Friday, February 25, 2011

Dixie Pig BBQ – Not long for this world.

900 West 35th Street, North Little Rock (Levy)


As Circa Bellum and I arrived at the Dixie Pig for lunch, we were greeted by a sign on the door saying that they were now open only for lunch – 11 a.m to 2 p.m. – each day. Not a good thing for a restaurant to try to survive exclusively on weekday lunch trade.

This was my first visit to Dixie Pig, and probably my last. What’s the line from Lynard Skynard’s “That Smell”? Ah, yes: “Can’t you smell that smell? The smell of death surrounds you.” It’s all over the Dixie Pig. If the place survives for much longer, despite being a fixture in Levy for some time, I will be surprised. And, I take no pleasure in that at all. None.

I ordered a large pork BBQ sandwich, onion rings, BBQ beans and drink. I asked the woman at the register if I should order it a particular way, i.e., meal, platter, basket, in order to save money. She made the order a “basket,” and said that would save me $3 ($10 and something versus $13 and something). Still pricey in my mind, but I appreciated the gesture.

When the food arrived at our table, I was discouraged to see a smallish sandwich that consisted of a Wonder Bread bun right out of the bag, a modest amount of chopped meat with no smoked flavor, and a tiny dollop of Sam’s Club cole slaw on top. No sauce. But that was on the table. The onion rings were fresh and made there, and the beans were fairly generic BBQ baked beans with lots of brown sugar. Circa had told me that the BBQ beans at the Dixie Pig were different, in that they consisted of several different types of beans. When mine arrived, he raised his eyebrows and said, “Hmm, I don’t remember them looking like that.” Starting to get the idea??

Much of this could be excused if the BBQ sandwich had been wonderful. It wasn’t. This was a tasteless affair, reminiscent of the urban myth that is “North Carolina BBQ.” Those poor, benighted people! But, that’s another rant. Circa B handed me a squeeze bottle of vinegary fluid that he said was the reason people came to the Dixie Pig. OK. I put some on my sandwich and took a bit. Hmm. Squeezed more on my sandwich and took another bite. Still very underwhelming. And, now I had a small quantity of bland meat on Wonder Bread with a vinegary aftertaste. Jeez, where are the BBQ police when you need them? (Probably eating at The Smoke Shack in Morgan.)

In retrospect, I suppose I should have tried the other squeeze bottle with what looked like conventional BBQ sauce in it. But, Circa B had said that the muddy vinegar bottle was the raison d’etre for the Dixie Pig, so that seemed like the logical choice. On a more positive note – and I’m really digging here – the onion rings were made on the premises, and OK. Not particularly flavorful. No dipping sauces to accompany them. But made there, and that counts for something.

The three women who were earnestly working there all looked like they had spent time in a battered women’s shelter at some point in their lives. The table service was fine; it’s just that the food sucked. I found myself smiling at them and being overly polite – like you might do around someone that you know has a terminal illness. It was that kind of place.

Wish I could find a cure for their disease. It would start with much, much, much better food, of course, but at this point it seems like that isn’t likely to happen. There just isn’t a compelling reason to go there, when the food quality is so very mediocre.

Rest in peace vinegary sauce. Perhaps you’ll find some misguided North Carolinians in the afterlife who will treasure your blandness.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Green Cuisine food wagon – Hope this one lasts.

East side of Chester Street between Sixth and Seventh Streets, Little Rock

No phone

Other than some of the southeast Asian places around town, it can be challenging to find a tasty vegetarian meal. Since November 1, 2010, however, that situation has been improved by the arrival of the Green Cuisine food wagon, set up in a parking lot between Sixth and Seventh Streets just east of Chester Street. This review, such as it is, is based on a single visit to the place today, but, due to that visit, I hope the Green Cuisine finds an audience soon and lasts.

I had a Philly Cheese Portabella Sub, which was quite good and more than I could finish (could have used Circa Bellum’s legendary appetite and help). The sandwich came with a side order, and I chose the Quinoa Salad based on the owner’s recommendation. Her actual words were, “Do you feel like taking a risk?,” which sounded oddly like Clint Eastwood’s famous lines in “Dirty Harry,” i.e., “Do you feel lucky, punk? Well, do you?” But I digress.

