Thursday, March 31, 2011

Miss Rhoda has pie, too.

You know, sometimes the best things come in small packages. The best pies don’t always come in an eight or nine inch pie shell. And you’re just as likely to find a good pie at a hole in the wall restaurant as at a five-star eatery.

At Rhoda’s Famous Hot Tamales in Lake Village, those pies come in tart shells. But they pack just as much of a punch as a slice of a big pie.
Now, you can order a big full-size pie from Miss Rhoda, if you like. But if you’re just dropping in for a hot plate lunch or a coffee can full of tamales, the little pies will do you just fine.
That’s just what we did on our way down to New Orleans last week. My traveling companion and I left Little Rock extra early to pick up a few assignments here and there.

We arrived at Rhoda’s right around lunchtime and the joint was packed. The parking lot was packed. There were people sitting outside to eat and a line inside the door. That’s how good those tamales are.

We’d already eaten once that day (and you’ll find out more about that meal soon) but had saved just enough room for the pie we were there to check out. Seeing the little pies on the counter was a relief; no oversized slices here. Best of all, each pie was a buck.

I almost got the one little half-and-half pie of the bunch, a pecan-and-sweet-potato beauty. But what sort of service would that have been to you? I have to try them all out and make sure I recommend the best one of the lot.

We tried three of the pies -- the chocolate meringue, the pecan and the sweet potato. The chocolate meringue was a nice filling chocolate custard with a tacky meringue top, sticky and gooey in all the right ways but not fluffy like most meringues. It was tasty, but still not the star of the show. That was so hard to determine. The sweet potato pie has its own renown, and I know why. It’s a firm, not-too-sweet made-from-the-real-deal pie with just a bit of fibrous potato left in the mix. There’s no doubt you’re eating a sweet potato pie when you bite into it.

The crust is supple and buttery. The consistency is firm. The sweetness is measurable. It’s a good filling little pie.

But the real star is the pecan pie -- a rich, deep color custard with a hint of butter and bourbon overtones. It’s meaty and a little cloying, but for its size it’s perfect, bigger than the pie shell goodness.

There’s a depth to each bite, that combination of good Karo-nut syrup and fresh shelled pecans. It’s the not-to-be-missed star of the bunch.

Now all this time we’d been in the restaurant, my photographer had been shooting around, and Miss Rhoda wanted to know why.

We told her it’s what we do, taking photos of food and sharing them with people. She let us shoot the unsteamed tamales all ready to go. She let us shoot around the inside the restaurant. She even posed for us in her kitchen. She’s one hell of a dame, and we owe her some photographs.

Of course we ordered tamales -- we left with a sack of a dozen to take on the road with us. The intention had been to have a sit-down closer on the road to New Orleans. However, a barge had struck the I-20 bridge at Vicksburg, and we were left sitting in a parking lot in Mound, LA waiting to cross.

It was a shade cool, it was late afternoon and the only food in site was a pub on the north side of the interstate and a convenience store on the south. So we dug into the bag, pulled out the paper-wrapped package, tucked it open and pried open the aluminum foil. There we found those sweaty corn-husk-wrapped beauties, steamy and soft, softer than even I’ve ever had them in the store. Lacking the appropriate plastic ware, we took turns pulling out husks and sliding messy fingers along them, pushing out the soft tamales and eating them like, well, like Push-Up orange sherbet pops. I am not afraid to say I sucked the shucks. A roll of paper towels kept us from totally desecrating the interior of the vehicle.

I tell you, I’ve had tamales many places, I’ve had Miss Rhoda’s tamales more than a time or two -- but they never tasted better.

You’ll find Rhoda’s Famous Hot Tamales at 714 St. Mary’s Street in Lake Village, a couple blocks off U.S. 65. I’ve talked about those tamales before and chances are I will again. Now you know you need to try those pies, too. (870) 265-3108.

