The Southern Scene in Little Rock! [classic article]

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I have always been curious about Arkansas. Is it southern, midwestern or even southwestern? Is it Bill Clinton or Walmart? Is it Black Oak Arkansas or Johnny Cash? To answer these questions, I set off for Little Rock.
I stayed at the elegant PEABODY LITTLE ROCK (http://www.peabodylittlerock.com/home.cfm) 501-906-4000. This is where dignitaries stay when they come to town. Just like its sister hotel, the Peabody Little Rock hosts a twice-daily march of the ducks! At 11 am and retreating at 5 pm to the tune of John Philip Souza’s King Cotton March, they have their own formally attired Duck Master and are beloved around the world. The elegance of another era is evident in such details as their antique house phones.

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You can get a free shuttle from the airport to The Peabody, but be sure and call them when your plane has landed.

My room was cozy, with a view of the Arkansas River. Since I was in Little Rock in the summertime, I made good and frequent use of their huge bathtub. You wipe your feet on a bathmat imprinted with duckies! How cute. I ordered room service for breakfast and got the most perfectly poached eggs quickly delivered.
The Peabody has a wonderful gift shop, complete with dozens of kinds of rubber ducks doing different things… of course, I just had to get the rock star ducky!

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I took a cab (about $10 each way) to Hillcrest, a funky historic neighborhood. There, I was happy to meet Adam, a very informed staff person at River City Coffee, Tea and Candy Company (www.river-city-coffee.com). There, I sampled locally made candies, such as jalapeno truffles…smooth at first, and then they kick in! The shop roasts its own coffee, so Adam helped me pick something that would be appealing. He goes by what kind of wine you drink!  The shop has many lovely and hard-to-find gift items, too.

Also in Hillcrest, I bought some crazy little cards from Retail Therapy…who will I send these to? Martha owns this local and regional artists’ collective: retail-therapy@sbcglobal.net.

JUANITA’S (www.juanitas.com) I went to Juanita’s for some damned fine Mexican fare and live bands. Shawn is the manager and Dennis is the Executive Chef. Dennis has been there since the get-go and he knows everything. His recipes are so unique, he has copyrights on many of them! And that is why, though I would buy some, he doesn’t sell any Juanita’s cookbooks. Hmmmm.

Dennis makes sure that the food is more authentic than what’s normally available and everything is made fresh daily. So, I sat myself down at a big, comfy booth and was immediately greeted by a huge bowl of homemade tortilla chips and fresh salsa. Their salsa has a goodly amount of onion and black pepper for bite. Then, I ordered a (or maybe two!) Baja Margarita. This was made with fresh lime juice and Damiana, a Mexican aphrodisiac! Well, it can’t hurt, huh?

My server was absolutely top-notch and she, too has been with Juanita’s since the beginning. It’s like she knew me forever – she knew exactly what to steer me towards. I started out with the Chili Con Queso Blanco. This an absolutely superb cheesy dip made with four types of peppers: poblano, jalapeno, Serrano and green chiles. Dennis also revealed that there’s cooked onion and cilantro in there. Since there’s no cookbook, I’m gonna guess that there’s Queso Blanco and heavy cream in there. You’ll love it.

When I hesitated between a beef dish and the wild mushroom fajitas, my server suggested that I mix beef and mushroom. This was served with fresh guacamole and other fixings. The portions were so generous, I started to slow down… but there’s always room for dessert!

I ordered a good cup of coffee and Juanita’s dessert specialty: a Kahula brownie with vanilla bean ice cream, cinnamon, chocolate, nutmeg, bananas and caramel –the ultimate in decadence!

Then it was time to mosey to the room next door to hear the bands. The opener was Brash, a young power trio that rocked a modern rock/post grunge sound. Then, the main band was a post-modern rock band, Burden Brothers. The set up in Juanita’s is great for we past-our-college days concert-goers: they have little tables and chairs on a riser, perfect for enjoying drinks, chilling out. Not all venues are great for relaxing. Many music greats have passed through here on their way up.

