Archive for the ‘Steak’ Category

A trip to The Tamale Factory

Monday, March 4th, 2013

It was, in so many ways, a trip back in time.

We exited Interstate 40 at Hazen on that Friday afternoon and headed north on Arkansas Highway 11 to Des Arc.

How many times had I made the trip on this section of highway through the years to visit my grandparents at Des Arc? It would be impossible to count them.

Dad, who died two years ago yesterday, would be at the wheel of the big Oldsmobile. Mom would be in the passenger seat up front. My sister and I would be in the back. Having been raised in the pine woods of south Arkansas, I was intrigued by the huge fields and the views that seemed to stretch for miles to the horizon.

Then, as now, the Delta and Grand Prairie were places apart.

We knew what awaited us in Des Arc — great cooking by my grandmother, Bess Rex Caskey, in the old family home on Erwin Street; a visit to the chicken yard to gather eggs each morning with my grandfather, W.J. Caskey; a walk across the street to check his post office box, a stop in the Farmers and Merchants Bank and then a stroll down Main Street, where the Caskey Funeral Home and the Caskey Hardware Store had once been located.

If it were summer, we might go down to Haley’s Fish Market to buy catfish that had been hauled that morning out of the White River, frying them for supper that evening. My grandfather would ask if they had any “fiddlers,” small catfish that he liked to fry whole.

If it were winter, Dad might take me along for a duck hunt.

I was in the company of three of Arkansas’ most noted storytellers on that recent Friday afternoon. Don Tilton, Paul Berry and Mary Berry had graciously invited me to tag along for dinner at The Tamale Family, the restaurant that Mary’s cousin George Eldridge has operated since November in a barn on the family farm at Gregory in Woodruff County.

As we headed up Highway 11 between Hazen and Des Arc, we passed the familiar landmarks — the Wattensaw Bayou, where we would sometimes hunt ducks; the Darrell Saul Farm, where I had attended political fundraising events in my earlier life as a politico; the headquarters for the Wattensaw Wildlife Management Area, which had once been a club called Riverwood where we would go to swim; the cemetery where we buried my grandfather on a hot summer day and my grandmother on a cold winter day; the Presbyterian Church, which is being turned into a library; the offices of the White River Journal, one of this state’s best weekly newspapers, which has been in the Walls family for decades; the building my grandfather built to house his hardware store, a structure that still stands and still is home to a hardware store.

My grandfather sold his businesses to Willis Eddins who, in turn, sold them to Billy Garth. They remain in the Garth family.

Just across the street from that building is the Prairie County Courthouse, where my grandfather served terms as county assessor, county clerk and county judge. Though the man I called Pam-Pa had last held elective office in 1941, I loved it when people would still refer to him as Judge Caskey. It made me feel like he was important.

With Don — who’s known by his friends as Tilco — at the wheel, we crossed the White River bridge, looking to our right at that always magnificent view of the courthouse and downtown Des Arc. The current bridge is far safer than its predecessor, but it doesn’t have the character of what was known by locals as the Swinging Bridge. The massive suspension bridge, which was in operation from 1928-70, indeed would sway when trucks crossed it.

Whenever horses crossed the bridge, owners had to put covers over their heads and lead them. They refused to cross otherwise.

Here are a few of the comments posted about the Swinging Bridge on a website about bridges:

– “I lived east of the river and grew up crossing the bridge every day. We called it rattletrap bridge because of the sounds the boards made as the car went across. … It was terrifying to cross on those few boards on a school bus. When I started driving, I drove to school across the bridge every day. One day it was raining, and I lost control on the way up to the center of the bridge. My car fishtailed and hit the rails on the side three times before coming to rest. I remember the feeling of knowing I wasn’t going to make it. I’m now almost 60 years old, and I still dream about it and wake up shivering.”

– “I had such a love-hate relationship with the wonderful Swinging Bridge. One time, my dad had to back down past the huge curve in the bridge to let another car pass. I was so scared I got in the floorboard. As I grew older, my friends and I would walk the bridge on Sunday afternoons. Boards were always missing, and I never got close to the sides.”