Rhoda's Famous Hot Tamales on Urbanspoon

Burger joint of the week: Town Pump.

While working on burgers, the biggest question I’ve received from readers is “why haven’t you tried The Town Pump?” And I’ll tell you. I had a misconception about the place.

Monday, March 28, 2011

A weekend in New Orleans.

HUNGRY:  A crowd awaits the completion of the Worlds Longest Oyster PoBoy
  • HUNGRY: A crowd awaits the completion of the World's Longest Oyster Po'Boy
You may or may not have been wondering where I've been off to. I've been in New Orleans for the New Orleans Roadfood Festival. I've learned a lot.
$30 SPANISH HAM:  On a portion of that poboy
Sadly, Dizzy's Gypsy Bistro was unable to attend — for reasons that I may or may not be allowed to share with you, so stay tuned. But I was exposed to different foods from across the United States, impressively good streetfood that should be shared.
CRAWFISH ETOUFEE:  At the New Orleans School of Cooking
  • CRAWFISH ETOUFEE: At the New Orleans School of Cooking
I also got to witness (and consume part of) the World's Longest Oyster Po'Boy Saturday morning, a 300 foot long monster created by 30 New Orleans restaurants. It took an hour to complete and was gone in a minute and a half, consumed by a hungry yet polite crowd. The event was free to everyone who came along.
I've also sampled some of the local cuisine, as always, and witnessed some craziness. When I get back late tonight I'll likely be the only person in town with a sunburn; it was in the 80s here Saturday and Sunday. There will be more tales. Until then, converse amongst yourselves.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Pieday: PCP at Ed and Kay's.

This restaurant has closed.

Do you remember the first time you fell in love? How about with a piece of pie? I've had my share of pies from Ed and Kay's Restaurant down in Benton over the years — and have consumed many a piece of Mile High Pie goodness.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Burger joint of the week: Reno's Argenta Cafe.

ON A ROLL:  Renos Argenta Burger is served on a Kaiser roll
  • ON A ROLL: Reno's Argenta Burger is served on a Kaiser roll
I’ve been taking burger recommendations for some time now (please keep them coming!) and have been waiting for a chance to check this one out in particular.
Reno’s Argenta Café is a great spot for a cold drink and hot music at night. During the day, it’s a nice spot to grab some iced tea and do some people watching from Eric Francis’ favorite booth in the front window. That’s why I’m utterly baffled that I could stop in at 1pm on a Saturday afternoon and be one of only two customers in the place.
Mind you, I was enjoying myself. The front and back doors were open and the ceiling fans were pulling the perfectly cool springtime breeze in. There were a gaggle of girls across the street decorating a vehicle with “Just Married” on it with cups and ribbons. I watched the yellow trolleys go by several times.
That was all after I ordered the Argenta Burger ($6), a half pound burger served up with a choice of cheese (American, Swiss, Cheddar or provolone) and a side item. That burger’s been mythologized by some of our readers here on Eat Arkansas and I had no choice but to consume it in the name of good eating.
The burger comes with a choice of homemade chips, potato salad or pesto pasta — the later of which I chose. You can also get fries for an additional charge. I wasn’t in the mood for fries.
It was a good choice. The pesto pasta is just that — a nice fresh basil-based pesto over bow tie noodles with bits of fresh tomato. It’s very light and that cup’s worth is probably far better for you than any pile of fries could ever be.
The burger, though. Oh, man. It was bright. It was colorful. There was a half-inch thick slice of very deep red tomato on it. Green leaf lettuce. The onions on it were so fresh that my eyes watered when I bit into it. I’d had my choice of mayo, mustard or ketchup on it and had went with mayo and it was plentiful.
The Kaiser roll it was served on was just slightly toasted. And the beef patty — there were these amazing little bits of onion in it. I like that. That’s how I make burgers at home. There was a nice onion and black pepper flavor to the meat, far from overwhelming but very good.
And the char. The char on the patty was perfect for a griddled burger. Though it was cooked medium well, it wasn’t overdone. The meat had nicely caramelized on the griddle, making a light crust that felt just ever so slightly crunchy.
The only thing I could fault the burger on was its tendency to disintegrate. It had come with a toothpick but for research purposes I had cut it in half. All that mayo, that big fat slice of tomato and such make it hard to handle. I got messy. It was worth it. I was even pleased with the Provolone cheese.
So there, Argentanians… I have been to Argenta and had a more than pleasing burger. I have two more to try these next few weeks in your area. Be forewarned.
You’ll find Reno’s Argenta Café at 312 Main Street in North Little Rock. They’re open Monday through Saturday starting at 11 a.m., closing around 11 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 2 a.m. Friday night (Saturday morning) and 1 a.m. Saturday night (Sunday morning). The joint is closed on Sunday. (501) 372-2906.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Breakfast, Lunch and Pie at Ed and Kay's.

