Saturday, May 29, 2010

Trying Out Bravo Cucina Italiana.

I rarely go to a restaurant on its opening weekend; there are usually far too many kinks to be worked out.  But with the press attention for Bravo Cucina Italiana, I decided to go ahead and give it a shot.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Ice Cold Creamy Treats, An Arkansas Tradition.

Summertime may really start the third week of June, but in Arkansas the real sign of summer is our state’s largest festival, Riverfest. And while many of the fun food items change from year to year, one thing’s always certain: you’re always going to find Yarnell’s ice cream.

The state’s only ice cream manufacturer has been rolling since 1932, when founder Ray Yarnell bought Dairyland and got things started in Searcy. 78 years and four generations later, Yarnell’s isn’t just the oldest manufacturer in Searcy, it’s still privately owned and an Arkansas tradition. And yummy, to boot.

I’m not sure I knew of any other ice cream company as a kid. I thought ice cream was just supposed to come in those gold-topped maroon tubs, unless you wanted to get some Crush soda and milk and make
your own with an old hand-cranked ice cream maker at home. It was definitely an Arkansas thing, though… out of state relations would come in and stay with family and there’d be that carton, almost always Homemade Vanilla (which, as it turns out, is the most popular flavor to this day).

Even into adulthood, Yarnell’s always held a special place for me. And, obviously, for others as well. In my TV days they were always willing to come out and help a good cause like the Summer Cereal Drive. Yarnell’s folks would show up for just about anything. They helped me get a crowd of several hundred people together one morning, serving up ice cream at 4 a.m. and encouraging people to come out to meet Dave Price of the CBS Early Show… ah, what memories.

But I digress.

There are few manufacturers in this state that bring such pride. All sorts of places I go, I see Yarnell’s ice cream mentioned by name on menus, celebrated in stores and lauded at fairs and festivals. They’ve been a major sponsor for Riverfest for several years now. But what goes into that production?

I spent a good time begging for a chance to see ice cream being made, several phone calls and such. Finally I was granted a chance to visit the Searcy facility. Let me be clear: there’s no tour for the public. Read on and you’ll find out why. It’s a good reason, don’t worry.

I met with Dlorah deVore last week to see what goes on inside the plant. Right off the bat I had to take off all my jewelry and put up my hair. Yarnell’s follows strict standards. Nothing that can fall in is allowed. I was given a hairnet and a lab coat and we went in and scrubbed up. A foam on the floor sterilized our shoes; this foam is released at intervals to keep it renewed and to keep everything sanitized. It also has the added benefit of smelling nice.

Our first stop was at the tank room. Each of these tanks holds milk or cream that will be used in the production of ice cream. Each week, the plant uses 16,000 gallons of milk, 10,000 gallons of cream and 8000 gallons of sugar. The milk comes here first (and to the outside storage tanks) before being pasteurized and sent along to be mixed as ice cream.

All through the plant overhead are pipes from these tanks, pipes that carry the milk and cream directly to each processing area for use in making the ice cream itself, in frozen dessert products and in ice cream treats.

Dlorah showed me some of the assembly lines where frozen desserts were being assembled. Because of proprietary rules, I can’t tell you what was being made on the lines. But I was fascinated… not only by the speed at which these items were being assembled and by the apt and able hands guiding each product along the way, but by the machinery itself. These aren’t permanent lines. They’re assembled in sections depending on what needs to be made. It’s
conceivable that a different setup could be used for each and every item. Really kinda cool, if you ask me.

We also viewed some of the ice cream holding tanks. These big tanks hold the mixture of milk, cream and sugar just before and during the processing of each certain product. In-between they’re scrubbed out and sterilized. Not only does that keep your Fudge Bars from tasting like
your Fruit Bars, it means that everything’s done as meticulously and cleanly as possible. Depending on the run of a product, these tanks might get thoroughly cleaned out a couple times a day.

