It has been a long time since I've written about a restaurant experience. Honestly, it has been a long time since I've tried anything new. We rarely try anything new especially during this time of uncertainty during the Covid-19 pandemic. That said, when I found out there was a restaurant featuring foods from Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania I was thrilled. My favorite restaurant in the world is Abyssinia in Memphis, Tennessee. The food is so full of flavor and those flavors have such a wide variety that everything there is unique. Since Kenya borders Ethiopia I thought the foods would have a similar taste and flavor. All week my wife and I talked about Abyssinia. Ethiopian lentil stew, braised cabbage, the light potato salad, the spiced split peas not to mention injera, the Ethiopian flatbread to sop up all of the stewed flavors!!! I couldn't stop thinking about it all!
Looking over the menu, I knew it would be different from my beloved Abyssinia. We were looking at coconut flavors added to rice and green peas and collard greens were on the menu. I love coconut so i was keen to try coconut mixed with whatever delectable spices they would be using. Unfortunately, I was disappointed. The peas tasted like peas with a little coconut milk. They were under-seasoned not to mention under-spiced, and my coconut cardamom rice had no coconut nor cardamom since they had mistakenly given us the wrong meal. My vegan dinner for two had some kind of overcooked, dry pork product in it. Luckily, I'm not a vegetarian so it wasn't the end of the world. I was just disappointed Even the flatbread was so oil filled that it was off-putting. My wife took a few bites and trashed her plate. I was too hungry to do that, but I didn't save any leftovers to savor.
On a brighter note, I've been very into cooking with sausage lately so I also ordered the Kenyan sausages to try out. They were good, and I would try them again.
I'm sneaking this review in under the radar and not posting it to the front page of the website because I have a hope that things just didn't go right for them this time and, were I wanting to part with another 40.00 bucks on dinner with them, I have hope that it would be a better experience.
I'm pretty sure if you want to win on Chopped, throwing a fried egg on top of your main course is a great way to get yourself to the dessert round. And I know that, personally, I'm pretty much a sucker for a fried egg stuck on top of my food. So, when I ordered at ZaZa's in Conway, I had to go for the arugula, prosciutto pizza with a fried egg stuck on top of it.
Wood oven pizza with a nice, thin crust topped with fresh arugula, prosciutto, and a fried egg? Yes, please.
The pizza comes out hot, with arugula and prosciutto added after the cooking process along with some grape tomatoes cut in half (that I could have done without, in all honesty). I found myself eating the tomatoes separately from the rest of the pizza. I get it, Parma ham and tomatoes is great, but the tomatoes just weren't for me this time around.
On my other visit to ZaZa's I tried the Zupreme, another wood oven fired beauty topped with Pepperoni, House-Made Italian sausage, a 3 Italian Cheese Blend, caramelized onions, Mushrooms, kalamata olives, and tomato sauce. Equally delicious as the pie from my first visit, and the fried egg on top still would have worked (although I didn't have one)
My companions ate salads, wing, gelato and other pizza choices including one with a beautiful ball of Burrata and a drizzle of balsamic that looked amazing. I was very tempted to try it on my second visit, but decided to go in a different direction.
The salads are topped and tossed in front of the customer, and the wings looked really nice. I'm usually skeptical of pizza restaurant wings, but these got great reviews from the other guests at my table.
The only real complaints I have are that:
1. The delivery time for one entree to another left something to be desired. On my second visit, several of the people at my table were half way through dinner before I got my pie. It isn't the end of the world, but leaving people to get hangry watching others isn't the best look.
2. Some of our pies got a little too much love from the high heat of a wood fire oven turning the bottom of the pizza skin black in places. My guess is that some new cooks were learning about the wood oven and high heat that week.
Neither of those things will keep me from coming back. Nobody and no restaurant is perfect, and the pizza at ZaZa's is worth of a couple minor hiccups.
For all my affinity for Stoby's of Russellville, I have to admit I'd never been to the sister restaurant in Conway until recently. Honestly, I have always been a little nervous about the Conway location. It isn't that I thought the food wouldn't live up to expectations, and it isn't that I thought I'd have a bad experience. It is because Stoby's Russellville has such an original vibe/look that, in my mind, I felt like any other Stoby's just wouldn't have the same je ne 'est quoi.
The memories from being a long-time Stoby's of Russellville customer and employee don't make it easy to accept something other than "my Stoby's" as Stoby's. So much of my college (and grad school) life was centered around the restaurant. I was there very nearly every breakfast and lunch during the week and every dinner on Saturday night for a long time. I bonded with several of my dearest life-long friends in that train car on D street. One of those friends even officiated my wedding fifteen years later. As you can see, that train car and depot mean a lot to me. A lot more than a bowl of cheese dip and a pita sandwich ever could.
