Nearly a year into the pandemic, the rules of sensible eating have eluded nearly all of us at some point or another. Leftover pulled pork at 9 a.m. because you’re out of eggs and the grocery store is a health risk? Sure. Coffee after noon? Why not; time is an invention of our own making, right? Cracking open a cheap beer at 3:30 p.m. because white supremacists are storming the nation’s Capitol? Sounds reasonable.
An assignment to compile a list of cheap eats in Central Arkansas in December coalesced, for Arkansas Times Associate Editor Rhett Brinkley, with a “Twin Peaks” viewing streak, a stubborn commitment to drinking water and a local restaurant takeout scene scrambling to weather the weirdest of winters. Here are the results of that spree, with whiffs of protein powder, tzatziki and Dale Cooper’s favorite donut.
I slam two glasses of filtered water while I prepare my morning smoothie. I started consuming daily smoothies a little over a year ago because I wanted to reduce inflammation in my body. I was using turmeric and black pepper, but conflicting articles online make me doubt my body was even absorbing it. So I’m currently off the turmeric, but I’ve kept up the smoothie tradition because it’s healthy and makes me feel less terrible about eating unhealthy foods later in the day. I make rationalizations in my head like: “Oh, it’s totally fine that I’m going back for a 4th slice of pizza because I had that smoothie this morning.”
Burn my internal dialogue when I die.
Kroger was out of the organic dark cherry/blackberry/blueberry blend I’ve been buying, so I settled for a bag of cherries and they’re too sweet for my liking.
1 C. frozen too sweet cherries
2 tsp. ground organic flax seed
Handful of organic walnuts
Scoop of zero carb vanilla protein powder
1 C. oat milk
While drinking my smoothie that tastes like I’ve added sugar, I make five cups of River City Coffee’s house blend; I will drink about four cups throughout the day. I realize that’s probably a bit higher than the average caffeine consumer and that it might enhance my anxiety at times, but I don’t care. I consider coffee one of my reliable 2020 friendships. Plus, its effects have inspired me to pick up the phone and blab incessantly to my friends that I don’t see anymore. I do miss having a cup with someone I’m looking at and talking to.
I fill my 30-ounce tumbler with filtered water and plan on drinking at least 120 total ounces of water today. I don’t know why I’m shooting for that number.
I drive out to Mama’s Gyros on Kiehl Avenue in Sherwood and order a street-style chicken gyro that comes with tomato, onion, tzatziki and basically a whole order of french fries all wrapped up in a large pita. I get home and open it up and the sandwich is basically the size of a college football, so I make several little bite-size sandwiches. I eat most of the contents and a third of the pita and drink a 7.5-ounce Diet Coke. I feel like I’ve eaten too much but remind myself that all I had this morning was a smoothie.
Smoothie with organic dark cherry/blueberry/blackberry blend that I got at Kroger last night. I’m saving the too-sweet cherries for a treat that I enjoyed during the early pandemic days. Honey Nut Cheerios with sliced banana, defrosted cherries and oat milk. Sips of black coffee in between bites, a flavor symphony like no other.
For lunch I go to Vino’s and get the lunch special. I order a slice of cheese which comes with a salad and a drink for $8 dollars and change. While placing the order, the guy on the phone asks me what I want to drink and I tell him Dr. Pepper. When I get there he says “Pepsi, right?” and I say, “Yes.” Why am I so agreeable in public settings where you have to act fast?
I cook some chicken breasts I had marinating in soy sauce, ginger and garlic. I wanted to add brown sugar but didn’t have any. I’m sure the chicken will be bland and flavorless.
The chicken is indeed bland and flavorless.
I turn on Rachel Maddow and pour 2 ounces of Jameson over four ice cubes. I’ve read that Rachel likes to make cocktails and enjoys beer. I wonder what kind of beer she likes and how she likes her martinis. Afterward, I start “Twin Peaks” and drink a Coors Light. The “Twin Peaks” pilot has a lot of cherry pie, donut and coffee references. When the episode is over, donuts, cherry pie and tomorrow morning’s coffee are all I’m left thinking about.
I go to Boulevard Bread Co. on Main Street in SoMa and order a half turkey sandwich and substitute 8-grain heart-healthy bread for the baguette, which, according to longtime former Boulevard manager Clay Grubbs, is the most popular sandwich on the menu. As I’m getting my sandwich, my friend and former boss Richard Harrison, co-owner of Pizza Cafe, enters Boulevard for his signature mocha with half chocolate. He asks me about the restaurant that’s about to open across South Main. I tell him it’s called The Original Hot Dog Factory and the local owner found out about the chain watching “The Real Housewives of Atlanta.” Richard says he can’t wait to try it. We make loose plans to maybe eat a hot dog together if the pandemic ever ends.
It’s Saturday so I skip my smoothie and treat myself to three slow-cooked scrambled eggs. This is the best way to make scrambled eggs, and I just started using the method this year. Here’s the trick: Put the heat on the lowest setting and cook the eggs with grass-fed butter. The color is rich, the texture is perfect, the eggs aren’t overcooked. Delicious. I want toast, but I skip it and eat the eggs by themselves with salt and pepper. I drink black coffee while relaxing between bites.