We walked through a couple of other areas and looked at equipment and another processing line. The gigantic drum that holds ice cream novelties as it goes around is huge. It has indentations for each treat within. Since it’s not being used right now, it’s been cleaned and set to the side. I also saw one of the big machines that catches the 1.5 quart tubs I’m used to seeing in refrigerated cases at the store. Very novel.

I also saw some of the giant tanks where different flavors of ice cream are mixed. It’s hard to comprehend just how much ice cream is made in this plant.

We passed through to another room, where pints of Cookies and Cream ice cream were quickly spinning through a short maze in front of us. Here’s where things get really busy. On the upper end of the room, you can see the product as it all comes together, with cookies in a hopper and the milk and cream and sugar all coming in via their own pipelines.

The cookies are ground to the proper consistency and mixed in with the other ingredients and forced into another pipe, which carries the mixture overhead to another machine.

The cups are placed in tubes for dispersal right there at the next machine over. In sets of four the cups are dropped into waiting round slots. They’re advanced forward to a machine that deposits just the right amount of Cookies and Cream ice cream into them.

On the other side of the room, batches of pint lids are sorted by a special machine that flips them the appropriate direction with the help of a shaker and gravity, then shoots them over to the ice cream filler, which plops the lids perfectly down onto the pint containers.

The pints are then sent scooting along a conveyor belt to waiting assistants that hand pack them into boxes and flats before those boxes and flats are sent into the freezer.

We didn’t go into the freezer… we certainly weren’t garbed out for freezer time. The VRT (Variable Retention Time) freezer instantly sweeps the ice cream up and away and freezes it at 90 degrees below zero, Fahrenheit. It’s kept there for a bit and then stored in the storage freezer at -30 degrees. The storage freezer can hold up to a million packages of ice cream at any one time.

Our tour of the inside complete, Dlorah took me outside to see the rest of the plant. She pointed out the fleet of Yarnell’s trucks; unlike other ice cream companies, Yarnell’s does all of its own distribution. So you know if you get Yarnell’s where you’re at that it’s been in a Yarnell’s truck. I like that thought -- less people in the middle of the cycle there, fewer chances for thawing and such.

The fleet thing -- that’s been something that’s been around since the very beginning. Back when the company was founded Ray Yarnell, his wife Hallie and their nine year old son Albert were three of the plant’s 13 employees. There were just four refrigerated trucks then, and they ran to Cabot and Heber Springs and Walnut Ridge. There’s a very complete history on the company’s website; I urge you to check it out.

I noticed there was a large trailer hooked up to the electrical on the far side of the fleet lot. Dlora told me it was full of ice cream. That makes sense. Riverfest is the biggest holiday of the year for Yarnell’s. More ice cream will be sold there than at any separate event this year. It’s all being kept refrigerated and ready to go.

The people that work the booths at Riverfest are almost all volunteers from local churches. They’ll earn money from the sales that will go for projects and the like.

We passed by where the milk trucks were making their deliveries and walked around the building further. We passed what folks there call “The Barn,” a structure that’s been there since the 40s that’s still used for storage today. It was neat, seeing this perfectly kept little barn in the middle of all this recently built stuff.

And then we passed by the big tanks from the outside with their loads of milk, sugar, cream and corn syrup.

Back inside, we went to the daily tasting. Each day ice cream produced the previous day is tested -- with samples pulled from the beginning, middle and end of each run. They’re sampled by members of the tasting team in a special upstairs laboratory. This is also where new flavors are sampled. But it’s not just a few select people that get to try the ice cream. Anyone who works at the plant can come upstairs and have their fill.

I got to sample several different types of ice cream produced at the plant, including a couple of new items being tested (no, can’t tell you about those), a few ice cream treats and a couple of ice cream flavors (which no, I can’t tell you about, either -- except to say they’re very yummy).

I felt a lot smarter about ice cream when I left, and I’m looking forward to the summer season.

I know that tomorrow morning Christina Yarnell, the company CEO representing the fourth generation of her family with the company, will be back on TV. I caught her talking with Barry Brandt last year as I was walking through the Riverfest set-up, as she shared Coke floats and the new Sunny Berry flavor.

