Saturday, January 22, 2011

Riverfront Steakhouse

2 Riverfront Plaza (in the Wyndham Motel)

North Little Rock, AR


I wonder what it says about me that I go to a well-regarded local steakhouse for the first time and like the shrimp bisque better than the steaks. Probably nothing, actually.

My companion said she was hungry for a steak, and we wound up at the Riverfront Steakhouse on the night of a big country music concert at the Verizon Arena. Because of its proximity to the Verizon, lots of Arkansans from out of town evidently like to stay there when they go to a concert. The country music folks, it seems, like to get all liquored-up at the bar and then ride a bus or van over to Verizon. As a local driver, I felt safer immediately.

Sitting at the bar waiting on our table, I observed that the drink-of-choice among the country ladies was the Long Island Ice Tea (at the Riverfront bar: four clear liquors -- vodka, rum, gin and tequila -- followed by Triple Sec, a sweet and sour mix and a dash of Coca-Cola). It seemed to have an immediate and powerful effect on all of them. They quickly became giddy-er, loud-er (if possible), and … country-er. For us, it was the equivalent of dinner and a show.

After our meal, I went back and asked the bartender about the ingredients in a Long Island Ice Tea. When I said, “That sounds like it would taste terrible!” He nodded, and said, “It does. But it’s the best value for your money if you want to get drunk. “ OK. And, then he added, “But the hangovers are really nasty.” Ahh, the rich pageantry of life.

Dinner at the Riverfront Steakhouse focuses, naturally, on steaks. In this case, Prime beef that they bring in from Chicago a couple of times a week. It is supposedly aged and never frozen. Those are all good things. They also say that they cut the steaks to order, salt and pepper them, put them in a special oven to create a crust, then butter them, and then put them back in an oven until they reach the appropriate “doneness.” That all sounds really good.

With a steak, you also get a soup or a trip to the “salad bar.” As I mentioned earlier, my companion made a very wise choice and ordered the shrimp bisque. When I tasted it, I immediately cancelled my trip to the “salad bar,” and asked for the bisque. Evidently, the gods weren’t smiling on me that evening, because our waiter, Eric, came shuffling back and -- doing his best Walter Brennan imitation -- apologetically explained that she had got the very last bisque. Wha?? OK, I’m not worthy of the bisque, I guess. But it was creamy, shrimpy, delightfully seasoned and beautifully colored. Very flavorful. Really one of the best bisques I’ve had in years, and maybe that was because it had been down there at the bottom of the container in the kitchen and kept accreting flavor. I don’t know, but it was GOOD.

When I was at the “salad bar,” our steaks arrived. I don’t consider myself pretentious, but a place that aspires to be a sort of high-class steakhouse, in my mind, shouldn’t have a “salad bar.” It should prepare great salads in the kitchen and deliver them to your table. I guess I’ve never recovered from the episode of Saturday Night Live years ago, when Dan Ackroyd took some friends to the “Trough and Brew” restaurant. Salad bars, to me, are simply troughs that invite folks (usually “big-boned” as we say in the South), to test how much their plates can really hold.

OK, the steaks. I ordered a T-Bone ($36.95, I think) medium-rare, and a “40-count” potato (Eric explained that there are typically 100 potatoes in a bushel, but the ones the Riverfront orders are football-sized tubers that fill up a bushel with only forty). Eric was obviously pleased with these potatoes, because he went on to say that “The big ones will feed a family of four!” Impressive, but I just wanted a side dish, not a UNICEF mission. When it arrived, it was, yes, large, but not huge. And, it tasted very good. Along with it, I got a separate plate with a year’s supply of butter, sour cream and cheddar cheese. Amazing.

Back to the steak. Juicy, reasonably tender, a bit over-cooked, tasty, and … thinner than I had expected. The pepper coating was sort of overpowering, to me. It masked the natural full flavor of a Prime beef steak a tad, and I thought that was unfortunate. My companion had a bone-in Ribeye (I think for $32.95 – and, why do people insist on the “.95” thing? But, that’s another rant altogether). Both were, potentially, quite good steaks, but the seasonings – again, to me – got in the way. Portions were large, and we both took home at least half a steak to eat later. I would have, actually, preferred a thicker, smaller steak, and I’m going to go back and try their largest tenderloin and see how that compares to my T-Bone.

Service was … leisurely. And, sometimes, that’s OK. But, it could have been better when we were there. If you’re paying that much for a steak, I also expect good, attentive, unobtrusive, knowledgeable service. Maybe I ask for too much.

We’ll go back, and I’ll get the shrimp bisque. The place is popular, and they take reservations. On weekends – especially those with country music concerts going on at the Verizon Arena -- those would probably be a good idea. The martinis are good in the bar (though they charge $1 extra for a “dirty” martini, which I find larcenous). And, unless you’re going to the concert, I’d stay away from the Long Island Ice Teas.

