Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Can of Contention.

Two cities in the U.S. call themselves “Spinach Capital of the World.” One of them is Crystal City, TX. The other is Alma, AR.

Now, I’ll give it to Crystal City. They erected a statue back in 1937 of the popular pipe-smoking sailor man, after the introduction of a Spinach Festival in their city. They have every right to the statue. Got no problem there.

But when it comes to the Spinach Capital of the World, that has to go to Alma. The Allen Canning Company in town at one point was producing 65 percent of the world’s canned spinach.

I could go into all of this extensively, but it’s covered well on Russ Johnson’s Arkansas Travelogue page.

Anyway… it occurred to me recently that I have visited the old Popeye statue, the one that’s been in town since 1987... but I’ve never taken a photograph of it. Well, of course, this won’t do.

So I rolled into town on an August morning and went looking for City Hall. The little statue (okay, it’s eight feet tall, but that comparatively small for a statue) sat across from City Hall for years.

Instead, I saw the t-shirt adorned center of government, but no statue. Well, maybe I was wrong, maybe it was further down the road. So I headed a bit further along towards the high school.

And I hit the brakes when I saw the park with its big cast iron gates. I pulled in.

The imposing gates and path somehow reminded me of Graceland (though I know the driveway at Graceland is asphalt lined with bricks). Gardens lined a circle, and there were gazebos for cover. And in the center of it all, one large bronze tribute statue of Popeye in all its glory.

The new statue hasn’t been up long. The park itself was dedicated in April 2007, and early this year a mural was painted on an adjoining wall, dated 1871 to 2009. It’s a cute little park with little photo opportunities everywhere and even a large gazebo I could easily imagine a small band performing on, or even being used as a place for nuptials. Flowers and shrubberies have been carefully laid out for the little oasis.

The mural depicts a composite of Fayetteville Avenue over the years -- with Murphy’s Café, Starbird’s Variety Store, Bowlin’s Grocery and Gayles Electric, E.L. McGehee’s and the Alma Cash Store. The view down Fayetteville Avenue is much different now. Most of the businesses have moved closer to the interstate, though the Allens Inc. (the name just recently changed from Allen Canning Company) is still hulking on the other side of the railroad tracks. Perhaps the little attraction will draw more business in and help revitalize the area.

In case you were wondering, yes, Alma is home of an Arkansas food festival. The Spinach Festival is held the third weekend of April each year, and there are contests there such as the Lil’ Mr & Miss Swee’ Pea Pageant.

Of course, we’re all guilty of screwing up now and again. And I screwed up on this assignment. Because I forgot to take a photo of the water tower. Fortunately, others have… so you know what the World’s Largest Spinach Can looks like. Except it’s full of water. Yeah, something like that.

You’ll find the statue of Popeye in Alma. From Interstate 40, head south on Highway 162. It winds first to the left at the fork south of Highway 64, then right just before the canning plant. Cross the railroad tracks, and the park is just down a couple of blocks on the right. If you get to the high school, you’ve gone too far.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Three Days In The Rock... With Kids.

Trying to figure out a good trip for your family? Check out the Greater Little Rock metropolitan area. There's a lot to do -- a lot of it free! Here's a sample itinerary you might consider.

Day 1: Little Rock’s Riverfront.
There’s a whole lot to see and do in a ten block span along the Arkansas river. Free parking is available off 2nd Street between Commerce and Sherman and under the I-30 River Bridge (between the Clinton Presidential Center and the Museum of Discovery). For the active family, there are plenty of sidewalks and paths to utilize; or, you can acquire a pass for the River Rail system ($2 for a day pass or $5 for a three day pass).

Breakfast at the River Market Pavilion. Grab bagels at Andina’s or a hot sausage and egg breakfast at Shaka Smoke Lodge. On Tuesdays and Saturdays, the Farmer’s Market sells fresh produce, too. Fun to watch folks going about their day. 400 President Clinton Avenue. www.rivermarket.info.

Step back in history with a visit to the Historic Arkansas Museum. Guides in period clothing will usher you through Arkansas’ past, including several 19th century homes and businesses. $2.50 for adults, $1 for children, open 9-5 weekdays and 1-5 Sundays. 200 East Third Street. (501) 324-9351. www.arkansashistory.com.

