Eating out

February 15, 2014

I eat out a fair amount, being that I spend a good deal of time on the road. Unfortunately, more of those meals are, well, adequate (on the high side) than they are memorable. But I did have three recently that made me sit up and take notice; two that I expected would do so, and one that was a “The hell you say!”

A few weeks back, I called a friend as I was roadtripping across Arkansas, and drafted him into joining me for lunch at South on Main in Little Rock. This is the restaurant started by the Oxford American magazine, a periodical of Southern literature and intelligentsia that started out in Oxford, Miss., home of Ole Miss and generally generally deemed the citadel of literary academia in Dixie. It gradually went broke there, and moved to Conway, Arkansas, where the University of Central Arkansas proposed to prop it up financially while polishing its own academic/cultural rep in the process. It’s now, I think, mostly independent of UCA, and lives in Little Rock in the newly resurgent South Main district, its offices occupying the former home of Juanita’s, much loved Mexican restaurant that was a favorite of then-Gov. Bill Clinton, and where I learned to love white cheese dip.

And the space next door to the restaurant, also under the Juanita’s banner as the bar/cantina/music hall, has become South on Main, the Oxford American’s restaurant.

After the initial “WTF is a literary magazine doing running a restaurant?” you can make sense of it. For just as William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Will Percy, et. al., served up the South they knew, elevated on a literary plane, South on Main takes standard Southern fare, soul food if you will, and elevates it to a different level. Tasso, boudin, trotters, grits, fried chicken, greens, catfish — all Southern standards — find themselves pushed out of their comfort zones to provide a new look, a new taste. Sometimes this just looks fussy. Other times, it works marvelously.

I had a duck boudin sausage with pinto beans and rice grits — a take on the ubiquitous beans and rice. The sausage was excellent, but a touch more highly spiced than I prefer when I don’t have beer to wash it down. The beans were good; standard, Southern, slow-cooked pintos, seasonings taking a back seat to the earthy taste of the beans themselves. The rice grits were creamy and good — first time, truth be told, that I’d ever had rice grits. I can’t say I liked them any better than I do regular rice in that preparation, or regular grits in any other. But all in all, a very satisfying dish.

My recollection is that my friend had pan-roasted catfish, with beans and rice. I sampled it. It was good. No complaints.

We split a piece of chess pie. Now, there are two kinds of chess pie — the one that looks like a cousin of an egg custard, and the one that looks like a pecan pie without the pecans, which is the kind we always had at my house growing up. This was of the custard variety, and it had a definite lemon flavor to it. Very good — just not what I would call a chess pie.

I’ll go back. It was a keeper.

The other standby favorite was when a friend and I went to Steinhaus Keller in Hot Springs. It was cold and there’s nothing to warm you from the inside out like good German food, and these people do good German food. We shared an entree of schweinbraten, roasted pork loin, sliced and covered in a velvety brown gravy. Very good. Not spicy at all. Made me wish I had gotten mashed potatoes to go with it. I had red cabbage and German potato salad, my friend had fresh veggies (green beans sauteed in butter and garlic) and warm cabbage salad.

The last time I’d eaten at Steinhaus Keller, everything seemed to have had an overdose of black pepper. Not this time. The red cabbage was perfection; I ate every morsel. The German potato salad was wonderful. I tried the beans and the warm cabbage salad, which was cabbage sauteed with onion and bacon, and dressed with cider vinegar — a very simple prep, but a very good one.

Going to Steinhaus Keller is like visiting with an old friend whose company just makes you happy.

Then there was the shocker. During the Arctic freeze that gripped our world a week or so ago, Children A and C and I ventured out for a couple of errands, and decided to grab a quick dinner. Child A suggested Ruby Tuesday’s, because she wanted an appletini. I wasn’t hungry, particularly, so I didn’t object, though I’ve never been very impressed with anything Ruby Tuesday serves.

However. Since it was late and I wasn’t all that hungry, I stuck with an appetizer of Coconut Shrimp. It brought me four healthy-sized, butterflied shrimp, fried crispy in the distinctive coconut batter, with a cup of sweet and sour sauce.

I bit into one and my eyebrows flew upward. These were perfectly cooked, juicy, toothsome, well-flavored morsels of shrimp, as unlike most breaded-and-friend restaurant shrimp as — well, as good shrimp. I may have to make my way back there to try this again.

This weekend, if I can get rid of my sinus headache, promises Olympics, House of Cards, and Amazing Grandchild 2. I have a head of purple cabbage that ought to be cooked. I have a pot roast which can be made into vegetable soup, and a butternut squash which was to have been made into soup yesterday but wasn’t, so I’ll do that today. You ‘n y’mama ‘n ’em have a lovely weekend.



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