All of that said, one of the great things about food is that it has the distinct ability to bring a wave of memory and nostalgia with a single bite: One single bite of tortilla chip dipped in Stoby's Cheese dip.
Just like that, I was "home again" back to a time when life was more simple and the future was wide open.
I'm happy to say that I'm now almost as big of a fan of Stoby's Conway as of Stoby's Russellville. The recently revamped Conway location (it had been destroyed in a fire in 2015) does the food to the same specs as Russvegas with the same friendly, quick service. Over the course of my two weeks in Conway, I had my go to Stoby Sandwich (with turkey, summer sausage, salami, Cheddar, and Pepper Jack in a pita), the Philly cheese-steak (a more recent addition to the menu but absolutely delicious), and a Petit Jean pepper bacon burger. I also got to check out the nachos, and they looked amazing.
I'm debating to go with nachos or back to the Stoby Sandwich for my next visit. But what about the pita taco? It has been far too long since I've had a pita taco. The decisions!!!!
From my visits to the Conway location, the pepper bacon burger was my least favorite meal. While technically sound with a thick patty, fresh bun, and delicious Pettit Jean pepper bacon, the burger just didn't quite live up to the Philly or the Stoby. This is one of those times when nothing is wrong with the dish, but it just isn't on the same level. And that level is high.
The Stoby, like I mentioned before, is a classic. It is the sandwich that launched the business. Three meats of your choice, two cheeses cheeses of your choice, lettuce, tomato, Stoby sauce, and your choice of bread. Basically you build your own sandwich to your specifications. Want all turkey and American? Do all turkey and American.
The Stoby's Philly is my favorite cheesesteak of all time. Served with onions and peppers (of course) and topped with the spicy white version of Stoby's cheese dip and a side of crispy fries, the Philly is a hot, ooey gooey cheese and meat mess stuffed inside a soft bun. So good.
The Conway location is at 805 Donaghey Ave, Conway, AR 72034
With Bentonville and Fayetteville just down the road, Rogers can get overlooked which is a shame. With places like Parkside Public, Levi's Gastrolounge, and Saiwok as options, Rogers should never be overlooked.
Saiwok is an order at the counter, get a number casual eatery slightly hidden in a shopping center in Rogers best known for affordably priced, delicious food. I love the casual, family friendly yet trendy atmosphere that includes a colorful mural on the wall and tasteful wooden tables.
The service is quick with each dish being brought to the table as it is completed rather than the full order being brought out. As we tend to order a variety of apps to share on our visits, I like this style. We get to start and app and, just before we're done, we have another dish to savor.
For me, the big highlight on the menu is any dish that includes their smoked pork belly. The smoked pork belly cheese fries, topped with a soft cooked egg to sauce the dish are addictive as is the smoked pork belly bao (steamed bun) which has a large slice of pork belly topped with a refreshing slaw. The big additional hit from our visits has been their brussell sprouts which are crisp and perfectly sauced.
To find more information on Saiwok, check out their Facebook Page.
While I'll soon be branching out from Burgers and Mexican fare, I wanted to add in a quick blog on David's Burgers in Cabot. Unlike some of the older dairy bar and burger forward restaurants I've written about, David's Burgers is a new chain based in central Arkansas that has been modeled to have that "old time" feel to it.
Just inside is an interesting, if oddly placed, meat display. According to the website, the meat displayed is the actual meat that gets cut and ground to become your burger. This fresh, never frozen, beef is choice grade a, and is pattied out each morning before the service day begins.
The fries are all hand cut and double fried (the French way) to make sure they get crispy on the outside. This is a refreshing method in a world of frozen bag fries.
I opted for the #1 Single burger combo, and I wasn't disappointed. Enough fries to fill my craving and a delicious, well-seasoned burger topped with fresh veggies. However, now that I've had a chance to check out the menu, I know I'm going for the hamburger steak (no bun) next time. It comes topped with grilled onions and mushrooms, and looks delicious.
Other David's Burgers locations include Conway, North Little Rock, and Little Rock. For some reason, I thought there was a Russellville location, but looking online, it seems I was wrong. Here is there website: David's Burgers.
I have to admit, when I moved to the Cabot/Beebe area, I wondered where I would find good, flavorful Mexican food. The first couple Mexican-style restaurants I tried left me craving seasoning. Then, a work colleague and I tried Casa Mojitos.
I had found my local Mexican eatery.