More Arkansas history can be discovered for free at the Old Statehouse Museum. This birthplace of Arkansas politics includes several fascinating permanent exhibits, such as the 1836 House of Representatives Chamber, a collection of gowns from the First Ladies of Arkansas, and a gallery on “First Families: The Mingling of Politics and Culture.” FREE, open 9-5 weekdays and 1-5 Sundays. 300 West Markham. (501) 324-9685. www.oldstatehouse.com.

Another great free activity -- watching the Duck March. Visit the Peabody Hotel at 11 a.m. to watch the Duckmaster bring the famous Peabody Ducks down from the roof at the Peabody Hotel to their daily swim in the lobby. If you miss it, you can catch the Duck March in the evening, when the ducks return to their rooftop roosts. 3 Statehouse Plaza. (501) 906-4000. www.peabodylittlerock.com.

Enjoy a romp in Adventure Park at Riverfront Park, which houses an amazing playground that emphasizes climbing. Several climbing walls, chutes, slides, and tunnels are there for your exercise and amusement. Good place for photo ops -- and where you need to go to access the new Junction Bridge Pedestrian Walkway to North Little Rock. North from President Clinton Avenue at LaHarpe.

Lunch at The Hop. This newly-relocated diner at Markham and Scott is a great place to catch burgers, fries, and all your traditional favorites. Be sure to grab a milkshake before you go. Open 7-6 Monday-Friday and 10-6 Saturday (closed Sunday). 201 East Markham. (501) 244-0975.

In the afternoon -- check out another great free exhibit at the new Witts Stephens Nature Center on the riverfront. The brand new state of the art facility showcases nature and life along the Arkansas River. Open 8:30-4:30 Tuesday-Saturday and 1-4:30 Sundays (closed Monday). 602 President Clinton Avenue (access by Clinton Presidential Store). (501) 907-0636. www.centralarkansasnaturecenter.com.

There’s tons of fun to be had at the Arkansas Museum of Discovery. Neat hands-on exhibits and historical presentations are aimed at the younger set. Insect-curious children will enjoy the Bug Zoo, younger children will dig the Room to Grow, and everyone loves the Imagination Station. Check for seasonal exhibitions and events, too. Open Monday-Saturday 9-5 and Sundays 1-5. 500 President Clinton Avenue Suite 100. (501) 396-7050. www.amod.org.

Learn all about the 42nd President of the United States at the Clinton Presidential Center. In addition to exhibits featuring the Oval Office and the live and times of William Jefferson Clinton, traveling exhibitions offer unique chances to experience things such as Space: From the Moon to Mars in the summer of 2009. Open 9-5 Monday through Saturday and 1-5 on Sunday. 1200 President Clinton Avenue. (501) 374-4242. www.clintonpresidentialcenter.org.

Dinner at The Flying Fish. Fish, shrimp, oysters, and chicken served up with a variety of side items in a fun-and-fish filled atmosphere. Bring your own Big Mouth Billy Bass for the wall display and receive a basket of catfish. Open 11-10 Sunday-Thursday and 11-11 Friday and Saturday. 511 President Clinton Avenue. (501) 375-FISH. www.flyingfishinthe.net.

After dinner on Friday and Saturday nights -- catch a show at the IMAX at the Aerospace Education Center. While you’re at it, check out the neat Arkansas Aviation Hall of Fame. Shows throughout the week daily; check the schedule. 3301 East Roosevelt Road. (501) 376-4629. www.aerospaced.org.

Day Two:
Breakfast at Community Bakery. Bagels, croissants, doughnuts, and just about every favorite breakfast drink out there. A great place to find your early morning dining desire, along with free periodicals on all sorts of activities. Open 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 6 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 7 a.m.-8 p.m. Sunday. 1200 Main Street. (501) 375-6408. www.communitybakery.com.

Fine art meets fun at the Arkansas Arts Center. Not just your ordinary static place with art on the walls; the Arts Center also features classes for children, special events, and the Children’s Theater of Arkansas. Open Tuesday-Saturday 10-5 and Sundays 11-5. Closed Mondays. 501 East 9th Street. (501) 372-4000. www.arkarts.com.