This year the new flavors are Fried Ice Cream (a Riverfest special) and Lemon Ice Box Pie. I’ll certainly look for one of the nine stands out there… I’m partial to Ozark Black Walnut, myself.
If you’re interested in sampling some of the many flavors (there’s about 20 of them) or some of their ice cream novelties (did you know the Yarnell’s Ice Cream Sandwich is the most popular ice cream novelty in Arkansas? No? You do now), you can find them in just about any Arkansas grocery store. Yarnell’s is also distributed across Tennessee, Mississippi, as well as parts of Texas, Missouri, Alabama and Louisiana. You can find out more by checking out the company website.

UPDATE: On June 30th, 2011, Yarnell's informed its employees that it was ceasing operations. After 79 years as part of the Arkansas experience, it will be missed.

UPDATE:  December 1, 2011 -- Searcy Chamber of Commerce president Buck Layne tells me Shulze and Birch Biscuit Co. has purchased the plant and most of the recipes and plans to reopen the facility.  Huzzah!

A little good Texas.

Coming home from Dallas, treading the road construction and frustration on a Monday afternoon, I found myself with a mountainous hunger and no idea where to stop. I pulled off the road at Caddo Mills and stepped out to head into a convenience store. But I was lured back to the vehicle with a quest of scent… the scent of smoked meat hanging in the air.

I guessed from the wind and the intensity I had a couple of blocks to go further to the east. I followed the scent to a long red building beside a trailer advertising “Big Bruce’s Bar-B-Cue and Burger Barn.” The lot was mostly empty -- not surprising, being nearly 2pm. My stomach grumbled. I let it lead me inside.

There was a sign on the door, “AC in by 5/24.” That was the date, May 24th, and the doors were open. But somehow the 80 degree temperature didn’t seem so bad. Inside the one big room spread out to its corners, an empty ice cream counter in one, a big round padded booth in another. Tables and chairs scattered out across a concrete floor, a stand of T-shirts for $10 each and a free country-music jukebox… but that was enough exposition. I needed food. I turned around and looked up at the menu posted over the lunchline. I briefly considered the Big Burger Special, but after my adventure with the Big Ass Burger at Twisted Root Burger Company the previous day I wasn’t really in the mood to tangle with that much ground beef.

What I hadn’t experienced during my entire trip was something I really love -- Texas barbecue. Sweet, smoky thick sauces and nicely smoked beef brisket, all about the smoke and the beef and that taste of the West. It didn’t take me long to scan through the menu and find Big Bruce’s Special, a large chopped beef sandwich served with two sides or a baked potato. That’d do.

I picked up a tray and silverware and a guy came from the back to see what I wanted. When I ordered the special he donned fresh plastic gloves, walked over to a cutting board supporting a couple of smoked beef briskets and cut me a share. He pointed at it and asked if it was okay, then went to work chopping horizontally and vertically, dicing up the meat expertly and aptly depositing it on a long French roll. He passed over my plate and I went about choosing my sides. Home fries, French fries, barbecue beans, potato salad, cole slaw, all were inviting, but I ended up with skin-on mashed potatoes and fried okra. I also picked up a plastic boxed piece of buttermilk pie and had my food rung up by the waitress. She handed me a cup for tea and pointed me in the direction of the condiment bar, which had mayo and mustard and ketchup, onions and tomatoes and lettuce if I wanted any of that for my sandwich. Which I didn’t. All I wanted on my brisket was sauce, and I’d picked up a hot cup of that in the line.

I went and sat down my tray and filled my tea glass. The last of the other customers was standing, shuffling his feet and digging a tip out of his pocket. I took my usual photos and got prepared to dig in.

I tried the mashed potatoes first, and enjoyed the surprise. They were almost inconceivably creamy, very much so for skin-on potatoes. The softness and the buttery texture were certainly signs of high fat content. Did I care? No. I was just instantly pleased I’d gone this direction for my potato choice. The fried okra was more than passable, being nicely hot and not dried out within.