This restaurant has closed.

Restaurant longevity is an amazing thing. Most restaurants have about a ten year lifespan, if you average out the start-ups that don’t survive the first year with the standards that keep on going. Longtime restaurants from my childhood such as The Shack, John Barleycorn’s and Casa Bonita are long gone… others like Brown’s Country Store and Restaurant and the Ozark Mountain Smokehouse have seen drops in quality or popularity.

But for more than 50 years now, Ed and Kay’s has been serving up hot breakfasts, filling lunches and great pies in Benton. It’s been in the southernmost Benton curve of I-30 that I can’t remember it not being there (well, I’m not over 50, so that makes sense) and I’ve seen a lot of good meals there. I’ve also had a great deal of fun there.

Years ago, back when I was a television producer, we sent our morning show down to the shop. I can quite clearly recall Kay Diemer telling tales to B.J. Sams, and how one of the pie ladies showed Robyn Richardson how to make that fabulous meringue. I also remember she licked the meringue off a spatula… but I won’t share with you the reaction of a certain pair of television directors over that particular activity.

Pie’s what convinced me to send the show down there in the first place. You’d be hard-pressed to find a taller pie in the state of Arkansas. The meringue is piled on thick and richly on coconut and chocolate meringue pies. They’ve become so famous, some people only know Ed and Kay’s as “the Mile High Pie shop.” And I can see why they say that. A little further down in this article I’ll tell you why I like the Mile High Pies, but why they’re not my favorite pies in the restaurant.

I like going to Ed and Kay’s for breakfast. I’ve had a great number of the breakfasts offered there, but the best one I have ever had was the one I shared with seven of my friends. We were all about to head down to Louisiana for the wedding of two of our friends. Everyone ordered something different. My friend Terri ordered the Kitchen Sink Omelet, just for the heck of it. It’s not really called that, but it might as well be. It’s listed as “Any or All” under the omelet section of the menu, and it’s $9.80. It includes (if you want it all) ham, bacon and sausage; Cheddar, Pepper Jack, American and Swiss cheeses; onions, green bell peppers, black olives, tomatoes, mushrooms and jalapenos. It’s served up with a bowl of cream gravy, fried potatoes and a choice of a pancake, toast or biscuit. It is a remarkably huge and colorful meal. She didn’t finish it. Her husband didn’t finish it, either. It’s just massive.

Me? When I go for breakfast I usually go for the Chicken Fried Steak combo breakfast ($7.80 with two eggs). It’s a nice crispy piece of tenderized beef covered in cream gravy. I usually get mine with a little extra gravy on the side -- the made-from-scratch cream gravy is great on one of Ed & Kay’s fluffy biscuits; I usually take home a biscuit half with gravy to savor later.

What never does make it home are the fried potatoes. They’re available with any meal, and they’re decadent -- julienne-style red potatoes with black pepper and herbs cooked up in butter. Oh, man. Some of my dining companions have chosen to doctor theirs up with ketchup and the like. I prefer mine as they are. So does Hunter, who has loved getting her hands in them since the first time she had them.

There’s also lunch and dinner -- usually a special every day. I’ve had the Hot Roast Beef before, smothered in brown gravy and served up with fried squash and macaroni and cheese. One thing I can always guarantee when I go to Ed and Kay’s… and that’s a lot of food. Side items that swamp the plate. Hot rolls or cornbread with every noontime meal. Generous entrée portions. It’s just good hospitality.

I recently went down to the restaurant with my daughter Hunter. That’s right, just me and a 26 month old toddler with a mind of her own. Right after we got there our waitress already had us set up with a cup of milk with a top on it for her, a drinking straw to get her started.

One of the kids meal options is a plate with several of the day’s “vegetable” options. My daughter knoshed on large portions of macaroni and cheese, green beans and those remarkably good fried potatoes. In fact, she had enough for another meal at home left over. My daughter can eat her weight in fried potatoes… but there’s limits even for her hollow legs.

Me? I went for the daily special, the Chicken Spaghetti plate lunch ($7.50), a big pile of creamy chicken spaghetti casserole with some fried potatoes and some PurpleHull peas… an Arkansas staple that doesn’t get its just due outside the state. It was judiciously warm and hearty, the sort of stick-to-your-ribs dinner that stays with you through the afternoon. I ordered up Texas toast -- as much as I like the jalapeno cornbread, the hot rolls and biscuits, my daughter is in a Texas toast sort of mood. And it was good.

And this is where I get back to the pie. From time to time Ed’s will run a dinnertime special -- meals after 3pm come with a free slice of pie. Doesn’t matter, I’d have ordered pie anyway. And it wasn’t the Mile High coconut or chocolate I ordered, nor the Lemon Meringue or German Chocolate or Fudge. I ordered the PCP -- a pie that’s so good… well. It’s one of the best pies I’ve ever had. It’s pineapple, coconut and pecan. It’s created like a pecan pie but with a pineapple-pecan custard and coconut baked right into the top and crust. It’s a best-of-everything pie, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

A 50 year old diner’s a pretty amazing thing, and if it goes on another 50 years it’ll be even more amazing. I just hope it’s there long enough for Hunter to take her daughter (should she have one) to when she gets to be my age. It’s just one of those Arkansas sort of places you just can’t keep passing up.

You’ll find Ed and Kay’s Restaurant along the westbound service road on the north side of I-30, west of the Sevier Street exit. They start serving up breakfast at 7:30 each morning, Wednesday through Sunday. Don’t bother going on Monday or Tuesday, they won’t be there. (501) 315-3663.

Ed & Kay's Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Neat and cool: Cake pops from This Cake Pops!

MATCHED PAIR:  Wedding cake pops from This Cake Pops!
  • MATCHED PAIR: Wedding cake pops from This Cake Pops!
What’s that there? That, my friends, is the latest craze in the world of desserts. Those are cake pops.
It’s a simple idea… take a ball of cake, cover it in some sort of frosting or fondant and serve it up — a single serving of sweetness just for you, the perfect size to dine on.
The idea has suddenly caught on and spread like wildfire. I noticed this weekend that Starbucks is offering its version. But I can pretty much guarantee they’re not as pretty as these examples from This Cake Pops!, the work of Fort Smith cake pop maker Michelle Tucker. I discovered her work through Details Weddings and Events, which recently hosted a giveaway of the pops. They were so cute, I just had to find out more.
Michelle’s Cake Pops are something else. They come in just about any flavor you want — she does chocolate, yellow, white, red velvet… and somehow, the cake packs a more powerful punch. I tried the red velvet cake version and was blown away by the strong pack of flavor.
They’re also pretty easy on the waistline — if you limit just how many you have. Each cake pop is one point on the Weight Watchers scale. Not bad, not bad.
But the true allure of cake pops is in what you can do with them. Michelle’s been making up some fabulous pops — for instance, Steelers logoed pops for the Super Bowl and heart shaped pops for Valentine’s Day. She makes the cutest Razorback pops with little red razors on the back and the prominent snout. Wedding sets include white pops with pearls and black tie pops. She’s currently whipping up Easter egg pops, which are cute.
And there’s Colton’s Frogs, the little green frog pops named after her son Colton. Considering the age, I had to let Hunter sample this one for me. Of course, she went for the face first. And once she’d consumed the frog she wanted ALL the cake pops. Hunter is obviously a fan.
If you’re interested, these cake pops come $15 for a dozen regular pops and $20 for a dozen deluxe pops (like the Razorback — and those that require a lot more labor in the decoration). I’m thinking they’d be ideal for birthday parties and maybe even wedding favors. They keep in the fridge for up to two weeks… hm… 12 pops over two weeks… (evil food-consumption thoughts go here).
To reach Michelle, give her a call at (501) 920-1351 oremail her. She also has a Facebook fan page to check out.

