There are many tools that the best chefs use to make outstanding food, but I think my favorite of these is creating new plays on familiar dishes. It’s a trend that Little Rock chefs seem to embrace, whether it’s the pan-seared catfish at Maddie’s Place, the White Truffle and Pecorino Burger at Big Orange, or the Calamari Snitzel at Table 28. There are plenty more examples, but you get the idea. It’s a delicious subversion to bite into something new only to find your favorite flavors presented in a way you’d never imagined before. Many of the items on this month’s list follow that pattern; in fact, the number one dish here might be the best example of that idea I’ve tasted in some time. It takes an intelligent, talented chef to come up with the idea of changing a dish and then pull it off flawlessly. Fortunately, we have some very smart, very skilled chefs working in kitchens throughout Little Rock. As always, these are the best ten plates I ate in March, and I highly recommend you get your hands on them soon.
10. Sweet Potato Fritters at Natchez Restaurant
Lunch at Natchez remains one of the hidden gems of Little Rock’s food scene. Chef Alexis Jones has an eye for fresh, Southern flavors presented with aplomb, and while the prices might be a bit high for lunch, the plates are nearly always satisfying. These Sweet Potato Fritters are an ideal start to your meal, packed with unmistakable sweet potato flavor in a fried package that seems impossibly light and airy. The resulting sweet-versus-savory play is immensely interesting in its balance and whimsy. Those intermingling components are further brought out by a pair of sauces; a pistou (think basil pesto without nuts) and a honey whip that are fittingly served on top of each other. It’s an appetizer that sets the scene wonderfully by preparing your mind and palette to enjoy the rest of the meal. But I wouldn’t blame you if you nabbed an order to snack on for your drive back to work.
9. Potato Tots at Ciao Baci
And now to take fried bites in a completely different but still familiar direction. After eating at Ciao Baci several times in the past few months, I get the feeling that chef Jeffrey Owen loves making food like this. Playful, nostalgic and hearty, Owen starts these tots with potatoes and bacon, then starts layering in flavors. Green onions give the tots some freshness. Cheddar cheese lends a hand with sharpness and a creamy texture. A little nutmeg grounds the tots and gives the other flavors a steady background. The result is a massive fried potato treat with a lot of the same textures you remember from your childhood, but with a taste that is completely grown up. A slightly sweet chive crema completes an appetizer that could easily serve as your entrée (each tot will take at least a couple of bites to finish). Any way you order them, I hope you get a chance to get a bite of this fun dish in the near future.
8. Smoked Potato Soup at South on Main
This soup is a classic example of how a simple technical trick can completely transform a dish from the everyday ho-hum into something memorable. I got to try this refreshing take during some of the colder days in early March, when warm weather seemed like a distant dream. And really, it’s just a standard potato soup. Cream, bacon, cheese, green onions and some spices are all components you’ve tasted in this common soup. The trick lies in smoking the potatoes. Pastry chef Matthew Lowman contributed this idea, and it’s difficult to overstate how crucial the technique is here. Every part of this soup is enhanced by the smoke. The cream comes across sweeter, the bacon’s unctuousness comes further out, the chives are better framed and the potatoes themselves gain new depth. As I write this, the potato soup is still on the dinner menu at South on Main, but given the warmer weather and Matt Bell’s penchant for keeping the menu fresh, you might want to make a plan to order this one sooner rather than later.
7. Sesame Seared Tuna at The Southern Gourmasian
Let’s all take just a minute to be thankful that Justin Patterson finally has a full kitchen at his disposal. Anybody who ate his offerings from the food truck could plainly see Patterson’s talent, but there’s only so much you can do in such a tight space. Now he’s finally getting to expand his regular menu while flexing his creative muscle at will, such as in this fish plate. Sesame tuna isn’t anything groundbreaking, so Patterson cooks it perfectly while turning his attention to the accompaniments. A light, creamy tomato sauce brings out some of the milder flavors of the fish, while steamed snow peas give the plate a texture it would miss otherwise. But the component that kept me thinking about this plate for days afterward was the deep-fried cauliflower, a salty, earthy element that comes close to being addictive (I’d love to eat these popcorn-style as an appetizer). This tuna is just the latest bit of excellence that The Southern Gourmasian has cranked out in the past month, and it will be exciting to see what the team there is capable of after they settle all the way in.
6. Green Onion and Smoked Sausage Stuffed Waffle at Waffle Wagon
I think that God loves food trucks. For the second straight month, Westover Wednesday caught a break in the wintry weather and put on a strong showing. In March, 11 trucks showed up to deliver quality food to the masses, but in my mind, nobody put out anything quite as good as this one from the Waffle Wagon. Matt Clark packs this savory waffle batter full of smoked sausage and green onions for a classic flavor combination, then starts to have some fun. A perfectly fried egg is a welcome addition, as the yolk makes one of three sauces for the dish. The other two are the well known Sriracha sauce and maple syrup, and the three work together to make a spicy, sweet and velvety topping to this wonderful waffle. Waffle Wagon is now only open a couple of days a week, including for Sunday brunch at Stone’s Throw Brewing, so don’t hesitate next time they’re out and around. Food this good is a big reason why the Waffle Wagon is now a mainstay in the Little Rock food truck community.
5. Steak Frites at Boulevard Bistro
It’s the dish du jour. Steak Frites is one of the trendiest dishes in the country right now. Food and Wine Magazine and The New York Times have both done features recently on the dish, and Washington D.C. is getting a new restaurant billed as “a new spot for steak frites.” And why not? It’s steak and french fries, for crying out loud. What’s not to love?
