during the late spring, summer and autumn months, January and February are considered a dead time (with the exception of Valentine's Day weekend) and there's not enough business to sustain them all.

Fortunately for locals and breakfast lovers alike, there's the Sweet -n- Savory Cafe. This new establishment, which threw open its doors in April 2014, serves up breakfasts and lunches at a reasonable price.  But don't let the typical diner-style attributes fool you -- Sweet -n- Savory Cafe is on the level of marvelosity you'd expect from a Eureka Springs dining establishment.

Before I go further, I should let you know that this is only half the review I intended. We so enjoyed our late morning repast a week ago that we made plans for a return visit to sample lunch.  Mother Nature intervened, dropped an inch of ice and five inches of snow on us and the Sweet and Savory Cafe wasn't open the day we had planned our return.  We will return.

Grav and I dropped in on a Friday morning to find a busy crowd within the restaurant's yellow-painted walls.  Bold locally-produced art was evident, and we were ushered to a table in the restaurant's eastward room, right next to a standing portable heater that was a blessing.  It was rather cold.

From the first glance at the menu, we were stunned.  We sometimes nod at menus over "Eureka Prices," slightly or moderately inflated rates for items undoubtably aimed at the tourist crowd.  There was none of that here.  Prices were actually lower than we expected, and we gleefully determined we'd try several things and not feel guilty.

One of the two very sweet young ladies waiting tables was working a group in the far corner.  She was warning them that there were just two slices of the quiche of the day, and before she could go into a schpiel about the ingredients thereof, both were claimed.

Our coffee came hot and fresh and with real cream, and after dithering a while we made our choices and went to waiting.  It was pleasant -- not too loud, not too rowdy and the chairs weren't uncomfortable.  Grav went off to shoot the interior and came back pointing his finger skyward and nodding his head. He'd discovered macaroons on the front counter and had reserved two for us. Okay, this was breakfast, but we were going to have dessert, apparently.

Thus continued our wait, as each of the other tables in the eastward
room were served.  Yes, they'd all come ahead of us, and we weren't bothered by that, but the sight of so many good looking plates was making me drool.  Big, fluffy omelets were passing, alongside mounds of bacon, crepes filled with fruit salad and bevies of biscuits.  The scent was salivation-inducing and it was all a bit heady -- but my coffee mug remained full and we sustained our cheerfulness.

And then, all of breakfast arrived at once, three plates of it, with accompaniments to each side.  We stared for mere seconds before pulling out the BACs (the big cameras) and going to work shooting and celebrating this repast we were about to encounter.

And what a repast.  Grav had chosen biscuits and gravy, and the big hand-sized fluffy lumps were accompanied by a full bowl of sausage gravy. What's more, the dish was enough for someone
to eat as a single breakfast, and yet cost just $3.25. Incredible.

Grav said the sage-inflected sausage in the creamy gravy base were substantial, and the biscuits were perfect.  I can agree with him on those -- they were fluffy and a little buttery and rightly hot from just coming out of the oven.

They were so much that Grav actually gave me
most of the pancakes.  Or, I should say, "flannel" cakes.  Now, I've had my share of gluten-free this and that, and usually there's a sad air of disappointment over the whole affair.  Not here. The pancakes, which came three six-inch rounds to an order, were made from a combination
of rice flour and tapioca, decadently spiced with nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger and perhaps a bit of clove, and they were both velvety and impossibly light. I thought they tasted like the lightest gingerbread I'd ever consumed, while Grav went on about the pumpkin spice flavor.  Best of all, there was the option that I took, for real Vermont maple syrup to go along with the real butter offered, for something absolutely fanciful and still very, very filling.

Still, that wasn't all we enjoyed.  There was one dish that, from the moment I spotted it on the menu, I knew had to go in my mouth.  That dish was of the seafood crepes.
Oh golly.  Offered with either hashbrowns or grits, this was a pair of delicate rolls packed with shrimp and crabmeat in a Bechemel sauce.  I cannot quite express how velvety and rich this was.  We chose to split one to each of us, and after Grav finished the dish off he
scraped his fork along the surface for more of the rich filling.  I thought he was going to lick the plate. He confessed the thought had crossed his mind.

And then the macaroons arrived.  I was already quite sated after the crepe and two of the pancakes and had already called for a container to take the remaining round home, and here come these two morsels.  Now, if you've had a Mounds bar, you probably have an inkling of
what a dark chocolate drizzled macaroon is like to the taste.  These weren't even close.  The toasted, moist bundles of coconut were rich but not overly sweet, pliant but not chewy, crisply edged but not dry.  They were so perfect I almost ate all of mine.  Sheer willpower and the encouragement of the waitress who suggested home consumption without any compunction is all that kept me from injuring myself on the thing.

We were never rushed, which is why we didn't actually leave before 11:30.  I should have taken a photo of the lunch menu, darn it -- but I do recall so many good things, such as a seafood melt sandwich, burgers, a savory cheesecake and a daily plate lunch special.  In fact, Sweet -n- Savory Cafe seemed so much like a better version of the classic diner or cafe, right down to the prices, that anywhere else it'd be a standout jewel.  Eureka Springs offers so much competition, and frankly from the road the Sweet -n- Savory Cafe looks a bit plain.  But go inside.  Go eat.  And then tell your friends.

