Thursday, September 29, 2011
How about a couple that had seven kids just over a year after they got married -- and then went on to have 14 more? No, it’s not some sensational crazy multiples story. It’s the story of the Jefferys out of tiny Casscoe, AR. George and Girstine Jeffery started off shortly after their marriage as surrogate parents to seven children. They then went on to build their own family, having ten girls and four boys along the way. Girstine was known as “Dew-Baby,” and it’s after her this little restaurant in Stuttgart is named.
I went on a Friday to seek out something fantastical -- an egg custard pie of some renown. I was very happy to see it on the menu. Egg custard is one of those great cultural pies that doesn’t seem to ever have caught on with the frou-frou set. It’s very pedestrian, very rural… and very comforting. A good egg custard pie is filling, too.
We pulled up to the well-used building on Michigan Street (next door to, of all things, a gyro shack) and went on in. Dew-Baby’s is two separate dining rooms… the one you walk into with the counter and the buffet bar, and the one on the side where the restrooms are. It was 11 o’clock dead on and we were apparently the first customers of the day.
Thing is, even though I was planning to dine somewhere else (I had a busy day planned) I couldn’t resist the scent that struck me when I walked through the door. Fried chicken. Pan fried chicken at that, the sort that comes from a cast iron skillet. Oh, I was having lunch.
My photographer and I had a seat while we waited for the plate to be made up. We sipped briefly on iced tea before one of the sisters brought the plate to the table. It smelled heavenly.
AQ Chicken House in Springdale or at the Monte Ne Inn Chicken Restaurant. This chicken… wait for the blasphemy here… was BETTER. It had the tenderness and flavor of being buttermilk-soaked, a very light bit of spicing that I felt had to have included some lemon pepper, it was juicy, it was flavorful, it was tender and it was golden. And yet still it was nothing in comparison to the pie I was about to receive.
Turns out there’s a book on the matter called “Ten Sisters” by Rose Stovall, one of the sisters, a collection of stories from each of the sisters about their mom and dad and growing up in Casscoe. I’m going to seek this book out and read it. I think it might give me more insight into life in the Delta.
You’ll find Dew-Baby’s at 813 E. Michigan in Stuttgart. It’s open 8 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday through Friday and 10 a.m.-6 p.m. on Saturday. (870) 672-7333 or check out the Facebook page.
Friday, September 23, 2011
|Tart and thick, Neal's Cafe's lemon meringue|
pie appears like a snow-covered Peep
atop a nuclear explosion. (Kat Robinson)
Have you ever driven somewhere just for pie? Well, yes, I do that — but usually I get something else to eat along the way.
This time around, no go… I was already stuffed. I was working my way through the Fayetteville-Springdale area and had already consumed portions of four other slices of pie and half a burger at other establishments visited. I shouldn’t have been hungry. The game plan, as always: take two bites, put it in a box.
Except at Neal’s Café in Springdale, I just couldn’t. That pie dun got ate.
|Neal's Cafe: Classic sign, pink exterior, |
hard to miss. (Grav Weldon)
Nope, didn’t make this trip on my own. My photographer and I had six destinations and seven pies to hit that day, playing catch-up for vacation time. My Texas journey and his Alaskan sojourn had taken precious time from our important and time-cinched search for the best pie in the state of Arkansas. We had to cover ground quick.
We’d already tried the coconut and chocolate meringue pies at Mama Z’s in Tontitown and the strawberry chiffon and Awesome Possum pies (and lunch) at the Front Porch Diner in Springdale and still had to hit Feltner Brothers (not for pie but a check-in to the new College Street location), Sassy’s Red House and Greenhouse Grill in Fayetteville. So yeah, we were watching our consumption.
|Masculine, green tiled and PINK. Neal's Cafe is quite|
certain of its masculinity.
Still, Neal’s Café. Pink. Old fashioned in a very Lodge-meets-Automat sort of way. Did I mention it was pink? Wood topped tables. Big deer and elk heads on the wall. And a pie case on a counter in the center back of the room…
So, the menu actually gives a little history, which didn’t help my growling stomach. As I mentioned, I’d already had lunch and bites of four pies. But hearing that this place was known for its pan fried chicken… I wanted to try it and I couldn’t. I couldn’t risk not being able to sample all those pies and I didn’t want to explode along the way. Made me sorta sad.
So, turns out the place has been open since 1944 and has been in the Neal family all that time. Their motto is “Serving the Best of Better Foods.” It’s a timewarp. A lovely, lovely timewarp.
|There's no color correction here. That really is it.|
Those pies, though. At first, from across the room at least, the pies looked as if someone had piled meringue atop those Peeps chicks. Big tall peaks. Closer in they were more marvelous, big tall peaks of perfectly toasted meringue.
We asked which was the favorite flavor and got a list. We passed on the Tropical pie, which is bananas and coconut and pineapple together, and went for the Lemon Meringue. And I tell you, it’s a rare thing to see such a pungent yellow meringue anywhere. It’s piquantly lemon with substance and heft, a thick deep yellow custard that clings beautifully. The custard was topped with an equally texturally thick meringue with the most beautiful toasted top on it. The crust: folded flour, barely flavor but built on those tight thin layers for the perfect cut.
See, this is a pie you wouldn’t want to see mangled. Because of that firm custard, tight meringue and layered crust, you can get a perfect slice every time out of one of those pies. Every one of the pies has six perfect peaks, and each slice contains one of those peaks. Beautiful. Tops as far as diner pies ever go.
I would have liked to had the fried chicken, and I bet I will before I die, I’m certain of that. I settled for the pie and for encouraging my photographer to try one of the ancient and odd Cajun Chef brand sport peppers (which to this point I thought were a Chicago thing) from the on-table set-up, which also included North Little Rock’s own Fischer Honey.
|This historic postcard MIGHT be Neal's. Still investigating.|
You’ll find Neal’s Café on Thompson (the main north-south drag through town). It’s open Monday through Saturday 6 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. and until 2 p.m. on Sunday. (479) 751-9996 or check out the restaurant website.
Thursday, September 22, 2011
Tuesday, September 20, 2011
With the advent of the locavore movement, more farmers markets are springing up. Groups like our own Certified Arkansas Farmers Market are making sure that what comes from the field and ends up on your table is as organic and pure as possible.
But what about the physical structure of the farmers market experience? Need it be just simple pop-up tents and pickup truck beds?
Fairhope, AL has gone a step beyond. Opened in October 2009, the Windmill Market takes advantage of a facility vacated by a car dealership. Architects and owners Marc and Gina Walcott built into the existing structure and outfitted it with green ideas of all sorts. Today the market is home to Westside Grocery, which purchases all of its offerings from local farmers, fishermen and livestock producers. It’s also home to a great barbecue joint called Moe’s Original and to a four day a week arts and crafts market utilized by home and regional crafters.
Walcott Adams Verneuille Architects in Fairhope designed the project with the assistance of their green consulting firm Watershed.
The Walcotts wanted to go as green as possible with the project. They enlisted the help of Gulf Coast Green Power in bringing in the windmill that stands today not only to reduce the market’s draw on the power grid but which serves as a landmark to guide visitors to the market itself. It’s almost silent as it oscillates in the wind. The 45-foot towering windmill provides all the power the market needs -- and more. There’s even a jack available to power your electric car with windmill energy.
The building itself was reconstructed with use of recycled and repurposed materials to cut down on construction costs and waste. When it’s hot, a geothermal air conditioning unit cools the area. The roofline was extended out to create more shade, and solar panels reside above to collect even more energy. Low VOC paints were used for the interior. Skylights throughout reduce the need for lighting. Busted up parking lot asphalt was used for low walls around the garden.
Westside Grocery composts all vegetative matter collected at the Market. Rainwater is collected and used not only for the community garden available on site but to flush the low-water toilets in the restroom. The gardens themselves host a variety of great produce, herbs and flowers available to Fairhope visitors and natives.
It’s an interesting project that’s already grown. Not even two years old, Windmill Market has become a destination for eco-tourists who are looking for ideas to take home with them. Westside Grocery is now open seven days a week, taking in fresh produce, baked goods, eggs and meat to sell as well as providing a marketplace for local packaged goods such as pizza sauce from the popular Ravenite Pizzaria around the corner and locally combed honey. There’s always a packed house on market days, when local vendors come in and utilize booth space for a small fee.
Windmill Market has become part of the community, with evening concerts scheduled during the weekend and an open gathering space that draws folks together. It’ll be interesting to see if similar structures pop up in our market.
Friday, September 16, 2011
The pie, though, bears special mention.
Thursday, September 15, 2011
Of course, I still will. Sparky’s is a nice, comfortable casual place that always feeds me well. And the burger? Make that burgers… are always good. And so’s the cheese dip.
It was recommended to me by Edwige Denyszyn over at Keel’s Creek some great time back… which was funny, since I had expected asking the great French winemaker where to go eat that a more expensive locale would be recommended. Not at all. She told me I had to try the cheese. And I have, so many times over.
Last summer I went over to Sparky’s for lunch with the hubster. We wanted something light to deal with the heat, so he chose the Miami Tuna Dinner ($12.95) and I went for the $6 Lunch Enchilada special. His tuna was a beautiful pink thing under a canopy of peppers and onions and spices that went awesomely well with his rather large dinner salad. Yay.
Still, I got the much better deal with the special. The lunch special is one enchilada and two sides… yet the portions were large. The enchilada was about double the size I expected, filled with tender shredded chicken and a creamy sauce. There was a whole pile of black beans, and the fries (my other side) came out in a full size basket.
I found that solace in a bowl of the restaurant’s Queso Rojo (at the time both Queso Rojo and Queso Verde were sold, the latter later being taken off the menu), served up with a basket of tricolor chips. The only red cheese dip I know of, it’s actually more of a yellow but with a nice color from paprika, cayenne and cumin. This… this is my favorite cheese dip in the world, better than anything I have ever found in Little Rock.
Well, this past January I was back in town to work on a story… and it was snowing. There was more than a foot of snow on the ground, and Sparky’s Roadhouse was the only place anywhere still open at 7 p.m. on a Friday night. And it was packed. There was little space to do much of anything for that 20 minute wait, but the staff was still happy and friendly and joking about the “immobilizing” storm and all the people who’d come out of the woodwork to come out to the restaurant. That was something.
nice and grilled soft, the habanero and red pepper salsa was smooth and the burger was its usual half pound of greatness.
But that Reuben… oh my. Instead of the traditional corned beef-Russian dressing-sauerkraut, it had been tampered with. The corned beef was there and fresh on the nice fresh and toasted rye bread. The sauerkraut had been grilled and had achieved a nice caramelization. The whole thing, though, was tagged together not with Russian dressing but with Remoulade sauce, a different take on it all.
And of course my skin-on fries went right in the dip, that great red cheese dip that’s now stood the test of time and will hopefully always be available at Sparky’s.
Does this mean I’m done eating there? Nah. While I always choose to sample as many of the great culinary offerings as Eureka Springs will throw at me on each visit, I still have a soft spot for Sparky’s and things I want to try on the menu -- like the Chicken and Goat Cheese Quesadilla. I still haven’t gotten around to Edwige’s suggestion for the cheese platter, so that might eventually happen. One way or another, you should consider this an endorsement. Sure, when you’re vacationing go do the frou frou and the unusual. And when you’re done with that and want some real food, stop in to Sparky’s Roadhouse Café.
You’ll find Sparky’s Roadhouse Café on Highway 62 east of downtown. It’s open Tuesday through Thursday 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. and an hour later on Friday and Saturday, closed Sunday and Monday. Call (479) 253-6001 or check out the website.
Friday, September 9, 2011
Thursday, September 8, 2011
It had occurred to me the day before that except for when Paul and Hunter had gone for their swim Tuesday night, we’d been together as a family unit the entire trip. That’s not necessarily a bad thing -- but I love the spa experience and wanted to get in at least one sweat during my trip.
The sweat, though, started the moment I stepped away from the Fairway Pines to catch a cart to the main building. I’d called right before I left the room around 8 a.m. to request a pick-up. There are carts on call at all hours of the day to take you from one part of the resort to another -- which is great, since it’s huge.
That didn’t keep me from taking a few photos, hoping that having my shutter open a bit would clear out the haze from my lens. I was delivered to the lobby and walked back about half the length of the building, almost to The Woodlands Restaurant, where a full buffet was underway.
At the far back southwest corner there was an entrance to the spa. It was secluded and quiet, and there was a very friendly attendant who met me on arrival. She set me up with a locker, robe and flip-flops and showed me around the facility.
I started out with a shower to cleanse myself before utilizing the different stations within. From there I went directly to the steam room. Now, I’ve been in many steam rooms -- both in hotels and in spas and even one on a cruise ship. This was one of the larger ones… and its most defining attribute was the fact I have never encountered one quite so hot. I mean, exhaustively hot. I usually manage 15 to 20 minutes of steaming in a single sitting, which is on the upper side. I think I managed six on my longest sitting this time.
In-between steams I took advantage of the offered cucumber-infused water. There was also citrus-infused ice water and a container of cranberry-nut trail mix for snacking. I went into the back area past the showers and had a seat on a couch in front of a roaring gas fire for several minutes, cooled down in comfort and repeated the cycle again, four times in all.
I did get a glimpse into the massage studio section of the spa. Very relaxing. The subdued lighting, comfortable tables and almost delicious music were nicely matched. I also noticed that there were fabulous loose-leaf teas available for post-massage consumption.
After the four rounds of steam-beverage-sit, I gave the sauna a single whirl. The sauna is just as big as the steam room but otherwise rather average. It wasn’t as hot as the steam room, either.
From there I went to the whirlpool, which is on an elevated deck above the front desk. There had been three women in the whirlpool when I arrived but they had all departed by the time I got my chunky butt into the water, letting the water loosen up my sore shoulder and rib. I spent just a few minutes in each time, stepping out and lounging on one of the padded chaise lounges in-between and enjoying the chance to let my mind be quiet.
Still, I had responsibilities, and around 10:30 I took one more shower to remove the sweat and chlorine and dressed again. I can highly, highly recommend the spa to guests of The Woodlands; it is complimentary with your stay and a great place for moms to retreat when dads have the kids. Also, there’s a men’s spa on the first floor underneath the ladies’ spa.
Even though I hadn’t called for a golf cart before leaving the spa, it took no time at all for the next one to arrive to transport me back over to the Fairways. Those golf carts are everywhere.
When I arrived back at the room I discovered that Paul and Hunter were just stirring. Everyone was slow. I think we were all experiencing a little trip fatigue.
Rather than try to get up and over to eat breakfast, we took our time and snacked on what we’d brought -- our snacks and beverages and such. We still had a few containers of milk, soft drinks and packages of mandarin orange slices along with some of the fruit we picked up at Moody Gardens. A good snack and then we were getting ready to head out again.
Here’s the problem. Sunday, noonish, The Woodlands. What are you going to do? Go shopping! Where are you going to go? The Woodlands Mall. Where are you going to park? Ah, that was the problem. We should have taken advantage of the free courtesy shuttle around the area, but instead we were left trying to find a parking spot for the van. And there was nothing. Nothing. Not a single parking spot. We went around the entire mall a time and a half and couldn’t find a single space to park.
Well, what now?
We decided to drive over to Market Street to the west of the mall, and found a parking spot right away. It was a lucky thing, honesty, we caught someone else pulling out. And the moment we had pulled into the shopping complex I knew where we were going to go.
We were going to a French bakery.
We walked over to the restaurant and found seats inside. I had Paul and Hunter decide what they wanted, then went and stood in line for my order to be taken. They take the orders, give you what’s already prepared, you check out and they bring the rest to you. Oh, yeah -- instead of a numbered card to put at your table, it’s a numbered wooden spoon in a standing block.
could live on bread and butter.
I liked how they had the kids meal there. All entrees are served with a choice of fruit, yogurt or a cookie and juice, soda or milk. Since Hunter wanted pizza, it had to be cooked. So she got her yogurt first. She loved that. Hunter eats yogurt every single day, and having fresh yogurt with big fresh strawberries in it was the bomb.
Her pizza was huge -- a 10” cheese pizza all to herself, for $4.69 for the whole shebang. Yes, we ended up eating some of it, too -- later that evening. That was a lot of food for a little girl.
Paul got a special, a Chicken Salad Sandwich on croissant with a serving of Tomato Basil Pesto Pasta Salad ($6.99) -- a very good chicken salad with a nice dill flavor to it, served up on a buttery and crispy croissant. I like the pasta salad, too, what Paul let me try of it. It was very rich for a pasta salad, served cold and very tomato-y.
At first, Hunter tried to figure it out, wondering why some of the jets went off at different times while others had a different pattern. Then she gave into it, squealing with delight, running through the different jets and dancing. It was an extraordinary amount of fun for a two and a half year old girl.
The water in this area was surprisingly deep -- and made me realize that everywhere we’d gone, we hadn’t been anywhere where the water was over our heads. Not at Schlitterbahn -- at least, not where we’d been at the park. Not at Moody Gardens. Not at Galveston, where I’d waded out the length of a football field and the water never got over my chest. Not even at the Embassy Suites, where the water in the pool only reached about four feet deep.
This pool… well, it was different. There were shallow sections but there was also this one deep section near the island where I could not touch bottom. It might have only been six feet, but I’m 5’9” and it was deep enough I had to tread water.
That made it perfect for older kids -- who donned goggles and went looking underwater for “buried treasure.” And they could find it, too. The Forest Waterscape includes those lizards, different items on the bottom to categorize and even a “sunken chest” that can all be goals for the kids to find.
Once we’d had enough of the big pool, Paul and I took Hunter over to the splash pool to relax. Hunter spent a good portion of the time picking up the tiniest pieces of debris (mostly bits of leaves) from the bottom of the splash pool and made a pile.
She also met other kids, some of which were close to her age. I discovered she could be a bit bossy with them. She was directing them around here and there and they were paying attention. But they all seemed to be having fun, trying to figure out which of the jets in the splash fountain were going to go off next.
We were out there until sundown, and even then it was hard to pry Hunter away. She was starting to turn into a little raisin. If I’d had the energy, I might have spent more time out there with her. But we had to get ready for the next morning. She tearfully left the swimming area to head back inside with us.
We ate leftovers -- Paul ate Hunter's pizza, she ate her leftover half of burger from Coal Burger and I ate the leftover bread and butter from La Madeleine, and we kicked back and watched Three Men and a Little Lady, which I had forgotten included the fantastic and underratred Fiona Shaw.
It took a lot for us to get drowsy early. I think Hunter and I fell asleep around 10 p.m., Paul a short time later.
The following morning I managed to actually wake up when the alarm on my phone went off at 2 a.m. So worried we wouldn’t make it back to Little Rock in time for Paul to get to work, I was instantly wide awake.
Our planning had worked fine. By taking everything except a few easily carried items to the car the night before we were able to leave without multiple trips. Paul scooped Hunter up and carried her out while I pulled along the cooler and carried my computer. She woke up about halfway down the length of the hotel and quietly watched what was happening.
We got out to the van, slid her in and she was out like a light. Everything fit in the back and I took the first stretch. It was 2:30 a.m.
By 3:30 we were back in Cleveland, TX and to Highway 59. Paul took over, now knowing the way back home, and I crawled into the back seat with Hunter, where I slept until we got to Texarkana.
Broadway Railroad Café in Prescott for breakfast, then boogied on up to Little Rock and made it in right after 11 a.m., just enough time for Paul to help me unload and shower before he had to be in at work at noon. My intention had been to spend the afternoon writing about our trip, but I fell asleep not long after Hunter asked to crawl up into my lap, and pretty much the rest of the day was spent snoozing and doing laundry. It had been a tiring trip.
Up next: What I took from my experience.