Delgado’s Market

324 West Main Street

Jacksonville, AR


Looking for a grocery at which to buy some Arbol, Pequin and Guajilla peppers, my friend and I stumbled on to Delgado’s Market, a café, bakery (panaderia) and butcher shop (carniceria). We were both really hungry, so we decided to try the food. It was a good idea.

She had the Pollo Mexicana ($5.95) and I had a carnitas burrito ($5.95). We shared a half-liter Mexican Coke (bottled in Monterey, Nuevo Leon – about 400 miles southwest of San Antonio -- and made with cane sugar instead of the ubiquitous, American high-fructose corn syrup). Salsa and chips came with the lunch, and the salsa was particularly good. Fresh, with a nice blend of tomato, pepper, onion and cilantro.

Another handy touch were the photos of the meals they prepare, with the names and prices underneath posted above the counter. You don’t have to speak Spanish to point and garble out your choices. It seems as though tacos were $1.50 each, and had all the typical meats available. I need to go back and try some of those, because I’m still searching for that one transcendent taco that explains their popularity. Don’t get me wrong, I love tacos. But, I want to find one that, when you bite into it, your eyes bug out because the thing’s so good. Of course, you’d have to try this by yourself, because, if your eyes really did bug out, your companions might think you had suddenly developed Graves disease and panic.

The Pollo Mexicana at Delgado’s was like a large quesadilla, i.e., chicken and white cheese wrapped in a soft tortilla with more cheese on top, plus some sliced avocado. My carnitas burrito was filled with, naturally, carnitas (pork shoulder or butt fried in lard or roasted; in this case, roasted) rice and spices. Both were ample servings, which, to my surprise, we managed to polish off completely.

When paying for the meal ($14.54), I noticed a large display of pastries. The owner said that all were baked fresh there, and I made a mental note to head back soon and buy a few. Same thing with the meats. I’m guessing they make their own chorizo, and that’s another reason to go back.

I’m a sucker for places that actually try to please. The guy who prepared our food and served it was very nice, checked on us several times, and was obviously delighted when we were complimentary of his food. It’s a simple thing, but I like that. I’ll go back for the pastries soon.

Most Mexican food is tasty and seems to satisfy some basic cravings. Mexican was the one cuisine that Julia Child did not have a particularly high regard for, and I think that was because of its complete lack of subtlety. It’s a primitive blending of really powerful flavors, i.e., the AC/DC of food. But it can taste SO good. And, like I said, it seems to tap into some basic taste cravings that we all have.

The food at Delgado’s Market fits neatly into this category. Nice, honest Mexican food prepared in authentic fashion. Nothing fabulous, but still good. Plus, they have “Boing” sodas in the cooler, and, with a name like that, I’ve got to go back and try one.

Friday, January 21, 2011

The Country Village Cafe – Eating BBQ in a Southern Baptist commune.

Approx. four miles south of Star City, Arkansas, on U.S. 425

My companion had heard of “a great bakery and restaurant in Star City” from some friends, and was interested in trying them. Neither of us had ever had the pleasure of visiting Star City, Arkansas (I mean, really, how bad could it be?) So, with the theme song of “Gilligan’s Island” faintly playing in the background, we set off.

About an hour and twenty minutes later, we drove into Star City: population a little less than three thousand souls. And, now the disclaimer: this is a town that would be very, very easy to make fun of, and that seems a tad unfair. So, I’m going to try to resist. Let’s just say that we drove around looking for the “great bakery and restaurant,” and it didn’t take long (five minutes?) to circumnavigate the entire town and decide that my companion’s friends were obviously delusional. By the way, if you’re looking for great deals on thoroughly used house trailers (not the fancier “mobile homes”), Star City is your place.

Confused and frustrated, we stopped at a gas/”convenience” store, and “Lois” solved the mystery for us. “You’re looking (I’m not going to get into dialect) for the ‘Country Village,’” she said. “Go about four miles south toward Monticello, and you’ll see a sign on the right. Turn there, and then look for the lawnmowers.” She wasn’t kidding.

Fast forward: we find the place (and the lawnmowers), and step into an alternate reality akin to the Village of “The Prisoner” episodes from the Seventies. The Country Village is a collection of shops and restaurants owned and operated by families who all attend the same church – originally Southern Baptist, but now non-denominational and fundamentalist. There is a Country Village Steakhouse, Country Village Catfish house and Country Village BBQ place, along with a leather shop, watch repair, furniture store, toy shop, barber shop and, yes, bakery.