And the brisket. The meat itself was seasoned by the smoke alone, no other additions. It had come from a fattier portion of the brisket, but that just meant the meat was overall juicy (I frown upon removing brisket fat, it’s not natural). What really made it though was the sauce -- a little smoky but way on the sweet, clingy side. Good beef sauce, the brown sugar flavor matching well to the savory notes in the beef. This tasted like a well-tried competition sauce.

If there were any complaints to be had, it was the way the brisket completely failed to marry to the bun. I made a couple of attempts at eating the sandwich with my hands, but resorted to the fork. Which was fine, I suppose. It still tasted pretty darn good. Maybe with the assistance of a foil sheet I could have kept it together.

And then… then there was the buttermilk pie, which I took with me. That’s right -- I couldn’t eat it there. I’d filled up on what was on my platter and decided it would be far better to eat it later on the road than try to drive the rest of the way to Little Rock on an over-full stomach.

I asked the waitress when I was heading out how long the restaurant had been open. She told me it was their seventh Monday, so not quite seven weeks. Eventually they plan to have an ice cream counter going… as well as the AC.

So, back to that pie. And the pie almost deserves its own entry. Big Bruce’s doesn’t make the pie. It comes from an operation called Uncle Willie’s in Red Oak. First bite was a classic buttermilk pie reaction, that surprise of “wow, is that lemon?” that’s quickly overcome by the creamy texture. But this one was different. It had a nicely salty savory crust, like what you might expect with a pasty or a hand pie instead of a sweet pie. The combination of salty, pumpkin pie-like spice and citrusy buttermilk makes a strongly powerful substance that holds its own in satisfying one’s hunger. It was good enough to be a meal in its own, and it was, somewhere around Arkadelphia.

I don’t get down to Dallas much, usually only about once a year or so. But this place will be on my stop list for sure.

You’ll find Big Bruce’s Bar-B-Cue and Burger Barn on the I-30 eastbound access road in Caddo Mills, TX, exit 87. Look for the big trailer out beside the long red building. And smell for that smoke. They have a phone number, too -- (903) 527-4444.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Fuzzy Memories and a Short Stack.

This coffee cup somehow reminds me of my grandfather. He was a one-armed house painter, no joke. I don’t have a lot of recollection of him, but one thing I recall is that he always had his coffee in a brown cup. Of course, he used a little milk or Eagle Brand sweetened condensed milk in his.

It’s funny -- I had family in Gurdon, but I’ve been passing by the South Fork Restaurant for years. Never occurred to me to go in. And from the outside, it didn’t look that large to me. Then again, exit 63 is a patch of big sky in between the woods and the highway. Go figure.

Walked in this particular Friday morning on my way to Dallas. There were a lot of tables right inside the door but I wanted to be by the window, in a booth. One of the waitresses told me to just sit anywhere, so I found a nice booth next to the window under a rope-strung light. I had coffee at my elbow in mere moments. My waitress left me with a menu and I looked at it. What I wanted was right there, and I ordered straight up the next time she came around -- a short stack and cheese grits. She looked down at my notepad and smiled, looked at my coffee, and went to fetch a pot.

The crowd was pretty evenly split. On the window side of the establishment seemed to be the locals, the other side truckers and other passersby just stopping in. The local crowd was mostly older folk, remnants of a once bustling population in these parts. Industry has, for the most part, left his area. Most everything has gone to the big city. The folks left hang onto their homesteads - retirees, gentlemen farmers and those working for services that support the logging industry.

There was something there that morning, though, something in the taughtness of the face of the waitresses, the meticulously curled and styled ‘dos of the matrons at the next occupied table, the men in their baseball caps with their slab jowls. Something so familiar.

When the waitress came around I found myself drifting so easily into that South Arkansas drawl. That made the strange blend of Midwestern and New England and who knows what else across on the other side of the room seem that much more strange.

