Monday, August 22, 2011


300 East Markham
Little Rock, Arkansas

Cajun food excites me. I like to cook it, I like to eat it, I like to be with my friends and eat it. It's a friendly food and delicious when prepared properly. That's why I enthusiastically chose Redbone's over the Flying Fish Friday night since I'd never tried it before.

A new restaurant, located in the old Flying Burrito space in the River Market, we'd heard that maybe they don't have all of the bugs worked out. But we weren't prepared for what we encountered.

The menu looked good with a selection of Po Boys and Cajun dishes including an alligator dish. I'm leery of alligator on a first date because it has to be fresh and perfectly prepared to be good at all, so I got the shrimp grits instead. My Bride got the roast beef po' boy and our companion got the pecan encrusted grouper.

We also ate the Oyster Rockefeller Stuffed Mushrooms and the Andouille Cheese dip appetizers. The Oyster dish was heavy on the mushrooms and light on the oysters, but tasty. The cheese dip was really good. I may start adding andouille to my cheese dip from now on! And it was about then that the sound check next door started...

A chest pounding, throbbing beat began to permeate the walls, vibrating everything from light fixtures to salt shakers and effectively cutting off all possibility of conversation. Did I mention that I like to be around friends when eating Cajun food? Curious, I wandered outside to peek in at the Rev Room next door. Mind you, it's only about seven o'clock and the door is locked but I can see the guys in there testing out their sound system. I reported back to the table and asked the waiter if it's this way every night? "Oh, no," he assured me. Somehow I didn't feel so reassured.

The food arrived shortly after that and turned out to be fairly stingy portions. The shrimp grits had some well prepared, juicy shrimp on them, but the grits and the sauce were very lackluster. I almost wondered if they had just spooned a couple of dollops of Rotel on top. Our companion remarked that he'd never had to cut fish with a knife before which I think explains the grouper adequately. My Bride said that her po' boy was good, but I noticed that she didn't eat any of the bread, choosing to pick the meat with her fingers.

The beer was cold, but the air conditioner seemed to have trouble keeping up so by the time we finished eating, between the sweating and the bouncing in our chairs from the sound check next door, we were more than ready to leave.

May give this place another try during lunch and hope that it's quieter and they have the kinks worked out...

Aug. 23 update: Arkansas Times review says that the owners had Hungry's Cafe from 1984 to 1993. I don't think this is correct, seems I remember Sherry K. starting it and owning it into the nineties. Is this possibly the guy that bought it from Sherry and ruined it? Hungry's went out of business not long after Sherry left. The article also mentions The Diner in Cabot. The Diner in Cabot was such a foodservice frozen food warmed up and schlepped on a plate that I didn't even bother to review it. This is all starting to make sense now as to how you can have such lackluster Cajun food when Cajun food is by design supposed to be exciting...

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Lassis Inn – Where the buffalo … are fried.

518 East 27th Street, Little Rock, AR


A friend suggested that we go to the Lassis Inn, and mentioned en route that the menu was, essentially, binary, i.e., you had your choice of either catfish or buffalo (fish). No burgers. No wings. Just fish. And, as frequent readers will know, I have a fondness for fried catfish that would put a smile on the face of the most hardened cardiologist. Sometimes, I wonder if crack isn’t really crystalized catfish. But, back to our story.

The Lassis Inn is in a small, nondescript wooden building adjacent to Interstate 30, south of Roosevelt Road. From what the waitress told me, it’s been in business in or around that location since 1905. The present owners have had it for, I think she said, 26 years. It’s cozy inside, and, indeed, the menu consists of … catfish and buffalo. You can choose between “fish and bread” only (you still get hushpuppies), or opt for a dinner, as I did, with cole slaw, fries and a slice of onion. Drinks include beer, tea and the usual Coke products, though they were out of tea (?) when we ate there.

I told the waitress that I had never been there before and asked her what I should order. “Big-boned buffalo,” she immediately answered. Having never had that before, I smiled and said, “OK.” My friend (who, ominously, had tasted buffalo before) ordered the catfish and bread plate. The food arrived quickly after our glasses with ice and canned drinks, and I got an extra “bone plate” to go with my buffalo. Good thinking.

My first bite was a little off-putting. OK, more than a little off-putting. Imagine what a river bottom probably tastes like and that’s buffalo. I mean, you’re right down there swimming through the muck and tasting the water. But, I discovered that, the more I ate, the more I liked it. (See how that sort of validates my fried-fish-as-narcotic theory?) The strong flavor of buffalo isn’t for everyone, so keep that in mind. The servings consist of fried sections of the flesh around the fish’s ribs, usually in chunks of two or three ribs. And, each section is about the size of a BBQ pork rib. The waitress also wasn’t kidding when she said “big-boned,” because the ribs were thin but roughly five to six inches in length. The flesh is white, not pink, and the corn meal coating that they use at Lassis is pleasantly flavorful.

The cole slaw and frozen fries were like the building – nondescript. The hushpuppies, though, were pretty tasty. Nicely fried, and neither sweet nor tart. But, my fascination with the buffalo probably overshadowed everything else. I tried a bite of my friend’s catfish, and it was very nice. Evidently farm-raised, as opposed to my down-home, river-caught fish, with a nice mild, nutty flavor.

Our total for two soft drinks, his catfish and bread plate, and my big-bone buffalo dinner was $23.93 before the tip. A tad high for my tastes, but I suppose worth it for my buffalo experience. And, I’m thinking that once is probably enough for me. Fun to try, but not a future staple of my diet. I can’t imagine ever thinking to myself, “Man, what I would give to have some big-boned buffalo right now.” But, that’s me, and you may have a different experience altogether.