For kids who love the military, there’s the MacArthur Museum of Military History at MacArthur Park. Featuring extensive exhibits about World Wars I and II and the Korean War. Open Tuesday-Saturday 10-4 and Sunday 1-4. 503 East Ninth Street. (501) 376-4602. www.arkmilitaryheritage.com.

Shopping and lunch in the Heights. Lots of great places for kid shopping, including Little Rock’s oldest family-run toy store, the Heights Toy Center. Make your own hand-painted ceramics at The Painted Pig. Pick up a good book at Wordsworth Books. Create your own backyard feeder at Wild Birds Unlimited, and more. Directory can be found at www.heightsshopping.com.

Lunch at Za Za’s. This nouveau fun restaurant features gourmet pizzas and salads, plus Little Rock’s best gelato bar. Also a good place to consume Italian sodas and coffee drinks. Open Monday-Saturday 10:30 to 10:30, Sunday 11-7. 5600 Kavanaugh. (501) 661-9292.

For "second dessert," try Cupcakes on Kavanaugh across the street. Fantastic, delicious cupcake creations made from farm-raised and organic ingredients. Organic milk and coffee are also on the menu. Open 11-5:30 Tuesday-Saturday. 5625 Kavanaugh. (501) 664-CAKE. www.eatacupcake.com.

Head over to North Little Rock for an afternoon of fun. The Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame, tucked up underneath Verizon Arena, features exhibits and interactive productions about Arkansas’ legendary sports heroes, including John Daly, Jermain Taylor, Mark Martin, and Pat Summerall. 3 Arena Way. (501) 663-4328. www.arksportshalloffame.org.

Then there’s the Arkansas Inland Maritime Museum. Tour the USS Razorback, a World War Two era submarine, and learn more about Arkansas’ maritime and naval traditions and history. Open Friday and Saturday 10-4:30 and Sunday 1-4:30. 120 Riverfront Park Drive. (501) 371-8320. www.aimm.museum.

Consider a bike ride on the River Trail. You can rent a bike at River Trail Rentals in North Little Rock’s Riverfront Park, and ride all the way down to the Big Dam Bridge. Trails on either side of the river are fun to explore. River Trail Rentals is open seasonally. Call (501) 374-5505 or check out www.rivertrailrentals.com.

During the late spring and summer, catch a game at Dickey-Stephens Ball Park. The brand new facility is home to the Arkansas Travelers. For the kids, there’s The Berm, a grassy area along the outfield where families can watch on blankets or towels. There’s also a playground. Check the schedule by calling (501) 664-7559 or checking out www.travs.com.

Day Three:
Breakfast at the Ozark Mountain Smokehouse. Smoked meats and enormous omelets are featured on the menu. The country breakfast is considered by some to be the best in town. 201 Keightly Drive. (501) 665-7319. www.ozarkfamily.com.

Looking for adventure? Head out to Pinnacle Mountain State Park. Various paths offer visitors the chance to climb the mountain, walk the base, and check out wildlife. An interactive nature center is a great stop for kids, and the nearby short trail offers gorgeous views of the Arkansas River Valley. 11901 Pinnacle Valley Road. (501) 868-5806. www.arkansasstateparks.com/pinnaclemountain.

For younger folks, there’s The Wonder Place. This creative playspace for kids age eight and under focuses on activities that stimulate creativity and imagination. Enjoy a treehouse, play area, water table and air tubes. Admission is $7 per person. 10301 North Rodney Parham (in the Breckenridge Village Shopping Center), (501) 225-4050. www.thewonderplace.com.

Lunch at Cheeburger Cheeburger. Design your own burger from a wide variety of choices. Doesn’t matter how many add-ons you choose, it’s all included in the price. Thick designer milkshakes are also on the menu. 11525 Cantrell Road (in the Pleasant Ridge Shopping Center). (501) 490-2433. www.cheeburger.com.

Enjoy an afternoon at the Little Rock Zoo. Find out all about Naked Mole Rats, learn about the Black and White Rhinos, and discover the latest zoo friends, otters Kamili and Kapenzi. You can even dine at Café Africa. Open daily 9-5. 1 Jonesboro Drive. (501) 666-2406. www.littlerockzoo.com.