The first test of a Mexican or Tex-Mex restaurant is the quality of salsa brought to the table. If the salsa tastes of canned tomato or, even worse, salsa from a jar, it is a pretty good signal that the food won't be up to par. Luckily, I was very pleased with the salsa brought to our table.
The next text is whether or not the protein served is properly spiced. Too often, in the Cabot/Beebe area, I had been served ground beef lightly seasoned with salt, pepper, and nothing else. The chicken would often be boiled chicken, pulled from the bone with no extra spices. The meats at Casa Mojito didn't have those issues. Proteins are well seasoned and flavorful.
My last visit to Casa Mojito was on "guy's weekend," a three day father/son weekend filled with swimming, sports movies, and local restaurants. That Sunday night (the last night of our bro time), we went to Casa Mojito and I saw my son eat more food than I've ever seen him consume in one sitting. He loved his burrito, rice, and beans. Rarely does he clean a plate, but this plate was clean.
The only downside to Casa Mojito is where it is located. While Beebe is a fine town, it is in White County which is, unfortunately, dry. No Mojitos are served at Casa Mojito. No margaritas. No beer. No big deal on a guy's weekend with the kiddo, but a little disappointing when you're looking for a date night spot with your significant other.
You can find more information on Casa Mojito on their Facebook Page.
If you've been around Memphis for any amount of time, you've seen Pancho's cheese dip. If you didn't try the Pancho's cheese dip that you saw, you missed out on one of the great treats along the border of Arkansas and Tennessee. While I'm sure the person exists, I've never actually heard someone say they don't like Pancho's.
That said, as often as I've eaten the dip, I'd never tried the restaurant. So, since I was in the area (and since it just happened to be Cinco de Mayo), my son and I decided to stop in and give the menu a try.
When they brought cheese dip out with the salsa (without us having to ask for it), I knew we were in the right place.
Warm chips. Cold salsa.
And cold cheesedip?
We were a little surprised that the ramekins of cheese dip served to us were delivered straight from the cooler to our table, but after tasting it, we decided that cold Pancho's was better than most other cheese dips and we started getting our orders together.
The boy opted for a quesadilla while I ordered a burrito as we watched the restaurant fill up with fellow Cinco de Mayo diners. My son, who is a bean and rice aficionado, gave Pancho's high marks for their fare while I ate so many chips smothered in cheese dip and salsa that I barely had the ability to lift my fork to go after my lunch. It is one of my biggest problems walking into a Mexican or Tex-Mex restaurant. I fill up well before my meal shows up.
Despite being full, I managed to make most of the food on my plate disappear which left me stuffed as I waddled out of the door and back to the car. Driving while hungry always puts me in a bad mood. Driving while stuffed just makes me miserable. So, we left on our three hour journey a little worse for wear, but happy that we stopped.
Now, don't confuse Pancho's in West Memphis, Arkansas as the same as Pancho's Mexican in Fayetteville. While they share the same proper name, they aren't the same restaurant. However, as I looked over the Pancho's in Fayetteville's Facebook page, I think it deserves a visit soon as well.
Oh, and if you're outside of the West Memphis area and can't find Pancho's cheese dip at your local grocer, apparently you can order it online and have it shipped directly to your door! Sounds like a great gift idea (hint, hint).
I lived in Memphis, off and on, for well over a decade. In fact, I drive to The Bluff City at least twice a month, and my ties there are very strong. It is the place that opened up my palette to becoming a chef and I will always be grateful for the friends, food, and family there.
But this isn't "I Write Memphis."
It is I Write Arkansas, and while Tops is known as Memphis Barbecue, they do have a location in Marion. I was pleased to be able to visit this week as Tops has some of my favorite Barbecue of all time. Personally, I say forget the downtown Memphis Barbeque stops. Forget about the big name, nationally known, fancy barbecue eateries. You can stay across the border in Arkansas and have some fine barbecue at Tops.
The Marion location sits just off Interstate 55 and around the corner from Highway 64. If you're thinking of driving 64 instead of 40, it is the perfect stop for a 'que stop (and the burgers are good too).
On Saturday afternoon the restaurant was busy but not packed. The staff was dealing with customers quickly and efficiently, and I was able to place my order almost immediately after walking through the doors. The #1 barbecue pork sandwich (slaw on the sandwich, of course) with baked beans and fries on the side. The sandwich was delicious. Some of my favorite pork. I mean, like, ever. The meat is more chopped than pulled which is usually not my favorite, but the flavor was so good I didn't and don't care if it is pulled or chopped. The liquid of the slaw and sauce dripped and I didn't mind becoming a mess.
