This year has been kind to us food-loving folks. It’s a year that’s been filled with exciting restaurant openings, innovative menus, and a collaborative effort within the Arkansas culinary landscape to push local food, supporting our own farms, dairies, and orchards. It’s been a year that has allowed the fruits of the farmers market to make its way to the center of the dinner plate, and a year that has seen a steady flow of artisanal producers and craftsmen venturing out to bring something new and innovative to our food scene.
We’ve been fortunate to sample many delightful dishes this year, and we’ve choked down our share of less than stellar meals as well. But there are always those dishes that stand out in our minds, the food that lingers around in those pleasure centers of the brain, the flavors that we just can’t seem to stop thinking about. And so, here we present our “5 Best Bites of 2013.”
Dig in, folks…
South on Main: Trotters — To the faint of heart, you’re just going to have to get past the fact that these are indeed pigs’ feet. Don’t dwell on all the unsavory things that the pig may have been trotting around in and just put this stuff in your mouth—one bite and all trepidation will melt away. South on Main’s trotters have seen a couple different preparations since their opening, but they’re always one of the most memorable parts of a meal here. Tender, succulent, and unctuous pork forms the base of this dish. They’ve been paired with creamy rice grits and pickled pepper chow chow—the latter providing a delightful sour and slightly sweet note to the richness elsewhere on the plate. The most recent rendition finds the shredded pigs feet alongside corn grits and brussels sprouts kraut—an equally impressive use of this under-represented pig part.
Table 28: Tongue and Cheek — Make no mistake, this dish is exactly as advertised—beef tongue and beef cheek. Sure, it’s whimsical and a bit adventurous, but this dish has become chef Scott Rains’ signature item for good reason—it’s simply outstanding. Some magical force binds and blends the two cuts of beef into a single harmonious, savory offering that comes topped with crispy fried leeks and horseradish cream, finished with a handful of baby greens. Perhaps it’s the fact that Rains slow cooks the beef nearly all day in red wine until the meat is so tender it nearly falls apart if you so much as breathe on it.
Bruno’s Little Italy: Italian Sausages with Marinara — The Bruno family are no strangers to long-time Little Rock diners—but their most recent revival on Main Street may well be their most successful venture yet. They’ve been serving Italian fare for over 60 years—and if you’ve been dishing out pasta and pizza for that long, you’re bound to be doing a few things right. Bruno’s is the sort of place where every diner is likely to find a special dish that speaks to them personally, but we’re very much enthralled with their spicy Italian sausage with marinara sauce. These house-made links are sliced in half and grilled until tender, but still manage to retain a nice snap in their outer casing. They are smothered in a bright, tangy red sauce—an excellent counterpoint to the spicy, rich sausage.
Fonda Mexican Cuisine: Queso Fundido — Fonda may be the most unexpected and surprising superlative of the year. It’s battling a rather difficult location, and opening only shortly after the closing of another Mexican restaurant—the decidedly boring and uninspired Bumpy’s Tex-Mex. But since our first visit to Fonda, we’ve quickly realized that this is no run-of-the-mill Mexican experience. And in nothing is our love for the place more perfectly embodied than in their glorious queso fundido. You’ve eaten buckets of cheese dip in your lifetime—we get it…this is Arkansas. But this is not your standard yellow-orange goo. This dish takes a heaping mound of soft, white Chihuahua cheese and throws it on a scorching hot cast iron plate. The cheese quickly melts, bubbling and brewing, taunting you to take a bite. Diners may add spicy chorizo or Poblano peppers and mushrooms. We typically choose chorizo, but either way, it’s a slam-dunk dish. Scoop up the hot cheese and add to their soft, freshly prepared flour tortillas—it’s divine.
Mylo Coffee Co.: Kouign Amann — If ever a single menu item has developed what might be considered a cult following in Little Rock, the kouign amann from Mylo Coffee Co. would be it. Devotees line up in the wee hours of the morning—even before Mylo opens for business—to ensure that they’ll be able to get their sweet and sugary fix for the weekend. Oftentimes, the kouign amann sell out within half an hour. They have attained an almost mythical status—many are convinced they do exist, but they’ve never actually been able to see one. This is a slight exaggeration, of course—we’ve eaten many throughout 2013, and we’ll stand by our claim that you will not find a finer pastry in central Arkansas. A simple examination of the anatomy of a kouign amann speaks volumes: dozens of thin sheets of dough, rolled out and folded back onto each other, with a layer of butter and sugar interlaced between each one. When baked, the kouign amann gain a soft, gooey bottom half where the sugars have melted and pooled, and a crisp, caramelized top half. If pastry perfection were ever possible, the kouign amann come about as close as we’ve ever witnessed.