Dinner at Purple Cow. Classic burgers, fries, dogs, and suds mark a great 50s style menu. This is the place for your favorite fountain and ice cream drinks, including the quintessential banana split. Open daily. Two locations: 8026 Cantrell Road. (501) 221-3555 and 11602 Chenal Parkway. (501) 224-4433. www.purplecowlr.com.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Damn Good Fried Chicken.

I tend to get a lot of unsolicited suggestions when I go places… mostly from friends, and sometimes just from folks who recognize me and know what I do. One of those recommendations I’ve received from several quarters is a request to check out the AQ Chicken House in Springdale.

Now… the name itself seems to be that of a country restaurant. I would expect to see white walls, checkered tablecloths, and a walk-up window. That’s completely not the impression I got when I drove up on an August afternoon. In fact, I was surprised by how pretty and refined the restaurant appeared. I was charmed by the little truck out front advertizing specials, and by the general Victorian décor.

The first AQ Chicken House opened in Springdale back in 1947 (there’s a second one in Fayetteville)… the brainstorm of Roy Ritter, who sold Southern Fried Chicken to the masses (or really, the dribs and drabs) that found their way up Highway 71’s two lane dustiness. Placemats and the restaurant’s website proudly proclaim that you could once pick up a half chicken dinner for 65 cents, and coffee was a nickle. There are also pointed references to all the things that AQ predates -- like Wal-Mart and Frank Broyles.

AQ, by the way, stands for Arkansas Quality.

There are a whole lot of options on the menu, by the way, this very hefty menu with everything from AQ Pickle-Os (fried pickles) to barbecue to salads to catfish to spaghetti and at least a dozen types of prepared chicken. There’s Hawaiian Chicken -- teriyaki style served over rice with pineapple rings. There’s Parmesan Chicken, smothered in marinara sauce and served over spaghetti. There’s Southwest Chicken -- cut into fajita strips and seasoned with lime before being covered with roasted onions and peppers and cheese. There’s Chicken Alfredo and Chicken ‘n’ Dumplings and Chicken Fried Chicken smothered in gravy. There’s Cajun Chicken Breast and a Charbroiled Buttercrust Chicken Breast and AQ Chicken Livers and Chicken Tenders and Fire Roasted Lite Chicken.

I went for the best option I could figure out -- the Chicken Sampler Platter ($8.79), which comes with three pieces of chicken -- one Original AQ Pan Fried Chicken, one Chicken Over The Coals, and one Sweet N’ Smokey BBQ Chicken. I figured I couldn’t go wrong.

My waitress brought out a basket with a huge, soft cloverleaf roll while I waited. The cloverleaf rolls have been around as long as the chicken has. I enjoyed the soft, somewhat wheaty roll with the offered butter. I even tried some of the items on the table -- the Webster’s Strawberry Preserves and the pure honey. Think I liked the honey the best.

Out came my platter, a fried feast of epic proportions. My hungry butt was ready for it. I first sampled the Chicken Over The Coals breast, and found it to be somewhat salty and full of lemon pepper and smoke flavor. I can see why some of the recommendations I had were for this particular indulgence. The chicken was rich and full of flavor… so much flavor, it needed some of that roll to cut it down a bit. But still good.

I have to say, I wasn’t quite as taken with the barbeque offering. The wing was apparently fried first and then soaked in the tart and tangy sauce, similar to a Buffalo wing sauce. Good, though. I did have trouble keeping it together long enough to get it to my mouth; the combination of slick sauce and fall-off-the-bone meat almost made it a fork-worthy effort. As it was, when my waitress saw me tackling the wing, she brought me hand wipes to clean up with.

The pan fried Original leg, by the way, was probably the best fried chicken I ever put in my mouth. It was juicy without being greasy, with this light crust you get from skillet frying instead of deep frying, and it made me wish I’d gone with my friend Dave’s suggestion and just ordered the Original dinner. Well, you live, you learn, and if I hadn’t ordered the sampler platter I would have kicked myself repeatedly over curiosity.

