Monday, June 30, 2008

The Fudge Shop is back... with Barbeque, Too.

Back in December, I lamented the closing of the Pickles Gap Fudge Factory. Though fudge from Sweet Temptations would still be offered from Mack's General Store at the popular roadside village of Pickles Gap, the friendly shop with the incredible whiff of fudge the moment you walked through the door would be a thing of the past.

At the time, there was talk of a tea room opening in the same location -- not a bad idea, for sure. But time passed and the building remained empty.

Not any more.

I do apologize for the lack of pictures -- for once, I was caught without my trusty Nikon Coolpix camera, and my computer is getting a new motherboard. It'll be great when I get it back, but for now I'm a bit lacking.

My traveling companion and I were passing by this morning and noticed new plastic banners hanging outside the Village -- that advertized Fudge... and barbecue. Some will say I have a soft spot for good barbecue, and some would be right. We made a point to stop by on our return trip.

We noticed two OPEN signs lit up by neon -- one at the Fudge Factory end, the other up the short flight of stairs into the main part of the two story structure. Inside, we were greeted with the heady smell of fresh smoke and tangy sauce, and our stomachs started to rumble. BBQ indeed. Right here in River City -- er, um, in Conway.

We approached the counter, and a friendly waitress took our order. I was a little disappointed to find the beef sandwich listed on the menu wasn't available -- until she revealed that today... TODAY... is opening day for the establishment. I happily accepted the offer of a half-a-chicken dinner with sweet beans and French fries, while my companion went for a plate of chili and cheese topped tamales.

We looked around while we waited for our food. Everything was spic and span -- and open. The old doorway into the Fudge Factory was open, and a hint of chocolately goodness spiked the air. The dining room had been opened up into the parlor of the fudge factory, and another seating area (up where the old "post office" had been) had also been opened. We chose to sit up there and admire the new surroundings.

The restaurant was so new, the bottle of BBQ sauce on the table and the salt and pepper shakers had yet to be breached. While we waited, one of the good folks that had been behind the counter came up and asked us where we were from and talked a bit about the Gridley family name and where the BBQ had come from. I was surprised to find out that this wasn't just barbecue -- it's Elvis barbecue. Gridley's originated in Memphis, right down the street from Graceland, and had spread over several states. Unfortunately, after Mr. Gridley died, family troubles set in, and the chain had problems. But now there's a new owner, and this is a new store.

Another gentleman came up and talked with us a bit later. He shared more information -- like why our drinks came in cans (the restaurant's so new, the cola distributor hasn't been out to install the bits of machine and the bottles to make fountain drinks) and why there wasn't a beef sandwich yet (because good beef brisket prepared the Gridley way requires a certain combination of sodas in the marinade). He also mentioned that some of that brisket was already soaking and would be available for tomorrow's run.

We received our food with a little fanfare, and I lamented further my neglect in bringing along my camera. I took a snap of my companion's tamale plate with my cell phone -- full of the cornmeal-wrapped savory tastiness that a good plate of Arkansas tamales brings. My companion shared that these tamales didn't come with the sins of other tamale-makers -- they were neither too soft to hold in their contents, nor too chewy to be cut with a fork. His chili con carne was also savory and a good match for the beef within.

Still, it was no match for my chicken. The meat within was a lovely pink, the good kind of pink you get with that combination of wood smoke and a rotisserie. It was fork tender, with a paper-like seasoned skin, easy to shred and a delight on the tongue. The pairing of sweet beans was lovely -- beans that reminded me of my mom's own Settler's Beans with a hint of molasses and no meat-at-all (so there, vegetarians -- good smoke flavor without the meat!). My fries were crispy and worthy of mention -- but even better was the light and delicious hot buttered roll served with the plate. The bread was hot, soft, and crispy on the outside -- barbecue rolls for a king.

And the selection of sauces was prime. I'm a sucker for a good sweet sauce, and I wasn't disappointed. Customers are asked if they'd like their barbecue with mild, hot, or sweet sauce -- and they're all as different as night and day. The sweet sauce is bereft of that pepper whang, but full of brown sugar goodness. The savory adds in the pepper and holds the tongue really well. One of the gentlemen who came to our table (Joe, I believe) broke the seal on our bottle of Gridley's sauce and we sampled the Memphis original -- thin, vinegary, and full of paprika and turmeric. He also brought out a bottle of the hot stuff, too -- which varied little from the signature sauce on first taste, but which caught up with a strong paprika and red pepper vengeance a few moments later. Not too hot for me to handle, but someone with a milder contenance might find themselves reaching for their drink in a hurry once the backbite kicks in.

