Thursday, September 29, 2011

Egg Custard Pie and Pan Fried Chicken.

Big families aren’t the norm any more.  Used to be a family of ten or more would be common -- since families needed to be big to run big homesteads and the like.  Not these days.  As a mom in a single child family, I’m kinda the standard there.

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.

I talked with the ladies a bit before ordering that pie.  They’re all daughters (and one daughter-in-law) of Dew-Baby, and they work together lovingly.

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.

I asked for dark meat chicken with my meat-and-three ($7.25) -- and the two sisters working the counter that day mentioned they always preferred the breast meat, I suspect since they make theirs nice and juicy -- but I got my dark meat chicken and three sides.  I chose French fries, baked beans and a pre-made lettuce-based salad that had a number of items in it.  My other choices were corn on the cob and hush puppies, and fried catfish for the main course.

And of course I ordered up that egg custard pie.  I was going to have me some of that.  Desserts are $2.50 each, well worth it.  The other choices that day was sweet potato pie, Pineapple Upside Down Cake, Chocolate Cake and Cream Cheese Cake.

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.

The fried chicken… okay, we’re going to have to put some debate to this.  I have eaten what I thought was the best fried chicken in the state -- which has been either at 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.

The side dishes were odd but good.  The baked beans were of the same sort you normally find in Pork N’ Beans but were flavored instead with brown sugar and ground beef, almost identical to the Settler’s Beans my mom makes each Thanksgiving.  The fries were about average.  The prepared salad was interesting -- bacon (which I avoided), shredded Cheddar cheese, iceberg lettuce, cucumber, slices of hard boiled egg and English peas in what tasted like a version of Miracle Whip.

And then there was the egg custard pie.  It was pretty.  It had sliced clean, indicative of a balanced hand in its construction.  It was substantial… I mean, well, it’s like eating an omelet as far as the cholesterol and calories go, frankly.  But I tell you -- I was won over by three facts.  The pie was created with a homemade, folded over flour pastry that was slightly salty.   The custard was homogenous and perfect -- very firm and very smooth.  And the top had been browned to an almost crème brulee perfection.  I have yet to find a better pie.

We talked with one of the sisters, who came over to talk with us about The Lord and how He takes care of us, no matter our troubles.  It was a bit of good conversation to have while enjoying a good meal, and we saw it repeated with the only other first-time visitor who came in the door.  Regulars they all greeted by name, asking about families and how work was going and all sorts of things like that.

We had to finish up and get on the road, but I made a note I need to return, probably on a Tuesday when all the vegetables like the PurpleHull Peas and such are out.  I was thrilled to finally find a really great restaurant in town, and I’m looking forward to going back and hearing more about this neat family.

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

Pieday: Lemon Meringue at Neal's Cafe.

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.

Neal's Cafe on Urbanspoon

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Burger joint of the week: Hamburger Barn.

Arkadelphia is light on non-chain restaurants. Since the closing of Bowen's a few years ago, families have been left with few options for good eats. That's part of the reason I'm glad Hamburger Barn has survived.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

How to Start A Green Market, Right.

Fairhope, AL’s Windmill Market takes green to the extreme.

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.

It’s the building itself though that provides the most interest. With just $200,000 in pocket, the Walcotts retrofitted the 6600 square foot dealership into a LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design)-approved structure. 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

Pieday: Key Lime at Rolando's

In case you haven’t figured it out yet, all my entries right now are focusing on places that have cheese dip on the menu. Technically, this is not the case for Rolando’s, since what you read on the menu is “Queso Flamado.” And that, my friends, bears little similarity to native Arkansas cheese dip. Doesn’t mean it isn’t good…
The pie, though, bears special mention.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Best Place To Chill in Eureka Springs: Sparky's Roadhouse Cafe.

I have been holding out on you for a long, long time. And I’ll tell you why. I like going to Sparky’s Roadhouse Café anytime I am in Eureka Springs -- and once I give it an official review, then I don’t have a reason to go again, right?

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.

But that’s not all the goodness served up at the popular red and white and black dive on the main drag (Highway 62, for non-locals). There are fine dishes and common dishes and truffles, too. And the place is always open -- even when it snows.

