Thursday, December 30, 2010

Waffle House on McCain – Not all Waffle Houses are created equal.

2505 McCain Boulevard
North Little Rock

Sometimes, I just want breakfast, and I want someone else to fix it for me. I also want it to taste good, be reasonably priced and get decent service, i.e., coffee refills before I have to ask for them. Surprisingly, something this seemingly simple can be quite difficult to find these days. But not at the Waffle House on McCain in NLR.

Some weeks ago, I got up rather late and decided that I wanted breakfast. I’m sort of a fan of Waffle Houses in general (maybe it’s a character flaw, I don’t know), but they can be definitely a hit-or-miss proposition. You can go from the one on Geyer Springs in Little Rock, where I sat for fifteen minutes once and finally walked out – still unnoticed by the wait staff who, obviously, had much more important things to do that day. To the one on Rebsamen Park Road, where I thought the waitress was going to sit in my lap and chat for awhile. See what I mean?

Anyway, as I cycled through my mental Rolodex (I really am a neanderthal) of Waffle House locations, I thought I remembered one on McCain near the Kroger grocery store. Amazingly (particularly that morning), I was right, and felt very proud of myself as I pulled into their parking lot. But, due to the schizophrenic nature of the places, I wondered which one I was going to encounter: evil, aberrant Waffle House or kinder, gentler Waffle House. Luckily, it was the latter.

When I walked in, I immediately noticed that the median age of the customers seemed to be around 70ish. And, I thought that was a good sign. And, there were so many of those folks there, that some were waiting for a table. Even better. As a “one,” I decided to sit at the counter, and that was just fine.

The wait staff was friendly. They took my order reasonably quickly in light of the crush of a busy morning. And, I got my food very soon. Even cooked the way I had requested! And, what’s more, the people working there were often smiling!! Really, I’m not kidding. Not surly. Not checking their cell phones. Not irritated by your selfish intrusion into their busy personal lives. But actually smiling. What’s the matter with them?

The place had a very good, old-timey, friendly vibe. This was in December, and, if Elvis’s “Blue Christmas” had played on the non-existent jukebox, I would have thought I had been transported to an early version of “Back to the Future.” It was that good.

The food was good. The service was good. The prices were reasonable. The vibe was warm and comforting. Just a nice, diner-style, unpretentious place for breakfast distinguished, in this case, by the people who happen to work there. I think this one is a keeper.

What more could you want? Well, maybe a wider variety of choices and a similarly funky vibe, and that’s what the Frontier Diner, on I-30 near the Arkansas Highway Department offices, offers. Unfortunately, they stop serving breakfast at 10:30. But, more on that later.

Pho Thanh My – A promising beginning

302 North Shackleford Road (across from Kroger)
Little Rock

Two visits now to Pho Thanh My (fuh-tan-mee), and two pretty good experiences.

Evidently, pho (pronounced “fuh”) is a popular, every day, street food in Viet Nam, and basically consists of boiling water poured over rice noodles and some type of meat. Typical garnishes include lime, basil leaves, bean sprouts, a hot pepper of some type (here, jalapeno) and a form of cilantro leaf. I discovered pho at the first iteration of VanLang, and liked it. If you want to read an exhaustive description of pho, I suggest you go to Wikipedia.

Each time I’ve visited PTM, the parking lot has been crowded, and lots of Asians have been happily slurping up bowls of pho inside. A good sign. The service is still a bit slow sometimes, but earnest in their desire to please. I can forgive a lot of sins if someone is actually trying to do well, and they seem to be at PTM.

During a visit today, my friend and I tried the deluxe version of pho – the pho dac biet (fuh dak bay). The first time I went there, I asked the waitress what the Vietnamese ordered when they came in. She rolled her eyes and said, “They don’t bother looking at the menu. They just say, ‘Give me the pho special.’” OK, so that’s what we did today.

It was good, but sort of like a Supreme Pizza – the pho dac biet comes with all the toppings, and sometimes that’s good and sometimes it’s a little much. It was the latter for my tastes. Beef. Meat balls. Soft tendons. Tripe. And a few globs of chicken fat, just in case. For me, the simpler versions with one or two toppings have a purer, less diffuse flavor. But you might be a Supreme pizza person. If so, give the pho dac biet a try.

The portions are enormous. My friend got a to-go container, and she’ll have plenty of pho for a complete second meal. So, be forewarned.

We also ordered the Goi Cuon (spring rolls), and they were …. OK. Not as good as those at the Saigon Grill in Cabot. Lots of lettuce and a few shrimp rolled in cool rice paper, and large -- Bret Favre-photo-size (I apologize. I took a look at the photos he sent to the pneumatic NY Jets girl, and, paraphrasing Circa Bellum, “There are things that, once you see, you just can’t un-see them.” How unfortunately true.) I asked about that variation with the sausage (see, I can’t help it) in the spring roll along with the shrimp, and our waiter said that was a regional variation that they didn’t do there. I liked the Saigon Grill spring rolls better. In both cases, they’re served with peanut sauce.

On my first visit, I tried the Mi Thap Cam, an egg noodle soup with pork, shrimp, squid, crab meat and quail eggs. I suppose I thought it would be more like a spicy Thai soup (Tome Yum Goong or Tom Yam Kung, I’ve seen both spellings) that I love. It wasn’t. However, it was good. Mild and fragrant with subtle flavors.

So, the food seems to be fresh, tasty and the service, while sometimes slow, is trying to do well. And, the pho portions are quite large – you can easily get two meals out of one order.

