Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Cheese dip countdown.

THE FAMOUS:  Stobys Cheese Dip
  • THE FAMOUS: Stoby's Cheese Dip
We’re just eleven days away from an inaugural event that could cement Arkansas on the culinary map, no joke. This morning I sat down and had a chat with Nick Rogers and John McClure to talk about the upcoming World Championship Cheese Dip Competition. (An important note: For those who want to enter the contest, the deadline is Thursday and quickly approaching).
As all good conversations are wont to do, we wandered over the landscape of Arkansas culinary history and the merits and demerits of publicizing events around these parts. I did ask a few questions, though, that you might have been searching out the answers to.
I also have my own thoughts on the subject of cheese dip, and why this event is so damn important. That you can read about over on Tie Dye Travels. More on my morning meeting, on the jump.

MILKY WAY:  Casa Mananas fabulous white cheese dip
  • MILKY WAY: Casa Manana's fabulous white cheese dip
I asked Nick straight out, did the idea of having this championship competition spring up from the documentary? “It put it in my head. I guess I was just the first person to actually decide to do it.” And as far as I can tell, he’s right. I’ve never seen a cheese dip competition outside of the category offered in theTimes’ Best of Arkansas poll, yet I know the value of those placards proclaiming a restaurant’s cheesy entry to be the best of all comers in our state.
THICK, NOT SPICY:  Cactus Jacks offering
  • THICK, NOT SPICY: Cactus Jack's offering
Thing is, this World Championship Cheese Dip Competition wouldn’t be happening here and now except for some serendipity. “Sponsorship’s been a big thing. Velveeta and Rotel are getting together for this national cheese dip campaign. They’re planning to introduce cheese dip to the non-cheese-dip-speaking world.” Apparently Nick’s timely documentaryand tenacity got the two food heavyweights into the ring together and over to our side as the state where all this can start off. And really — can you think of better sponsors? I can’t.
FLAVORFUL TRIO:  Cheese dip stars in The Cowpens Chip-n-Dip
  • FLAVORFUL TRIO: Cheese dip stars in The Cowpen's Chip-n-Dip
But is this a one-time effort or what? “Hopefully, it will get bigger and better than ever next year,” Nick told me.
John chimed in. “Next year we’re going to promote regionally and nationally.”
“We hope to encourage innovators,” Nick added. I can see how that would work. We talked for a bit about how an influx of talent from other states might encourage new varieties of cheese dip — for instance, crab-infused dip from Rhode Island; new cheeses from Wisconsin; maybe even tofu-cheese dip from California.
This year’s group could spark that innovation. There are already some 50-odd chefs and individuals signed up to compete this year — and applications to enter are still being accepted. There are 100 slots open for the competition — and it’ll be divided into two categories — professional and amateur. By having it open to everyone, we might get some really neat things out there.
WITH BEEF:  Fabys offers its thick white dip with add-ins
  • WITH BEEF: Faby's offers its thick white dip with add-ins
“Cheese dip is so loosely defined. You can add your own spices,” Nick told me. He’s really excited about this. If you’ve seen his documentary, In Queso Fever, you understand why. His research is what has really pinned the origins of cheese dip to Arkansas, all the way back to the 1930s when a Mexican immigrant started serving up the concoction at a Hot Springs restaurant. Go watch the movie, if you haven’t already seen it. Seriously.
John concurs on the idea of cheese dip creation. “There’s no just one way to do cheese dip. Everyone has their own method of preparation, their own spices.”
NOT DIP:  Buffalo Grills Flats are dip on chips, or nachos
  • NOT DIP: Buffalo Grill's Flats are dip on chips, or nachos
So what can you expect if you go to the event at Dickey-Stephens October 9th? John says “there are going to be dozens of cheese dips to try, eight different live music acts to listen to. We’ll have the Hogs game on the big screen. There will be a safe area for the kids to play, and beer and drinks for sale.”
The schedule’s going up later this week on the event’s website. It’s not a whole lot — a $5 donation will get you in the gate, a $10 donation gets you membership in the Southern Cheese Dip Academy and voting rights. And if you go you can watch the Hog game on the big screen at Dickey-Stephens. Can’t beat that with a stick.