However, the baked beans are my real favorite. A nice smoke flavor mingles with a mustard forward sauce and you can see the meat intermingling with the beans. These are what beans at a barbecue restaurant should taste like. Like I said earlier, forget the big names in Memphis. These guys (along with, strangely enough, Jerry Lawler's Barbecue in Memphis) are my favorite.
If you're ever close to the Arkansas/Tennessee border, this is a fun stop for good food.
Saturday morning at 8 AM isn't the usual time to crave a burger, but as I turned off 167 and headed toward Highway 64 last Saturday morning, I couldn't help but think about grabbing a burger at Bulldog Restaurant in Bald Knob.
Truthfully, I've been thinking of grabbing a burger there for some time. Like I said in my post about Johnson's Tasty Freeze in Austin, I'm nostalgic about these decidedly "old school" dairy bar style restaurants. They remind me of childhood/teenage years, and simply walking through the doors of places like this can make life feel simpler. I'd never been inside the Bulldog before because, quite frankly, it has always looked too busy on my previous times through Bald Knob. In fact, the place always looks packed on Friday nights. This is, of course, a sign that the food is good, but when you're passing through trying to get from point a to point b as quickly as possible, a busy restaurant can often signal longer wait times. If I'm driving 64 on Friday night it means my intention is to get to Memphis as quickly as possible and I Drive Arkansas is showing huge wait times on I-40.
At 8:08 on Saturday morning the parking lot was empty. Only one lonely vehicle sat in the lot. I pulled in, parked my car, and took my phone out. While the open sign was on, I wanted to make sure they really were open. A quick Google search showed they had opened a few minutes before so, I hopped out and walked into the restaurant for the very first time. I was greeted with a smile and I asked, "Do you serve the full menu in the morning?"
"Yes we do, but we have a breakfast sandwich."
"Actually, I'd really like a burger and fries."
"Okay, we can do that, but it might take a few minutes."
I sat down, checked out the restaurant, snapped a few pictures, and waited for my burger and fries which came out much quicker than I expected.
Since I was on the move, I took my meal to go, hopped back in the car and ate on the road. The burger was great. The patty was juicy, well seasoned, and flat top grilled just the way you'd expect. It was topped with tomato and a ginormous single piece of lettuce that stuck out from the sides of the bun. The fries, surprisingly enough, were crisp, seasoned fries. I was really pleased to see this as, generally, my primary complaint about a dairy bar style restaurant burger combo are the fries. Too often I've been served unsalted crinkle cut fries. These were a real treat, and I was very pleased with my meal. It is so great that places like this exist and some, like Bulldog, seem to be thriving.
Next time I drive through Bald Knob I'm going to stop again, but next time I'm trying some of the pie.
I used to frequent Dub's Dairy Bar in London (Arkansas not England) on days when a class at ATU was cancelled (or I was just skipping). I'd stop in, order a burger and fries, and watch the social interactions around me. You could tell the owner of the restaurant knew the vast majority of his patrons, and that little restaurant was a focal point of the community.
It wasn't too long after I graduated college that Dub's closed down. The building housed a couple different restaurants in the following years, but none of them lasted long. In fact, all these years later, it is hard to find places like Dub's. Fast food chains have gobbled up so many of the mom and pop old school burger joints. I couldn't even find Dub's mentioned on Google when I searched for it.
This is exactly why I was excited to see a Tasty Freeze. Sometimes I want a burger that takes me back to those Dub's Dairy Bar days. I want to see the patties sizzling on a flat top grill. I want to watch the locals that all know each other having conversations. I want to watch that same social interaction I used to see at Dub's. And sometimes I don't want my burger to be "gourmet" and topped with fig preserves and goat cheese. Sometimes I don't want to know which keg of local IPA just got tapped. Sometimes I want simplicity. A burger with cheese, lettuce, tomato, and mayo made to order in a place that doesn't look just like any other place in any other town.
All of those things are exactly what I get when I stop by to grab a burger at Tasty Freeze (or is it Tastee Freez, I never can decide). The staff has always been friendly. The cooking takes a little time, but only because it is made to order. The locals have never disappointed either. Happy kids getting ice cream. Couples grabbing a bite and having a conversation. Older Arkansans getting their weekly sweet treat (try the strawberry shake).
I'm glad places like this still exist. In fact, I hope they never go away because they are an integral part of our past. Well, at least my past, and I want to share that past with my children.
What I get:
I'm stuck on the burger, fries, and strawberry shakes.
David Thornton is a two time national award winning writer, chef, husband, father, and fitness enthusiast.