Our kind host mentioned that it's going to be up to the locals whether the new restaurant succeeds or not. He says he's wanting to contact area churches and let churchgoers know that if they bring in their program on Sunday, they'll be able to receive a discount. He also said folks need to know that barbecue is hot and ready through 8 p.m. -- since the restaurant is open later than the General Store. He also mentioned the menu will eventually expand to include such delights as prime rib (which got my traveling companion salivating something quick) and that once the restaurant is going well they'll be managing the Fudge Factory, too.

And speaking of which -- after our hearty repast, we hobbled through to the other side of the building and relished the reopening of the old favorite. The shelves are stocked again -- and there's more fudge than ever before. We marveled at such flavors as Peanut Butter and Jelly Chocolate, Orange Cream Swirl, and (the one I just had to try) Chocolate Raspberry. There are also big plates of chocolate covered strawberries, blackberry and apple cobblers, and a good selection of Blue Bell Ice Creams. Between my companion and I, we ordered up a half pound of fudge -- which our attendant measured right on the nose. That prompted a blowing of the whistle -- a nice cute touch we appreciated.

You'll find the Fudge Factory and Gridley's BBQ at Pickles Gap, north from Conway or south from Greenbrier on Highway 65. It's on the west side of the road, in a hollow. I should have asked for a phone number while I was there -- but that's yet another reason to go back. That, and the BBQ brisket. I'm sure there will be information up on the Pickles Gap website pretty soon. The number over at the General Store is (501) 327-8049.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Lions, Tigers, Bears, and Cougars.

Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge is taking on rescued wild animals and putting them where they belong -- in a world where they’re free to feel the grass under their feet.

Imagine life in a 400 square foot apartment. You can’t leave, you can only have select visitors -- you’re fed well, but you live on a concrete pad.

Imagine living that way, and then suddenly finding yourself with a half acre of your own woodland paradise.

That’s what many of the tigers, cougars, and lions at Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge are now experiencing -- and what many more will soon enjoy with new expansions and projects at the Refuge this year.

Not that life hasn’t improved for these animals. These wild creatures are all rescue animals -- surrendered by owners who couldn’t care for them, captured during criminal acts, or relocated after the closure of other facilities. Some of them, like cougar K.C., were actually kept in apartments as pets at one point or another. Others were undernourished or abused.

At the Refuge, they’re all given food, accommodations, and the respect these magnificent beasts should receive.

I toured the Eureka Springs-area facility with Scott Smith this May. I’ve visited other refuges and parks that have claimed a similar mission before, but I was surprised what I found here.

Scott’s been with Turpentine Creek for most of its 15 years. He’s seen the refuge grow from the original visitors center and a smattering of caged enclosures to the expansive compound it is today.

Our first stop along the tour was Heather. Her story is different from most of the creatures at TCWR. Heather was born to Pretzel and Siam, two other Bengal tigers at the Refuge. When Pretzel was surrendered, her owners said she had been spayed. Apparently that wasn’t the case -- because in 2000 Heather and a sister were born. Unfortunately, the sister didn’t survive.

Heather had a hole in her stomach from where Pretzel had bitten off the umbilical cord. She survived that, and a round of pelvic cancer in 2002. Scott told me that one of the other workers at the Refuge had asked if she could try homeopathic remedies on Heather when her prognosis from the cancer looked grim. They allowed her to try, and today Heather is the picture of health.

Heather was expected to be the last animal to be born at the refuge. “Since then, we’ve made sure that every animal that comes into the Refuge is spayed or neutered,” Scott said. “If we breed more animals, there’s less space for the rescued ones.”

And that could become a problem in the future. Many states have passed laws about the private ownership of wild cats and bears, and some of the animals surrendered to the Refuge have come from individuals in those states who are now considered to be breaking the law by owning one of these animals. “We pick up animals from all over the country,” Scott continued. “So far, we have animals from 26 states.”

