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Friday, April 29, 2011

Pieday: Black walnut at Boardwalk Cafe.

DARK TONES:  Deep flavors in the black walnut pie at Boardwalk Cafe
  • DARK TONES: Deep flavors in the black walnut pie at Boardwalk Cafe
There is something about the flavor of black walnuts that reminds me of childhood and fall, picking up the big round clad capsules out of the yard and watching one of the adults carefully but adeptly smack them with a hammer to get to the meat inside.
There are a lot of memorable flavors that come out in the Black Walnut Pie at Jasper’s Boardwalk Café. The pie’s just another reason to make the trek up Highway 7 for a drop-in with the Morgans.
I mean, of course there’s the amazing all-local buffalo burger. There are great all-organic eatslike elk chili over cheese enchiladas, elk gumbo and buffalo steaks, homemade salsas and salads made from all Newton County ingredients and those great potatoes cooked with herbs from the Café’s garden.

But it’s the pie I always have to have. I have encountered it nowhere else in the state, or anywhere for that matter. The sorghum molasses speaks to me — from when I had it on biscuits with butter as a kid. Deep, dark tones that unapologetically claim they’re the flavor of Arkansas bottomlands. I dig it.
The pie is made with black and English walnuts, that sorghum molasses and cane syrup - no Karo Nut here. It’s served with a scoop of black walnut ice cream, an extra emphasis I thoroughly enjoy.
The pie is $5 a slice or $24 a whole pie — which may seem extravagant, but once you try how dense and rich this pie is you’ll understand. Take some home and share the flavor.
The Boardwalk Café is on Highway 7 (the address is 215 East Court Street) about half a block south of the Little Buffalo River bridge. (870) 446-5900 or check out the website.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Bonnie's in the Delta.

When is a burger joint not a burger joint? When it’s the heartbeat of a community. I found a place in Watson that serves as the lunch plate of a whole town.

First discovered it while traveling in the Arkansas/Mississippi River Delta this past summer, on my way out to Rohwer. It looked inviting, with its Coca Cola banner over the front porch and plenty of cars out front. But I’d just eaten breakfast and was not quite ready for lunch. I bookmarked it for a later visit.

So come March, I’m preparing a trip to New Orleans and decide that it was time to take that side-route and check out the little place facing the railroad track on Highway 1.

My traveling companion and I dropped in around 10:30 a.m. on a Thursday morning with an appetite. The lone woman in the kitchen told us to sit wherever we liked.

I never did ask her if she was Bonnie. She didn’t look at us like we were crazy when we took photos and we didn’t bother her none. She came over and offered us a choice of breakfast or lunch. There was no menu, just an ancient board on the wall that appeared to have gathered dust and yellow. Ever on my burger quest, I asked for a regular burger. My companion went for the lunch special. Our hostess brought us massive Mason jars of beverage and we quietly waited while she went to the back and got things started.

The day’s average patrons dribbled through… too early for a full lunch but not too early for pickups. A guy the hostess called Lee came through the doors. Before he was halfway across to the register at the back she started to holler. “Mayo and ketchup, right?” He nodded, and she continued “fries ain’t done yet, it’ll be a few.” Lee gave her a nod and a gesture and went out front to sit on one of the two van benches located to either side of the front door.

“So how long have you been here?” I asked across the room.

“About 25 years now,” she hollered back, continuing to work on our meals.

A younger lady, perhaps my age, came through the doors and entered the middle of a conversation. I caught “she done died up in the hills. She was 96 years old, never did have no kids.”

I looked back out front where Lee was waiting. I saw him get up and turn to come inside. The hostess met him halfway across the room with a couple of white sacks. He nodded and turned out. I have no idea if any money was exchanged. Probably was when I wasn’t looking.

I’d no more than jotted down a few notes about the exchange when our lunches arrived. My companion’s lunch special was a smothered country fried steak, potatoes and Great Northern beans, the former two doused in a somewhat thin brown gravy, all of it steamy and smelling like a country kitchen. The beefsteak was crunchy and fork-tender, lovingly and lightly spiced with salt and pepper and maybe a little seasoning salt, a generous hand-sized portion about half an inch thick. The potatoes were hand-mashed. And the beans?

I had to get some beans myself. I don’t do that much. But these were slow cooked buttery Great Northerns and I couldn’t help myself. I snuck several off my companion’s plate. Our hostess noticed this when she came out to bring a hunk of cornbread and a biscuit to go with my companion’s meal. She brought me back a bowl of my own to savor.

Not that I needed more food. The third-of-a-pound flat-smashed patty on my burger was crusty from the griddle and glued to the top bun by a single slice of American cheese. It was a classic American burger, pickles right up under the meat, a generous helping of white onion ringlets, tomato slices and a leaf of iceberg lettuce above the bottom bun. It had the sort of flavor you’d get at a drive-in restaurant. I approved.

My companion had been delivered a layered biscuit and a hunk of yellow cornbread… which I confiscated for use with my beans. It was that right blend of yellow cornmeal with its natural sweetness, butter and little else, no added sugar to intefere with the bean consumption. I approve.

Our hostess came out and asked about dessert -- both of us first refused, but she told us she’d bring us a small piece. She returned with something I haven’t seen in ages -- a corner slice of buttermilk cake, just like the sort of cake I could find at any family gathering growing up in south Arkansas. It was a basic butter cake, almost a pound-a cake (a pound-a this, a pound-a that), with a little tang from the buttermilk and just the slightest hint of cinnamon. It made my day.

We couldn’t eat it all, and asked for something to take the cake with us. A piece of plastic wrap over a bowl sufficed, and we were shortly on our way.  I have no idea how much everything actually cost -- our ticket was $11.34 but that included that big lunch special, my burger and two drinks.  Who knows?

Bonnie’s really isn’t the sort of place you’re going to find on an average trip. You have to be going to Watson or somewhere close by to even find the place. The only other places in town we found where you could purchase anything were a liquor store and a small convenience grocery in a mobile home. There’s not even a gas station. Towns like Watson tend to blow away without an anchor.

I suspect Bonnie’s is that anchor, and I’m glad to see such a place survive and thrive, serving up good home cookin’ and the like. I must make another stop there for breakfast some time when I am back in that neck of the woods. Else I should make a special trip.

Bonnie’s is open Monday through Saturday 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. Like all good country restaurants on backroads, it’s closed on Sunday. (870) 644-3345.

Bonnie's Cafe on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Mazel Tov! Jewish Food Festival!

The Jewish Food Festival is coming up May 15th at the River Market Pavilion. The free event celebrates the Jewish culinary tradition with kabobs, falafel, blintzes, latkes, kugels and more. It kicks off at 8:30 a.m. with a traditional breakfast of lox and bagels. The food festival runs 10 a.m.-4 p.m. The news release with more information, on the jump.
2011 Jewish Food Festival Comes to Little Rock on May 15

LITTLE ROCK - The 2011 Jewish Food festival will be held Sunday, May 15, 2011, at the River Market Pavilion in downtown Little Rock. The event will get underway with a characteristic Jewish breakfast of lox, bagels and cream cheese at 8:30 a.m. The general festival begins at 10 a.m. and ends at 4 p.m.
Admission to the festival is free.
For the past several months, Jewish Food Festival volunteers have been preparing to host more than 12,000 visitors, hoping to surpass the 2010 attendance record. The festival will include traditional Jewish foods such as old fashioned corned beef and pastrami sandwiches, kosher hot dogs, cabbage rolls, blintzes, latkes, kugel and many more fantastic Jewish delicacies. The on-site bakery will offer homemade Jewish treats including rugelach, honey cakes, challah and mandel bread. Israeli dishes also will be available, inviting patrons to eat a meal of kabobs, falafel and Israeli salad.
As it does every year, the Jewish Food Festival will feature cultural and religious booths to showcase various aspects of Jewish life from Arkansas to ancient Israel. Patrons will be able to learn about Jewish holidays and life cycle customs, learn about Israel, and enjoy an exciting kids’ area with plenty variety of activities from face painting to a large area for jumping activities . At a replica of the Western Wall, patrons can leave a note of prayer, and Judaica gifts and other items by local Jewish artists will be on display and for sale.
Entertainment throughout the day will include contemporary and traditional Jewish music. There will be performances by the musical groups B-Flats, the Klezmer Band, the Schechinotes and many other wonderful acts. For the first time, there will be an inspiring performance of Israeli folk dancing, featuring some younger community members.
The Jewish Federation of Arkansas seeks to promote tolerance, understanding and excitement in creating a vibrant community of Jewish learning and growth that crosses all borders to pursue care for the poor, food for the hungry, and advocacy and compassion for everyone who needs it.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Soft on Seoul.

POPPIN PACKETS:  Seouls Steamed Shumai packs a punch
  • POPPIN' PACKETS: Seoul's Steamed Shumai packs a punch
Like so many others, I have been impatient about the opening of Seoul, the new Korean joint in the Heights. I thought I’d go on a day when everything was just perfect. Well, the power was out at my house and I went in-between rounds of storm, but still… I got to go.
And I got to try some marvelous dishes, such as the pretty (and pretty strong) Steamed Shumai ($6) — though I’m nervous about that now… you’ll just have to read further along to find out why.
I wasn’t planning to go — our power’s out at the house and I’ve been wrangling Hunter all day. But the thought of good, fresh food that wasn’t from a drive-thru was tempting. And my curiosity would be sated.
SEAWEED:  For Hunter, its whats for lunch.
Seoul is, according to the chalkboard up front, undergoing a soft opening. There were just two other people dining when we arrived. As the hubster and I were perusing the menu and talking about all sorts of options, Hunter quite clearly told us, “Momma, may I please have some seaweed?”
How can you turn down a request like that? And the bowl of seaweed our waiter brought us for her ($4) was quite substantial. She hovered over it like a hawk, carefully shoveling up strings with her chopsticks.
The hubster and I went for lunch boxes, just out of a sense of economy (and because I knew I’d be coming back later to try the bibimbap and soft tofu stews). His was a tuna roll box ($8) … and we’re glad to say that the sushi still seems as fresh as it was when it was served at Eastern Flames (the  owners’ previous restaurant, which sadly was closed down so they could start this enterprise).
I went for the beef bulgogi lunch box ($9) and was pleased not just with the amount of beef in my box (easily six ounces) but with the variety of items offered. There was a nice small ginger-horseradish dressed salad of greens, a gyoza, a small spring roll, a handfull of edamame, a big mound of fried rice and… well, frankly, I’m not sure what this stuff was. I’ve never had anything like it. It seemed to be onion slices in appearance, but had the consistency of steamed potatoes and a light sauerkraut flavor. I don’t know for certain what it was, but it was very good. Apparently it was the vegetable dish of the day.
The bulgogi itself I was especially pleased with — melt-in-your-mouth beef sirloin pieces in a hoisin-flavored sauce. It was fantastically good. The edamame was nicely salted.
I also have to brag on the fried rice… as at Eastern Flames, the fried rice should be legendary, very light and full of vegetable and egg pieces, including bits of zucchini and peas. Very tasty.
So, why did the Steamed Shumai make me nervous? It’s described on the menu as “steamed shrimp dumpling with ganging sauce.” We received it right after our lunch boxes. The five little balls looked surprisingly innocuous. I picked up one with my sticks and bit it in half. At first there was a nice pleasant meaty taste, then BAM! Fresh, strong horseradish! My eyes watered. I could barely breathe for a moment. I loved it.
So when I got home I was looking up shumai… and it’s normally a pork dumpling? Oh crud. Yet I feel no aftereffects. So either the shumai at Seoul is all-shrimp or… or, well, I don’t know. I’m glad I didn’t have a reaction, though.
The official full opening will be interesting. I’m very interested in seeing what the full menu will be like. The soft opening menu includes a lot of items I’d like to try, including Baked Green Mussels in creamy sauce, Seafood Pancake and Seafood U-Dong (oysters, green mussels, shrimps and squid with vegetable noodle soup for $15). But I’ve had so many people contact me asking me about the place, I wasn’t going to sit on what I knew.
Seoul is at the corner of University and Kavanaugh in the Heights in the old Satellite Café location. I know it’s terrible, but in my mental fog I didn’t get the hours. I do know it’s open for lunch and dinner at this point. We’ll see how well it does. (501) 227-7222.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Floating away: the flood and War Eagle Mill.

RISING WATERS:  The mill at 8 a.m. Monday morning.
  • RISING WATERS: The mill at 8 a.m. Monday morning.
The waters continue to rise at War Eagle Mill. This photo was taken by the folks who run the place around eight this morning. Since then, the waters of the War Eagle River have continued to rise — though, understandably, no one's there to shoot the flooding now.
I wonder how this is going to affect the bi-annual War Eagle Arts & Crafts Fair, just a week and a half from now.
STILL THERE:  But waters inside the mill
If you're in need of War Eagle Mill goods, though, you are still in luck. The distribution center for the mill is uphill and is still accepting orders at (479) 789-2146. Updates will be forthcoming at the mill'swebsite and on the mill's Facebook page.
UPDATE: News from War Eagle Mill this morning — and a new photograph.
The folks at the mill dropped a line out on their Facebook this morning with the photo to the left.
8am, 4/26/11. We think it's peaked for now...maybe 3 to 4 feet inside the Mill. Fortunately production continues at our granary.
The War Eagle Mill Craft Fair scheduled for May 6-8? Still on.
UPDATE: As of Tuesday afternoon, the waters are receding.
FINAL UPDATE: As of Friday morning, the Mill and the Bean Palace Restaurant have reopened. How's that for fast?

Boom-A-Rang Diner rises from ashes in Fort Smith.

NEW LOCATION:  Boom-A-Rang Diner will move into Nickle & Dime Diners digs.
  • NEW LOCATION: Boom-A-Rang Diner will move into Nickle & Dime Diner's digs.
Two weeks after the fire that consumed Fort Smith's Boom-A-Rang Diner, good news. The franchise will move into the former Nickel and Dine Diner at the Park at West End, a few blocks away and just off Garrison Avenue. The new Boom-A-Rang Diner location is expected to open in just a few weeks.
Boom-a-rang Diner on Urbanspoon

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Gastronomic explosion imminent at Riverfest.

KRISPY KREME BURGER:  With bacon and egg, a heart attack awaits
  • KRISPY KREME BURGER: With bacon and egg, a heart attack awaits
Among with the many reports here and there on Facebook this morning, I came across this item from the Riverfest folks...
Are you a foodie? Join us at Riverfest May 27-29 to try a Krispy Kreme Burger, Fried Cheesecake and Oreos and more wacky concoctions!
You have been warned.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Pieday: Chocolate Meringue at The Country Rooster.

Folks have been pestering me about heading up to Green Forest for pie at a very unusual little restaurant. The Country Rooster is, after all, not just an eatery. It’s also a little antiques and flea market sort of store.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Burger joint of the week: CJ's Butcher Boy Burgers

MADE FROM SCRATCH:  CJs burgers arent smashed until you arrive and order
  • MADE FROM SCRATCH: CJ's burgers aren't smashed until you arrive and order
How could I go naming all these great burger joints and leave out CJ’s Butcher Boy Burgers? To be honest with you, I’ve been putting it off a while. I figured I’d save it for later.
Or something like that. You’ve no doubt read what I had to say about the place on Serious Eats last year. I still feel the same way… though I absolutely love and adoreFeltner’s Whatta-Burger, I have to hand it to CJ’s for turning out an excellent, decent burger, the best you can get in the city of Russellville. You can’t get any better than fresh.
And you can't get any fresher than CJ's.
Fresh is exactly what you get when you walk through the door at CJ’s. It’s clean, full of red and white décor with a free jukebox in the corner. The burger is in the cooler up front, right where you can see it — balls of freshly ground chuck laying next to chuck steaks that are about to be turned into ground chuck. There are slices of cheese, fresh tomatoes and lettuce and onions.
When you place your order at the counter, as you order fries the potatoes are picked up, put up in the top portion of
a slicer and pressed down, instantly turning into 3/8 inch straws of raw potato. They’re delivered to a fryer basket, dunked to cook, pulled out and checked and dunked again before being liberally sprinkled with the house spice (which flavors somewhere between Cavender’s and Cotham’s house seasoning). The fries are never bright yellow. They’re a golden brown, sometimes a little darker than might look appetizing but always hot and fresh.
That burger when you order it hits the hot griddle and gets smashed down flat, seasoned a little and allowed to cook in its own juices. Maybe you go for some grilled
onions or mushrooms with it, and those get cooked there too.
The bun’s toasted and set out waiting for the meat. Cheese is applied when the meat nears doneness for that nice melty sensation. It’s all slid over onto the bun — a little squirt of condiment of your choice if you ask for it, then the grilled vegetation and the patty with or without the cheese, the lettuce and tomato and onion on top with a little condiment glue holding the top bun on. The burger’s usually sat a little sideways in the basket to accommodate the fries.
And then there are the shakes, thick hand-pulled shakes in chocolate, strawberry or vanilla (though if you ask nicely you can get a half-and-half). They’re spoon-thick and icy cold and you’ll probably finish your burger before you’re able to smoothly suck it through a straw.
CJ’s has gained some renown. It’s also right off the north side of I-40, on the west side of Highway 7. It’s a good place to stop before you make the curvy trek northwards into the Ozarks. It’s also a nice place to listen to Percy Sledge bellow out “When A Man Loves A Woman.” Take a date or the family.
If you really like the spice that goes on just about everything except the shakes, you can pick up a shaker-full to take home. Just don’t drop by on Sunday, CJ’s doesn’t open on the Sabbath. (479) 968-2300.
And if you’re wondering why the sign you see from the interstate says “CJ’s Burger Boy,” that’s because up until the mid-90s it was a Waffle House. I once spent a Christmas Eve there. But that’s a story for another time.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Sustaining: Canon Grill.

BIG TUNA:  Albacore steaks at Canon Grill
The recent tornado left us without power or gas, which meant we were sent scurrying out to find sustenance any way we can. I figured this was just as good as anytime to check out some restaurants I hadn’t visited before.
The hubster and I ended up at Canon Grill on Kavanaugh on a Monday afternoon, weary and tired from too little sleep. We needed something filling and sustaining to make it through yet another day of cleanup. I’m happy to say our lunches did just that.
Our waitress Daina set us up with tea and gave us plenty of time to decide, checking back on us two newbs perusing the menu for the first time. I was a-feared that Paul would have issue, since he had specifically said he was not interested in Mexican fare for lunch and most of the entrees at Canon Grill are Mexican-esque at the least. Never to fear — he found a nice tuna steak dinner to order up.
It came with a salad, and Daina rattled off the dressing options: “We have Parmesan Peppercorn, which is really good. We have Ranch, Honey Mustard, Raspberry Vinaigrette, oil and vinegar and a really disgusting fat free Ranch.” When we raised our eyebrows over the comment, she continued “it tastes like molten plastic.” I can appreciate that sort of honesty.
Paul ordered his salad with the Parmesan Peppercorn dressing, which was nice and lightly spicy and very cheesy. The salad was more than ample in size; lettuce, tomatoes, red onions, green bell peppers and a healthy dose of Mozzarella cheese. It was served up with a big basket of Club crackers. I kinda wished I’d gotten a lunch salad.
The salad came along with his Albacore Tuna Steak ($12.59). The tuna was actually two half-to-three-quarters-inch sections of fish, grilled lightly with lime and served up with rice and a zucchini-heavy blend of fresh grilled vegetables. The tuna was a little over-cooked for our tastes, but was still quite palatable and tasty. The rice was a nice Mexican style rice. The veggies had strips and slices of zucchini and little hunks of mushrooms, onions and tomatoes.
I’d gone for more Mexican fare with the Grande Burritos ($8.99 for one steak and one chicken, $8.49 for two ground beef and $7.99 for bean) and was not disappointed. I wanted cheese dip but wasn’t in the mood for tortilla chips, and this dish roundly satisfied. Served up with the same rice as Paul’s tuna plate, it was accompanied by nicely spiced refried pinto beans.  The grilled chicken and grilled steak burritos were lovingly smothered in the house queso, a nice white low-spice cheese dip that worked with everything on the plate. Indeed, I kept mopping it up with every forkful. The chicken was a bit light on spice but the steak fajita strips were perfectly seasoned, nice and peppery with a bit of onion flavoring.
I wish we’d had room for Noni’s Homemade Chocolate Bundt Cake ($5.49), advertised as “homemade chocolate Bundt cake topped with homemade hot fudge served with Yarnell’s vanilla ice cream.,” but we were sitting just perfect and didn’t want to rock our gastronomic boat. Next time, perhaps.
Canon Grill is right in front of the Hillcrest Kroger on Kavanaugh. It’s open 11 a.m.-10 p.m. most days, until 9 p.m. on Sundays. Looks like a decent place to experience a Happy Hour. (501) 664-2068.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Burger joint of the week: Midtown Billiards.

GREASY DIGS:  Midtown's legendary burger at home
  • GREASY DIGS: Midtown's legendary burger at home
There's no burger in Arkansas that more terrifies the weak-hearted and titillates the adventuresome than the burger at Midtown Billiards in downtown Little Rock. The classic buttered-bun smashburger has attained a level of legend usually reserved for Charlotte's pies and McClard's barbecue. But many will never attempt to venture into the depths of Little Rock's only open-all-night billiard joint to savor it.
That's partly because of the smoke, I'm sure. There's also a real rough-and-tumble feel about the place, like it hasn't changed in decades except for the layers of graffiti and posters on the wall. What I did find, though, was that while the rest of the interior lacks care and organization, the griddle is spotlessly clean when the day begins.
You're welcome to read more over at Serious Eats. Are you kidding? Of course I had to share this burger with the rest of America. But I'm not about to attempt the big monster with the spam sandwich inside it. If'n you give it a shot, take pictures and share with the rest of us. Man.

Cavender's Greek Seasoning: Arkansas Spice.

On my travels across Arkansas and across the South, I have had many a burger. I can almost instantly recognize the seasoning in a burger. There are a few joints that make their own hamburger seasoning, and my hats are off to them. The others fall into one of five categories: salt & pepper burgers, Worchestershire sauce burgers, onion burgers, Tony Chachere burgers and Cavender burgers.

It is the last of these seasonings that I am most familiar with… considering I grew up with that familiar flavoring on my lips. As a child, I experienced Cavender’s on fish with lemon juice; on steaks and in gravy and of course on burgers. I think I was an adult before I thought of Cavender’s as anything but THE seasoning mix in the kitchen. Never occurred to me that it was a Greek seasoning or anything else. It was just good.

We still use Cavender’s at Chez Robinson. Because of my frequent dining out (a necessary job hazard) we don’t go through a bottle as quickly as we once did, but we were averaging at one time a new bottle every three to five months. So finding out that I was just a few miles from the place where Cavender’s is produced, I just had to go.

I had a couple hours between one assignment and another in the area on a Monday morning and had heard from the folks at the Hotel Seville (which has Cavender’s up for sale in its lobby) that the headquarters was located over on Industrial Park Road. Meandered over that way to take a gander.

I do believe the receptionist was taken off guard when I walked in and asked her if she could tell me all about the place. She looked a little panicked, and I realized it might have been much more wise to have called first. She fetched another woman to come meet us. She introduced herself as Cara… later we’d find out she’s Cara Cavender Wohlgemuth, a member of the third generation of the Cavender’s family.

I asked a few questions about the operation and she offered to show it to me, with the caveat that the men who worked the line were gone to lunch. Once again, I regretted not calling in advance.

Still, I was surprised by how open Cara was about the operation. We really hadn’t introduced ourselves, yet here she was offering to show us what went on behind the scenes. We went through one doorway into a break room and then a second one, a warehouse operation with filling machines. The scent immediately cleared my sinuses and simultaneously made my stomach growl. It smelled comfortable and almost heavenly.

Cara didn’t seem to have the slightest qualm about sharing the behind-the-scenes tour with a couple of strangers.

“You do know the story of Cavender’s?”

“A little,” I admitted, curious to hear her take on it.

She shared it with us as we looked around. Her grandfather had a friend in the restaurant business who was dying who passed this specific spice recipe along. Spike Cavender took that recipe and made it up with a friend from Oklahoma -- not to sell, but to give away to friends.

So Spike’s Greek Seasoning was born. Eventually it was renamed Cavender’s Greek Seasoning because of a trademark issue. Didn’t change the flavor or the name.

Spike and his son Stephen created the S-C Seasoning Company back in 1971. Cara and her sister Lisa Cavender Price now run the company, along with their husbands and several longtime employees.

Cara showed us each of the three machines used to package Cavender’s -- one that fills 3 ¼ ounce bottles, one that fills eight ounce bottles and one that loads up five pound tubs. “That’s what restaurants use,” Cara told me.

“I can believe it. You know, I eat a lot of burgers, and there are a lot of places around here using Cavender’s in their meat.”

She beamed. “I’m glad to hear it.”

We walked over to the other side of the warehouse to the mixing station -- a big table and bin set-up. The scent was even stronger here. “We take the spices and put them together here and load them up in 55 gallon barrels.”

“How often do you do that?”

“Couple of times a day. We’ll process four to five tons of seasoning every day.”

A little quick math -- five days a week, 50 weeks a year (they take off during the holidays, do doubt) -- you’re looking at, at least a thousand tons of seasoning prepared every year. In a little place in Harrison, Arkansas. So how’s that work?

Well, it works because Cavender’s is that good. It’s earned a reputation for being the best secret ingredient in so many things -- burgers, steaks, ribs, barbecue sauce, chili, whatever. It’s distributed all over the nation through Wal-Mart and Kroger and who-all knows else. I’ve seen it on a table in Boston, in a spice bin in Phoenix and on a window ledge in St. Louis. I even encountered it in a grocery store in Freeport, Bahamas. I have friends in Great Britain who use it, had one friend sight it in Jerusalem and another in Sydney, Australia. It’s been all over the world. That’s a hell of a lot of spice.

“Do you want to see what it looks like?” Cara asked me. I already knew what it looked like on my shelf and on my steak, but I nodded anyway. She opened up one of the big tubs and let us take a photograph down into it. “This one’s not quite full,” she admitted.

“It’s fresh,” I responded, almost bowled over by the concentration.

“We get our spices in every week, they’re going to be fresh. Because of the way they come to us, the mix will last forever.”

I could smell notes of this and that and thought to myself is that parsley? Surely that’s paprika… oh, I can smell cumin and anise and… but it didn’t matter. I could spend a lifetime attempting to recreate the recipe. But why, when I could just go to the store and get another bottle of Cavender’s?

13 spices go into Cavender’s blend, but the proportions are a family secret. What I can tell you is that they’re shelf-stable and will last however long you keep them (though they may lose a little potency over time).

There wasn’t much else to see… the whole operation’s in that little warehouse and some administrative offices out front. Cara gave us one of her business cards and bottles of the seasoning -- realize, we’d barely introduced ourselves! I didn’t mention that I write about food for a living or that I have Tie Dye Travels or that I write Eat Arkansas. I just told her we were on assignment to cover the Ozark Medieval Fortress. Yet she invited us back and gave us gifts. Awful friendly. Then again, being friendly isn’t foreign to Arkansas. It’s our way of life.

So I urge you, your next trip to the store look for the little yellow and red containers. Cavender’s will be on your aisle with your spice rubs and mixes and condiments. Take it home and just experiment sprinkling it on stuff -- meat, potatoes, barbecue. Strangest thing I’ve had it in is brownies and it somehow worked there, too. I think if you don’t know about it now, you will add it to your pantry.

If for some amazing reason you don’t have it on your store shelves or you live out in the boonies far from civilization and want some, you can indeed order it from the Cavender’s website.
There’s a salt-free version, too. Spice up your life.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Comfortable food at Master Chef.

DINNER:  Strips of Chicken, Supreme Nachos at Master Chef
  • DINNER: Strips of Chicken, Supreme Nachos at Master Chef
You gotta hand it to any restaurant that’s managed to stay in business for 42 years. There have to be reasons for people to keep coming back. In the case of Harrison’s Master Chef, I believe it’s a combination of friendly service, free salsa and the siren song of free delivery.
Dropped in late on a Saturday night, about 15 minutes until closing time (we were unaware the restaurant closed so early). We stared dumbly at the menu on the wall for a few moments — it had been a long day. There was a great big picture menu of Mexican favorites on the counter, but somehow I wasn’t drawn in. I wanted something that would stick to my ribs. So I asked.
“Everything’s good,” the counter girl told me. “The quesadillas are good. The big plate number two up there, that’s good. The nachos are good.”
I briefly noticed and dismissed the burger on the menu — good heavens, have I really eaten 20 burgers in the past two weeks? Egads — and settled on some home favorites. “How’s the fried chicken?” I asked.
“The Strips of Chicken are the best,” she said, breaking into a smile.
“We make them from scratch from chicken breasts here,” she told me, and I was sold. My traveling companion made his order and we went to sit down.
A mere moment later as we were discussing the pies in the case, she came over with a bowl of salsa and a basket of chips. No matter how rough I’m feeling, it is very hard to ignore such an offering of free food, and I had to try some. The thin tortilla chips were just right for scooping up the somewhat thin salsa… strong with tomatoes, cayenne, dried red chilies, cumin and onion. It had a nice, well-cooked taste to it and no hint of cilantro — which has been in just about every salsa I’ve sampled the past few years. This tasted like a good old-fashioned Americans-attempting-Mexican salsa.
My dining companion had gone for the Supreme Nachos ($6.49) and received a dinner plate overloaded with those same thin chips topped with cheese, tomato, lettuce and sour cream. The beef and bean spread were underneath this top layer, as were slices of pickled jalapeno pepper and the remnants of a bottom layer of chips. It’s a fork-style nacho dish, that’s for sure. But the blend was pleasing… for the local palate. Certainly the dish caters to a rural tongue, which is fine. After all, Master Chef has been serving up lunch and dinner to generations of Harrison-ians, all the way back to 1969.
I can even recall dropping in a few times over the years — during a family trip in the very early 90s, once with the hubster back in 2000. This may also be the restaurant my Girl Scout group stopped at back in the mid-1980s on the way to Silver Dollar City — it has the right feel. And I can always remember the Mexican influence. I think until this trip all I’d ever had there were enchiladas and chips. Maybe some cheese dip.
But this time around I was trying something new, and my hot plate of Strips of Chicken (6.49) arrived shortly. Unlike the pre-processed sometimes-pre-formed hunks I’ve become accustomed to, these were half inch thick hand-pulled strips that went along with the grain of the chicken breast. They’d been egg-washed and rolled in a nicely seasoned flour batter and briefly deep-fried… and they were juicy. I found them too hot to devour on their own at first.  The potatoes were typical with a nice white pepper gravy that went well with the chicken.
And that slaw… that’s one damn fine slaw. The finely diced cabbage was sweetly seasoned, similar to KFC’s version but not near as sweet, with a nice almost spreadable consistency. I wonder if they offer it up to go on the barbecue beef sandwich that’s on the menu. I think it’d be a winning combination.
The crew closed up as we quickly ate, trying to get out of their hair in an expedient manner. Still, our hostess kept coming by to refill our beverages and see if we needed anything, even as she broke down the soda machine and cleaned the tea bin out. This was much appreciated.
As was fitting for a Saturday night in Harrison, there was little going on outside when we exited. We later learned it was the night of at least one local prom. Still, quiet night in H-Town.
You’ll find Master Chef on Main Street (US 65 B) a few blocks south of the intersection with US 65 and Industry Park Road. It's open 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday (closed Monday). Next time I’m getting a salad… I heard the next day they’re massive. Ah, well. (870) 741-5700. And they do some local delivery. Can’t beat that with a stick.