Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Last Days of the Transylvania Burger.

Progress is something else. It can make someone money, it can revitalize a community, it can even spark a place into being something better. But progress can also pass a town by, dry up business and chase residents away. It’s a sad thing to see, when it happens to something you love.

Progress has taken its toll on the little burg of Transylvania, LA. Though the bat-decked water tower still stands over Highway 65, traffic has dwindled off, and visitors whiz on past the sole stop in town to head north to Lake Providence or south to Tallulah.

Years ago, this was the home of the Double Dare Outrageous Burger, a massive monster burger once offered to passers by for less than ten bucks, two massive one pound patties on a big flat bun, glued to that bun with American cheese and served up with an equally substantial amount of fries. The burger is no more, a victim too of progress and the lack of customers stopping in at the Transylvania General Store.

A couple of years ago, I chronicled what seemed like the end of the General Store. Moses Bender was retiring and trying to sell off the business. Didn’t look like it would survive at all at that point. But it did. A new owner came in and took over, offering the same items in the grill. However, the rest of the store has petered down. Where once the shelves held just about every item you’d expect to find in a small town grocery store, including a meat market and dry goods -- now there are empty shelves and section of restaurant. The Transylvania souvenirs are drying up. Some cold beverages are still available, but the current owner is looking to sell again, and it just doesn’t look good for the place.

But a burger does survive there, the original Transylvania Burger, an eight ounce hand patted patty cooked up on a griddle and served up with fresh cut French fries. The single runs $3.29, cheese is another 30 cents and it comes in the combo with drink for $5.39. Doubles are available.

I stopped in one March morning, just after the end of breakfast -- or what there would have been of breakfast, I suppose. One other customer was there when I came through, waiting for his own burger and fries. Fresh hot fried chicken was being pulled out of the fryer and put in the heat case. Otherwise, it was quiet inside. Being a Tuesday, there was talk between the owner and the woman at the counter over a lunch special. I ordered my burger and waited, perusing a left-behind paper. I noticed among all the articles and ads a mention that the Pizza Hut in nearby Lake Providence had gone under. Tough times all around, I guess.

I got my burger to go, since I was on the road and had many miles left to travel. But before I took off, I shot a photo of the big burger in its box. It came wrapped neatly in a foil wrapper with a nice complement of fries, all very hot and fresh. The burger itself was lacking a lot of the nice crusty goodness you get once the griddle has been used all day -- being the second burger of the day, that didn’t surprise me. The cheese glued the top bun down; lettuce, pickle and onion curled up underneath. I noticed the lack of tomatoes.

But you know, it didn’t taste that different from the old Double Dare Outrageous Burger. Still peppery, still enough salt to make it yummy, still just enough grease to make it seem sinful. The fries, lightly salted, were perfectly firm and soft on the inside. My only regret at the meal was that there was no fresh unsweet tea brewed, so I was stuck with Coca-Cola. But that was all right.

It had been two years since I’d swept through the area heading down Highway 65, and I had been surprised to even see the white letters on red metal above that doorway, much less see it open. But without another investor willing to go the distance and put in the work to rebuild the restaurant and advertise it and the good karma of passers-by, I doubt it’ll be there two months from now, much less two years.

When and if it goes, it’ll be a real shame.

For now, you’ll find the Transylvania General Store at 13107 Highway 65 South in Transylvania, LA. A phone number listed for it is (318) 559-1338. And if you’re looking for a business to buy, you just might be in luck.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Triple Horsepower at Los 3 Potrillos in Conway.

Conway has a lot of Mexican restaurants. A LOT. Just a couple of weeks ago I told you about Faby’s, the Mexican/Continental Fusion place with locations on Front Street and Dave Ward Drive. There’s a lot more -- from La Hacienda to Taqueria Micho to Casa Mariachi.

One of the local joints I like is Los 3 Potrillos (“The Three Stallions”). The wide open restaurant in the Howard Johnson has all the favorites and more… and the margaritas range on the maddeningly sweet side. The cheese dip is white and the chips are golden yellow.