Those animals have to be fed, and they are -- through generous donations from Wal-Mart and Tyson. “Throughout the week, we have people pick up meat from Wal-Mart Neighborhood Markets, and from Tyson Foods,” said Scott. “All the meat is donated. We don’t feed the animals any processed products.”

That’s a lot of meat. In the wintertime, when the animals need a lot of protein to keep warm, the Refuge can go through as much as 1800 pounds a day. During the summer, when the animals slow down to keep from overheating, it’s more like 800 pounds. All of the donated meat is kept in huge refrigerated facilities in another part of the compound.

Even with good nutrition and top notch veterinary care, these animals are still not quite in what would be considered a natural environment. Certain accommodations have long since been made -- such as misting devices to keep them cool in the hottest part of the day, and lots of shade and secluded dens. But TCWR is doing more to make these animals comfortable.

Over the past several years, large areas of the land on the hillside has been segmented out by tall sturdy fencing to become “runs” for lions and cougars. These enclosures of ¼ to 1 ½ acres give the animals a chance to live in nature and feel the grass beneath their feet.

This Independence Day, many more of these animals will have the chance. On July 4th, a new section of the Refuge opens, with dozens more of the big cats able to prowl on large stretches of land.

“The idea was, why don’t we put the people in cages and let the animals roam free?” Scott joked on our tour. And indeed, that’s what’s happening. Along a corridor between the separate enclosures, a long outdoor hallway has been constructed. Tour groups will be able to walk the long stretch and see the animals in a more natural habitat. They’ll be safe -- with several feet of space between the people enclosure and the fencing around each of the runs.

Of course, the Refuge is for the animals -- but it’s the people that keep the Refuge going. Turpentine Creek is almost entirely run on sponsorships and donations. There are several levels of sponsorship available -- from sponsoring an animal by yourself each year to joining 19 other donors for the privilege. The organization is non-profit, and sponsorships and donations are tax-deductible.

The Refuge has several employees -- but a large portion of its workforce comes from volunteers and interns. Interns come from all over the United States and spend six months learning how to care for the big cats and bears. This knowledge will help them in endeavors in other parts of the world, where preservation efforts are going strong.

As I mentioned earlier, Heather was supposed to have been the last tiger born at Turpentine Creek. But you never know when a true surprise is going to happen.

Back in April, a pair of tigers were rescued from Missouri. Ziggy, the male, was neutered on arrival. But a tiger’s gestational period last from 93 to 111 days. On May 30th, Ziggy’s mate Tigger G gave birth to triplets. One of the three didn’t survive, but the other two are being cared for by TCWR staff. They’re not on display at this time, but once they’re old enough they’ll be treated with the same love and respect as the rest of the creatures at the Refuge.

Of course, raising two tiger cubs can be expensive. Unfortunately, Tigger G hasn’t taken to motherhood, so the cubs are being fed formula by hand. The cubs will also need names, so the Refuge is asking for sponsorships. For $2000, a donor can give one of the cubs a name.

The Refuge does have a few other animals besides the tigers, lions, cougars and bears. There are a few resident parrots, a Rhesus monkey, a serval, and a bobcat. And there’s a badger. No kidding.

The Refuge is open every day of the year except Christmas for visits. The money from admissions goes right back into caring for the animals and running the facility. Admission for an adult is $15, $10 for kids between 3 and 12, seniors and veterans. It’s open from 9am to 6pm during the summer and 9am to 5pm in the winter. The best time to go is in the early morning, when the animals are still somewhat active from their nocturnal pursuits -- or between 4-5 p.m., when they are fed.

Of course, you can stay at the Refuge all night, if you want. Lodging choices allow visitors to spend more time there, and to listen to the animals at night. Accommodations range from bed and breakfast style suites to a five cabin Zulu Safari Guest Lodge to a real Tree House. There are also RV hookups and camping sites available. Future plans include a reunion style pavilion and fountain pool.

For more information about the Refuge, check out or call (479) 253-5841.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Mimi's Cafe: Lunch with lots of choices.

Back when it opened, Mimi’s Café was the one place in town you couldn’t get into. Every time we made a loop around the Garden Ridge parking lot, there’d be a line out the door and the lot would be full. After a while, we crossed it off our list and didn’t think much about it.