The Quinoa salad turned out to be interesting and very good. Pronounced "Keenwa," quinoa is a seed that is surprisingly flavorful. My Oxford English Dictionary refers to it as "Any of several annual goosefoots...."!! So, there you have it! Evidently, it tasted so good because the seeds are, in fact, very tiny duck feet! The Sweet Potato Slaw that my companion got with her Grilled Veggie sandwich was also quite good. We both agreed that the Philly Cheese Portabella sub had more flavor, but she wrapped up the remainder of her veggie sandwich and took it home rather than not eat it all. So that says something, too.

The Green Cuisine has drinks (water and teas, as I recall), and they take credit cards. There are also a couple of picnic tables nearby, so you can eat in the pastoral confines of the weedy parking lot, if you choose to.

The Green Cuisine lunch wagon is definitely worth a visit, but I have to admit a bias in wanting little places like this to succeed and add some variety to an all-too-limited local dining environment. So many restaurants today are bland, franchised operations that depend on people putting up with decidedly bad food in exchange for a bogus “experience” and simply not having/wanting to cook. But, at the same time, I recognize that nobody is forcing people to eat at these places.

To me, this is a very cynical business model, but that mentality pops up in the most unlikely places. To wit: using the restroom at Whole Foods grocery store today, I noticed a giant (perhaps, ostentatious and self-congratulatory?) “Core Values” statement on the wall. The first “Core Value,” evidently, of Whole Foods is to expand their operations through “increased profit and growth.” I had to read three more “Core Values” before I got to one related to “satisfying our customers.” Hmm. Most of them, in fact, dealt specifically or tangentially with improving “value for our stakeholders,” rather than trying to provide good products at reasonable prices for the people who patronize their stores and keep them in business. I was surprised. Makes one wonder if Whole Foods isn’t a subsidiary of Goldman Sachs.

Enough ranting. Try the Green Cuisine lunch wagon. As they say on their take-out menu, “You don’t have to be vegetarian, you just have to like to eat.” My sentiments exactly.

2/18/11 UPDATE:

I suspect they are doing okay as they were out of nearly everything when I got there a little after one. I wanted to try the behemoth sandwich that Joe Bob had written about above, but no luck. They were also out of the bleu cheese mac-n-cheese, which really sounded great. So, I went with the owner's recommendation of "the most popular item on the menu," the chipotle pinapple black bean quesadilla. And while I was waiting, she gave me a sample of "G's" Chili. Now I would never order vegetarian chili on purpose and wasn't about to start now, but I never turn down a free taste. This chili was surprisingly good. They got the texture just right, which is the thing I would worry about on the vegan version. I expressed my surprise at how much it seemed like it had meat in it and she told me it had no soy, but some esoteric protein that I would probably rather know less about than more. I'm okay with that, I'm not too squeamish when it comes to foods. A fellow customer commented that it would be really good on hot dogs, which made me giggle just a little.

So, she sent me away with a bowl of the chili gratis, since she said it wasn't really selling for some reason. I could have told her why I think it is, but I don't know her that well and strangers tend to not know how to take my viewpoints. Friends are even worse for that matter...

The quesadilla was good but not remarkable, but the chili rounded it out very well and I'm sure that I would not have been satisfied if not for the chili. I still want to tackle the Philly Cheese Portabella. - Bob Joe Circabellum

Thai Taste – Satisfactory Thai to satisfy a craving.

1516 West Main Street, Jacksonville, AR


Thai Taste has been around a long time, and caters to an unsophisticated American clientele who prefer buffet-style dining, i.e., quantity supercedes quality. Most of those diners, if slaughtered and “dressed-out,” would handily feed an Asian family of six for weeks, if not months.

