Take one food nerd who spent his Peace Corps stint in Nicaragua. Add La Regional, a sublime restaurant/grocery/butcher shop/bakery in southwest Little Rock (the main store is at 7414 Baseline Road; the panaderia next door is 7500 Baseline (at Chicot Road)). You’ll be treated to lines like, “Ooooh! They have chipilín!”
What is chipilín, you ask. Well, it’s a briny Central American relish that Ed Horgan, a physician assistant in pediatric cardiac surgery at Arkansas Children’s Hospital, hadn’t seen much of in Arkansas until a recent Saturday afternoon. But there turned out to be a helluva lot of foods like that at La Regional.
Take, for example, the bulk bins of peppers. Go down the line: chile puya, guajillo, ancho, chipotle, arbol, pasilla mulato, morita. “I appreciate that they have every kind of dried peppers my heart could … ,” Ed trailed off. Then, “Sweet!” when he saw the bin of pequin peppers. Stick your head in, take a deep snort, and you feel a motorcycle tire burn out in the back of your throat. That’s the sinus-corroding aroma of authenticity, amigo.
La Regional passes the sniff test. The back corner, by the whole octopi in the seafood case, blossoms with the smell of tortillas, stacked as they are in corn columns. The pastry case at front, where all manner of cakey, flakey, spongy iced wonders convene, gives you that fresh-bread high.
“There’s things here I haven’t even heard of,” Ed said. The stuff he recognized, which was plenty, often stunned him. The dairy case, stocked with mozzarella and queso blanco, contained “all the necessary cheeses,” he proclaimed. The dried goods aisle featured beans, pasta, mole, spices — “all the standard fare.”
In the tea section, $10 can get you a bag of mate and a gourd with a straining straw. “If you’ve not had mate from a gourd, then you’ve not had mate,” Ed said. The spice shelf was festooned with baggies of powders, flowers, minerals. He scanned it and settled on a bag of rusty dust in the corner. “If they have achiote molido,” he said approvingly, “then they have everything.” Among his choices on the day was a jar of pickled loroco, an edible flower, to lavish the next morning into pupusas, a tortilla pocket stuffed and fried, num num.
Rare here is the white dude fluent not only in the native tongue but also its tastebuds. The patrons here are a decidedly blue-collar bunch, and overwhelmingly of Latin descent. They buy bags of fried pork skins in duffle-sized plastic bags. They wheel around the aisles with plump-cheeked babies topped with hillocks of wavy black hair. They buy phone cards and send dollars via the money exchange at back, beside the coin-op machine that sells a set of crappy plastic “bling teeth” for 75 cents. They wear paint-stained jeans and cowboy hats and fleece work vests and camo T-shirts as they nosh ceviche from goblets in the restaurant, commercials for “Betty La Fea” playing on flat-screened Univision above their heads.
Here you can get a comfort-food rice drink called horchata, or, for $1.50, a beef tongue taco, served hot with onions and cilantro. Therein lies the true gift of La Regional, if you’re used to shopping at Kroger and Harvest Foods and Wal-Mart. Its variety, its selection of bulk goods and its utter lack of pretense (just look at the faux-Tinkerbell piñatas suspended from the ceiling) restores peasant food to its rightful place as a universal, accessible commodity. At one point, Ed issued a half-serious edict to his fiancee, Allison Burba: “We’re not shopping at Whole Foods anymore.”
Which is not to say that you can’t fetishize the shopping experience while you’re at it. To the uninitiated, the produce section (along with the fish market, one of the more gratifying food tours in any unfamiliar market) teems with curios. Yes, there are kiwis and apples and carrots by another name. Then, fresh papayas and cactus leaves and a form of squash that sports quills like a blowfish. “I don’t even know what that is,” Ed said of the xoconostles, which appear to be persimmons of the damned but are in fact the fruit of a cactus.
On the top shelf are leg-length leaves labeled “penca.” Ed pulled one down to examine the green monster; it’s perhaps a half-inch thick, sturdy but pliable, and tapered at the end. The plant is officially a fique plant, often mistaken for agave. The word “penca” was familiar to Ed, but foremost as a slang term for genitals. He tried to recall whether it referred to those of a hombre or of a mujer.
“You could imagine what this is,” he said. He turned over the ample, tongue-shaped, slightly concave leaf. Then he concluded, judiciously: “It could be either.”
7414 Baseline Road
Hours: 6 a.m.-10 p.m. daily