– “I grew up in this area and walked and rode across this bridge countless times. It never occurred to me to be scared. It was just the bridge we had to cross to get to Des Arc. I remember riding in trailers filled with cotton, being pulled by a tractor and feeling the swing of the bridge. I’m not sure I would do that today if I could.”

– “I rode in a school bus for 11 years across the bridge every day. Sometimes we had to wait for someone to back down to one of the wide sections, and then sometimes we had to back up in the school bus ourselves. I don’t remember being afraid, but after I married, my husband was terrified to cross it.”

East of the river, there are large fields and pecan orchards. As we head east on Arkansas Highway 38, we pass the road that my dad and I would turn down to fish on Spring Lake and Horn Lake, both White River oxbows.

On the Prairie County-Woodruff County line, we reach the community of Little Dixie and turn left onto Arkansas Highway 33, passing through Dixie on our way to Gregory (yes, there’s both a Dixie and a Little Dixie).

The Eldridge family home, built in 1910, has been beautifully restored.

Also cleaned up and restored is the Eldridge family cemetery, the final resting place of family patriarch Rolfe Eldridge, who was born in November 1807 and died in April 1859. Mary Eldridge Berry gave me a tour of the cemetery just as the sun was setting. Paul went inside the restaurant (the barn is between the family home and the cemetery) to secure a table from George.

Anyone who knows George, the owner of the Little Rock outpost of Doe’s Eat Place, understands that he has the golden touch when it comes to restaurants. It was George who first talked Charles and “Little Doe” Signa in Greenville, Miss., into letting him use the Doe’s name and menu in a location other than the original on Nelson Street in Greenville.

Doe’s Eat Place locations now can been found throughout the region, but George was the first to take the concept out of Greenville. Due to a politician named Bill Clinton, the Little Rock location soon became more famous than the Greenville original. That’s because presidential campaign staffers such as James Carville and George Stephanopoulos would hang out there on a nightly basis.

The national political media followed and began writing about the place. The back room at Doe’s was where P.J. O’Rourke, Hunter S. Thompson and William Greider conducted the interview of Clinton for a September 1992 edition of Rolling Stone.

Was it O’Rourke or Thompson who tried to eat a tamale with the shuck still on?

In November 1992, People published a story on George and his chief cook, Lucille Robinson. The following January, George escorted Robinson to one of the inaugural balls in Washington. An Annie Leibovitz portrait of the pair is among the photos that hang on the walls of the Little Rock restaurant.

If you like the food at Doe’s, you’ll like the food at The Tamale Factory. The menus are similar.

One thing about Delta residents is that they don’t mind driving a long distance for a good meal on a Friday or Saturday. Since it opened in November, The Tamale Factory has been pulling them in from as far away as Little Rock, Memphis and Jonesboro. Reservations are recommended.

On the other side of the barn that houses the restaurant, George keeps his quarter horses in a well-appointed stable. He introduced us to the horses and his three cats (cats are a tradition in horse barns). He also opened a pen that was filled with goats.

There’s also a show ring where George occasionally rolls the dirt, puts down a wooden dance floor and brings in a band from Memphis. Oh how I would love to be back in Gregory on one of those nights.

Roots run deep in this part of Arkansas. Like other east Arkansas counties, Prairie and Woodruff counties have bled population for decades.

Prairie County has only half the population it had in 1920, falling from 17,447 that year to 8,715 in the 2010 census.

Woodruff County has just a third of the population it had in 1920, dropping from 21,527 that year to 7,260 in 2010. Those who remain, though, are a proud people with a strong sense of history and place. They are also people who know how to have a good time, as we saw on this night at The Tamale Factory.

Prairie County has two county seats — Des Arc and DeValls Bluff — and a rich history.

