A trip to the homeland!

Full disclosure time – even though our blog is called Arkansas Mirepoix, only one of us is a native Arkie.  I have lived here for 17 years but I was born and raised in North Dakota.  I recently had a chance to go home and visit my parents.  We spent some time in Fargo while Dad had a couple of procedures done at the local VA Hospital.  Everything turned out fine and I also got a chance to visit with two aunts and an uncle while we were there.  One of those aunts took my Mom and me out for dinner in downtown Fargo.  This was a place that I had not spent much time in since leaving for Little Rock in 1996.  While it was reassuring to see many old favorite watering holes and restaurants, it was also nice to see many new entries to the scene.  Fargo has seen a lot of changes in the last two decades.  Microsoft’s largest office outside of their Washington state headquarters is located in the south end of Fargo.  That has brought with it a wide variety of new faces and cultures.  It has also spawned a lot of other tech related expansion which has really helped to fuel the growth of the area.  Between these exciting developments on the east end of the state and the oil and gas boom on the west end, North Dakota has the lowest unemployment and one of the largest budget surpluses in the country.

So where did we go eat is what you are probably asking yourself.  Well we went to a place called Rhombus Guys pizza – http://rhombuspizza.com/ – these guys have 3 locations – Mentor, MN and Grand Forks, ND are the others.  They have been around for about 10 years now and they are winning a lot of awards for their pizza.  It is not hard to understand why.  The menu is varied from traditional to exotic.  The food is fresh and well prepared.  The service at the Fargo location was excellent and the place was packed on the Thursday night we stopped in.  Take a look at their menu online and you will see what I am talking about – a lot of them jumped out at me – The Busey, The T-Rex, the Louisiana Saturday Night.  My Mom and aunt split a pizza and got one half Margherita and one half Deluxe and they were both pleased with their choices.

photo 1 photo 2 photo 3 photo 4

I on the other hand put my fate in the hands of my server.  He recommended the special of the night and I went for it.  It was the Tater Tot Hotdish pizza.  Now what is Hotdish you southerners may be asking?  Well the rest of the world would call it casserole but if you were raised in or near the Red River Valley and particularly if you were raised Lutheran then you call a casserole a Hotdish.  So this pizza was everything you love about Tater Tot Hotdish – cream of chicken soup, corn, tater tots and jalapenos but spread evenly over a thin pizza crust and topped with cheese.  Absolutely wonderful.  I was thrilled with the suggestion and would eat it again in a heartbeat except that the next time I am in the area, I think I want to try some of these other great choices.

These guys are doing it right, having fun and winning awards.  So for those of you from outside the Red River Valley, if you ever get to Fargo try this place.  For those of you from Fargo or Grand Forks then you already know this place is awesome.  Thanks to my aunt for helping me find it and for reaching for the check before I could!

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We love Italian food.  Unfortunately a couple of our favorite choices have left the scene recently.  The Villa was a nice choice and had a long history.  Bruno’s was a very nice option and it may come back if the rumors are true.  Without those two we have been left with a bunch of average to better than average chains – think Olive Garden, Johnny Carrino’s, Macaroni Grill and Bravo in that order – and local places like Café Prego.

 

Well this week we added another local establishment to our dining resume.  Vesuvio Bistro was an absolute revelation.  We went to Vesuvio a couple of years ago with another couple.  On that occasion, there was a guest chef who prepared a fixed price, three course meal with two choices for each course and a wine selection for each course that came from the sponsoring winery.  It was fine but it did not let us experience all the Vesuvio had to offer.

 

This week was a completely different experience.  We joined two other couples for a delightful evening as we celebrated Fat Tuesday and Mardi Gras in style.  The restaurant is located inside of the Governor’s Inn at Market and Merrill in West Little Rock.  While they were certainly busy, they were not overly so and we never felt rushed so that our table could be turned.  In fact, we enjoyed a leisurely paced meal that lasted over three hours which gave all of us plenty of time to savor our food and drink courses and the conversation that was going on.  The wait staff was attentive, charming and funny but also very knowledgeable about their menu and also about their competition.

