I recently had the opportunity to spend two weeks in Fayetteville, Arkansas, the home of the University of Arkansas Razorbacks where everything, including the garbage cans, proclaims their allegiance. Fayetteville also has the distinction of being the first home to the newly married Bill & Hillary Clinton.
At first blush, you might expect a vast hillbilly chow wasteland, but in fact the chow selections turned out to be quite varied and surprisingly good. As I mentioned, Fayetteville is the home of the University of Arkansas and also the headquarters of Tyson Chicken, leading to the creation of the Center of Excellence for Poultry Studies.
Yes poultry looms large in Arkansas and one of the best uses of the fruits of all this research is A.Q., which is kind of like the White Fence Farm of Arkansas. A.Q. features chicken prepared many different ways. Diner includes your choice of meat with two side dishes. They do a pretty good version of creamed spinach and a noteworthy mac-and-cheese. My favorite is what they call Chicken "Over the Coals" which is actually deep-fried chicken which is taken hot from the grease and then grilled over live coals, giving it a unique fried, yet smoky taste. They also have a pretty good version of chicken fried steak as well as some meat items which include ribs which are cooked in a Southern Pride smoker. Below are pictures of both the chicken "over the coals" and the chicken fried steak.
While on the subject of chicken, our crew, which numbered approx 150, is a hungry lot, so we purchased two giant Weber Ranch Kettles, assembled them and one night cooked 30 lbs. of Tyson's finest (at one time) on one of them and a field of corn-on-the-cob on the other.
Well, that's enough about chicken, don't you think? To satisfy my other chow cravings, there were many other options. I have already posted pics of Brenda's Bigger Burgers in the 30's style hamburger thread, but here they are again.
Brenda's makes some excellent burgers and malts. They are only open for a couple of hours a day Monday - Friday. If you snooze, you lose. They are pretty much a one-trick pony. You can get a burger, a Bigger Burger or a double burger. They also have fries and, as I already mentioned, great malts and shakes. Pictured here is the namesake Bigger Burger.
Most mornings, I would start the day at Rick's Iron Skillet, a typical greasy spoon diner serving southern style breakfast. Average eggs, etc, but really good biscuits and gravy.
Rick's seems to be a gathering place for the locals with the waitresses greeting most of the patrons by name when they came in and automatically placing their orders for "the usual". This (along with the Salvadorian pool hall mentioned below) is the place where I felt most like an outsider, but at least by the third time I came in I got a, "Hi Honey, how are you today?" from my waitress, although I never achieved "the usual" status.
There is a growing population of Latinos in the area and quite a few chow choices that cater to them. There are a number of Mexican restaurants to choose from, the best of which is Elenita's (two locations).
Elenitas is really not much more than a roadhouse, but most of the food is pretty good. Their selections cover most of the typical Tex-Mex favorites. One word of advice is to stay away from the soups. For some reason, they just can't make soup worth a darn. That's really too bad, since they have a pretty large selection of them on the menu, but everyone who tried one (no matter which one it was) didn't like it. I did enjoy their chili rellenos, enchiladas and tortas quite a bit, though, and the chilequiles (served Sunday only) and huevos rancheros looked great!
One night, a friend and I got in the car and went looking for something different. We didn?t have anything special in mind, just something we hadn't tried before. As we were driving down the road, we came upon this sign:
The Springdale Diner, featuring Spanish food. We were thinking maybe Piaella, maybe Tapas...what they meant was they SPEAK Spanish. We went in and were confronted by a bustling pool hall which came to an abrupt halt as we walked in the door. It was kind of like the scene in the movies where the whole bar freezes when the Sheriff walks through the door. We were met by stares of astonishment that two Gringos would actually have the balls to walk into their sanctuary of pool playing. In true Chowist fashion, we didn't let that stop us and promptly sat down at one of the few tables and looked at the menu.