Maybe it was the way the light filtered in through the window, that particular angle from the Eastern sky at this time of the morning, that set off that familiar sensation. But that’s silly. Home for me is Little Rock, with its fused Midwestern and Southern accents and attitudes, a mesh of trees and steel and concrete, all waiting and ready for the next big piece of news. Little Rock smells of political sweat and comfortable people, both static and in motion, still very much trying to be grown up and mature but still waiting for its voice to change. It’s shot up and out since my childhood days, but it’s still not a really big city, and I hope it never gets there.

But South Fork… it’s like one big pole barn erected on the side of an old gas station, decked out and painted up in black and beige and brown with that big blue wall and a gigantic painted-on American flag. There’s a counter for loners like me at the back, a true diner-style counter that faces into the kitchen, but I’d rather crouch in a booth and kick back in my few minutes off the road. I might have felt differently if the place had been packed. It’s a big place -- and though there were nearly 30 people inside it still felt cavernous.

I hear the guys over at the next table, jawing on in that particular South Arkansas patter I grew up on, the emphasis on every second or fourth syllable, the punctuation with “pap pap!” or “oo hey” or “huh.” Lots of “you” and that big long “I” and the “me-uns” too.

My waitress brought over the food, and I ate and listened to the conversations around me, a fly on the wall in this country restaurant. The plate-sized corny pancakes were more than I had needed, but I had really needed the cheesy grits. Something filling, something sustaining on a long drive. Yeah, I could have made do with eggs, but being on the road eggs are hard on the system.

The bustle continued around me, the two waitresses warming up coffee here and there, flittering about like hummingbirds at a feeder, asking customers “can I take that out of your way, dear?” and “what else you need, sugar?” I dallied over my third cup of coffee, mentally calculating and wondering if I could make it to Sulphur Springs before my rest stop or if I needed to park it at Texarkana for a bit.

I nearly ran into my waitress as I started to get up, she coming by to fill my coffee again. She apologized as I shook my head, not needing a warmup this time on the coffee. I smiled and she smiled, and nodded her head the way people in this part of the state tend to do. I flipped my dollar on the table and went up front to pay.

It wasn’t long before I was back on the road, heading to Dallas, shaking off that strange sensation of home and feeling the coffee go right on through me.

Southfork Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Thai One On at Saigon Cuisine in Conway (or Little Rock).

This restaurant has closed.

There’s been a lot of pitter patter on Twitter and other social media about the need for good, reasonably priced Thai in our area. So I’ve been on the lookout. And hey, I found some. It’s in Conway at Saigon Cuisine.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Hang Ten at The Hangout.

Looking for a great bite to eat right on the beach? You can’t go wrong with The Hangout. Located at Beach Boulevard and Gulf Shores Parkway (Alabama Highway 59), it’s easy to find and a lot of fun to boot.

But what is it that The Hangout has to offer? Frankly, good food, cool drinks and a nostalgia kick to boot. I had the chance to visit last week, and I thoroughly enjoyed myself.

The Hangout itself is an open air temple to beachside enjoyment, with glass-fronted garage doors to pull down in case of a storm. The center of the restaurant is an airy wide playground of tables and chairs, great for a group who’s not concerned with a lot of noise around them. There’s a well stocked bar here, too, and in the evenings there are periodic trivia games hosted by the staff.

Off the beach side there’s a nice step-down section full of more tables, high-stepped on one side so more people can take in the view. Nothing here between your eyes and that white sand.

The Hangout Hangover.
There are beverages to consume, like at any good beach party, and they include some great options. I was steered towards the Hang Ten, a mix of rum with banana and melon flavors, but I instead chose a Hangout Hangover ($7). The combination of Bacardi 151, blackberry brandy, raspberry liqueur, cranberry juice, pineapple and sours has the cumulative effect of giving you the sensation of being slapped with a blackberry. Nice, smooth, sweet and potentially dangerous if ordered repeatedly.

The Bushwacker.
Later I was talked into trying a Bushwacker ($7), which appeared on many menus in the area while I was down that way. And yes, I have to agree with the folks who brought me -- it is indeed the equivalent of an adult milkshake. Vanilla ice cream is blended with Kamora, rum and cocoa liqueur for something similar to but at the same time entirely unlike a concrete. Thick enough to pass the straw test, yet strong enough to cause blurred vision.