 

We started the evening with the Chef’s Choice of Antipasti.  This was a $30 plate that consisted of a variety of olives, cheeses and meats.  One person could easily make a meal of this but for the 6 of us it was a perfect way to start the meal.  The complimentary bruschetta, bread and tapenade were all excellent as well.  Wine was ordered from an extensive list and again having a knowledgeable server made all the difference.  Martinis were ordered from a solid array of choices.

 

Then it was on the main event.  While some of my companions opted for truly excellent looking steaks topped with gorgonzola and caramelized onions or pasta dishes with a variety of seafood, yours truly put his faith in the recommendation of co-workers, Foursquare followers and our waiter.  The specialty of the house is a pasta dish that consists of handmade spaghetti, shitake mushrooms, basil and lots of butter.  But that is only part of the story.  That dish is then brought to your table still hot from the stove and then is poured into a giant wheel of fresh parmesan.  The grated layer of parmesan on the top of the wheel is quickly melted into the spaghetti and butter.  All of it is then scooped out of the cheese wheel and served either by itself or with chicken or shrimp.  This was absolutely the right choice.  The dish was so good and the preparation was so ingenious.  I really can’t believe I have not seen spaghetti prepared that way anywhere else.  I can’t wait to go back just to get my hands on more of it and my five companions all felt the same way.

 

Once these entrees had a chance to settle, it was on to dessert and coffee.  The usual suspects were there – gelato, tiramisu, etc.  But again, I took a chance on a dish with a twist.  This time it was a sliver of cheesecake wrapped in a light pastry then deep fried.  Yes it had a bit of an Arkansas State Fair or Riverfest sound to it but it sure did not taste like it.  This was fair food done in a gourmet fashion and it was just what the doctor ordered to put a sweet ending on a great meal.

 

So all in all, I think all six of us can give Vesuvio Bistro a big thumb’s up.  Reservations would be recommended.  Dress code is casual.  Prices are actually quite reasonable.  Most entrees are between $15 and $25 not much different than what you would find at a Macaroni Grill or Bravo but the quality is so much better.

http://www.vesuviobistro.com/

 

 

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Apple Pie

On Tuesday night, Sparky and I finally made the cut for a bottling party at Rock Town Distillery in Little Rock.  I first became interested in the distillery last fall, when they put out their Apple Pie Lightning – a 40 proof moonshine flavored to taste like, well, apple pie.  I’ve long had a taste for flavored moonshine, but generally could only get a hold of it once a year at my family’s now-famous annual Halloween party.  Folks bring us peach and pear and plain old straight up lightning made in stills hidden somewhere in the backwoods of the Ozarks.  I’m actually not much of a drinker, but there’s something about flavored moonshine that brings out all the hillbilly in my DNA.  I can’t resist it.

So when Rock Town put out its Apple Pie, I had to try it.  It was my first foray into commercially available moonshine, which is increasingly more and more common.  The Village Voice has a great little “primer” to the stuff you can generally find at your local liquor store here.  I have tried Junior Johnson’s Midnight Moon Apple Pie, and it doesn’t even come close to the smooth, spicy tang of Rock Town’s version.  Midnight Moon is also quite a bit stronger, and perhaps not a good starting place for anyone who is new to the stuff.  I would also avoid the cherry flavor of Midnight Moon – it is more cough syrup than cherry pie.

Rock Town’s Apple Pie was a huge hit last year at the Halloween party, where many of us found ourselves sitting around the fire doing a moonshine taste-off.  It took a full hour before someone pointed out that we sounded like a bunch of west-coast sommeliers, arguing about the delicate hint of nutmeg in a merlot.

Rock Town is a tiny operation, with less than ten employees.  To make up the difference, they host bottling parties every so often. These parties include a drink (or two), some pizza, and when the work is done, a bottle of that night’s spirit to take home.  It isn’t easy to get in on these parties, though. Their mailing list is long, and once a notification goes out, you have five minutes to respond.  If you don’t respond in that time, or if too many people have responded first, then there’s no party for you.

We picked a busy night to go – overall we (and about eight other people) bottled over 2100 bottles of Apple Pie.  We got to see the first version of a smaller bottle of the stuff that is just shipping out, ask questions about the bottling process, and make lots of jokes about bowling with the owner of the place. (I was in charge of handing off those smaller plastic bottles to the “filler.” They didn’t want to stay upright on the line).

The experience was worth the three hours, although both Sparky and I were worn out when it was over.  We got a first-hand look at how these small batches of spirits are made, and spent a lot of time asking the distiller Adam Lewis about the science of the operation.  It was educational, a decent mild workout, and we went home with two bottles.

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Eliella Ristorante gives Great Cactus (And Other Stuff)

Last night, Sparky asked me if I was feeling adventurous when I told him that I had no desire to cook dinner.  I was feeling a little “saucy” and so I said sure, Sparky, surprise me.  He directed me down University to Baseline road, to the intersection just next to the Baseline Kum & Go.  Just behind the convenience store, in a well-lit store front, is a little place called Eliella Ristorante.  The owners are former employees of the local chain, La Hacienda, who wanted to start something just a little less Tex-Mex and a little more authentic Northern Mexico.

The menu is in Spanish, but Sparky and I know just enough to figure it out.  We knew, for instance, that Linga probably means tongue, and the Tripe, is well – tripe.  While Sparky is a big fan of such “exotic” meats, I tend to be a little pickier about what I will eat when it comes to protein.  I haven’t eaten pork or beef since I was twelve and going through a phase.  I eventually started eating chicken and fish on a long backpacking trip to New Zealand, where trying to be a vegetarian equaled a diet that consisted mostly of beets.

Anyway, Eliella is a bright, airy sort of place that made us feel immediately at home.  The staff was incredibly friendly and patient with our lack of understanding, and even carefully explained the commonality of cactus showing up on plates in Northern Mexico.  I’ve never been to Mexico, so I wasn’t at all sure what that yummy green thing was on my burrito when it arrived.  I ordered a Burrito Pollo (chicken burrito), which was definitely big enough for a meal.  It was spiced just enough, and used well-cooked black beans and rice as filling along with the chicken.

chickenburrito

Sparky ordered a Cubano, which is an enormous sandwich topped with several kinds of meat and a fried egg.  When this lovely piece of sandwich goodness arrived at the table, you would have thought he was looking at a work of art. “I don’t want to bit into it,” he said, “it’s so pretty!”

Cubano

Indeed, it was.  The flavors of both dishes were subtle, but immensely satisfying.  Not only that, but the whole meal was extremely reasonable.  Our final bill was under $20.00.

In addition to the sandwiches and burritos, Eliella serves up a series of different tacos which they supplement with a toppings bar that includes some of the freshest salsa, cilantro, and other taco toppings I’ve seen in the city.  It appears that the owners are big believers in the use of fresh ingredients.  We watched some of the kitchen workers carefully slicing juicy salsa makings in the open kitchen, and a big of pork slowly roasting on a spit-like apparatus.  Eliella would be a great choice for lunch, particularly because our meal was at the table in less than ten minutes.  The only disappointment was that the place doesn’t serve iced tea, but I think that’s a little too much Arkansawyer-expectations on my part.

You can find the place at 7700 Baseline Road, Suite 800 in Little Rock. Their phone number is 501-539-5355. They are also on Facebook, here.

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The Real Legend of Petit Jean

When I was in graduate school, I became interested in a woman that I’d known by sight most of my life. Her name was Marguerite Turner, and she lived in Dover – where I grew up.  She was one of those people that, given some money and the right encouragement, might have become a famous writer or artist. As it was, she was shunned for eccentricities and cut off from any way to develop herself as artist. She became what is known as the town “crazy lady.”  If you grew up in a small southern town, you know what I am talking about.  There’s always a “crazy lady,” of some kind or another. She is generally a woman that lives alone, and according to her own instincts.  The actual facts behind her mental health have very little to do with it.

Marguerite may have actually had some actual mental illness.  But her “crazy” manifested itself not in any of the behaviors we would normally associate with that.  She didn’t talk to herself, she didn’t collect cats. Instead, she tried desperately to turn her home county into something fabulous – something with a deep and abiding history. She saw the place was miraculous in its own ways, and she wanted other people to know about it too.

She did this, though, through stretching the truth just a little bit.  Writers do this, you know. She wasn’t trained as a historian; so much of her “historical” writing was really more like what we’d call “fan fiction” now.  Even the cast-iron pot in the middle of Dover that claims to have belonged to Sequoyah, the inventor of the Cherokee alphabet, has some suspect origins.   I once wrote a long essay about that salt pot that you can read here.

Most folks in Dover know about this. What isn’t as well known is that Marguerite is also the author of a true Arkansas legend.   During the 1950’s, she won a grant from the same organization that became the Arkansas Arts Council to write a book about the legend of Petit Jean.  Almost everything we understand about that myth comes from her imagination.  The book that she put together is called Petit Jean: A Girl, A Mountain, A Community.  While it’s rare these days, I own a copy – and most of the libraries in Little Rock that deal with Arkansas history own a copy.

The reality of Marguerite’s Petit Jean story is that it is as far-fetched as her Sequoyah salt-pot story.  Yet, we enjoyed her stories enough to fold them into the mythology of our state.  We like her romance, her crazy, her creative approach to mythologizing all of our experiences as Arkansans.

When I first started researching Marguerite, I expected to be disappointed by the fact that so many of our stories come from her imagination – rather than from historical fact.  Instead, I was even more fascinated to learn that even one lady, a little weird and definitely not part of the normal social milieu in my hometown, might turn out to be the author of our myths.

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Just Another Arkansas Food Blog, Sort Of

We met in 2006 through Match.com. We were both in our mid-30’s, and divorced. If we’d given it a couple of months, we may not have needed the internet to facilitate our love. It turns out we ran in overlapping circles, frequented the same dive bar, and went to UALR at the same time.

I was divorced for over a year, and living like a dude. Sparky (which what I will call him, he can call himself anything he wants) had a more civilized lifestyle. Sparky vacuumed and used a cookbook called A Man, A Can, A Plan. I lived on boxed macaroni and cheese, and cereal. I did not vacuum.

When we moved in together, Sparky brought his huge television. I brought my hundreds of books. He also started taking me to restaurants. He picked me up on a Saturday, and then refused to tell me where we were headed. I cajoled him the whole way, but he never broke.   He has a knack for knowing what I want, even before I know it.

One of the things I wanted, it turns out, was to share in this hobby of his. For an amateur foodies, he has an encyclopedic knowledge of restaurants in the Little Rock area. His passion for following the food scene around here is about as intense as it gets. I’ve been nagging him to start a blog since we met. Five years into our marriage, I finally talked him into it.

We aren’t trained cooks. Our experience is mostly of the customer variety. We come from parts of the country that are vastly different, both culturally and in things piquant. We sometimes argue about the definition of “good food.” I complain about the lack of spices in what I call the “northern food” served in his home state. He complains about the lack of bloodkrub and lefse in mine. Despite that, we are egalitarian in our tastes. We are just as happy to spend a day eating cheese dip at the World Cheese Dip Championships as we are having brunch at Ashley’s.

So this blog is going to be about food, but mostly about Little Rock food. It’s also going to feature a few of our other Arkansas related passions: football, movies and whatever Sparky is up to presently; Arkansas history, books, art and random travels from me.

Woo Pig & Mange Takk.

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