In addition to typical tacos, etc. they had a Salvadorian section on the menu that was offered at lunch time. I managed to talk the waitress into letting us order some of the Salvadorian items, but it turned out that all they had left was a Salvadorian Tamale filled with Chicheron. When the tamale arrived, it was not the typical Mexican style in a corn husk, it was a flat round affair, with the outside the consistency of a dense cake and the chicheron filling steamed to softness, rather than crunchy, but very flavorful. Unfortunately, the atmosphere in the "diner" didn't lend itself to taking photographs, so I don't have one of the tamale to show you. It was only upon leaving that I noticed the sign below the main Diner sign that mentioned the Salvadorian food.
There also are at least three Thai restaurants in town. Thai Thep stands heads and shoulders above the rest of them.
I have been in Fayetteville two other times and this restaurant has had a different owner on each of my visits. It seems that once the people who run this establishment get a taste of Arkansas, they move on to greener pastures as soon as they can. The present owner is the best one so far. It's a husband and wife team. He tends their garden where they grow much of their herbs and chilies while she does the cooking. When asked for some Papaya Salad, they remarked on how I must really know a lot about Thai cooking and apologized because they couldn't get the ingredients to prepare it and said that no one has ever asked for it before. Still, I was quite favorably impressed with their larb and their chili basil chicken and pork as well as several other off menu items they made for me which I never learned the names for. I ate there at least three times during my visit and was never disappointed. The limited selection they have compares quite favorably with some of our board favorites in Chicago. Hopefully, the same people will still be running this place when I go back next year.
There is even a fine dining restaurant in (or near) the Fayetteville area. James at the Mill is located in the small town of Johnson just North of Fayetteville. The chef, Miles James, is a James Beard award winner. He calls his food "Ozark Plateau Cuisine" and/or "vertical cooking". This restaurant is located in an historic old mill dating from the 1800?s. The cooking is as good as it gets in the Ozarks, although it tends to over compensate for the fact that it is in the middle of Arkansas. Still, nothing exceeds like excess as Gary is fond of saying.
Pictured on the upper left is the restaurant. It's the building to the rear. The mill in the foreground has been converted to an Inn and looks like it would be a fine place to stay. The restaurant has vast picture windows that overlook the mill and, for those diners unlucky enough to be facing the wall instead of the windows, large mirrors allow everyone to admire the view while they are dining. A nice touch. On the upper right is my dining companion's halibut atop a plateau of mashed potatoes. On the lower left is my bone-in rib eye steak which was nicely grilled over oak. It was served with an ear of grilled corn and house made Vidalia onion rings that were delicious. The whole deal was served atop a pool of black beans. That was the excess part. Every time I tried to cut a piece of steak, beans would fly off the crowded plate. Not too good in a white tablecloth type environment. I wasn't too wild about the beans, either; they had an overly sweet taste to them, which was common for many of the sauces. For desert, on the lower right is a key lime "pie" with that mile-high cookie-like corkscrew. I ordered this because I had just come from Miami and wanted to compare Ozark Mountain key lime pie with the real thing. Except for the too thick crust and small size, it was pretty good.
There is also a chow-worthy custard stand in Fayetteville called Shakes. Actually it might be a local chain because there seem to be two of them and they look quite chain like. I didn't try the namesake shakes, but instead opted for the custard which was pretty good. Not overly sweet and very refreshing in the Arkansas heat.
All in all, Northwest Arkansas turned out not to be the chow wasteland I had expected. In fact. There were several more promising places that I never made it to. The area of Northwest Arkansas actually consists of the towns of Fayetteville (the biggest), Springdale (home of the Salvadorian pool hall), Rogers, Johnson, Tontytown (home to a locally famous Italian restaurant) and the town of Bentonville (Corporate headquarters of Wal-Mart), so there is much left to explore. I usually have to go there every year at this time, so I will be sure to add to this posting with some new entries next time I'm in the Ozarks.
Edited to fix links to pictures