The craze has officially reached Little Rock, and in keeping with Southern tradition, it’s a massive plate. Boulevard Bistro’s version boasts a monstrous 16-ounce ribeye that looks even bigger. Thankfully, chef Chris McMillan knows exactly what he is doing with this clod of protein. My steak was cooked exactly to temperature, but more impressive is the way McMillan goes about with the seasoning. A lemon-shallot butter provides a sharp citrus note while also giving the ribeye a luxurious texture. Some have said the big flavors of the lemon and shallots are a bit much, but I found them perfect. It didn’t hurt that the accompanying fries were excellent, with a hint of truffle and just the right amount of salt. But make no mistake, this dish is 100 percent about the ribeye, and at $27, it’s one of the better steak options I’ve found in Little Rock. Kudos to McMillan and team for bringing in a classic European bistro dish and giving it their own unique spin.
4. Pescado Veracruz at Local Lime
Let this be a lesson to you: trust your server. Even if you’ve gone to a restaurant dozens of times, your server probably knows more about the menu than you do. Last year, my server at Table 28 convinced me to try the plate that would eventually be my pick for best dish of 2014, and on many other occasions, the person taking my order has done a great job at pointing me to dishes I wouldn’t have tried but ended up loving.
So when I was on the fence about my entrée at Local Lime this past month, I asked about the Pescado Veracruz, and my server immediately told me to get it. And man, oh man, am I glad I listened. This dish is superb. The tilapia is a thick cut that is cooked perfectly, which isn’t always an easy task with this particular fish. And the toppings are what I would imagine an Italian immigrant would put together if he relocated to Mexico. Tomatoes, olives, peppers, baby onions, lemon, garlic … it just keeps layering bright, brilliant flavors that somehow work together to let you taste even more of the fish. It’s served with corn tortillas, but I was halfway through eating it before I ever noticed they were there. Local Lime chef and owner Ben Brainard calls this “one of the finest things we’ve ever done” at Local Lime. I believe it.
3. Original Pad Thai at kBird
I have eaten the Pad Thai from Richard Glasgow’s kBird before, and I absolutely loved it. Glasgow seemingly layers freshness on top of freshness, and the feat was made even greater given the fact he was making it out of a truck. Honestly, before this month, I couldn’t have told you a single way to improve it.
And then, Glasgow posted that he was making the original pad Thai recipe for one week before taking a two-week sabbatical to Thailand, and well, there was no way I was missing that. This is the recipe created in the 1940s, and Glasgow brings it to life beautifully. The traditional Thai noodles get a bath of tamarind paste, palm sugar and fish sauce that brings a remarkable level of deep sourness to the dish. This is a flavor I’ve never tasted before. The sour essence brought elements of bitterness, sweetness and the slightest bit of heat. That complex elixir alone would make this dish worth ordering, but the long beans, pumpkin, garlic chives, dried shrimp and radish elevated the plate to something truly remarkable. This is the second time in as many months that Glasgow has blown me away with his food. He returns from Thailand to start cooking again this coming Monday. I can’t wait to see what wonders he will bring back to share with us.
2. Pizza Mitsa at Bruno’s Little Italy
When I sent out my surveys for the Foodcast’s Top Fives for 2015, I thought I had a pretty good idea at the restaurants that would win “Best Overall.” And while it wasn’t a stretch to guess that South on Main and One Eleven at the Capital would be on the list, there were at least two surprises. One of them, was Bruno’s Little Italy, a restaurant I didn’t vote for. While I’ve always like Bruno’s, I just never had them as being one of the five best restaurants our city has to offer.
If I end up changing my mind about that, it will be because of dishes like the Pizza Mitsa. You probably don’t need my words to convince you; just take a look at that picture! The quality of the toppings is apparent well before you take your first bite. Massive pepperoni slices, savory sausage, strips of seared beef, fresh mushrooms and buttery black olives all work together for one of the best seasoned and heartiest pizzas I’ve ever had the pleasure of eating. And the crust is a wonderful example of Neapolitan know-how, with a thin, charred crunch that only adds to the experience. Bruno’s bills this pizza as a “favorite of Larry Jegley,” prosecuting attorney for Pulaski County. Mr. Jegley, you have good taste. It’s going to be hard for me to order anything else on my next visit.
1. Baked Pimento Cheese at Boulevard Bistro
Sometimes, a dish goes beyond excellence and makes you reconsider the way you’ve always eaten certain plates. I had that experience at the newly opened Boulevard Bistro this month with the Baked Pimento Cheese, an appetizer that had the entire table reaching to scrape the last little bit out of the bottom. It was the pimento cheese flavor we were all used to, but something about adding heat to the equation completely turns it on its head. The pimentos taste smokier, the cheese tastes sharper, and the whole dish gains a creamy texture that spreads so easily on Boulevard’s outstanding toasted bread.
This is now the dish that will come immediately to mind when I think of pimento cheese options. Really, it’s the most Arkansan of appetizers; a glorious hybrid of pimento cheese and cheese dip. It’s an inspired dish that brings complex flavors while fitting in perfectly to the city’s food culture. It’s brilliant. If this is indicative of what McMillan and his team have in store for us, it won’t take long for Boulevard Bistro to cement its place in the upper tier of the fine restaurants our city can boast.