Four Quarter Bar has a grilled cheese sandwich that comes with chips for $4.50, which sounds like a great idea for my Cheap Eats story, so I get that to go plus smoked wings ($10.50 for an order of 10), which were amazing and came with three dipping sauces: buttermilk, house BBQ and spicy BBQ. I finish all 10 wings and about half of the grilled cheese sandwich and do not feel good about myself. It’s fine, though, because I skipped toast with my eggs this morning and had a smoothie yesterday.
For lunch I drive out to East Little Rock and see planes landing at Adams Field by the airport on my way to Pull Up At Big Dave’s, a barbecue restaurant my publisher told me about. Big Dave’s is a small red brick building right off East Roosevelt Road. Its smoker sits at the edge of the parking lot, and you order through the window. Across the street is a Civil War marker memorializing the Battle of Bayou Fourche [aka the Battle of Little Rock] on Sept. 10, 1863. I order a pulled pork sandwich, fries and spare ribs.
I get home and eat half of the sandwich, a couple of the ribs and too many fries.
I told myself I wasn’t going to eat the other half of the Big Dave’s pulled pork sandwich but I find myself putting it in the oven for about 10 minutes. This transforms the sandwich into something else entirely and it’s excellent. I also eat a salad with mixed lettuce, grilled chicken, sharp cheddar and ranch dressing. I’m loath to admit that I use ranch dressing for various reasons. I remember the first time I ever had ranch dressing, and I’m embarrassed that it’s a memory I held onto.
I’m out of coffee and feel uncertain about how to proceed. I stand around confused for about 10 minutes and then drive out to Trader Joe’s to try their low acidity French roast my friend Conrad told me about. With the amount of coffee I’m drinking, I’m probably way too acidic. I couldn’t help but notice the cakes conveniently placed right beside the coffee blends. I’ve had a Trader Joe’s chocolate babka, which is fantastic when fresh. I’m staring at the cinnamon babka and remember the episode of “Seinfeld” where Jerry and Elaine are at a bakery on their way to a party. They want to bring along a chocolate babka, but the person ahead of them in line gets the last one, and all that’s left is the cinnamon one. They act like their reputations are going to be ruined if they show up with the cinnamon babka. I decide to buy the cinnamon babka to fully understand the scope of their failure.
For lunch a cheeseburger, fries and Coke Zero ($7 something) from K Hall & Sons on Wright Avenue. It’s the kind of burger I’d imagine getting at a drugstore soda fountain 40 years ago before everything became supersized. All the cheeseburger flavors combine in perfect harmony. I don’t finish the fries, but I want to. I’ve had fries two days in a row, so I imagine I’ve probably shortened my lifespan by at least a year.
About an hour later I heat up a square of cinnamon babka and dab a little grass-fed butter on it. Jerry and Elaine are so dramatic. When the pandemic ends, I’m going to take a cinnamon babka to a party and see if it helps or hurts my social standing. Sitting here in 2020 with no social life, I don’t give a shit either way.
I make a slightly dirty Tito’s martini and turn on “Twin Peaks.” The overabundance of donuts at the police station seems like less of a “cops eat donuts” motif and more of a celebration of donuts themselves. In episode seven, waitress Shelly Johnson offers Special Agent Dale Cooper and Sheriff Harry S. Truman a couple of cups of coffee. Cooper is thrilled, but Truman is anxious to leave the diner and get back to work. Cooper says to Truman, “Harry, I’m going to let you in on a little secret. Every day, once a day, give yourself a present. Don’t plan it, don’t wait for it, just let it happen. It could be a new shirt at the men’s store, or a catnap in your office chair, or two cups of good, hot black coffee like this.”
I ignore the rest of the episode and google “Dale Cooper’s favorite donut” and then “Dale Cooper favorite coffee blend.” Then I read an excellent Eater article by Melissa Buote titled “Dale Cooper’s Damn Good Coffee Means A Lot More Than You Think.” It really does.
I know what I’m going to do tomorrow. Can you guess?
I drive out to Mark’s DoNut Shop in Levy. There’s a line of about eight cars going down the residential street leading to the drive-thru entrance because Mark’s is closed inside. I worry that a resident might be temporarily blocked in because I want a donut really bad. Are all these people in line currently marathoning “Twin Peaks,” too? Thankfully, the line moves fast. Through the drive-thru window, there’s a clear view of the day’s selection. I order a regular glazed, a chocolate iced, a strawberry filled and a large 16-ounce coffee for $5.24. My car smells fucking unreal on the drive home.
After taking a few photos, I bite into the glazed first. I have to turn my podcast off and have a moment of silence. I bite into it again and clear my head of all thoughts. This is the best glazed donut I’ve ever had in my life. Eating a donut with coffee is an incredible experience with oneself. After eating two bites of the glazed, I eat the entire strawberry filled. I feel like a crazed donut monster who’s been hypnotized by David Lynch. I stare at the chocolate and realize that I might keel over if I partake. I walk away. It’s OK; I’ve given myself a daily present. … And I had a smoothie two days ago so it’s totally fine.