This is not to say that the buffet at Thai Taste is bad. No, it’s good in a modest way, and the food is reasonably fresh. It’s just that “Kathy,” who started the restaurant many years ago, and “Jimmy” and “Gai” (“chicken” in Thai), his wife and Kathy’s daughter, have created a buffet menu that works and they’re not about to change it. OK, I accept that as a smart business decision given their location, and they’re hard-working folks who are at the restaurant six days a week. Give them their due.

However, if you are not interested in buffet dining (or being slaughtered, dressed out and fed to Asians, for that matter), they have a menu that you really should take a look at. And, you’ll notice that the other Thais and Koreans who patronize the place typically avoid the buffet and do that very thing. A recent dinner there included a very good Som Tam (shredded green papaya salad with lime juice, Thai peppers, fish sauce and tomatoes) and my favorite soup of all-time, Kung Dom Yam (this has many spellings). The latter is a hot and spicy shrimp and lemongrass soup. Just wonderful when prepared well. And, at Thai Taste, they do a creditable job with it.

A quick word about “spicy:” you need to be a bit careful at Thai Taste, because they, being Thai, tend to judge the relative “heat” in their dishes from that perspective, naturally. “Medium” hot to them is very hot to most American palates. For example, the Som Tam I ordered would normally have come out of the kitchen with five Thai peppers crushed in the salad, and that would have been “medium.” Instead, I ordered it with three peppers (some of you will be thinking “What a wuss!”), but my companion took a bite, bugged her eyes out and said, “Whew! That’s hot!” Get the idea?

To me, the spice-heat in Thai food is one of the wonderful things that differentiates it from Cantonese or Vietnamese cuisine, but I don’t want that heat to overpower the taste of the other ingredients. It’s not a hot-pepper-eating contest, in other words.

My companion ordered “Mongolian Beef,” and got a familiar dish interpreted through a Thai sensibility. She ate some, looked quizzical for a minute, ate some more, and then pronounced it some of the best Asian food she had had since being in Little Rock (about four years). I tried it, and it was quite good.

I once asked “Jimmy” what he thought were the best dishes that his wife prepared, and he mentioned the Kung Dom Yam (I think they spell it “Tom Yung Doong” there, actually) and Chicken with fresh Basil leaves. I’ve had both, and they’re very tasty. Maybe not the absolute best Thai food that you’ve ever had, but very good and very satisfying when you’re craving Thai in central Arkansas.

Leo’s Greek Castle - As far from Greece as you can get.

2925 Kavanaugh Boulevard, Little Rock


Leo’s is proof that reality is very subjective. In Googling the place for its address and phone number, I read a number of reviews, such as this one from “Jeremy R. – ‘Most people who enjoy good food in Little Rock know of Leo’s Greek Castle…. Located in the Hillcrest area it truly is just a whole (sic) in the wall.’”

OK, let me recast that sentence slightly: “Most literate people who enjoy good food in Little Rock know to stay away from Leo’s Greek Castle.” Yes, that’s much better now.

Leo’s should be your destination for gyros and other Greek-inspired food when all other Greek restaurants in the area are closed for repairs. Service is s-l-o-w, the food varies from OK to distinctly mediocre, and the dining area is cramped.

A recent trip there confirmed previous impressions. The hummus had a strong flavor of dill, which was a little surprising and not to my tastes. Maybe others enjoy it prepared in that idiosyncratic manner, but I’m not one of them. The meat on my gyros platter was nice and tasty. But, the tzatziki sauce had an odd texture and bland flavor, and the fries were old and dried up (been sitting around way too long under a heat lamp).

My companion’s “Greek Salad” was made with iceberg lettuce (wha?), and appeared to have been thrown together hastily. She didn’t eat it, but, then again, she really likes well-made Greek salads and hates iceberg lettuce. There was no sign of the “TLC” in the food preparation (offered as an excuse for the slow service) mentioned in some of the reviews on Google.

I have a theory that Leo’s benefits from locals patronizing a place for years because it’s in the neighborhood and is “cute,” and those traits are more important to them than the quality of the food. Because, in my "reality-based reality," the food at Leo's sucks. If you want excellent gyros, go to Layla’s and pay the too-high prices for real quality.