Why Cheese Dip Is Important.

If you haven’t watched Nick Rogers’s documentary on the Arkansas origins of cheese dip, you should. We talked about this a while back when the documentary first came out, and I think it bears re-watching, especially where I’m about to go.

This photo isn’t from Arkansas. It’s from Terlingua, TX, from the World Championship Chili Cookoff by the Chili Appreciation Society International (which I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to compete in on the local level). Thousands of people come out to enjoy this nationally recognized competition each year -- to compete and see who has the best chili. It’s a Big Deal.

There are all sorts of competitions for this and that across the United States -- and these contests tend to be regionally focused. You’re going to find who has the best Key Lime Pie in the Florida Keys, right? The best barbecue in Memphis. The best this and that wherever. But what has Arkansas laid claim to?

Well, we do have the whole foods -- the melons, the rice, the peaches, the PurpleHull peas. Magnolia hosts an annual World Championship Steak Cookoff that’s gained some renown. I personally have advocated that pies may be one of our state’s greatest food assets -- but that’s my own personal opinion. And recently I’ve waxed on about the Arkansas Reuben.

But really, when you come down to it, Nick’s research into the origins of cheese dip trump it all. And no one’s really challenging his theory that cheese dip originated with Blackie Donnelly and Mexico Chiquito in the 1930s. I don’t date back that far myself, but I can recall cheese dip being part of my life from my earliest age. The friends I have that grew up in Arkansas all recall cheese dip as something special they’d have, whether at a restaurant or at home made from Velveeta and Rotel on the stove (and later in the microwave) -- this is a memory that not all of my out-of-state-born friends share.

So, cheese dip is from Arkansas. Well, what are we going to do about it? That’s the thing. We should promote it. I mean, really, every time I ask the question of Facebook fans “what’s the state food of Arkansas?” I get answers like catfish (from Mississippi), chocolate gravy (the Ozarks), cathead biscuits (well, they may have me there, but I’m still researching this) and such. Few foods fit the bill. For instance, the cheese-filled hot dog apparently was born in North Little Rock -- but when’s the last time you ate one? Atkins has a very good claim to being the birthplace of the fried pickle, but other states debate this. There’s Grapette outta Camden (that’s worthy of another story sometime), muscadine wine, pulled beef and pork barbecue served with slaw on a sandwich, mayhaw jelly, rice with sugar, sassafras tea, possum pie and Yarnell’s Ozark Black Walnut ice cream. But none of these have the power of cheese dip.

Why’s that? Well, almost everything on that list can be traced somewhere else in some form or fashion. There are other grape sodas; other people eat slaw with their barbecue and you can find mayhaws in Louisiana. Native Americans all over the South and Midwest have been using that great sassafras tree for generations and anyone with a recipe can whip up a possum pie. And while Yarnell’s is the only one doing Black Walnut as an ice cream flavor now (as far as I know) that could change.

Check out the event’s website… it has more information you really should see.
It’s the history. It’s the fact that until my generation you really didn’t see much cheese dip (and we’re talking cheese dip, not chili con queso like they have out west with meat in it) outside of Arkansas. What we consider to be a natural part of our dietary consumption today just isn’t considered so elsewhere. Trust me -- when I asked some of the folks in Door County, WI if they ever had cheese dip at a party, I got weird looks and a “why the heck would you do that?” reaction.

More importantly, it’s the timing of things. I sat down with Nick Rogers and John McClure to talk about this event coming up, the First Annual World Cheese Dip Competition. It’s going to be held at Dickey-Stephens Ballpark starting at noon on October 9th. They’ve already pulled in half of the competitors they expect to participate in the big to-do -- more than 50 restaurants and individuals who are going to compete to see who’s got the best cheese dip around.

Thing is, it couldn’t have come at a better time. Velveeta and Rotel are getting together -- they’re getting a national campaign going to celebrate cheese dip. There are a lot of dollars involved, a whole lot of publicity. And thanks to Nick and John that attention is going to be focused raht cheer on the Greater Little Rock Metropolitan Area. Folks are going to see what we’re really all about here.