I’d chosen the sweet potato casserole and the batter French fries as my side items. The sweet potato casserole was surprising -- a puree of what tasted like sweet potatoes, orange juice, and perhaps a little honey. No nuts like at many other places. It was light and very sweet.
The fries? I have to go back for the fries. They were seasoned and battered just like onion rings, except they’re straight and filled with potato. And they were SO good. I could have made a meal out of them alone. Very good. Very, very good.

Well, that really was enough for lunch, but knowing how rarely I’ve made it up to Northwest Arkansas lately, I couldn’t pass up dessert. And how could I miss something so curious as Fried Peaches? They run $3.49 for an order for one or two people or $5.99 for three to four. I was warned that it would probably be 15 minutes to make them up. That was AOK with me… time to let my dinner settle.

But when they came out, I was plenty pleased. And I can offer you this advice: get coffee with the peaches. They need the balance. The cling peach slices are each wrapped in a biscuit type batter, then deep fried for crispiness and then drizzled with what tastes like a peach syrup and cinnamon reduction, rich enough to be liqueur. Completely overwhelms the scoop of vanilla served up with it.

Even the lightness of the biscuit crust fails to deny the richness of this dish. Share with someone for Pete’s sake (preferably me).

They were plenty good. I can certainly say that.

I want to go back again, just to try more on the menu. But I am going to have to bring folks with me. As it was, I had to take more than half of my peach order and half my fries home in a box… this isn’t diet food, you know. I want to try their version of Chicken Fried Steak, the brisket and definitely the Chicken ‘n’ Dumplings. Maybe next time I get up that way. Shouldn’t be too long.

You’ll find the AQ Chicken House in Springdale on Highway 71 (Thompson Avenue) north of Highway 412. They do a lunch special each day until 2pm for $4.99, but the prices are reasonable enough you can swing dinner, too. And for Hog fans, the one in Fayetteville is on North College. Lots more information on the restaurant’s website.

AQ Chicken House on Urbanspoon

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Does This Bug You?

Captured in all its digital glory at the Cave City Watermelon Festival on August 8th.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Books, Grapes, Spaghetti, Fun.

Breaking bread together… it’s not just a turn of phrase. It makes sense. For millennia, man has sat down with other men for community, for friendship, for peace. World leaders do it. Church congregations do it. We meet over food for business gatherings and first dates. The idea of food and companionship is rooted in us as deep as the instinct to protect our young.Perhaps that’s why Arkansas’ food festivals are so important to us. They’re a chance to meet over food with a larger sample of the population; the enjoyment of the communal experience excites and inspires us.

And perhaps that can explain part of the reason why I found myself one Thursday in August on the interstate, heading to the state’s furthest northwest corner to sample the fares at the Tontitown Grape Festival. I’ve been before -- back in 2000, on a whim. I’d heard about the festival for years and drove up to check it out. Even as late as that date, Tontitown was clearly divided from neighboring Springdale; the shopping malls and gas stations stopped at the border in-between, and the next stop was St. Joseph’s Church.

Well, NWA has bloomed (that stands for Northwest Arkansas, for readers beyond this state’s borders). Blossomed into a heaving metropolis. And all sorts of businesses and restaurants and convenience stores now litter the way to St. Joseph’s… even a storage unit rental business with the cryptic message “she said yes” on its marquee.

But I digress.

This trip around, I came prepared… not just with appetite or curiosity, but with shopping bags. Yes, even I can be lured into the role of frantic consumer now and then.

I brought the bags along, just as I timed my visit in the 95 degree heat, for one special facet of the festival. I was also sure to bring my own containers of water, too; while water is sold at the festival, they’re really unconcerned what you bring in with you.

When I arrived, I was ushered towards free parking around back of the church, then left to my own devices. There’s no big sign with an entrance suggestion -- you just go in wherever you can. No fences here, except those around the carnival attractions to keep kids safe from machinery.

The festival booth was selling all manners of souvenirs such as aprons and t-shirts and commemorative cups. Free event books were also available, and cookbooks were out for $8 each.