Shaka Shaka Shrimp.
Our group passed around a number of appetizers, giving me the chance to check out many things. Such as the Wild Frickles ($7.50), diagonally sliced Vlassic-style pickles battered and deep fried and served up with an avocado Ranch-style dressing. Very tart, but balanced well against the creaminess of the dip.

Spinach Artichoke Dip.
There’s also the Shaka Shaka Shrimp ($13), deep fried battered shrimp dipped in a spicy sauce. The shrimp are a little salty. The glaze is sweet, and the spice hits you late. I can see how someone could make a meal out of these.

The Spinach Artichoke Dip ($7.50) is pretty good, though very similar to the same dip I’ve had elsewhere. What makes it different is the chips, brightly colored red and green and yellow and very thin.

Tuna Dip.
Another dip, the Tuna Dip ($9.50) contains smoked tuna. It’s heavy on the pickles, but something about smoking the tuna has given the dip a very bacon-y sort of flavor. It’s a real hit, especially served up on those nicely roasted pita chips. A favorite.

Corn Crab Chowder.
I also tried the soup of the day ($4.50 cup, $7.50 bowl). I have to say, the Corn Crab Chowder was really good. It had the consistency of chicken and dumplings. It was thick with lots of corn and shredded crab, with bits of green onion and parsley. This would be a good soup to have right on the beach itself once night falls.

The Wipeout Burger with Hangout Spuds.
Now, being at the coast, you’d think all you really want to have is seafood. Well, there’s something on the menu at The Hangout you need to try, and that’s the burger. The place offers two -- the Hang Ten Burger ($9.50) and the Wipeout Burger ($13.50). The latter is just a two-patty version of the former.

The Wipeout Burger.
Hangout Spuds.
Each patty is half a pound served up on a toasted yellow bun, served up with lettuce, tomato, pickle and onion on the side. Ketchup and mustard squeeze bottles are already on the table; mayo or any other dressing comes by request. You can also get your burger with one of five cheeses (American, Swiss, Spicy Jack, Cheddar Cheese or Bleu Cheese Crumbles), mushrooms, fried jalapenos, applewood smoked bacon, or onion straws for a dollar more.

They’re served with Hangout Spuds, house-made thick sliced potato chips with a sweet-salty spice. It’s a big fat burger and it’s tasty.

Then there’s dessert. The one you’ll find on the menu is The Sand Pile ($6.50), the traditional brownie a la mode. The Hangout’s version is very rich, a very decadent thick brownie with nuts. There are also nuts served over the top of the sundae.

Fried Honeybun.
The one you won’t find but will have to ask for is the Fried Honeybun, a scary dessert that doesn’t even appear on the menu. It’s a honeybun fried in butter, then drizzled with chocolate sauce and served with a scoop of ice cream. It is so sweet, yet somehow so addictive. We’re talking Hostess-style honeybun… you could likely replicate the experience at home, but high-fat concentration desserts like this should be served with plenty of spoons and plenty of friends to share with -- a true “dare ya” sort of dessert.

The Hangout in the 50s.
The Hangout in the 60s.
The Hangout has long roots. Back in the 50s and 60s it was an open air hangout where kids could shoot the breeze, play pinball or arcade games, guzzle down nickel root beer and munch on quarter hamburgers. But it faded away. Two years ago, its new owners debuted this most recent incarnation.

Does it succeed? From the crowd I saw, yes. Though it was a Sunday night there were plenty of people on the beach out front when we arrived, and there was a good group when we left, sharing stories around a fire-lit area and listening to a young man and his guitar. Five young folks were playing hacky sack and one young man was dabbling in foam from the foam machine. The Hangout really does soak up its heritage and serve it well. I’m looking forward to my next visit.

You can find out more information on The Hangout's website.

The gift shop.

The Hangout on Urbanspoon