Juanita’s is super casual, yet they were the regular Saturday night stop for the Clintons when they were in the Governor’s mansion – even Chelsea came. All kinds of other chi-chi people have stopped in, like Ted Danson and Mary Steenburgen, even Wolf Blitzer.
The next morning, I was able to walk right next door to The Peabody to the State House Museum. This is the old state house and has wonderful, airy architecture. There’s currently an interactive exhibit, “Grandma’s Cottage”; you can even pick up an antique box of “former snake oil”.

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Upstairs in the State House Museum is the former Senate “floor”. They have the desks and candles arranged just as they were 150 years ago – and you can sit at them! In the front of the room is a video of “Senate speakers,” so you feel like you are attending a legislative session. The video touched several eras, but focused on the struggles during Reconstruction.

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For lunch, BARBARA WAGNER at LITTLE ROCK CONVENTION AND VISITOR’S BUREAU took me to a terrific lunch at Whole Hog BBQ. They’ve won so many national barbeque awards – they display them on the premises – and it’s easy to see why. Get yourself the sampler platter and tuck into pulled pork, ribs, brisket and chicken. They have 7 sauces that you can put on, including a “volcano” that’s kept at the counter! It comes with sides and you are simply crazy if you don’t try the potato salad, the best I’ve ever had. They chop up the potato in little pieces, so each cooks properly, and the dressing has sour cream in there… scrumptious!
After lunch, we were ready to stretch our feet. So, we headed to the newly opened Murray Lock and Dam, known locally as “The Big Dam Bridge”. At 4,226 feet, it is the longest footbridge in the world. Lots of ambitious walkers and cyclists enjoy it.
Barbara told me that much of Little Rock’s tourism is business related, but that family reunions are very popular as well. Many families are great planners, contacting Little Rock CVB (http://www.littlerock.com ) ahead of time. The bureau is able to secure group discounts, maps, etc.

For dinner, I went to CAJUN’S WHARF (www.cajunswharf.com). This is a casual eatery that still puts out the gourmet touches and has live music. They have a van that can pick you up at all the major hotels. Located right on the river on Cantrell Road, there’s a view that makes the place – as I like to say – “romantic without being furtive”. They have a sizeable wine by-the-glass selection available and all have been well matched to the food they serve, with a range of prices from $4.25 to $10.95. I had a couple of glasses of the Kim Crawford NZ Sauvignon Blanc.

My server recommended that I try a recipe unique to CAJUN’S WHARF: Oysters Bienville. These are oysters that are broiled in a white wine/cream sauce with baby shrimp, meaty mushrooms and parmesean cheese. They’re served with fresh lemon and Louisiana or Tabasco hot sauce. The oysters were perfectly fresh and the recipe was very interesting. My server also brought a loaf of piping hot fresh bread and honey butter that was too good to resist.
I ordered their house specialty without knowing it was their house specialty: Boston Casserole! Ah, I hear you, thinking that Boston is the opposite of the South. True, but the description seemed delicious… I was glad to know it’s a big Arkansas thing! It has shrimp, King Crab, lobster and scallops in a creamy Newburg sauce, along with broccoli, water chestnuts and mozzarella on pasta! It’s garnished with fresh lemon, parsley and rosemary. Don’t you want some now? I do.  I ordered this with a side of yellow pepper grits, which were pretty spicy. They were stone ground: creamy but still with good texture.

For dessert, my server steered me to the White Chocolate Bread Pudding with Whiskey Caramel Sauce.

Does it sound like I had a lot for dinner? It does to me, too … actually, I had to have a lot boxed up. My server thoughtfully asked if I’d like to have the whole shebang heated up by the kitchen before I left, in case I was ready for midnight snack. I’d never been offered that by any restaurant.