You'll find the Sweet and Savory Cafe on the east side of town on US Highway 62, across from the Pine Mountain Theater.  It's open every day except Wednesday (and of course, when the weather is terrible) for breakfast and lunch.

Sweet -n- Savory Cafe
2076 East Van Buren
Eureka Springs, AR 72632
(479) 253-7151
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Wednesday, February 18, 2015

El Zarape is Winning at Mexican Food in Fort Smith.

You can't swing a cat without striking a Mexican restaurant in Arkansas.  From our earliest years, Ark-Mex food has been prevalent in our state.  Even before cheese dip, creations of beans, tortillas and meat were cheap to make and easy to sell.  Fad foods such as nachos and taco salads in the 70s and 80s only secured the flavors of tomatoes, jalapenos and even cilantro in our collective palate.

With an influx of Mexican nationals and immigrants through the 80s, 90s and into the 21st century, a second wave of Mexican cuisine has crashed over our state.  These authentic flavors and family-tradition recipes have given a completely separate crop of flavors hold here in Arkansas.

But still, there is a certain camp of folks who believe there's little to no difference between the tortillas, fajitas and quesos from one Mexican restaurant to another.  For those folks, I challenge them to try El Zarape in Fort Smith.

The gorgeous stone-fronted facade along Rogers Avenue gives way to a warm interior full of wood, stone and bright colors, without the garish attitude of less sophisticated latin-influenced restaurants.  It was enough to warm us from the cold, snow-driving day Grav and I had already encountered.  We sat in rather comfortable leather-padded wooden chairs and dug through the menu while Grav sampled the salsa with the offered deep yellow corn tortilla chips.

We were just musing over corn and such when one of the MANY
waiters passing by brought us a couple of hot tortillas straight off the conveyor with some Country Crock honey spread.  Soft, pliant, almost too hot to handle at first, these were decadently velvet-like and perfect dipping in the salsa.  I also tried it with the Country Crock.  It was
pretty decent.

We decided to begin with an appetizer and settled on stuffed jalapenos.  These four bombs arrived at our table on a bed of mango-jicama slaw,
perched horizontally with a light drizzle of crema on top.  Grav bit into one and immediately went for the water, his face flushed.  I tried one and immediately sensed great savory flavors in the chicken and cheese within, followed by a punch of jalapeno fragrance that went right to my nose.  It was heady and immediate.







And without another moment to spare, our plates were delivered to the table.  Grav's latest obsession has been with the molcajete, and El Zarape's version was absolutely grand and deceptively simple.  Unlike
versions he's encountered at Cantina Cinco de Mayo and Santo Coyote in Little Rock recently, this was very light -- nicely grilled strips of steak and chicken along with cactus, peppers and onions and slices of queso fresco along with wedges of fresh avocado, lightly slathered in a chipotle pepper sauce.  That sauce brought everything together nicely
with a rich and deep heat.  A side plate of beans and rice, lettuce, pico de gallo and sour cream accompanied, along with more of the fresh, hot tortillas.

I had dithered with the idea of a chile relleno stuffed with ground beef,
but had gone with Grav's suggestion of the Chicken Poblano instead, and I could not have been more pleased.  This deceptively austere place came to my table, two large grilled chicken breast slices under a white sauce, slices of zucchini and squash and carrots sauteed in butter to the left, a form of
cilantro rice and pineapple pico de gallo over lettuce to the right. Each element stood on its own,
especially the smoky grilled chicken against the velvety-smooth poblano-infused wine and cream sauce, a great counterpoint of char and mellow.  The fresh vegetables were irresistible to me (I can eat my weight in zucchini), the cilantro rice was comforting and the bright flavor of the pineapple pico completed an excellent dance.

We dithered again over dessert.  I saw sopapillas on the menu, which I adore but Grav does not... I also noted the pecan cheesecake, which I knew he'd go for.  We first settled on sharing a flan, but after hearing
all about the Tres Leches we decided to go for... well, strangely enough, the chocolate flan. I expected the round custard, but instead we were brought a rich custardy chocolate creation that reminded me more of cake.  Not that I minded.  The gorgeous presentation was
no match for the lush but light texture of the pastry, and we found ourselves knocking spoons for the last bite.

All the time we were there, we were attended to.  One of our waters, Eduardo, insisted we had to come back again... to bring some of Grav's smoked meats in for him to try.  Others provided us with questions, containers and attention... far more than we're used to receiving.

El Zarape could be overlooked easily, considering the multitide of both authentic Mexican, Tex Mex and Ark Mex offerings in Fort Smith.  But it shouldn't be.  It should be cherished.

Now, you've seen our photos.  You really need to go to this Facebook album and see the photos El Zarape has of many of its menu items.  It's rare to see a restaurant doing great food photography like this, especially at El Zarape's low price point.

El Zarape 
8909 Rogers Avenue
Fort Smith, AR 72903
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Website


El Zarape on Urbanspoon