Friday, January 5, 2018

Put a Pin In Your Slow Roll at Dust Bowl in Little Rock.

The Oklahoma-based concept comes to Little Rock, complete with the soundtrack and style of the 1970s. Let's take a look inside the new Dust Bowl bar, restaurant and bowling center on East Capitol.

I was invited to come visit a building across the street from the hub of Central Arkansas Transit Thursday night. The former American Legion facility now boasts gorgeous neon out front, a long ramp and cut window views into what at first appears to be a shiny version of 1978.

Inside, I had an opportunity to have a chat with Brian Fontaine, one of the rollers behind the Dust Bowl concept. Brian chatted with me a while.

"We had a buiding in Tulsa we didn't know what we could do with," Fontaine starts. "Elliott (J. Elliott Nelson) our owner thought, 'hey, wouldn't it be cool to have a bowling alley.' At the time some bigger cities like New York were opening boutique, eight lane bowling alleys. So we went out looking at different alleys and visited these new boutique alleys in Brooklyn, in the Austin area.

"We started talking with Nick Sparks - he works for AMF Bowling (American Machinery and Foundry, which has built bowling machines for decades) installing bowling lanes. He lives in Tulsa. He told us we could go get old lanes from old bowling alleys that were closing and fix them up and we could use them - they're still good machines.

"Our first Dust Bowl in Tulsa was a huge success. Oklahoma city followed - it was a great concept.  Little Rock, we've been looking at for three years now. We met with the folks at Moses Tucker Group. They courted several properties to us, and this one worked out."

The facility in question is indeed the former American Legion building.

"It'd been closed down a long time. When we first walked in, it was still set up as the American Legion. The padding was still on the old bar - so we recycled that and used it. The top of the bar is (the wood from) a bowling lane but the padding on the side and front is from the original American Legion bar that we reused and it's worked out pretty well."

Fontaine says it was a close fit.

"To have enough room (to bowl), the building has to have certain dimensions. Too short, too narrow and it just won't work out. This building was a perfect fit - any tighter and we would not have been able to do it."

Dust Bowl isn't a large bowling alley. On entering, you pick up your shoes at a stand that could have come right out of any of the state's older bowling alleys. Unlike the name, these shelves aren't dusty.  However, the color scheme, layout and fine details are purposely intended to bring back that wave of nostalgia.

"We always do a lot with our buildout. Each concept Dust Bowl has a different color scheme." Fontaine continues.  "We were excited to do this 70s scheme here - with the old paneling and wood, the colors - Tulsa (the first location) is like this. Oklahoma City's (location) is more 1950s and 60s. It never looks new," he indicates, raising his hand to point out the burnt orange, yellow and brown stripes, "never looks new, these colors."

I asked about the location, in particular the proximity to the very hub of Little Rock's public transportation system. Fontaine says it was the neighborhood, not the transit link, that provided the encouragement to locate at this address.

"We looked more about the neighborhoods surrounding it. These townhomes and apartments that are here now, they weren't here when we first started considering this spot. But the area is developing quickly with young professionals, and theyre some of our biggest customers. We reasoned the population as a whole would support this concept. More than in Tulsa or Oklahoma City, Little Rock people live to bowl out here. It's blown our minds, a pleasant surprise."

Dust Bowl's 70s aesthetic doesn't just call back to that decade with its color scheme. In back, there's a collection of aligned bowling machines circulating pins and balls - fascinating to watch, and loud.

"In the back, the pins are flying, they're so weird. Whoever came up with these machines was a genus," Fontaine beams. He invited Hunter and I to come back and take a look. The machinery was recovered from an older, now closed alley, cleaned up and brought here. It works seamlessly. The contraptions and their dressings include the original console fronts with their decorative elements from their first go-round.

The access for the machines (which aren't usually open to the general public for obvious reasons) is at the end of a long enclosed hallway paralleling the lanes, a hall that provides access to the alley's remarkably sparkling white restrooms. Windows allow close views of the lanes in use.