Todd Gold, other fantastic chefs feted at 2011 Chef Ball

FABULOUS:  Smoked sirloin from Chef Dan Capello at Chefs Ball
  • FABULOUS: Smoked sirloin from Chef Dan Capello at Chefs' Ball
I have been utterly remiss... I should have already been beaming strongly about the Chef Ball this weekend at Pulaski Technical College's main campus. It was, without a doubt, fabulous.
It wasn't just the food — though that was quite incredible. Seriously — venison comfit. Mushroom soup prepared with Grand Marnier. Brown sugar ice cream in meringue. Oh, heavens.
It was also a chance to celebrate the chefs and culinarians of Central Arkansas. On the jump — more about the food and the news release from PTC.
The release:
Pulaski Technical College faculty, staff and students took top honors Sunday night in the 2011 Chef Ball, sponsored by the American Culinary Federation Central Arkansas Chapter.

Todd R. Gold, CEC, CCA, AAC, director of the PTC Arkansas Culinary School Programs, was named Chef of the Year, making him the only chef to receive that honor three times—2003, 2006, and 2010.

The Warren Eyman Memorial Scholarship Student of the Year award went to LaBrilya (Bree) Robinson, a culinary student who works as a prep cook at The Peabody Hotel Little Rock. Jennifer Stoelting, CC, a PTC graduate who works at the Finish Line Cafe as a sous chef, was named Sous Chef of the Year.

Also Chef Robert Best presented Peter Brave, owner of Brave New Restaurant, with the Hall of Fame Award, and staff from the Culinary School surprised Todd Gold with the “Gold Award” for his dedication to the culinary school.

The Formica and Ben E. Keith Culinary Community Service Award went to Rob Best, CEC, culinary faculty at the PTC Arkansas Culinary School and owner of Simply the Best Catering. Rusty Mathis, general manager of Ben E. Keith, presented the award.
Chef Suzanne Campbells Petite Cheese and Tomato Aspic
  • Chef Suzanne Campbell's Petite Cheese and Tomato Aspic was a combination of tart, salty and sweet with candied pecans
All of the winners received standing ovations at the event, which featured a six-course dinner prepared by some of Arkansas’ finest chefs. Gov. Mike Beebe, who attended the event with his wife, Ginger, applauded the chefs as among “the finest in the country.” Celebrity Chef Sam Choy, well-known for his appearance on The Food Network and on Iron Chef America, also spoke to guests about his Hawaiian regional specialties.