I moseyed past the various vendors, selling all manners of items, such as onesies for babies with cute quotes, sunglasses, jewelry, votive candles and wooden key chains with your name written right there (they even had one with my daughter’s name on it, to my surprise). There were booths for both of the local papers, a couple of book signing tables, Sand Art, and spice mixes. All in the comfortable shade of the alley in front of the old church and complex.

But this too was not my destination. I smiled as I ambled past, taking in some of what was being offered around me but headed to my goal at the end of the row.

I entered the double doors of the old church and breathed in the mustiness… of thousands upon thousands of books… books that I could take home with me.

The Book Sale is a big component of the festival. For the rate of 50 cents for a hardcover or a quarter for a paperback, it’s a chance to stock up on reading material. This year around I was looking for kid books, and to my amusement I picked up such titles as “What Colonel Glenn Does At Work” (about his life as an astronaut) and “Behind The Headlines” (about the business of newspapers -- written in the 50s). I even found a neat kids book about how television works -- dated 1949!

I also picked up a history book, a cookbook, and a couple of novels, and packed the shopping bags I brought for the grand total of $2.75. Imagine that!

The old church has seen better days. There are water marks on the ceiling where the roof has failed, and some of the windows are boarded over. I overheard one of the volunteers lamenting that the book sale will move to another building next year. I hope that’s so the old church can be repaired. It’d be a shame to lose such a pretty example of turn-of-the-century architecture… turn-of-the-19th-to-20th centuries, that is.

See, the church and the festival have been around a long time. Italian immigrants settled here in the late 19th century. They farmed together, lived together, and broke bread together. They also, as you might assume, made pasta together. That’s how the festival got started -- as a day taken to celebrate the harvest. The “grape” part of the festival was added when the vineyards the immigrants started began to produce grapes.

Since the first celebration in 1900 (I’m guessing at that, honestly), the party’s grown from one day to several, and now it spans the better part of a week. There’s a fantastic history of how all this came about at the festival website. I wonder if the leaders who molded the festival to its current laid back schedule thought having a lot of the festivities at night was a good idea to escape the worst of summer’s heat, or because during the day folks were still working on that harvest. Who knows?

One of the big things that’s developed from the idea of that sit-down get-together is the Italian Spaghetti Dinner. We’re not talking small potatoes here.

When I emerged from the book sale and sauntered back down the row of vendors, I could see the end of the line that had formed for the dinner. It rolled back from the cafeteria hall back around past the front of the new church. People were just calmly standing in line, waiting for their chance to enter and eat.

Tickets are sold for the dinner, I’m sure to help folks keep track of who’s where and to keep there from being a bottleneck at the front of that line. They run $10 for adults and $5 for kids. And festival folks expect to sell 8000 of those tickets this year.

The wait wasn’t as long as I feared on that line -- about 10-15 minutes. No one seemed in that big a hurry. I suppose if they were they could always check out the Carry-Out line kindly offered on the side.

And the food was good -- a deep rich and slightly spicy sauce over pliant and tender noodles, with a couple of pieces of classic fried chicken, a green salad, a roll and about as much iced tea as I could handle.

I loved watching the volunteers -- the ones in the kitchen, sure, who were getting everything together in assembly line fashion, an efficient machine.

But there were also the volunteers out in the hall, who carefully and quickly cleaned up after each set of diners left, then held up fingers in the air to show how many spots were available at their location.

After dinner, it was off to the carnival.

This one was worthy of any county fair -- plenty of kiddie rides, a few scary ones that’d make me toss my cookies if I even attempted to board, a carousel, a Ferris Wheel, and plenty of carnies and games. The initial line for the carnival tickets stretched out quite a ways at 4pm, but by six things were running smoothly along.

I watched for a while -- the little girl who was more interested in petting a bunny than winning one, the young lady who was racking up big prizes popping balloons with darts.

Kids, kids, everywhere more kids -- and more babies than I’ve seen in a long time. Seems like there’s a bit of a baby boom around here.

Facing the several-hours-long drive home, I had to call it an early evening. Fortunately for others, this was just Thursday, and there were two more fun days full of books and grapes and spaghetti and games and rides and even more ahead.

If you’d like more information about the Tontitown Grape Festival, be sure to check out their website. And if you miss it this year, there’s always the next… and the next. After all, you just don’t stop doing something after 111 years.