But on this particular Tuesday afternoon in June, we decided to give it a try. After all, what chance was there of being a crowd at 3pm?

Not much, it turns out. We were able to find parking close to the entrance, and we were quickly ushered into a booth in a large sunny room.

All I’d heard about the restaurant before was that the cooking was pretty good. I didn’t exactly expect a New Orleans themed restaurant. For one, it seemed a little too clean and neat to represent the French Quarter. For two, the menus contained a whole heck of a lot of choices you won’t find near Bourbon Street. No matter.

Our waiter took our drink orders and returned -- serving mine up on a doily, but none for my male traveling companion. He also brought lemon for the tea separate on a plate -- addressing a real pet peeve of mine. I don’t like lemon in cold tea, and I hate it when a waitperson assumes that I need that slice on the rim of my tea or water glass. This was pretty courteous.

We spent a good while attempting to determine exactly what we wanted off the menu. A lunch menu carried assumedly smaller portions of many of the main entrées. There’s also a large selection of appetizers, salads, burgers, and entrées on the main menu -- along with several drink options.

My traveling companion opted for the Asian Chopped Salad ($9.49), and I went for the Parmesan Crusted Chicken Breast (lunch portion for $8.99). I also opted for the French Market Onion Soup for an additional $1.20. We sat back with our drinks and discussed the day’s events.

Our waiter brought my soup and my companion’s muffin out first. The entrée salads are served up with a muffin of your choice, and my companion had selected a Buttermilk Spice muffin. It was as large as a grapefruit and was rich for a muffin, with a taste reminiscent of pumpkin pie spice. It was served up with its own twirl of real butter.

My soup was delicions. The creamy white cheese melted across the top was inoffensive and completely without bite, but the broth underneath was heady with onions and the hint of beef, and the well-soaked crouton below matched the flavor well. I would have been happy with it and a small salad for a quick lunch.

Our entrées weren’t far behind. My traveling companion’s Asian Chopped Salad was large and green, full of chopped lettuce, cabbage, green and red bell peppers and poppy seeds, along with generous chunks of chicken. He felt it could have used a bit more spiciness like similar Asian inspired salads at other locales, but the salad was still quite edible.

My chicken came out on a soft bed of spaghetti noodles that had been tossed in a tomato sauce. The sauce itself didn’t have much spice to it, but you could tell the tomatoes had simmered a long time. The chicken had a surprisingly crunchy bite, apparently pan-fried with a little dusting of flour. It was topped with a broad slice of mozzarella, more chunky sauce, and a sprinkling of fresh parsley and parmesan cheese. It was certainly the right size for a lunch portion.

We decided to be a bit decadent and went for dessert -- after noticing Mimi’s Sweet Ensemble ($5.99) on the Seasonal Favorites menu. I like to sample, and I was expecting small portions we could share without being overwhelmed by a large dessert. Imagine our surprise when our dessert arrived -- a long plate bearing three full-sized desserts. Considering how many cities I’ve traveled to where any dessert might have busted $6 apiece, I was surprised by the generous portions.

My traveling companion encountered a little bit of a disappointment -- the Triple Chocolate Brownie was much crisper and chewier than imagined, and the spoon provided couldn’t permeate the tough surface. Once the ice cream on top melted, it was much easier to consume.

We found better success with the Fresh Apple Cinnamon Crisp, with its tart and meaty apple slices and crisp crust. The Vanilla Bean ice cream was a perfect accompaniment.

My favorite, though, had to be the Mimi’s Bread Pudding. I am such a bread pudding snob… and after experiencing cold congealed masses of dead soaked bready stuff so many other places, I found that this pudding was light and delicious. The meringue-like texture was full of eggy flavor, with the occasional plumped raisin under the whipped cream topping. But it was the rum butter sauce by far that won me over.

This repast was more than we could consume at lunch, and some came back home with us. It’s certainly a decent place to grab a bite, even if it’s a chain restaurant. I don’t normally review chains, but this one was pretty darn good.

You’ll find Mimi’s Café in Little Rock on the Garden Ridge parking lot, near the intersection of Chenal and Bowman. It’s open from 7am to 10pm, til 11pm on Friday and Saturday, and breakfast is apparently available whenever they’re open. Call (501) 221-3883 or check out the website.

Mimi's Cafe Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato