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Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Bierocks and Beef at Khalil's Pub in West Little Rock.

I've been watching with interest for the opening of Khalil's Pub and Grill, the eatery going into the spot left vacant by the closing of the venerable Julie's last year.  After all, with a name like Khalil's, no telling what sort of food they offer.

A Surprise Start at The Finish Line Cafe.

Quiche. Stuffed Bell Peppers. Tabouleh. Hand-thrown pizzas. Squab. Crawfish Etouffee. Chicken Fried Steak. Bread Pudding. Fried Broccoli and Cheese.

That’s a pretty wide menu with some pretty crazy items on it. Chances are, you’d expect to pay quite a bit for a restaurant with this sort of variety.

Would you believe me if I told you the chicken fried steak plate above cost just $6?

Yes, I was surprised… even though my brother had been telling me about this place for months. About huge reasonably priced breakfasts, a case full of take-and-go meals, a wide selection of beverages, and the unusual. So I finally decided to go out and meet him… at school.

That divine everchanging menu is what you’ll find at the café at Pulaski Tech’s South Campus, The Finish Line. It’s run by students of PTC’s culinary school. Hence that variety.

The day we went we had to wait a bit -- students had just left class (there are indeed other programs on the campus, including the car mechanic school that my brother is attending) and were grabbing hot meals before their next stop for the day. Unlike the cafeteria where I pursued my higher education, this really looks more like a café, though its “courtyard” is actually just a fenced in area outside the café within the halls of the school.

My brother’s plate (the chicken fried steak) came with two sides and a drink for $6. Doesn’t matter what they serve at Coupe de Grille (the station where you get hot “home cooking,” it’s still $6 ($4.25 if you just get three veggies and a roll). Which isn’t bad.

I was tempted by many things when I took my turn through the line… the quiche selection was pretty grand, as was the desserts. There’s a salad bar and a hot dessert station. I almost passed on something unusual, though.

As I was glancing down into the take-and-go case, writing on the boxes caught my eye. I dare say, it’s the first time I’ve ever seen squab sandwiches offered, anywhere. Of course, I had to try it… along with the equally unusual to me Fried Broccoli and Cheese. And Blueberry Crunch… it looked good, so I figured I’d try it. Along with my iced tea, my meal came to less than $8.

And I was thrilled with the quality. I’ve spent more for a “deli lunch” downtown and didn’t get anything half as good.

Oh, and in case you were wondering, they have pretty good pizza, too… hand thrown and covered in plenty of cheese. And I understand their gourmet hot dogs are also splendid.  PTC is expanding dining options this week… with the official opening next week of the Big Rock Bistro at PTC’s Main Campus. I’m very interested to see how that goes!

You’ll find The Finish Line inside Pulaski Tech’s South Campus. If you’re coming from Little Rock, you’ll need to take the Otter Creek exit off I-30 and ride the access road to the entrance (you can’t get there from the County Line/Alexander exit). It’s just inside the main entrance.

Finish Line Cafe Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Greening Our Food.

Local Farmers Market Makes Good On The Local Promise.

You may have heard phrases lately in greenspeak… terms such as “food miles” and “eat local.” There’s an effort on nationwide for folks to eat the foods that are raised where they live, rather than whatever comes off a truck from hundred of miles away.

Finding local foods, even a few years ago, was a harder proposition. While there are plenty of farmers markets around, many have become dominated with vendors who bring in their produce from elsewhere. It can be difficult to discover what’s growing right down the road when the markets are inundated with bananas and mushrooms and pineapples, all of a definitively non-Arkansas nature.

But today, it’s not so hard. There’s a new market in town, the Certified Arkansas Farmers Market, which is making it easier to eat local and support local farmers.

Its own statement says it all.

The Certified Arkansas Farmers Market is a closely governed market network that sells only products from Arkansas farms. It was created in 2008 by local farmers as a way to reduce deception at markets and protect their businesses from unfair practices by wholesalers and resellers.

I didn’t realize how prevalent those wholesalers and resellers were until this year, when I went out to cover the opening of the other big market around here, the 35 year old Little Rock Farmers Market over at the River Market Pavilion. My first taste of that experience came on a Tuesday morning in April around 8am. Just a few people were actually out at that point, but there were all sorts of vegetables and fruits and stuff on display.

After having the chance to eat at certain Arkansas restaurants that had keyed me in on the availability of Arkansas-grown hothouse vegetables, I didn’t question much. But when I got back to the house and logged on to show off my photos and share, Facebook fans hollered at me.

And that’s how I got keyed in on the Certified Arkansas Farmers Market.

The next Saturday I decided to check both markets out. I noticed at the Little Rock Farmers Market this time the row of refrigerated trucks, the almost out-of-place fresh watermelons… this time I was paying attention. On the other side of the river at the little lot in Argenta, I found a few farmers trying to sell Arkansas grown potatoes and Arkansas-made cheese, but not a lot else. Needless to say, I was divided.

What occurred to me then and what makes so much sense now was the season. While we’re blessed with winter wheat and oat crops, our growing season doesn’t encompass every month. There’s a time and a place for each Arkansas food, which is why you usually won’t find peaches in the fall or watermelon in the spring, at least not from Arkansas farmers.

Through the summer I’ve found myself straying more north of the river to the little lot at 6th and Main, exploring the palate expanding produce that came in across the season. I enjoyed peaches when they arrived (late) at the end of June, blackberries in mid-July, and big “ugly” tomatoes through it all. I found there was always some form of squash and tuber available, and dinner at Chez Robinson became much more fruit-full. I even took my daughter out in the July 4th heat to experience the first Argenta Foodie Festival.

So, it’s the Certified Arkansas Farmers Market. How’s that work? As Jody Hardin puts it, stringently.

“We have a market manager at each of our three outdoor farmers markets. They are responsible for inspecting each farmer to verify that they are legitimate producers of the items they list on their crop plan. We usually have a second board member of CAFM member go along for the ride as a witness. After the membership form is submitted to the Market Manager, we set up a date for the inspection. It only takes about 30 minutes and gives the market manager a better connection and knowledge of how we can help each farmer at the market.”

Hardin is the Market’s executive director, and the force behind another project that’s been building much anticipation in the Argenta District, the upcoming Argenta Market. This grocery store will also be a deli and catering company, featuring what it touts will be “your favorite new community food source, with the widest and deepest selection of local foods in central Arkansas.” The current opening date should be around Thanksgiving.

That’s a bold plan, but one that could really work. As it is right now, Hardin’s working with several businesses around here to provide farm-fresh produce and products to restaurants such as The House and Ashley’s at the Capitol Hotel. In my recent travels I’ve encountered several restaurant owners who have been seeking out exactly this sort of service. For instance, Lana Campbell at Eureka Springs’ Garden Bistro spends a lot of her time scouring every available farmers market up there just to put together an ever-varying menu each night. I mentioned the Certified Arkansas Farmers Market to her while at her establishment in July, and she remarked about a need for such a place in her area.

For now, though, it’s just the farmers market on Tuesday and Saturday mornings in Argenta, along with the satellite markets in Hot Springs Village and in Searcy. And the markets appear to be growing. I wandered down to Argenta one Saturday morning in August, and found parking to be tight. The market tents spilled out on both sides of the lot, and a smaller local crafts market had popped up just a half-block away. I discovered the joys of lemon green English cucumbers and purple bell peppers, picked up a block of cheese from Honeysuckle Farms and a chunk of goat soap from another vendor. There was a line of folks waiting to pick up the basket each had ordered from the online market.

Hardin is still looking for a few items to sell at Argenta Market. “We have the meat, dairy and produce covered. I would like to find more grains besides wheat and rice... Also, I would like to find more artisan cheeses, more pastured chickens and turkeys and quail and pheasant. Also, in aquaculture, I would like to see more prawns, and farm raised trout and tilapia.”

The local foods movement appears to be alive and thriving in Argenta. It’ll be interesting to see how it spreads through Central Arkansas.

For more information on the Certified Arkansas Farmers Market, check out or

This story appears in the September/October 2009 issue of Emerald City of the South. Pick up a copy at your local newsstand.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Fresh and Delightful.

I’m pretty happy to see more restaurants lately that are offering food from local farmers. It’s a cool thing for the palate, sure. But making the commitment to attempt to serve up as much local and organic as possible is a step further than most places are willing to take.

That’s why I’m thrilled about Eureka Springs’ new eatery, The Garden Bistro, and the ideas chef Lana Campbell is creating. The little shop on North Main is bright with color, full of art, and completely without a standard table menu.

Yeah, that sounds strange, but it’s true -- the menu changes daily depending on what’s being offered. It’s a cool concept. The menu for the day is written on a wall of tiles near the kitchen, and then conveyed to the chef via a very attentive waitress.

My traveling companion and I dined there on a cool July evening. We were enchanted by the Tuscan-like décor and all the fresh herbs growing on the deck, local artwork displayed on butternut squash-yellow walls and cozy tables available both inside and out.

While we were there, a couple of the locals came through and asked about vegan and vegetarian options. Not only were they directed to the items on the menu that met the criteria, they were given the option of asking for a special order and were accommodated. I think that's special.

We looked over the menus and placed our orders, and settled down to a nice bit of conversation . Hot cheese bread still contained in the flower pot it was cooked it was brought to our table with cool butter.

The two of us sampled a couple of the different appetizers. The Squash Relleno was surprising -- baby squash split open and filled with cheese, then dipped in tempura batter and deep fried. The little squash were light and savory, and the sauce they were served with very spicy and sweet.

We also sampled the Asiago Cheese Stuffed Mushrooms in Marinara Sauce ($5.95), served up in an escargot tray. The individual savory bites were packed with cheese and went well with the cheese bread. And wow were they hot.

The two of us split on our dinner options. My companion went for the house salad with one of the four housemade dressings, a honey vinaigrette without a harsh vinegar bite. The blanched green beans and fresh sliced mushrooms were a welcome departure from the standard dinner salad.

I got the soup, and I was glad. The Strawberry Lavender soup served up with a dollop of heavy cream was divine. The sweetness of the soup was muted, more a refreshing palate cleanser, with the staccato peppery pop of lavender seeds within. It was unabashedly lick-the-bowl-clean good.

My companion chose the Peppercorn Encrusted Ahi Tuna with Peach Apricot Habanero Sauce ($19.95). The thick cut section of tuna was seared darkly but cooked medium rare like a good steak. The tuna was melty light and delicious, but there was an afterthought of strong apricot and peach that was just about covered up by the habanero at the end. Worthy, but certainly a dish for a spicy food lover. We adored the presentation, which included real flowers and grapes and greens cut into more flowers -- like a garland for the tuna.

My Asian Beef Salad (“Sautéed in a Spicy Peach Soy Sauce Served On A Bed Of Fresh Greens With Veggies And A Mandarin Peach Dressing“) ($15.95) was a cacophony of flavors, savory and sweet beef amidst yellow and red plum tomatoes, sliced almonds, cucumbers, baby greens, grapes, mushrooms, Mandarin oranges and blanched green beans. So many little flavors.

Vegetables are all-you-can-eat and served family style. We enjoyed green beans and potatoes that had been simmered together in a bacon broth, along with sweet steamed corn on the cob that tasted like it could have just been picked in the backyard and brought straight in.

Dessert was an adventure. We ended up sampling all three offered that day. Hey, you only live once! My companion tried the Sundae (Chocolate or Caramel $5.50), going for chocolate and happily accepting the offer of fresh sliced strawberries and almonds. The wineglass dessert was the perfect size for finishing the night.

I tried the Blackberry Pie ($4.50) and couldn’t resist also ordering the unusual dessert, the Cornmeal Sugar Cookie with Lemon Curd and Whipped Cream ($4.50). The blackberry pie was all the glory of tart and sweet in a hand thrown crust with none of the tick bites or briar bramble wounds. But it was the sugar cookie that did it for us… a nectarous cornmeal cookie balanced perfectly by the tartness of the lemon curd and the lightness of the cream. Unusual, but fantastic.

I like the little restaurant, and I hope it survives. Lana’s trying to do what she did when she lived in Missouri -- create different fresh things every day based mostly on the items she can find at area markets and meets. That’s hard to do, and I have to give her a tip of the proverbial hat. I wish more restaurants did that.

Oh, lunch is served there, too -- tea room style -- with quiches and soups and salads and pastas and sandwiches. And fresh hot baked bread, too.

You’ll find the Garden Bistro at 119 North Main in Eureka Springs. Lunch and dinner are served Thursday through Monday. The restaurant is closed Tuesday and Wednesday. For more information, call (479) 253-1281.

Garden Bistro on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Sam Choy's A Rather Nice Fellow.

Sam Choy is a nice guy. Got to meet the chef this morning at Pulaski Technical College’s south campus. He came in to talk with the culinary students, and boy did he have a lot to say.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Another Fabulous Fair Food Preview.

It may be hot outside now, and you might be thinking summer has just arrived and will be here for months. But the harbinger of autumn is just a month away.

That's right -- it's time for the Arkansas State Fair. And as last year, it's time to preview this year's new fabulous Fair Foods. That is, it's time to reveal the strange and amazing things we're going to see at this year's Arkansas State Fair.

You know, I've been doing research... and last year, the most talked about Fair Food was the Pig Licker, strips of bacon dipped in chocolate and either salted or sprinkled with sprinkles. The creation came out of the Minnesota State Fair. So I'd figured I'd check out what they had to offer. On the neat side -- the Tater Dog, a hot dog wrapped with a spiral cut potato instead of batter, then deep fried. On the scarier side...

Well, this year the Arkansas State Fair is making its own creation, something that, as far as I can tell, has never been featured at a state fair anywhere.

Behold, the Elvis Sandwich.

Sadly, I had to go borrow this image from which is another site I highly recommend. Though it's not EXACTLY what we're talking about here.

I talked with Tom Lyons, who's with the State Fair's concessions. He says the Elvis Sandwich is peanut butter and strawberry jam spread thinly on white bread, with slices of banana in-between, battered and deep fried. Well, it sounds healthier than a Pig Licker, that's for sure. How much healthier? Well, it IS deep fried, but it DOES have fruit in it.

That's not all, though. Among the new foods coming to this year's Arkansas State Fair are crab cakes, Chicken Parmesan on a Stick, Hubcap Steak Sandwiches, Chocolate Dipped Bananas, Fried Jalapeno Sandwiches and Pickles, and two crazy items -- Walking Taco in a Bag (I have no idea what that really is) and Battered and Fried Bacon. Wow.

Of course, there will be all the regular favorites such as sausages on a stick, corn dogs, nut rolls,
caramel apples, cotton candy, funnel cakes, that sort of thing. Pig Lickers will be back, along with Fried Coke and Pineapple Whips.

I'm sure there will be plenty more to share when I actually venture to the Fair. Only 29 more days left.