At the front end of the hall lies access to the diner-style kitchen, where a crew whips up milkshakes, burgers and other homage classics. I briefly spoke with Trevor Tack, the corporate chef for the McNellie Group which oversees the Dust Bowl concept. We got onto the subject of burgers - he explained here, the burgers have a particular Oklahoma aesthetic.

"Here, we have an onion burger - which is really popular around Reno, Oklahoma and the towns along the highways out there," Tack shares. "We take a pile of chopped onions and throw them on the griddle and put our beef down on top of that, gives the burger this flavor. It's very reminiscent of how diners have done it in the past. It's a similar layout back there - with a griddle where you have to conserve space."

"We like to think our food sets us apart from a regular bowling alley," Fontaine adds. "It's all burger and shake style action, but everything's made from scratch.  Those onion burgers from Reno are popular out there - we hope you like them. Our apps are share-friendly.  We just want you to order a bunch and let everyone share. The cocktails - we're bar people (we started doing bars before we did bowling alleys). I was a bartender for years when I was younger. The drink menu will be seasonally changed. We're opening with winter cocktails that will get us a few months down the road.

"For beer, we'll have mostly local on tap, with a few domestics, PBR, Stone's Throw, they're our neighbors, just a stone's throw over there. Lost Forty, the Flyway guys, we've met everyone in town, everyone here’s doing a really good job. We’re really impressed with the breweries in Little Rock. We couldn’t believe the caliber of brew coming out of here.  We had a struggle in 2011 doing the same in Oklahoma City, but now it’s all local there.  Local is what people want, we’re done.

"We also have homemade sausages and hot dogs being made at Fassler that are being brought in now. from Fassler Hall in Oklahoma. Once we're open next door we'll make these 100 pecent beef hot dogs from scratch there." (We tried some of these dishes - keep reading your way down).

That got my interest. I'd noticed the construction going on in the building next door when I had parked on the street. That's where the third Fassler Hall is going in.

"That’s another concept of ours," Fontaine tells me. "You’ll have to go out the front door and in the front door there - there’s no connection because of the right-of-way between the two buildings. But that's okay. Fassler Hall is a German Beer Hall. We opened one of those in Tulsa in 2009 and later one in Oklahoma City. It was a big success paired up with Dust Bowls. They link up pretty well together. The concepts complement each other – waiting to bowl or finish bowling, you can have a German beer or meal.  There’s going to be a really big patio over there."

I'll take a look through Fassler Hall once it opens. Now that I had seen the pins in action, I wanted a chance to bowl.

This is where I need to give you a few notes, a few points of reference for me and bowling. I love bowling. I will stand and watch my ball fail to hit pins all day. I actually took bowling as a class in college, and on a good day I might hit a few strikes. Of course, last time I bowled a full-sized lane was probably at Jillian's in Memphis, which has been gone most of a decade. Hunter's hit the smaller set that used to be at Playtime Pizza. Grav? Well, it'd been at least a decade since he bowled.

We ordered food and took one of the lanes in the private party area - Lanes 1 and 2 are separated at the top end by some structural walls with cut-outs. It's not really private but it is separate from the other six.  We acquired shoes, too. I asked Brian the all-important shoe question - how large do the sizes run?  He laughed.

"We have big shoes – 15-16 or something like that. In Oklahoma City, we have big shoes, up to 22 ad 23. We have players from the Thunder and the Spurs who visit every night."

Hunter wasn't certain of her shoe size, and I got asked twice when I asked for men's size 8 (I have really wide feet for a girl). Grav didn't have any trouble getting 13s. It felt a little weird being the first folks to wear these new, hard bowling shoes. Hunter didn't really get it at first but she went along with it.

She was also a little concerned that the lightest ball was a six pounder and complained to me loudly about it until she got on the lane. But after her first two frames she was just fine. I had no problem finding a nicely drilled twelve pound ball myself.