You see, Los 3 Potrillos has some great dishes. The food is certainly colorful. One of my favorite dishes there is the Enchiladas Mexicanas ($8.75), three enchiladas and their appropriate sauces -- beef enchilada with red sauce, cheese enchilada with white cheese sauce (the dip), and chicken enchilada with green sauce. Care is taken to make sure each sauce is separate on the plate to get that gorgeous tri-color flag thing going. I like the chicken enchilada with green sauce the best, mild but flavorful with cilantro and tomatillo in that sauce. Yum.

The portions tend to be on the large side. There’s a slew of combination dinners for $6.49, including a combination of taco, burrito and Chile Relleno. The latter comes out fist sized and hot, a big pepper stuffed with cheese and coated in breading, taking up half a plate. Tacos? Average, I guess, but you get your choice on the combinations of having beef or bean or chicken or cheese as a filling for each taco, burrito and enchilada. That’s a nice touch.

Burritos are long and slender rather than fat and chunky, but they’re substantial enough. I’ve tried the Burrito Especial ($4.99) with its expected ground beef inside and such. I prefer the Burrito Mexicano ($5.99), filled with shredded beef sautéed with tomatoes, onions and bell peppers. Each is topped with more of the “white sauce” (read: more cheese dip), lettuce, tomato and sour cream. They’re fork burritos rather than the sort you pick up and eat with your hands. They are tasty.

They have an All-You-Can-Eat Lunch for $5.99. You can choose up to five items at a time from a list, including burritos, tacos, chalupas, tostaguac, Chile Rellenos, a nice list. Of course there’s no to-go boxes with this and your drink’s separate, but… well, it’s a good deal. Kids 4-12 are just $3.25 -- they can eat for that much, you can’t take them home for that much.

Los 3 Potrillos does serve alcohol. It’s not write-home good, but it is decent, and I like the fact that it’s decent on both taste and price. You’ll find it at 1090 Skyline Drive (Highway 65) in Conway. They’re open every day for lunch and dinner. (501) 327-1144. Find the menu here.

Los 3 Potrillos Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Monday, March 29, 2010

A Break From The Storm at Big Poppa's in McGehee.

It was a dark and stormy night -- hey, no joke, it was. I was on my way back from a trip to Mobile, AL. It was late (close to 9pm), I was in the hinterlands between Eudora and Lake Village, and I’d just received message that there was a storm front ahead.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

To Infinity and Beyond - Paula Deen's Buffet at Harrah's Tunica.

NOTE:  Paula Deen's will fade with history; Harrah's Tunica and other properties decide to rebrand restaurants after her epic fail.

Paula Deen’s buffet just goes on and on and on and on.

I’ve had so many readers ask me about the gargantuan buffet over at Harrah’s Tunica, I figured it was worth a check-out.

Now, before you get to wondering why my photos don't really show the glory of the restaurant, I have to share with you this simple fact: shooting in a casino is prohibited. I received special permission to shoot the food at Paula Deen's, as long as I didn't shoot anyone without their permission. Fortunately, I happened to be with family, so you get to be blessed with photos of my daughter. Yes, lucky you.

Anyway, as I was saying... I’ve had a lot of readers ask me about the Paula Deen Buffet over at Harrah’s Resort in Tunica. It’s not too far from Little Rock, and many people have headed all the way over there to sample and consume mass quantities of stuff. So eventually you knew I had to go.

There is something, though, that a lot of people are missing. The restaurant’s name is featured here and there as PAULA DEEN’S buffet -- with the word buffet printed much smaller than the name. Thing is, no matter how hard you try to use the lady’s name as an incantation, it is still a buffet. Which means you’re going to have to go get your food yourself and potentially stand in line to do so.

Many readers insisted I try the “Graze All Day” for $25. That's a thing of the past. I can understand this on both sides. Of course it was likely killing the casino. On the other hand, really folks -- grazing all day is one thing if you’re eating fresh veggies at a salad bar. Rich butter-laden food like this? While tasty, the chance for an epic cholesterol collapse increases greatly with the length of stay at a buffet.

Your experience may also vary as far as service goes. We went twice in the same day -- once for breakfast and once for dinner (and no, we didn’t have lunch -- it was quite enough to dine somewhere like this twice!). In the morning, our party of seven was seated in a private dining area, a room right off the buffet. The room itself was very pretty -- low lighting, yellow walls, a rustic table with matching chairs, a sideboard. It was nice to have the privacy. Unfortunately, that privacy (while affording us a great chance to catch up on family gossip) also seems to allow one’s party to be overlooked for swaths of time by the wait staff, so getting one’s drink refilled can be difficult.