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 went by myself while covering the Chocolate Lover’s Festival in 2010. It was a blustery cold winter night and snow was on the ground, but I knew I’d find my warm solace inside at Sparky’s. I was right, of course.

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.

I had my cheese dip and chips served up on the side with my Rockin‘s Deluxe Cheeseburger ($7.95). What makes it rockin’? The cheese -- your choice of pepper jack, imported swiss or New York State Sharp Cheddar, the latter of which I chose. SHARP Cheddar. Ah, wow. Good sharp cheddar served melted atop a prime Creekstone Beef half pound hand patted patty grilled to medium. Yes, the cheese was slightly overpowering. That’s fine. It’s so dang good. It like all the burgers at Sparky’s was served up on a soft Kaiser roll with green leaf lettuce, pickles, tomato and white onion ringlets on the side, along with a pile of potato chips. You can upgrade to French fries for a buck more, by the way.

I even had a Chambord truffle, which was fabulous. At $2 you might wonder how the place is able to sell these tiny chocolates, but they are very, very good.

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.

My dining companion and I were seated at a booth in the corner of the main dining area and were almost overcome by the voices -- so many people crowded into the restaurant, communing. Still, we were able to place an order for a Havana Heat Wave Burger ($8.95), a Barbara’s Reuben ($8.50) and a basket of fries between us (our side item on both, which came out to $1 more each). We also ordered that cheese dip again, since I wanted someone else to taste it.

Now, we had debated on a hotter burger… there are a whole string of hot burgers on the menu, ranging from the Kid Creole Burger with its Cajun butter to the Stupid Hott Burger that requires a waiver to be signed. Not having an idea of the scale of heat, my dining companion went midway and went with that Havana Heat Wave Burger -- which turned out to be about a little bit of sweat on a very cold and snowy winter night. The onions were
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.

One more tip.  Go use the restroom.  For some strange reason, the folks that run Sparky's thought it'd be a great idea to decorate the women's restroom in less-than-classic album covers.  Wow, man.  Albums such as Banjo Spectacular!  String along with the Banjo Barons!  Like the All Star Color TV Revue.  Vinyl-known little-spinners such as the Jimmy Peace Singers' He Rescued Me.  Music for Listening and Dancing.  The Julie Andrews Christmas album.  Caribbean Holiday by the, I kid you not, Gay Desperados Steel Orchestra.  The Four Prep's less-than-popular Dances and Dreaming.  Phil and Louis Palermo's We Want To Sing. Finally, children, we now know where bad LPs go to die.

Sparky's Cafe and Ultra Lounge Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Friday, September 9, 2011

Pieday: Chocolate bourbon pecan at Ralph's Pink Flamingo BBQ.

A sausage on every plate. That should be the motto at Ralph’s Pink Flamingo BBQ in Fort Smith. They don’t put sausage on the pie plate, I will give you that. But everything else is fair game.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Traveling with a Toddler: Last Day at The Woodlands.

After a full week of dawn to dusk family time, the hubster and I made a deal. He was going to sleep in Sunday morning in our room at the Fairway Pines at The Woodlands Resort and Conference Center -- and I was going to go enjoy the spa.

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.

Problem was, the moment I walked outside my camera fogged up. Totally. It was extraordinarily humid, and with a forecasted high of 101 I feared I’d already made a big mistake.

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.

There I found an elevator to the second floor. Up there I encountered no one as I followed signs further and further back. I realized the building had to be several football fields in length.

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.

Sadly, this is the only photograph you are going to get, since it’s improper to take photos of folks in a spa. This was my locker, and I had plenty of room -- plus, I had an oversized robe, which is a rare thing for someone of my size. A very welcome rare thing.

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.

I discovered on the way back that my camera was no longer fogged up. I picked up a hot paper cup of lemon tea outside the restaurant and took some photos here and there. Of special interest to me was the game room. It contained pool, air hockey and shuffleboard tables -- which will be something Hunter will likely have an interest in when she’s older. That’ll be fun.

I also passed by a business center, the Lobby Bar and through the Lobby, which has what I can only describe as particularly Texan décor. I mean, after all, how many places do you go where you can sit in a cow fur armchair? Really?

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.

Our intended destination had been the massive Woodlands Mall. It’s not just a mall, it also has its own children’s museum, the Xploration Station satellite location for Houston’s Museum of Natural Science and a soft indoor play area. We figured we’d let Hunter have a great time there, then grab a bite to eat before heading back to the resort.