There are two categories -- one for professional chefs and restaurants, another for individuals like you and me that might have a pretty good recipe they want to try out. These folks are going to sit their booths up along the concourse at Dickey-Stephens and serve up samples of cheese dip to the thousands expected to attend. And it’s not all that expensive -- a $5 donation for the average Joe, or $10 if you want to join The Southern Cheese Dip Academy and have some voting power to determine the winners. Those winners have a lot of prizes they’re going to want to take home -- the specially made platter-trophies by Arkansas artist Julie Holt, the prize money, the trip to represent Arkansas in the New Orleans Road Food Festival. It’s a big deal.

Which brings me back to Terlingua. I have yet to go. I want to go. Every time I participate in a CASI sponsored chili cookoff I thumb through the photo albums of pictures taken by my fellow chili-chefs and gawk at the fun and debauchery set out on a windy Texas plain in November. It looks like the best tailgating weekend you’ve ever had, combined with a weekend sleepover or road rally, a gigantic sea of people from every walk of life who share this one common interest.

Thing is, that many people traveling that far -- that’s a whole lot of money there, money spent on lodging, on food at local restaurants, on supplies at local grocery stores and on souvenirs from local shops. And we could have that here.

That is, if it catches on. And I think there’s a good possibility the World Cheese Dip Competition will. I can see in a few years entrants coming from the big cheese states like Wisconsin, from France and Switzerland, from South America and all over Mexico to compete. I could see regional head-to-head action and bragging rights from our favorite restaurants. The subliminal cheese dip culture could come to the surface in a really big way.

So I’m urging you to check out the event. I’m even taking time away from my normal weeklong sojourn at the Arkansas State Fair just to spend the evening among the masses, listening to music and watching the Hogs play and sampling all those different dips. I’m very excited about the whole thing.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Fiesta at Dickey-Stephen.

HOT PORK:  Slow marinated on a vertical rotisserie
  • HOT PORK: Slow marinated on a vertical rotisserie
Went out tonight to the big to-do at Dickey-Stephens Ballpark, where the Mexican Restaurant Association held a special customers’ reception. Tickets were free (as I mentioned last week) and there were bunches of folks out there.
Wandered out there with photographer Leif Hassell to check out what was being served. We noticed right off the back that the event was already pretty steeped in Arkansas politics, with Blanche Lincoln working the crowds. Leif went off in search of great shots while I went to sample the food.
Error on my part, of course — I was thinking that the food would be similar to what I usually get when I go to a Mexican restaurant. What we encountered was much more ethnic in nature and included a fair amount of pork.
Not that I’m complaining — I went out to report, not to eat, though a fair amount of consumption did occur. I was a little disappointed when I saw the mole being served up — but Leif told me no biggie, it was all right but not spectacular. I had to pass on a pork barbicoa, pork tacos and the cracklin’ sandwiches, too.
No kidding — cracklin’ sandwiches, or as was explained to me, chicarrones, pieces of pork rind folded into a roll with pico de gallo and avocado. The good folks from El Porton actually made me up one without the fried pork skin, though I did get a few odd looks. I’m certain it was quite different with the salty, crunchy goodness but the pico was deliciously hot and nicely balanced against the avocado.
We also found a gentleman stirring up a gigantic cauldron of fish stew, which apparently was taking some time to get going. That’s all right — by close to 7pm a few of the vendors had already run out of food and this would ensure there were more for latecomers, since the gates were scheduled to be open until around 9:30 p.m.
Leif told me hands-down his favorite was the tacos al pastor, shredded pork tacos served up straight off the rotisserie. He told me the magnificent balance of lime and pineapple in the flavor was well done. The meat for these was spun on a vertical rotisserie, like a shawarma or the contraption you see lamb meat on when it’s cooking for gyros. The scent was intoxicating.
I seriously dug on the cheese enchiladas — big hunks of white Mexican cheese melted quesadilla-style in red soaked tortillas then topped with lettuce and a little hot sauce. I coulda eaten a dozen.
We both agreed that the churros were the best, the little pastries very warm and dipped in the cinnamon sugar mix only when we came up. Fabulous.
We also saw what appeared to be the tallest cake I have ever seen in person. That's right — that figure-topped monolith's a cake. Well, some of it. One lady explained that much of it was made from Rice Krispies. Still... that' pretty impressive.
The festivities are all part of the Mexican Restaurant Association Conference, which continues through Wednesday in North Little Rock. A mariachi band was playing a good deal of the time, and it got people in the mood to dance and bop along to the beat. Restauranteurs from all over the nation are in town to learn about things from each other and the like. It’s a grand opportunity that the city of North Little Rock seems to be making its best effort to court for a return trip. The weather was absolutely perfect and the crowds weren’t overbearing.
The conference continues. For more information, check out the group’s website.
Oh, and Christie — I didn't see Guy Fieri. But others say he was there. Anyone got the official word?

Opulent breakfast at Lulav.

QUIET BREAKFAST:  Youd think itd be busier
  • QUIET BREAKFAST: You'd think it'd be busier
For a place that’s getting a lot of national recognition thanks to what’s going on with its chef, you’d think Lulav would be packed during business hours. Instead, I found it quite empty at 8:30 on a Monday morning. Just one other customer was seated when I came through the doors, looking to add yet another breakfast to my research.
I thought I was done with this. I had tackled Little Rock first while gathering breakfasts. But I saw the ads come up for Lulav’s breakfast last month. Please understand, I wasn’t holding anything against the restaurant (or the other restaurant nearby that’s also started serving breakfast recently); it’s just… well, you eat 70 restaurant breakfasts over a short amount of time and see how you feel.
I’d been urged to go, though, and I figured I should, especially since the boss said I should. So I did. And that’s how I came to be sitting among the opulent décor at Lulav on a Monday morning. I even knew I was going to go for that Mediterranean Eggs Benedict ($12) — I’d already looked at the menu before I got there and by goodness, that was what I was gonna eat.
But then the chef threw me a curveball.
My waitress came out and let me know that the kitchen was out of lump crab meat. Now, I coulda gone with another choice, but she said the chef offered to make the same dish but with shrimp instead. I could go for that. So I did.
I sipped my orange juice (coffee, like eggs, has become tiresome for me with this assignment) and relaxed. This was going to be the one part of my day that I didn’t have to rush, so I was going to enjoy it. I watched people and cars pass by outside the windows, overexposed in the bright sunshine. Cool jazz and downtempo tunes urged me to sit back in the richly draped chair I’d perched on. I mentally noted design elements that, if I had the money, I’d duplicate myself at home.
And I was so ready when my dish arrived. It smelled fantastic. It looked like a work of art. I thought the cheery pink of the Creole-ized Hollandaise sauce was perky against the white of the plate, the twin discs of English muffin, the super-white of the fluffy poached egg and the gold and brown tones of the hash browns. The pink shrimp perched on top, not quite obscured by the sauce, unconcerned for the fate that awaited them. Well, they are cooked shrimp, what do you expect?
After my customary round of photos, I hesitantly took a bite. The poached eggs were very, very fluffy in their whites, the yolks somehow perfect goldenrod ovoids barely under the surface. A slight press of my fork and one of the yolks burst, smearing the perfect egg-yellow paint across my plate and reminding me of the tempura colors monks used to illuminate manuscripts in Medieval times. The pliant yet still slightly chewy English muffin absorbed some of the yolk; I cut into one piece and used it to dab up some yolk and sauce and tried it.
And this dish… this dish reminded me of why it is I like eggs. I have had eggs so many ways these past few months — fried in butter, fried in lard, scrambled, over easy, over hard, over medium, in French toast, on muffins, boiled, poached, in umpteen omelets. I’ve grown so tired of eggs I’ve lamented that I will never eat another egg again. But something about how perfectly cooked these eggs were, combined with the firm muffin and a sauce that from its pinkness I knew the chef had rendered in an effort to make the best of the ingredients he had… it restored my faith in breakfast, in the delicious chicken-produced orbs I used to love. One bite, and I could eat eggs all over again.
I think my sigh of contentment disturbed the one other diner, who glanced up and folded away his newspaper before taking a drink of what I assumed was coffee.
I took a forkful of the hash browns and found another friend. The hint of smoky cheese did not in the least obscure the perfectly cooked potato strings. The rosemary and coarse salt starred and danced in these hash browns, and I found myself thinking “how could anyone slather these in ketchup?” to myself. Salty and savory and so very different from the other star on the plate, I found myself trying to dissect the method so I could reconstruct them at home.
The shrimp? Tender and well cooked. Chef must be doing something really right, taking a dish that would normally be more pale white with Danish Hollandaise and lump crabmeat and improvising out something just as grand if not moreso. My only regret is that this variation is not on the regular menu. I’d so order it again.
Just one other customer entered while I was there, and the place was almost eerily still. In many ways, I felt like I’d been allowed to dine in a fancy restaurant on my own. Well, I was, I guess, even if it wasn’t anyone else’s design. Can’t imagine why there weren’t more diners — unless folks just don’t know Lulav does breakfast yet.
There’s a lot more on that menu I want to try. For instance, the Swiss Alpen ($7) with its rosemary cherry tomatoes, field mushrooms, zucchini and Gruyere… sounds magnificent. I’d really considered having that with the LULAV Signature Parfait ($5) instead — the idea of that honeyed granola, berries and walnuts and yogurt sounded delightful. It was really a toss of the coin there.
And there are other things to note on the menu — like the pork medallions in the cranberry reduction and the Italian Job with its proscuitto and three Italian cheeses (Asiago, Pecorino, and Parmigiano Reggiano). And raspberry pancakes — never had any of those, want to, though.
Anyway, Lulav is located at 220 West 6th Street in downtown Little Rock. Breakfast is served from 6:30 to 10 a.m. Monday through Friday. It’s worth checking out. (501) 374-5100 or at the restaurant'swebsite.

Friday, September 24, 2010

The Arkansas Reuben.

TYPICAL EXAMPLE:  Boomerangs Reuben
  • TYPICAL EXAMPLE: Boomerang's Reuben
I encountered it again last week… another Reuben sandwich on an Arkansas menu. It’s not an uncommon occurrence — happens to me all the time. The varieties are interesting, though.
This particular Reuben was discovered at Boomerang’s in Fort Smith — a limited chain with some Oklahoma outlets. I went there back in July to write up the burger. The sliced corned beef is served up on buttered rye with a drizzling of Russian dressing. The shredded sauerkraut is pasted to one side of the bread with Swiss cheese. All the necessary ingredients are there, and it’s pretty decent. It’s called the Real Reuben Sandwich and it’ll run you $5.39 plus tax.
GRILLED HARMONY:  Reuben at Johnny Bs
  • GRILLED HARMONY: Reuben at Johnny B's
MARBLED RYE:  Somethings Brewings Reuben
  • MARBLED RYE: Something's Brewing's Reuben
You can get a “Ruben” at Jack’s Pancake and Waffles with fries for $7.95, an “Ozark Style Reuben” with a side item for $5.99 at Ozark Country Restaurant, a “Rueben” sandwich basket for $6.25 at Red Oak Fillin Station or a “Rueben” at the Country Gossip in Stuttgart for $5.50. A single Reuben is $4.95 at the Log Cabin Restaurant outside of Rogers. The Grilled Reuben comes with French fries and cole slaw for $7.95 at Atkins International Café. At Myrtie Mae’s in Eureka Springs you can get a Reuben, Reuben (so good they named it twice) for $5.95. And it’s grilled in El Dorado at Johnny B’s, $4.99 on its own or another 99 cents for fries.
CHIPPED CORNED BEEF: Cabots Southfork Grills unusual take
  • CHIPPED CORNED BEEF: Cabot's Southfork Grill's unusual take
And some are different. Susan’s Restaurant in Springdale serves its Reuben ($6.29) without dressing. So does Eureka Springs’ Local Flavor Café, where the Classic Reuben will run you $8.50 — and at Mud Street Café, but there the sandwich comes on Bohemian Rye. Dr. Baker’s Extraordinary Bistro and Sky Bar at the 1886 Crescent Hotel serves theirs up on pumpernickel.
  • RECONSTRUCTED REUBEN: Cregeen's Airlift
At Southfork Grill in Cabot it’s chipped corned beef grilled up on marbled rye, served on marbled rye with potato chips and a pickle spear for $6.25 (you pay a little more for those sweet potato fries). Izzy’s in Little Rock calls theirs “Rueben (The Original)” and serve it up with Muenster instead of Swiss Cheese along with chips for $6.19. You can get it at Anne’s Country Café in Pine Bluff with Prime Rib horseradish sauce for $5.25. Cregeen’s Irish Pub even offers what is essentially a fried Reuban-esque creation called The Airlift — balls of corned beef deep fried and served up with a Russian-kraut dressing.
YOU CAN FIND ONE ANYWHERE:  Even with frog legs
  • YOU CAN FIND ONE ANYWHERE: Even with frog legs
So why is it so pervasive? Why is it that you can find a Reuben almost anywhere? I joke that 90 percent of non-ethnic restaurants in Arkansas serve a version of the sandwich… it’s more likely about 75% but there are days I really wonder. Why’s it there? What makes it so tasty to Arkansans? And what are its origins? These are questions I ask myself on a regular basis.
And while I’m at it, I want to know what’s your favorite Reuben? Where do you get it?

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Slow Road.

I’ve been all over the state, driving highways and byways from Sulphur Springs to Lake Village and Texarkana to Paragould these past few months. I’ve seen crazy names for barbecue places, unusual road signs, people who may or may not know how to drive, you name it. But I certainly didn’t expect to find what I found north of Cedarville.
David Backlin has more recent photos of Arkansas Highway 220 here.  Take a look.
Grav and I were on our way to Fayetteville for the first home game of the season. We were gathering research on the tailgating phenomenom and needed some great stories and excellent photographs. But being around noon and the game not being until six, we decided to go ahead and have lunch at a place called Imajerk BBQ there in Cedarville.

Lunch was good and we were geared up for what we expected to just be an hour or less on the road. We consulted the TomTom and decided rather than taking Highway 59 all the way up to Tontitown, we’d be better off heading up Highway 220 and going through Devil’s Den State Park. TomTom cheerfully told us we’d be at our destination at 3:05pm.

The road seemed pretty decent, though the “Curvy Steep Road Ahead, Use Low Gear” signs told us it’d be a pretty thrilling ride. We swept down into one valley and out across another, cheerfully chattering on about what sort of Hog fans we might encounter.

We came to this beautiful bridge across Lee Creek and *whomp* suddenly hit gravel. The road had very quickly gone from asphalt to barely above dirt without as much as a “how do you do.” I pulled to the side quickly and consulted the TomTom, which could only offer me two bits of information: “Some portions of highway may be unpaved” and “Acquiring Signal.”

Well, always being up for an adventure, we decided to press on. And at first, it was a nice respite. Highway 220 curves back and forth through some of the most desolate stretches of forest in the Ozarks, with ridges and drop-offs and lots of flora and fauna. We even saw a few deer.

A few miles up the road we came to a single lane low-water crossing, got halfway across and came to a quick stop. The view of the short bluffs under the canopy of trees over the dark blue-brown water below was breathtaking, and Grav had to jump out to take pictures. I reminded him that we needed to make haste and get to Fayetteville.

Well, let me tell you what -- there was no haste to be made. There were few road signs, no highway markers, no help from TomTom and a gradual disintegration of the roadbed surface. Four-wheelers passed us in the other direction several times. We pulled to the side to let a dooley pass and wondered just how much further we were going to have to travel.

And yet through the whole portion of the trip we were marveling at the sheer beauty of it all, the intertwined trees above, the floor of the woodland, the stones that would jut out from the roadbed and caused us to do crazy maneuvers to miss them. We both agreed how great it would be to be able to stop and photograph it all -- the temperature was perfect, the lighting sublime, the afternoon perfectly lazy.

But we had an assignment to carry out, and concern smacked us over whether we would get there in time. So we pressed on, for the most part. There were a few instances we had to pause -- including one place where the deer were standing right by the road and didn't spook when we drove right up by them. Even in our haste, we had to momentarily stop and shoot.

The road started to improve, and a couple of SUVs came our way. We made it about a half mile further and came into the horse camp area of Devil’s Den State Park. A few hundred yards later we both cheered as tires hit asphalt once again.

We did manage to make it to Fayetteville on time, but decided to forgo a return trip via Highway 220. Later I’d discover that the road is Arkansas’ only unpaved highway. I do wonder if it would be wise to do an upgrade. The equipment needed to pave the road might damage an almost pristine forest in all its glory. One day I’ll go back and take my time, as much time as it should take to look at 220 right.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Country time at the Ozark Family Restaurant.

PINEAPPLE PANCAKES:  Unusual but tasty
  • PINEAPPLE PANCAKES: Unusual but tasty
I don’t believe I could have survived a confrontation unscathed if I’d missed checking out the Ozark Country Restaurant in my quest for a great breakfast. Any breakfast conversation in Central Arkansas has started with a volley of suggestions to try the famed smokehouse off Cantrell Road. I knew, though, that I’d have to bring a friend to save me from what I worried would be an all-pork bistro of dining.
I’m glad to say I was wrong. I found exactly what I wanted right off the bat — and it didn’t involve bacon, ham, pork chops or sausage. It did involve the only pineapple pancakes I’ve found on my state-wide search, though, which didn’t bother me at all.
Grav and I went over there on a Sunday morning with Hunter in tow. It was early enough we were able to get a table right away. One look at the menu, and we both grinned — among the drink selections are Post Concord Grape and Muscadine juices. We chose the muscadine, of course.
I saw the list of pancake types, and mentally ran through places where I’d had each variety: buttermilk (Momma’s Kitchen in Clarksville), pecan (Jack’s Pancake and Steak House in Hot Springs), sweet potato (Benson’s Grill in Ft. Smith), chocolate chip (Front Page Café in Jonesboro), blueberry (Myrtie Mae’s and Mud Street Café in Eureka Springs) and banana (Pancake Shop in Hot Springs) — but not pineapple. I don’t think I’ve ever seen pineapple pancakes, anywhere. Yeah, I had to try them.
Grav didn’t have a choice. I’d already told him he was getting the Ozark Country Breakfast ($8.99) and that was final. So he ordered his with eggs over easy and with peppered bacon. And when it all came out, he had himself a biscuit on one end of the plate, a bowl of gravy on the other, his eggs in the center and his bacon on the side, perched on top of a big pile of home fries. It looked pretty spectacular.
Thing is, there was something missing — salt. Everything he tried that morning seemed to be under-salted. Not that he was complaining — he just reached for the salt shaker time and time again with the gravy and the eggs and the potatoes. I even tried a little of his biscuit, and it seemed just a tiny bit flat. Strange.

But the item the smokehouse is known for, was done quite well. Grav raved on the bacon, even offered some to me before hurriedly taking back the offer with an apology. Said he was sad I couldn’t try it. And it looked good, with lots of bacon and brine to it. He said it was somewhat sweet and nicely salted and peppered. Very nice.
So, back to those pineapple pancakes (all pancakes, by the way, are $4.99). They were huge, three of them, turned second-side-down so you saw the pineapple chunks instead of the nice uniform brown side. They were… well, my first impression without any butter or syrup was that they were just like biting into a pineapple upside down cake, just a bit less sweet. I could eat them by themselves. Hunter did — reaching over and stabbing my stack with a fork and ripping away a bite before I could stop her. I watched her reaction closely, but all she gave me as far as a clue 
was to reach over and stab me in the hand as she reached for more pancake. Well, I guess she liked them.
As much as I liked them separately, I loved them with butter and a little real butter on them. They were very good, very filling, and even though Hunter and I (and even Grav, spurred by his own curiosity) tackled the stack with gusto we still left half a pancake behind.
We didn’t stick around too long — as we ate, the place had really filled up around us and there was a line at the door. Ozark Country Restaurant has a reputation that precedes it, and people come out religiously to eat there. And I can see why. But I do wonder if some items are seasoned for an older, less-sodium-tolerant crowd. Then again, how could I not like a place that serves muscadine juice with breakfast?
You’ll find Ozark Country Smokehouse right behind the strip mall on the northeast corner of Cantrell and Mississippi. It’s open every day at 6:30 a.m. for breakfast and stays open until 1:30 p.m. during the week and 2 p.m. on the weekends. (501) 663-7319.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Breakfast at the Red Oak Fillin Station.

CONVENIENCE & MORE:  Cheese omelet at Red Oak Fillin Station
  • CONVENIENCE & MORE: Cheese omelet at Red Oak Fillin Station
I like recommendations. I’ve been asking for quite a few lately, and my Facebook fans have been very receptive and generous with theirs.
*By the way, did you know there’s now an Eat Arkansas Facebook fan page? Go check it out!
I recently asked for breakfast recommendations for Hot Springs, and several readers suggested I try out the Red Oak Fillin Station. Now, first off, it sounded like a convenience store to me. Second, I’d never been there. But I was willing to get up early-early one morning and get down to Hot Springs to check it out. And I’m kinda glad I did — because the place isn’t quite what I expected.
Now, yes, technically it is a filling station. There’s a couple of pumps out front. And it’s a convenience store, because you can get all those things like drinks and cigarettes and motor oil and Little Debbie snack cakes there.
But when you walk through the door it’s a little different. There are several dining room style tables and chairs set up around the south side of the room, and short bar stools at a wall counter, and a menu. And sit-down service — that surprised me.
As I said, I got up very early one Tuesday morning to head down to Hot Springs. The sun came up while I was out on the bypass, and I carefully found my way down Carpenter Dam Road with a blazing sunrise coming up. I pulled in and looked around a little and walked on in to the counter — where I was told to go sit down, someone would be right with me.
A young man came and brought me a menu, and I looked through the offerings. The menu claimed it was an “Old Fashioned Good Food Menu.” That’s setting a high standard. The breakfast menu contained pretty much the standards I’ve seen all over the state — flapjacks, omelets, ham and bacon and sausage and biscuits and gravy — though the listing for Pigs in a Blanket ($1.09 each) caught my eye.
I was hungry, and I just wanted something simple, so I went with the Red Oak Omelet #1, a cheese omelet with taters and toast for $5:25. My waiter brought me some iced tea and I sat down to wait.
There were a couple of young men sitting at the bar alongside the window, drinking sodas out of bottles and chatting away about some sort of domestic squabble one of them was having with his wife. I looked around and noticed the giant elk head above me. There’s all sorts of strange taxidermy inside, over the John Deere green and tin roof décor. It’s… well, it sets the scene.
Didn’t take long to get my order together. The cheese omelet was both stuffed and topped with Cheddar cheese, folded envelope-style, a little fluffy but more on the flat side. The Cheddar was overwhelming, but I like Cheddar so that was fine with me. Toast was… toast. What can you say?
But I really liked the taters. They were cut up home-style, irregular chunks that had been either baked or cooked without turning in a skillet. They had a nice crust to one side of them, crunchy and substantial, that was quite tasty. The liberal use of salt and pepper meant I didn’t have to add any myself. And the tea? It was strong.
I did look through the rest of the menu, and decided one of these days I’d make an afternoon of it and come back for lunch and a trip to nearby Garvan Woodland Gardens (about a mile to the north). There’s a 12 ounce Ram Burger that looks interesting, and a grilled black Angus steak sandwich. Of course there’s a Reuben. They also offer things like smothered chicken and fried catfish on their dinner menu — and there’s fried squash, corn nuggets and something called a Bosco stick on the appetizers list.
And they have a Frito chili pie — that’s worth checking out any time.
You’ll find the Red Oak Fillin Station south of Garvan Woodland Gardens on Carpenter Dam Road south of Hot Springs. (501) 262-0400. And they have a Facebook fan page.
Red Oak Fillin Station on Urbanspoon