Now, the fly-in-the-soup, so to speak. Today, our tab for two bowls of pho dac biet, an order of spring rolls, hot tea and ice tea weighed in at $26.72 before tip. Hmm. Something about that is not sitting well with me. Maybe genetics are kicking in and I’m becoming my old man (“Take care of the nickels and dimes, and the dollars will take care of themselves.”), but that seems just a tad high to me for, essentially, two bowls of soup, two spring rolls that are mostly lettuce, and two teas. Maybe it doesn’t to you.

Give Pho Thanh My a try. Since VanLang went to Korean ownership, the Vietnamese servings there have suffered a bit. So, this is one of the few places in the area now to get authentic Vietnamese food. It would be nice for it to survive and provide more Asian eating choices. Wish VanLang would go to an all-Korean menu, but that’s another story.

UPDATE February 23, 2011:

Considering the demise of Saigon Grill in Cabot, it's comforting to know that there is a real, authentic, Viet Namese restaurant in central Arkansas. Comforting, because I find noodle soup to be a comfort food. And, Pho Thanh My is very comforting indeed.

I didn't actually try the pho today, though what I saw looked good. I tried, instead, the lemon grass beef vermicelli. And found the portions and flavors both to be abundant. With just the supplied nuoc cham, it needed no doctoring whatsoever. Despite the enormous size of the bowl of noodles and beef before me, I still managed to wolf down two fried egg rolls and pronounced them the best I've ever had.

So, yeah, Joe Bob is right. Go!

Bob Joe Circabellum

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Dugan’s Pub - “Highway to Dizzy’s-ville”

Corner of Third and Rock Streets
Little Rock

Dugan’s has a lot going for it: location, location, location. It sits right on the corner of Third and Rock Streets on the ground floor of a largely-vacant condominium high-rise. Within easy walking distance of the River Market area, another condominium high-rise and the surrounding neighborhoods, you’d think they wouldn’t be so scared about failing.

The owner of the restaurant worked for years at Kelly’s Bistro (why, why, why does every restaurant lately aspire to be a “bistro”?) on West Markham. Going to have to go to Kelly’s again and see what they’re up to out West. Anyway, Duggan’s had promise initially, i.e., an “Irish” pub offering some nice beer choices (Smithwick’s, in particular) and, let’s say, “Irish-inspired” foods.

After several visits (including opening night), I noticed an unmistable trend -- they’re on not a Highway to Hell, but definitely a boulevard to Dizzy’s-ville. Dizzy’s, to me, represents the nadir of a “restaurant” eating experience. Want a thousand items on a menu? Sure, we got ‘em. All of them bad? Gotcha covered. Love frozen french fries and pre-processed foods? No problem. Distracted, self-absorbed service? Yep, we’re down with that, too.

But this isn’t a review of the odious Dizzy’s Gypsy (wha?) “Bistro.” My point, however long in arriving at it, is that Dugan’s had promise but is making so many compromises to ensure its longevity that it’s rapidly becoming just-another-generic-bar. Sad. Because when it finally arrives at that point, there really won’t be any compelling reason to go there.

For example, I noticed during a recent visit that a mix of pop-rock was playing on the Dugan’s sound system. I asked the floor manager if they hadn’t had Celtic music playing in the early days of their opening? “Yeah,” he said, “but people asked us to put on stuff that they were familiar with, so we did.” Ah, so you don’t really know who you are and what you want to be? You will let a committee of individuals tell you how to run your pub? Got it. And, of course, a committee of Arkansans who’ve never heard Celtic music before will always opt for Billy Joel in a heartbeat. “Keltic, whazzat? What position does he play?”

The beer at Dugan’s is cold, and you have a few interesting choices. In the food department, a safe bet (based on three orderings) has been the fish-and-chips. My girlfriend has had the corned-beef something, and commented that she never saw corned-beef that looked like that before. Right, it had been Dizzy-fied.

And, the floor manager. That’s another issue. This one was channeling Bill Belichek with his rumpled grey hoodie and jeans. Manager? He could have been a guy arriving to clean the grease trap in the kitchen. Just amazing. The only thing he lacked was a baseball cap backward on his head.

I will end this rant. Dugan’s had promise. It’s quickly becoming Dizzy’s deux. Service is very much dependent on who you get. Extremely distracted, last night. The food is shaky, except for the fish-and-chips. As I said, the beer is cold. Faint praise, yes. The location is great. It’s just sad that a place that, at least, implied with its name that it would be something different (and, as a result, very welcome), is quickly turning into yet another generic sports-bar.

Friday, December 03, 2010

Saigon Grill

2790 South Second Street, Suite H
Cabot, Arkansas

A simple, no fuss, hard to go wrong with menu of Vietnamese noodle and rice dishes. Many of these will be familiar if you've eaten at Van Lang or Saigon in Little Rock. We started with the spring rolls which were very good. This version had sausage in it along with the shrimp, a nice touch, and a spicy red sauce for dipping instead of the usual peanut sauce. Next time I go, I want to try the egg rolls, the ones in the pictures on the menu look good.

We tried the Asian Five Spice grilled chicken over vermicelli noodles. This was served in a huge bowl, more than one person should be able to eat, though I did manage to finish mine... I found it delicious, I used the whole portion of nuoc cham over mine which was a bit different than I'm used to, but the flavor was good. I might have liked a tad more spice, but understand that in a restaurant you have to go middle of the road to please most folks.

Next time I go, I'd like to try the beef ribs served with rice. The owner assures me this is the best thing on the menu...

While there are enough things on the menu to keep me happy for the next few visits, I'd love to see them offer at least some soups, maybe a nice bun bo hue. On a cold Arkansas winter's day, that would be a real warmer...

Priced reasonably, you can get out of there for less than $15 including tip. Very friendly staff and pleasant cafe atmosphere. Go try it!