I was invited to come visit a building across the street from the hub of Central Arkansas Transit Thursday night. The former American Legion facility now boasts gorgeous neon out front, a long ramp and cut window views into what at first appears to be a shiny version of 1978.
Inside, I had an opportunity to have a chat with Brian Fontaine, one of the rollers behind the Dust Bowl concept. Brian chatted with me a while.
"We had a buiding in Tulsa we didn't know what we could do with," Fontaine starts. "Elliott (J. Elliott Nelson) our owner thought, 'hey, wouldn't it be cool to have a bowling alley.' At the time some bigger cities like New York were opening boutique, eight lane bowling alleys. So we went out looking at different alleys and visited these new boutique alleys in Brooklyn, in the Austin area.
"We started talking with Nick Sparks - he works for AMF Bowling (American Machinery and Foundry, which has built bowling machines for decades) installing bowling lanes. He lives in Tulsa. He told us we could go get old lanes from old bowling alleys that were closing and fix them up and we could use them - they're still good machines.
"Our first Dust Bowl in Tulsa was a huge success. Oklahoma city followed - it was a great concept. Little Rock, we've been looking at for three years now. We met with the folks at Moses Tucker Group. They courted several properties to us, and this one worked out."
"It'd been closed down a long time. When we first walked in, it was still set up as the American Legion. The padding was still on the old bar - so we recycled that and used it. The top of the bar is (the wood from) a bowling lane but the padding on the side and front is from the original American Legion bar that we reused and it's worked out pretty well."
Fontaine says it was a close fit.
"To have enough room (to bowl), the building has to have certain dimensions. Too short, too narrow and it just won't work out. This building was a perfect fit - any tighter and we would not have been able to do it."
I asked about the location, in particular the proximity to the very hub of Little Rock's public transportation system. Fontaine says it was the neighborhood, not the transit link, that provided the encouragement to locate at this address.
"We looked more about the neighborhoods surrounding it. These townhomes and apartments that are here now, they weren't here when we first started considering this spot. But the area is developing quickly with young professionals, and theyre some of our biggest customers. We reasoned the population as a whole would support this concept. More than in Tulsa or Oklahoma City, Little Rock people live to bowl out here. It's blown our minds, a pleasant surprise."
Dust Bowl's 70s aesthetic doesn't just call back to that decade with its color scheme. In back, there's a collection of aligned bowling machines circulating pins and balls - fascinating to watch, and loud.
"In the back, the pins are flying, they're so weird. Whoever came up with these machines was a genus," Fontaine beams. He invited Hunter and I to come back and take a look. The machinery was recovered from an older, now closed alley, cleaned up and brought here. It works seamlessly. The contraptions and their dressings include the original console fronts with their decorative elements from their first go-round.
The access for the machines (which aren't usually open to the general public for obvious reasons) is at the end of a long enclosed hallway paralleling the lanes, a hall that provides access to the alley's remarkably sparkling white restrooms. Windows allow close views of the lanes in use.
"Here, we have an onion burger - which is really popular around Reno, Oklahoma and the towns along the highways out there," Tack shares. "We take a pile of chopped onions and throw them on the griddle and put our beef down on top of that, gives the burger this flavor. It's very reminiscent of how diners have done it in the past. It's a similar layout back there - with a griddle where you have to conserve space."
"We like to think our food sets us apart from a regular bowling alley," Fontaine adds. "It's all burger and shake style action, but everything's made from scratch. Those onion burgers from Reno are popular out there - we hope you like them. Our apps are share-friendly. We just want you to order a bunch and let everyone share. The cocktails - we're bar people (we started doing bars before we did bowling alleys). I was a bartender for years when I was younger. The drink menu will be seasonally changed. We're opening with winter cocktails that will get us a few months down the road.
That got my interest. I'd noticed the construction going on in the building next door when I had parked on the street. That's where the third Fassler Hall is going in.
I'll take a look through Fassler Hall once it opens. Now that I had seen the pins in action, I wanted a chance to bowl.
We ordered food and took one of the lanes in the private party area - Lanes 1 and 2 are separated at the top end by some structural walls with cut-outs. It's not really private but it is separate from the other six. We acquired shoes, too. I asked Brian the all-important shoe question - how large do the sizes run? He laughed.