While the far end of the lanes are straight out of the 60s or 70s, the top end is electronic, with custom scoreboards and electronics. You can even call for a wait staffmember to come take orders for drinks or food, no sweat. Tunes from the 70s programmed by general manager Rich Bielefield hit all the expected notes - we grooved to Parliament's "Flashlight," Bob Segar's "Mainstreet" and Steely Dan's "Peg" while hanging out. The alley filled up, mostly with 20- and 30-somethings at the lanes, with a few folks hanging out at the bar.

And we sampled the culinary fare. Hunter, for some reason, started off with nothing but chips and Ranch dressing. She was strongly focused on getting bowling down right.

She and I also ordered the poutine. Now, it's been ten years since my first encounter with poutine on a trip to Boston. Most of the attempts I've tried in Arkansas have missed the boat, using shredded cheese instead of cheese curds. This, however, was a lovely and tasty bunch of brown slightly chunky-with-mushroom gravy covered white cheese curds on duck fat fries. It was probably not what any sensible person would eat but for myself and Grav, once he tried a couple fries, it was awesome. Hunter took after them a bit, too.

We sampled three more substantial dishes. Grav and his veggie-lovin' self, he had to dive into the Veggie Gyro - a divided flatbread packed with yellow squash, lettuce, tomato, hummus and tzatziki. and some feta. Hey, squash. Crookneck yellow squash would not be what I would think of when I wanted to substitute the meat out of a gyro, but this was all right.

I was far more thrilled with the chili cheese dog, partly because it tasted almost exactly like the sort of chili cheese dog I'd make at home with Cheddar, some meaty chili that lacked a lot of beans and a high quality beef weiner. I was delighted by the straight-tube, sliced-end dog on this bun. It was clean and very meaty in flavor. I also heavily dug the neat bun, a cartridge-style bun reminiscent of good plain old white bread, complete with "top crust" but without being cut all the way through. It tasted like the sort of dog I make when I don't want to get out of my pajamas and I'm heating a hot dog to grab in my kitchen.

The onion burger was a must-try, of course. The menu doesn't specifically say there aren't any onions on it, but I know there will be someone out there who's clueless and who will complain anyway. The onions grilled along with the burger are also slapped onto the bun with it. They're in shreds by the time they get there, but their presence makes for a melding of bun and burger that requires no cheese - though this burger did have a slice of yellow American on it. Moreso, without the pungeant spike of yellow mustard, this would have melded together a little too comfortingly; instead, mustard gives this burger a nice spice. I will be trying the Rodeo Burger next time I go, to enjoy the beauty of both of these items (the onion burger and the chili cheese dog) on its own.

My one lamentation was wanting to try the Totchos and not being able to because, frankly, I don't wanna die. The combination sounds perfect - crispy tots, house made pulled pork, refried beans, monterrey jack, chipotle aioli - I could see this being so shareable and excellent. However, I will say - recalling my 1970s childhood, I would recommend a tator-tot casserole version, where the tots, cheese, beans and such were ran under a salamander with chunks of those fantastically excellent hot dogs. I'd eat the tar out of that and grin while doing it. Heck, throw on that poutine gravy.

I guess I have a second lamentation, though it's no one's fault at this point. Because Dust Bowl hasn't quite gotten open (which it will have by the time this article goes up), milkshakes weren't available on this visit. There are two levels of shakes on the menu - a regular in one of six flavors (vanilla, strawberry, chocolate, white chocolate raspberry, salted butterscotch, caramel butter pecan) and an extreme version that's one flavor plus caramel, hot chocolate, whipped cream, dill-o cookie and sprinkles. Am I going back for it? You betcha. Am I going to regret it? Probably, but that doesn't mean I'm not going to try it.

All in all, I was charmed by Dust Bowl, and I suspect many of my colleagues will be dropping by in the coming weeks. For right now, I'm excited about the next housemade weiner I'll enjoy, and I'm getting myself more of that poutine. And maybe I'll roll better than 100 next time I go.

Dust Bowl is located at 315 East Capitol Avenue in downtown Little Rock. It's open 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. Monday through Friday, Saturday noon to 2 a.m. and Sunday noon to midnight - which means yes, it's a late-night option for folks who want to head downtown. For more information, check out the website or call (501) 353-0775.

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