“European exploration of the area began as early as the late 17th century,” Marilyn Hambrick Sickel writes in the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “While the area became occupied by both the Spanish and French, the county remained vital to trade expeditions. … French traders traveled up and down the White River in the early 1700s. Bear oil and skins, abundant in this area at the time, were sought-after commodities in the New Orleans markets. The rivers were the highways of this early era. Early maps identify the White River as Eau Blanche and Riv Blanche. Des Arc was the earliest settlement. Creoles named Watts and East are credited as being Des Arc’s first residents, arriving around 1810.”

Sickel writes that Des Arc was “a flourishing river town prior to the Civil War. Timber for homes was plentiful. Fish and game were abundant, and the population grew rapidly. Selling wood to power the steamboats and rafting timber along the river were viable occupations. The Butterfield Overland Mail route in the late 1850s was key in the development of Des Arc. The city, depending on how wet the roads were or how low the river was, had the fortune of being on the direct route from Memphis to Fort Smith.”

Because it was so swampy, Woodruff County wasn’t settled as early as Prairie County.

Woodruff County was established during the Civil War in November 1862. When Arkansas was no longer part of the Confederacy, it was approved again as a county in 1865. It was named after William Woodruff, the founder of the Arkansas Gazette at Arkansas Post in 1819 (the newspaper moved to Little Rock along with the territorial capital in 1821).

“In the years after the Civil War, Woodruff County prospered with wood and agriculture industries,” Paula Harmon Barnett writes in the online encyclopedia. “Sawmills and woodworking factories thrived, making use of the many acres of timber in the county. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, railroads began to move into the county, and towns sprang up around them, increasing the county’s population each year and greatly improving the economy. Cotton, corn, oats and hay thrved in the fertile, well-watered soil, and the two rivers in the county by which to ship products (the White and Cache) added to the area’s prosperity.”

The county’s population grew each decade from the 1870 census to the 1930 census. It has fallen each decade since then.

There’s a haunting beauty to the Delta and the Grand Prairie in late winter and early spring. History hangs heavily here. Come early to Gregory, taking time to walk through the Eldridge family cemetery and maybe even going to the historic area of Augusta Memorial Park, where there also are Eldridges buried.

Yes, come early and stay late, letting your tamales and steak digest while convincing George to tell stories about the politicians, musicians and other colorful characters he has known.

Spring is beginning in Arkansas, and with it the desire for Friday and Saturday road trips. The drive to Gregory is a trip back in time with good food awaiting at your final destination.

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Arkansas food notes

Tuesday, January 15th, 2013

There’s a lot going on with the Arkansas food scene right now.

Here are some notes on developments that might be of interest:

– I’m anxious to try The Tamale Factory in Woodruff County, a creation of George Eldridge, the man who put the Little Rock location of Doe’s Eat Place on the map.

The Tamale Factory is in George’s old horse barn at Gregory, which is 10 miles south of Augusta on Arkansas Highway 33. It’s only open on Friday and Saturday nights, from 5 p.m. until 10 p.m.

You order just like you would at Doe’s — bring a big group, come hungry, get tamales and shrimp for appetizers and then have steaks for the main course.

Though there are now Doe’s restaurants in several locations, George was the first to come up with the idea of using the name and concept of the original restaurant on Nelson Street in Greenville, Miss. The Little Rock outpost of Doe’s became even more famous than the original when staffers for Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign began hanging out there.

Once the weather warms a bit in March, a Friday or Saturday night road trip to Gregory sounds in order.

– An even shorter Friday night road trip (and one I plan to make) is to Big K’s Fish Barn, which I understand is in a farm equipment shed (my kind of place).

Traveling east on U.S. Highway 70 out of  Carlisle, you should turn north just past Murry’s restaurant onto Anderson Road. After crossing over Interstate 40, Big K’s is the first farm shop on the right.

I’ve heard the catfish is something special there.

– Two of the best meals I had in 2012 — one in the spring and one in the fall — were at the Bohemia on Park Avenue in Hot Springs.

Founded more than half a century ago by Mr. and Mrs. O.E. Duchac, the Bohemia was operated for years by Adolf Thum. I loved his German and Hungarian food, and I enjoyed hearing his heavy accent when he would come over to check on us.