As a postscript, in Googling buffalo fish, I discovered that it’s one of the common fresh-water fishes used to make Gefilte fish for Jewish holiday meals. As the goyem but gutte neshome Circa Bellum often says, “Who knew?”

Monday, August 15, 2011

McClard’s Bar-B-Que in Hot Springs – Fries. Fries. Fries. And expensive tamales.

505 Albert Pike Road, Hot Springs, AR


I recently went to Hot Springs with a friend for the evening, and remembered that I used to like the homemade hot tamales from McClard’s BBQ. You can get them frozen to take home, so I decided to drop by and get a dozen for later. But, it had been many years since I had done that, and, as they say, times have changed.

As many of you know, McClard’s has been around a long, long time, and, to its credit, it’s still a family-owned operation. That, to me, is a feature that warrants its continued patronage, because I don’t like franchised restaurants. I’ve never been a huge fan of their version of Southern BBQ, but I have always liked their tamales despite their curious habit of serving them with BBQ beans heaped on top. What’s up with that?

When I went in the place, it had a distinctly Southern bus-station feel about it. And, that’s not bad. A smattering of locals were sitting around hunched over their plates of BBQ sandwiches, or huge tamales, or baskets of French fries. A quick word about those – they looked fabulous. Hand-cut, golden brown and glistening with oil, and two young children had plates of fries within reaching distance of me. I was just about to point at something out the window and distract them long enough to grab a handful when one of the kids said to the cashier, “Mom, can I have …?” Not a good time. But, I’ve got to go back and try them. They looked wonderful.

OK, so I have a $20 bill in my hand and I say, “I’d like a dozen frozen tamales to go, please.” (Of course, what else would you do with frozen tamales?) The cashier (now, another woman, not “Mom”) looked at a chart, smiled and said, “That’ll be $34.50” Huh?

No, no, you must have misunderstood me. I want the regular, edible hot tamales, not the ones minted in gold by the Aztecs. OK, I say, “How many can I get for $20?” “Six,” she said. (As Randy Newman once sang in “My Life is Good”: “Maybe my ears are clogged or somethin.’”) Nope, the hot tamales at McClard’s are a Republicanesque $3.50 each. The cashier was nice enough to spot me the difference, so I got six for $20. “You got a deal,” she whispered to me. Funny, I didn’t feel that way.

But, about the tamales. They’re handmade, wrapped in paper – not corn shucks – and tied at the ends with white twine. They’re also huge. Each one is seven inches long, an inch and three-quarters in diameter, and seven ounces in weight. (They’re tamales /they’re marital aids. Sorry, couldn’t resist.) They’re also quite good, with a spicy pork mixture and not too much masa surrounding the filling.

At McClard’s, they evidently serve them three ways: plain; with the aforementioned BBQ beans (just can’t get my head around that one); and with chili and cheese heaped on top. I saw a guy eating one of the latter versions, and it looked as though it would easily feed a family of four. But, Arkansans like big portions, as we know. And, based on his physique (a duffel-bag with legs?), I feel sure he polished it off.

I'm going to go back for a BBQ sandwich just to refresh my recollection as to why I wasn't impressed the other times I ate there. And, I'm definitely getting a big 'ole plate of fries to go with it. They really looked that good. Obviously, they know two things at McClard's: how to cook fries and price tamales.

The “new” Juanita’s in the River Market – Where you get a little for a lot.

614 President Clinton Blvd., Little Rock


The “new” Juanita’s Café & Bar moved this summer from its long-time location on South Main Street to its new incarnation in the River Market. In a curious decision that may indicate where the restaurant owners think their best opportunities for profit lie, the restaurant is downstairs and the live music venue upstairs and a straight shot from the street.

The “old” Juanita’s went through many, many changes over the years, and seemed to have lost its way during that time. It went from Little Rock’s premier live music venue and a middle-of-the-road Tex-Mex restaurant to a middle-of-the-road live music venue and middle-of-the-road, but overpriced, Tex-Mex eatery. Not a good path.

The food at the new place is about what it was at the Main Street location. A friend of mine and I went today and I was very underwhelmed. I had the special (the inaptly-named “Fiesta plate” with taco, which used to be on the menu but was curiously absent even though it’s listed as Monday’s regular “special”). My friend had a single enchilada, rice and beans. We shared a cheese dip, chips and both had iced tea. Total tab before tip: $26.88.

Now friends, that seems a bit steep for what I estimated to be food costs that amounted to less than $3 for both of us. And, I think I’m being generous, at that. Tex-Mex food is some of the cheapest to prepare in the food biz, so I felt as though the “new” Juanita’s had successfully got into my pocket for way more than I got out of the deal. I know the recent heat has made me very cranky, but still …. This was greedy.

On top of all that, the service was poor. One guy seemed to be rushing around trying to do everything, while three others sort of stood back content to let him do it. Oh, yeah, one of these “bystanders” did manage to drop a tray of dishes on the floor, so I guess that was something. The only time our waiter was really attentive was when he quickly brought our bill to the table. Got to love that.

I don’t wish ill will on many folks, but I don’t see a rosy future for this new Juanita’s. The service is bad. The food is very mediocre. And, you get to pay a lot for the privilege of eating there. But, I’ve been wrong many times before. The continued, counter-intuitive success of the bilious Dizzy’s Gypsy Bistro and its lowest-common-denominator approach to food service is a great example of my faulty judgment. So give that some thought, too.