The steakhouse and catfish restaurant are open only in evenings, so our choice was made for us: BBQ. We went in, and I quickly noticed that all three of the waiters bore a striking (eerie?) resemblance to one another. So, I (acting the Gomer Pyle role) mentioned that fact to our waiter, and he said, “Yeah, those are my brothers.” Whew! No, Stepford Waiters in the Country Village, after all. The BBQ sandwich, beans and fries were just fine. Not great, but good. (A digression: my companion was less picky than I was. In fact, she thought the BBQ was quite good, but what does she know? She's originally from Wisconsin!) Worth a trip by themselves, no. But, as part of a Country Village experience, perhaps. And, the service from the three brothers was the nicest and most polite I’ve had in … maybe ever.

Our waiter worked four jobs at various places in the Country Village, and his parents own and operate the Catfish house. I was truly sorry that they didn’t open until 5p, but the siren song of Star City really wasn’t strong enough to keep us around that long. However, the bakery was open and doing quite a business. Again, another family-owned operation with parents and kids doing everything in the place. The baked items were high-quality and quite good, and we both came home with bags full of bread, blueberry streusel, homemade blueberry jelly, etc.

The Country Village is an interesting place. The folks there are exceedingly polite and seem to be happy with the choices they've made. And, it’s a popular destination in that region of South Arkansas. Almost worth a trip from Little Rock, but the operative word there is “almost.” However, if you find yourself needing a decrepit house trailer and decide to go to Star City, you could do a lot worse than head south of town four miles and look for the lawnmowers.

McAlester’s Deli: Proudly adding “very” to “mediocre.”

9700 North Rodney Parham


You go into a restaurant adjacent to a road with a high traffic count at lunchtime on a Friday, and there are very few people inside. What does that tell you? The obvious: the place sucks. However, my friend and I decided to be charitable and optimistic and give McAlester’s the benefit of the doubt. Result: McAlester’s – 1, Diners – 0.

A place that calls itself a “deli,” even in the South where the word really doesn’t have much meaning, should be able to serve a decent pastrami, corned-beef, and Reuben sandwich. At least, I think it should. My McAlester’s Reuben (after first being served half a sandwich instead of the whole sandwich I had ordered) was so ordinary and unappealing that I was a little stunned. Then, I looked at the kitchen staff, and received an instantaneous Vulcan Mind Meld: “THEY JUST DON'T CARE.”

With my faux “Reuben,” I also got a pickle and potato salad. I told my companion that the latter was the best thing on the plate. She tasted it and said, “That’s the stuff they sell at Sam’s.” Ahh. Hopefully, she was wrong. I mean, they wouldn’t do that, would they? Really, they wouldn’t, right?

I looked over at her plate: soup and a “chicken” baked potato, and cringed before asking her how they were. The “fire-roasted vegetable soup”? With a shrug, “OK.” The “chicken baked potato”? “Old.” Jeez, even the baked potato is bad? I mean, we’re plumbing new depths of mediocrity here at McAlester’s.

Verdict: stay far away from this place. Don’t let anyone talk you into going. I mean, when there are so many consistently mediocre places to eat in the area, why would you want to visit this very mediocre one unless you were truly neurotic? The location might have had its highest and best use when it was the short-lived Hooter’s, and that says a lot.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Star of India(rkansas)

301 North Shackleford Road (in a large strip mall near Kroger)

On the occasion of another visit to Star of India, I would like to make a few quick observations about it, since it was one of the first southeast asian restaurants in central Arkansas.

The place performs the dual function of restaurant and performance space for the owner and master-of-ceremonies -- the way-over-the-top, Sammi Lal. I remember a time when they began serving Indian beer, and Sammi strode out of the kitchen with a tray of beer loudly proclaiming "Indian beer is wonderful beer. God Bless America!" (Always sensitive to the feelings of his paying customers, that Sammi).

But, enough of that. The food is ... OK. It's Indian by way of Little Rock, i.e., it's undergone the same sort of metamorphosis that created Tex-Mex to the south of us, and maybe not so successfully. The more authentic Amruth (11121 North Rodney Parham / 224-4567) serves food that may be too spicy for the general public, but it's the place to go when you have a hankerin' (I can't believe I just wrote that) for a big 'ole dose of turmeric and cardamom.

Sometimes, the service in Star of India becomes very Shiva-esque, i.e., as though all of the waiters had six arms and they were simultaneously reaching to fill your water glass, take your plate (before you've finished eating), re-filling your tea, etc. I've actually had to cover my plate with my hands to protect it from being removed by these very earnest people. But, at least, they're trying to provide good service, which can be a commodity in preciously short supply at many other restaurants in the area. Namaste.

So, what's the bottom line? Star of India serves very average, quasi-Indian food with a side dish of obsequious service. It has survived and, apparently, profited largely due to the lack of any real competition, together with its astute muting of true southeast asian flavors to accommodate American tastes. It's what Arkansans think Indian food tastes like. And, if you're from some other part of the country, you may be a bit disappointed.