I was saddened when Thum closed his restaurant in 2007. We’ve already lost too many of the Hot Springs classics I grew up enjoying – Coy’s, Mrs. Miller’s and Mollie’s to name three.

In late 2009, the Bohemia was given new life by Fermin Martinez, who was born in Mexico City and raised in Brooklyn. He later worked in France and Italy.

You would never guess from the outside that this is a fine dining establishment. It looks more like a beer joint as you drive down Park Avenue. Don’t let that fool you. Inside is one of the best restaurants in Arkansas.

– My top Arkansas dining “find” of 2012 was in the former Crain Motor Co. building in downtown Siloam Springs. The building, which had housed a restaurant called Emelia’s, underwent extensive renovations after Shelley and Todd Simmons of Siloam Springs joined forces with Chef Miles James.

An open kitchen was installed, the dropped ceiling was removed to expose the beams and historic photos of Siloam Springs were added.

James, known for what he calls Ozark plateau cuisine, created a menu featuring locally sourced foods. The restaurant is named 28 Springs. It opened in May, and I ate there in the fall.

James still operates James at the Mill in Johnson, long recognized as one of the region’s best restaurants.

James, a Fayetteville native, earned a degree from the New England Culinary Institute and then worked at these restaurants: American Seasons in Nantucket; Park Avenue and the Tribeca Grill in New York City; The Coyote Cafe in Santa Fe; Guy Savoy in Paris (not the one in Logan County); and The River Cafe in London (not the one in Pope County).

He was on the list of the “rising star chefs of the 21st century” that was released by the James Beard Foundation. His cookbook “Cuisine of the Creative” received a James Beard nomination back in 1999 for Best Cookbook of the Year.

Southern Living once described James at the Mill as “an architectural and culinary marvel … the peak of fine Ozark dining.”

For those who like James at the Mill, it’s well worth the drive over to Siloam Springs the next time you’re in northwest Arkansas so you can give 28 Springs a try.

– The hiring of Joel Antunes as the executive chef at Ashley’s and the Capital Bar & Grill in Little Rock’s Capital Hotel was a positive sign. It showed that the Stephens family remains committed to world-class dining in the state’s largest city.

Antunes was awarded the James Beard Best Chef of the Southeast Award in 2005 for his work at the restaurant named for him (Joel) in Atlanta.

Citing his disdain for the celebrity chef syndrome, Antunes once told an interviewer: “I don’t wear a tie and walk around talking. I am a cook. Discipline. I learned that in France. I am in the kitchen every day cooking.”

Joel — the restaurant — opened in 2001 and was named one of Esquire’s best new restaurants in the country.

As a youngster, Antunes went to live with his grandparents in the south of France while his father was serving in the military. He learned to cook from his grandmother and discovered it was something he enjoyed.

Antunes began an apprenticeship at the age of 14 at Belle Meuniere in the city of Royat in France, a Michelin two-star restaurant. He went on to work in Michelin-starred restaurants such as Leyoden in Paris, Duquesnoy in Paris and Hotel Negreso in Nice.

Antunes trained under famous chefs such as Paul Bocuse in Lyons and Michel Troisgos in Roanne.

He headed to Bangkok in 1987 at the age of 26 to work at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. In 1991, he became a partner and the executive chef at Les Saveurs on Curzon Street in London. That restaurant earned a Michelin star in 1994, but Antunes’ investors pulled the plug three years later.

The Ritz-Carlton Buckhead in Atlanta was looking for a chef after Guenter Seeger left to open his own restaurant. The likes of Daniel Boulud and Alain Ducasse recommended Antunes for the job. He spent several years at the Ritz-Carlton before opening Joel.

A short stay at the venerable Oak Room in the Plaza Hotel in New York was followed by a return to London and stints at the Park Plaza Westminster Bridge Hotel and the Embassy Mayfair Hotel.

– Near the top of the list of the tastiest things I ate in 2012 were the sausages at the 83rd annual Louie Mancini Sausage Supper, a Knights of Columbus event in Little Rock that drew hundreds of people to the Cathedral of St. Andrew on Dec. 4.