On the other hand, a smaller group of us went in the evening, and we were seated in the main dining area. Our waitress, Nelly, was sweet and very attentive and talkative. She brought us several refills and switched us seamlessly from iced tea to coffee once dessert rolled around, and we never had an overload of plates on our table.

So, what do you get there? The short answer is a lot of very rich food. Yes, there is a salad bar -- but it's the one area that while I was there never had a line.

The breakfast is $8.99, and it's massive. There are all your regular favorites such as bacon and ham and sausage and scrambled eggs and biscuits and even an omelet station. But for the pork-challenged like me, there were a lot of non-pork options, such as the rather sweet Cheese Blintzes, the spicy Fried Green Tomato Eggs Benedict, the hearty but meat-free Grit Cakes topped with fried eggs and cheese gravy, the turkey sausage links.

They also had a whole section dedicated to meats like summer sausage and fried pork chops.

Of course there were several breakfast type casseroles -- hash brown casserole, egg casserole, some casserole with whole fresh spinach leaves in it.

My family bragged on the gravy -- apparently not your average made-from-a-mix preparation.

There were also plenty of fresh fruits and cottage cheese -- my daughter tried to wipe them out of fresh blueberries.

Right on the dot at 10:30 they pulled breakfast and lit into Sunday Dinner Sunday. Just while I was there for the morning, the offerings included a seafood station with gumbo and rice, rolls, a “boil” of shrimp and sausage and potatoes and corn on the cob, peel and eat shrimp, fried catfish, oysters on the half shell, grilled oysters, and hush puppies.

Out came the famous macaroni and cheese at two different stations, along with cheeseburger meatloaf and yams in the thickest syrup I’ve ever seen.

I counted four different sorts of gravy (white, brown, sausage and onion/pepper) and a towering pile of mashed potatoes. And of course there were fried green tomatoes.

When we came back in the evening there were all sorts of additional things, including the famed dressing
(which wasn't so spectacular in my eyes, but to each his own), stuffed bell
peppers, hot wings and
barbecue chicken, wet
and dry pork ribs,
fried chicken and fried
catfish and a whole lot
of other fried things.
Lots of fried things.
This is not the place
to go when you're on
a diet.

One thing the buffet does especially well is its dessert station. Rather than being a completely serve-yourself mishmash of small plates and frosting-laden crusted pie servers like so many place I have been, desserts are doled out on an individual basis.

Ice cream (eight varieties) is hand dipped by a clerk.

Dainty mini-desserts are plated for you from the glass case by an attendant (who won’t even bat an eye if you ask to sample more than one… or a half dozen).

Cakes are pre-plated on appropriately sized perfect little square plates.
The only self-serve comes in a few items that call for self-serving, such as cookies and yogurt covered pretzels.

Now, I usually have two problems with buffets -- the potential for cross-contamination (yes, even though you may love gravy on your macaroni and cheese, there are some folks who can’t have that certain meat protein) and the freshness of the food.

On our breakfast trip we went in around 9:30am. What was available seemed pretty fresh. In fact, while I was up there getting a plate one of the behind-the-bar crew folks pulled the tray I was about to serve up from and replaced it. Which wasn’t bad.

However, when my mom went a few minutes later, same thing happened -- except it was right when they changed over breakfast to lunch, and she didn’t get a chance to try one of those Fried Green Tomato Eggs Benedict. We both wondered at the waste there -- I mean, the food was fine, but heavens changing over seemed a bit more important. That being said, the changeover from breakfast to lunch was sudden, really sudden.

All in all, Paula Deen's buffet is an excellent... buffet. I know, some are still going to mourn over their mint-leaf decked iced tea that it's not table service, but considering the location and volume I just don't see how that would be possible at the price. Go -- once in a day. As Paula Deen herself says, "wear your stretchy pants" if you plan to pig out. Pace yourself. Leave something for others. Be polite. And remember you're a guest in her "home."

You'll find Paula Deen's Buffet at Harrah's Casino Resort Tunica, off Highway 61 some distance south of Memphis. The phone number there is (800) WIN-4-WIN. Have a good time.