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.

La Madeleine is a short-range Texas chain that offers French baked goods and inspired dishes. I’ve been meaning to go to one for years -- every time I passed on in Dallas my mouth would water. Finally I was going to get that chance.

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.

That’s on one side. After I went through the line and picked up Hunter’s yogurt and my Chicken Friand I dropped off my tray at our table, and Paul got Hunter into eating her yogurt (with strawberries!) while I went and obtained our beverages. I also picked up some fresh bread. Slices of bread and butter are available to all La Madeleine customers complimentary, and I took good advantage of this. I 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.

But it was nothing compared to my Chicken Friand ($5.99), which was just better than I can express. Puff pastry filled with a couple different sorts of mushrooms and shredded chicken in a gorgeously luxurious cream broth. It was so phenomenal I almost cried. Outside of being served something similar by French friends, I haven’t had anything like it anywhere. Why can’t we get one of these La Madeleine restaurants in Little Rock?

While Paul took Hunter to the restroom I went for desserts to share. I settled on a mini Sacher Torte served in a square-cut shot glass and a piece of Tiramisu. When they came back Hunter claimed all the chocolate she could claim, letting us feed her bits with our spoons. I thought the tiramisu was a lot thicker than I was used to, but the Sacher Torte was extraordinarily rich. They offer a bigger version of it, too.

Now full, we ventured out and down a block to head over to Borders. We don’t have Borders Books in Arkansas (at least, not to my knowledge) and since the chain was going out of business we saw a chance to score some bargains. And yes, there were bargains to be had. There was also massive craziness in the kids area, where all the Pillow Pets had been thrown in the floor and which now made a strange play area for parents and kids alike. I took a single clandestine photo of the action.

Thing is, we did find some great deals. We also had to stand in line for close to 45 minutes to take advantage of those deals, because apparently everyone else had the same idea. Well, that was our luck.

We were done with shopping. It was time to head back to the hotel and take advantage of the fantastic waterpark area. Thing is, Paul and I were both pretty tuckered out. It had been a busy week. Was that going to deter Hunter? Of course not. So into our bathing suits we changed and off we went.

Hunter was so excitred I thought she was going to come right out of her skin. It was all we could do to keep her from running away from us as we headed out that way. She wanted to be in the water right then.

We started out intending on letting her play in the little splash pool for a while, but she spied the dancing fountains and had to investigate. This is a big round area with a relatively soft surface between the splash pool and the big pool with its waterslides. There are several small spigots that shoot up water every few moments in patterns.

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.

She played in that fountain a good 15 minutes, and then suddenly darted towards the big pool. We got onto her about that. Paul volunteered to take her out in it and I acquiesced, knowing Hunter wasn’t going to be happy until she tried it out.

They swam in the big pool for over an hour. I went out after a while with them. They were particularly enamored with the enamel lizards that graced the side of an island in the pool. Hunter wanted to name each one and pet it.

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.

Hunter? Not quite there yet. But she’s getting there. On our trip she’d learned the rudimentary bits of floating and dog paddling. I’ll be getting her into swim classes next summer for sure.

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.

She also played with a younger child in the splash pool. The boy’s mom had floats and toys and gladly shared them with Hunter… I wonder if part of it was this look my daughter was giving her son. My daughter can be pretty scary sometimes.

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.

When we returned, we found our beds turned down for the night. Mats had been put down for our feet (our wet feet? Maybe) and on each bed there were cards with the forecast for the next day and a couple of chocolates -- which Hunter claimed, of course!

After we’d showered, we turned on a movie on the TV and let Hunter watch while Paul and I started to pack. There was so much to take back with us; despite having left a bag of dirty clothes from each destination in the van and not taking about a quarter of the rest of our stuff, we still had plenty to put up. We went through it all -- the clothes, Hunter’s toys, my press materials, everything. Paul went and took two loads to the car -- he had wanted to grab a cart so he could make it all in one trip but there wasn’t one available. We sent everything to the car except my computer (I wanted to work right up until we left), a change of clothes for the each of us, the cooler, Hunter’s bag and our toiletry bag.

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.

We stopped in at the 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.

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