Chef Sam Choys beautiful poke salad with ahi tuna with Chef Jamie McAfees fabulous mushroom soup with Grand Marnier -- fantastically good.
  • Chef Sam Choy's beautiful poke salad with ahi tuna with Chef Jamie McAfee's fabulous mushroom soup with Grand Marnier — fantastically good.
Among the specialties guests enjoyed were hors d’ oeuvres prepared by Chef William Ginocchio, CEC, from the PTC Arkansas Culinary School, and an appetizer of Petite Cheese and Tomato Aspic prepared by Chef Suzanne Campbell, CEC, from the PTC Arkansas Culinary School.
Chef Cindy East-Maliks Three Sisters Trout married together masa harina, butternut squash and green beans with fresh trout
  • Chef Cindy East-Malik's Three Sisters Trout married together masa harina, butternut squash and green beans with fresh trout
Chef Sam Choy prepared a poke salad of ahi tuna with fresh vegetables, somen noodles, which was paired with a Creamy Mushroom Soup prepared by Chef Jamie McAfee, CEC of the Pine Bluff Country Club.

PTC Arkansas Culinary School lead instructor Chef Cindy East Malik, CEC prepared the fish course of Trout en Papillote with fresh trout, masa harina, green beans and red peppers baked inside a corn husk.

Chef Dan Capellos deliciously smoked flat iron filet was wonderful with the pickled onion and mushroom salad over salty cheddar grits
  • Chef Dan Capello's deliciously smoked flat iron filet was wonderful with the pickled onion and mushroom salad over salty cheddar grits
Chef Dan Capello of the Chenal Country Club, the reigning Arkansas Diamond Chef, prepared an entrée of smoked beef flat iron with cheddar grits, with bacon-wrapped asparagus and pickled mushroom salad.
We werent really sure what to make of Chefs Poirot and Epplings meringue at first; what we assumed was butterscotch turned out to be brown sugar ice cream
  • We weren't really sure what to make of Chefs Poirot and Eppling's meringue at first; what we assumed was butterscotch turned out to be brown sugar ice cream
For dessert, Peabody Chefs Andre Poirot and Heidi Eppling prepared a pastry of light meringue filled with ice cream and chocolate ganache.

Gold sponsors for the event were Ben E. Keith company and Glazer’s Distributors of Arkansas. Special thanks go to Celebrity Chef Sam Choy, Governor Mike Beebe, Pulaski Technical College, Party Time Rentals, Floral Express, Chenal Country club, Finish Line Café, Big Rock Bistro, Peabody Hotel, Lisa Fischer, Sysco Foods, Kenneth Lipsmeyer. U.S. Foodservice, Pulaski Technical College Arkansas Culinary School.

Tracy Courage
Communications/Special Events Manager

Office of Public Relations and Marketing
Pulaski Technical College

O.W. Pizza expands selections.

This restaurant has closed.

I mentioned recently that O.W. Pizza’s been undergoing some changes. The location out at The Ranch on Highway 10’s been closed and the management is focusing all its attention on its downtown location.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Sweet 2nd for Brown Sugar Bakeshop.

GOOD AND FREE:  Chocolate cupcake at Brown Sugar Bakeshop
  • GOOD AND FREE: Chocolate cupcake at Brown Sugar Bakeshop
It’s a big day over at Brown Sugar Bakeshop, where the girls are celebrating their second year in business. I dropped by just as they opened at 10:30 this morning for a free cupcake (chocolate or vanilla, your choice until all 250 are gone) and had to take a few minutes to enjoy the new venue. It’s small but interesting, a long shop with cozy tables for two.
While I was consuming my cupcake, a decent sized line formed at the counter. Several girls were waiting for the remarkable Banana Pudding cupcakes… I know exactly why they were waiting. They’re addictively good.
No, I didn’t just go by for the freebie. Been craving Red Velvet Cake again, so I picked up a Red Velvet Cupcake along with this sweet Strawberry Cream Cupcake… I’m going to be cupcaked-out by the end of the day, but oh the sugar rush.
Been to the new place? It’s next to Dugan’s Pub ast 419 East 3rd Street in the Tuf-Nut Shops building. Cupcakes are $2.50 each and worth it. (501) 372-4009 or check out the website.
UPDATE: The free cupcakes are gone... but I betcha can still get some good Red Velvet beauties....