I was honored to be the featured speaker at an event with such a long history. From 1929-78, Council 812 of the Knights of Columbus held the annual supper to raise funds for the Saint Joseph Orphanage in North Little Rock. In the orphanage cafeteria, the orphans would sing Christmas carols while the diners enjoyed the sausage supper.

Saint Joseph’s closed in 1978, but the supper continued, raising money for needy children and their families. It was named for Louie Mancini in 2005 in honor of his decades of support. He helped his father prepare food each year for the supper, followed his father into the Knights of Columbus and continued to devote countless hours each December to the event.

Finally, a few of my dining wishes for 2013:

– That the weather is unseasonably warm on Jan. 25 when I’m standing in the long line waiting to get into the annual Slovak Oyster Supper.

– That the weather is unseasonably cool on Aug. 15 when I’m in the Ned Hardin pecan grove for the annual Grady Fish Fry.

– That the Little Rock restaurant Matt Bell is opening in conjunction with the Oxford American in the old Juanita’s location — South on Main — is as good as I think it’s going to be.

– That the former Capital Hotel chef Lee Richardson opens his own place in Little Rock.

– That someone will use the name The Gar Hole, which was the name of the bar at the Marion Hotel, for a good restaurant in downtown Little Rock.

– That the new restaurant Cache in the River Market District — named after the Cache River in east Arkansas — is a rousing success.

– That chef Matt McClure’s new restaurant in the 21c Hotel at Bentonville, known as The Hive, draws national attention.

– That the new owners of what was The Peabody Hotel in downtown Little Rock will bring in a well-known chef along the lines of Antunes. Since we’re losing the iconic Peabody brand and having it replaced by the boring Marriott brand, they at least owe us that much.

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Steak time

Friday, December 4th, 2009

Thanks to all of you who have commented on the AETN documentary about our Delta tamale tour. The program had its debut Wednesday night and hopefully will be airing again soon.

Just as cooler weather increases my appetite for tamales, it also makes a big steak sound better than ever.

Last Saturday, after watching Arkansas State defeat North Texas in the final home football game of the year in Jonesboro, my 12-year-old and I stopped at Josie’s Steakhouse at the intersection of U.S. Highway 49 and Arkansas Highway 14 in Waldenburg.

The grilled shrimp — with just the right amount of garlic — were wonderful as an appetizer. Our steaks — heavily seasoned — were even better. We sat near the open kitchen and joined the cooks in watching the first quarter of the Arkansas-LSU football game on a large flat-screen television.

My son, very much a city boy, was amused by the fact that pickup trucks only were parked out front before our arrival in an SUV. He also liked seeing the large sign out front that said “Welcome Hunters.”

Indeed, Josie’s has much the same atmosphere of some of the better east Arkansas duck clubs I’ve had the pleasure of visiting through the years. It was the perfect place for two hungry guys to go after having attended a college football game. In fact, I’ll go as far as to say it’s now high on my list of places with the best steaks in Arkansas.

Josie’s in Waldenburg is open on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights.

Over in Batesville, meanwhile, there’s Josie’s on the White River, a place that often features live entertainment. The Batesville Josie’s, open Monday through Saturday for dinner and Tuesday through Saturday for lunch, was built on the site of a lockhouse that once served boat traffic on the White River. Steve and Beth Carpenter came over from Waldenburg in February 2004 to open the Batesville location. History buffs will like the photos and artifacts about river travel that are displayed in the restaurant.

So what Arkansas restaurant serves your favorite steaks? Try giving me the name of a place I might not know of without your help. Somebody recently mentioned Jerry’s in Trumann. I’ve been there. I like it. That’s just the kind of place I’m in search of. Does the Waldenburg-Trumann combination make Poinsett County the steak capital of Arkansas?

In the meantime, if you find yourself in west Poinsett County on a Thursday, Friday or Saturday, you owe it to yourself to head to Waldenburg for dinner.

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