"We have big shoes – 15-16 or something like that. In Oklahoma City, we have big shoes, up to 22 ad 23. We have players from the Thunder and the Spurs who visit every night."
Hunter wasn't certain of her shoe size, and I got asked twice when I asked for men's size 8 (I have really wide feet for a girl). Grav didn't have any trouble getting 13s. It felt a little weird being the first folks to wear these new, hard bowling shoes. Hunter didn't really get it at first but she went along with it.
She was also a little concerned that the lightest ball was a six pounder and complained to me loudly about it until she got on the lane. But after her first two frames she was just fine. I had no problem finding a nicely drilled twelve pound ball myself.
While the far end of the lanes are straight out of the 60s or 70s, the top end is electronic, with custom scoreboards and electronics. You can even call for a wait staffmember to come take orders for drinks or food, no sweat. Tunes from the 70s programmed by general manager Rich Bielefield hit all the expected notes - we grooved to Parliament's "Flashlight," Bob Segar's "Mainstreet" and Steely Dan's "Peg" while hanging out. The alley filled up, mostly with 20- and 30-somethings at the lanes, with a few folks hanging out at the bar.
And we sampled the culinary fare. Hunter, for some reason, started off with nothing but chips and Ranch dressing. She was strongly focused on getting bowling down right.
She and I also ordered the poutine. Now, it's been ten years since my first encounter with poutine on a trip to Boston. Most of the attempts I've tried in Arkansas have missed the boat, using shredded cheese instead of cheese curds. This, however, was a lovely and tasty bunch of brown slightly chunky-with-mushroom gravy covered white cheese curds on duck fat fries. It was probably not what any sensible person would eat but for myself and Grav, once he tried a couple fries, it was awesome. Hunter took after them a bit, too.
We sampled three more substantial dishes. Grav and his veggie-lovin' self, he had to dive into the Veggie Gyro - a divided flatbread packed with yellow squash, lettuce, tomato, hummus and tzatziki. and some feta. Hey, squash. Crookneck yellow squash would not be what I would think of when I wanted to substitute the meat out of a gyro, but this was all right.
I was far more thrilled with the chili cheese dog, partly because it tasted almost exactly like the sort of chili cheese dog I'd make at home with Cheddar, some meaty chili that lacked a lot of beans and a high quality beef weiner. I was delighted by the straight-tube, sliced-end dog on this bun. It was clean and very meaty in flavor. I also heavily dug the neat bun, a cartridge-style bun reminiscent of good plain old white bread, complete with "top crust" but without being cut all the way through. It tasted like the sort of dog I make when I don't want to get out of my pajamas and I'm heating a hot dog to grab in my kitchen.
The onion burger was a must-try, of course. The menu doesn't specifically say there aren't any onions on it, but I know there will be someone out there who's clueless and who will complain anyway. The onions grilled along with the burger are also slapped onto the bun with it. They're in shreds by the time they get there, but their presence makes for a melding of bun and burger that requires no cheese - though this burger did have a slice of yellow American on it. Moreso, without the pungeant spike of yellow mustard, this would have melded together a little too comfortingly; instead, mustard gives this burger a nice spice. I will be trying the Rodeo Burger next time I go, to enjoy the beauty of both of these items (the onion burger and the chili cheese dog) on its own.
My one lamentation was wanting to try the Totchos and not being able to because, frankly, I don't wanna die. The combination sounds perfect - crispy tots, house made pulled pork, refried beans, monterrey jack, chipotle aioli - I could see this being so shareable and excellent. However, I will say - recalling my 1970s childhood, I would recommend a tator-tot casserole version, where the tots, cheese, beans and such were ran under a salamander with chunks of those fantastically excellent hot dogs. I'd eat the tar out of that and grin while doing it. Heck, throw on that poutine gravy.
All in all, I was charmed by Dust Bowl, and I suspect many of my colleagues will be dropping by in the coming weeks. For right now, I'm excited about the next housemade weiner I'll enjoy, and I'm getting myself more of that poutine. And maybe I'll roll better than 100 next time I go.
check out the website or call (501) 353-0775.