The bar area – where the bands play — opens to an indoor-outdoor deck on the river. It kind of has a tropical feel to it, with a young professional crowd. There are plenty of chairs, tables and sofas for people to relax. CAJUN’S WHARF has live music 6 nights a week, so even if you are in town during the week on business, you can still go there to have a good time.

After a good night’s sleep, I woke up on Saturday to check out the Farmer’s Market. It’s world-class!

I saw blackberries the size of apricots. They even sell a cross between beef and buffalo, “beefalo”.  I was craving something good and fresh…so I bought myself a great big white peach. I also snagged myself a Little Rock Farmer’s Market Cookbook! There are all kinds of interest things in there, such as Lavender Chicken.

I also picked up some chickweed salve that’s locally made and I can’t get anywhere else (www.healin-hollers.com). It’s supposed to be good for bites and, well… I’m just always getting bitten!

A few minutes’ walk down the road is one of Little Rock’s favorite jewels, the WILLIAM J. CLINTON PRESIDENTIAL CENTER AND PARK (www.clintonpresidentialcenter.org).

The museum is at the end of the street, right on the river. Admission for adults is $7. Because of the nature of its holdings, you’ll have to go through a metal detector. Visitors are urged to see a short video of President Clinton and how his career came into being. There are exhibits of some of the special occasions at the Clinton White House, as well as thousands of historically important papers.

To preserve the solemnity of the building, the gift shop is off-premises, down the road! There is a free streetcar shuttle that will take you there every 10 minutes, don’t you worry.

After walking around in the sun, I was a little hungry, so I went back at the marketplace to Boulevard Bread Company. Now, they don’t really have local foods, but they do strive for gourmet touches in their rare imported cheeses and salads. They also work very hard to be environmentally friendly with their cleaning and packaging. I got myself a Greek sampler. They do have this DJ booth – it’s filled with their own records and you can sit there and play what you want!

Later in the evening, it was time to rock out at STICKY FINGERS ROCK-N-ROLL CHICKEN SHACK (www.stickyfingerz.com). They are located right downtown. I was lucky to hit it during their 7th anniversary – the place was decked out with confetti, balloons and streamers. This is a restaurant and live music venue all in one big room. I would describe the d�cor as dark industrial meets voodoo; it’s colorful, though and not grungy. On this anniversary occasion, they had an ‘80’s cover band from Memphis come it – but really, all kinds of bands have played there. No matter where you sit, there’s not a bad seat in the house… and the high ceilings really help the sound.

They serve lots of their own drinks there and I thought it was the occasion to try their “Disco Lemonade”.

STICKY FINGERS specializes in white meat chicken fingers with many kinds of coatings, and then you pair it up with a sauce from the equally large list. These range from mild to bbq to spicy. Really, you’re only limited by your imagination. My server was a real doll and helped me navigate everything. If I had not wanted the chicken, there were still plenty of options, like pizza, burgers and salads.

I started out with a sausage and cheese platter. They heat everything up piping hot and serve it with toothpicks and crackers. Everything there is done with a generous portion.

Then, I got myself a plate of chicken fingers –well, of course! – selecting a parmesean coating with a creamy dill dip. They further dress up the chicken with ketchup in the kitchen and serve it with a buttermilk biscuit. I was alone that evening, so I would have needed some help in tucking into their sides. You can order such down-home treats as hashbrown casserole, dirty rice and fried okra.

I think you and I can agree that there’s always room for dessert. STICKY FINGERS does homemade banana pudding and other Southern favorites. My server recommended Southern Fried Cheesecake, which is cake wrapped around the cheesie part and quickly fried. Goes great with a stiff cup of coffee.

All too soon, it was time to go home. Little Rock’s airport has something I’ve never seen before: an “Angel’s Squadron” that works on the honor system. They will mail to you any of those things that you can’t bring on the planes anymore (8 oz. size of massage oil?), and you put between $2 and $5 in a box to cover expenses. They also have little disposable foot covers for going through the metal detectors, which may be the ultimate simple touch in hospitality.

 

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