Eager to squeeze
Local Lime delivers on the buzz with top-notch tacos and starters.
In a season of giving and thanks, it’s sort of appropriate that Mexican eatery Local Lime, perhaps one of the most buzzed about restaurants to hit the metro market in years, should choose to open its doors.
For those who don’t follow food, the place is backed by Scott McGehee, the same guy who started instant successes ZaZa Fine Salad and Wood Fired Pizza in the Heights and Big Orange Burgers and Shakes out at the Promenade at Chenal (now also home to Local Lime). The praise of both — in print reviews, on food websites, in readers’ choice polls, etc. — did nothing but fuel the hype for the new venture, in which McGehee is joined by Big Orange co-owner John Beachboard, as well as Herren Hickingbotham. The chef is Ben Brainard, veteran of Boulevard Bread and ZaZa.
Or, in case those names don’t mean much, imagine Little Rock foodies as teenage girls. This restaurant would be the new Twilight movie. Except you don’t have to choose between Team Tacos and Team Margarita, because the metaphor doesn’t go that far. I’m just saying, people were excited.
But, even knowing it was Mexican, there was some question of what form the place would take. The lineage of the place made it a good bet to wager that the establishment would make a statement both in its food and in its stylings as its predecessors had done.
As to that last, the décor is sort of Texas Roadhouse meets urban bistro. The bar dominates the dining room, and behind it a large, white steer head overlooks retro cushioned chairs of white, black and chrome. The lines are clean and contemporary but the atmosphere is Southwestern. It’s not haphazard, though. It’s a very put-together look, where details (like bowls of fresh, aromatic limes) obviously matter. Even the metal light fixtures fit, though to a gamer geek like myself they look like 20-sided dice. I don’t think Dungeons and Dragons was the intended connotation.
Be that as it may, the sort of specific, recognizable look applied to the tastes of the creator seems to be a theme going around. As noted, the menu is Mexican cuisine, the focus being tacos and margaritas. But the idea isn’t strictly authentic Mexican any more than it is to present Americanized Tex-Mex. It’s basically concepts of the cuisine incorporated with local ingredients to create dishes that put quality of the creation ahead of any sense of how it “has” to be.
How that plays out is a menu divided into simple sections: salsa, small plates (mostly appetizers), taco plates, entree plates and salads, with liquor getting its own spread. Within each section, it’s all about creativity in creations. To wit, an order of salsa ($2.50) includes a pick of three from six kinds: tres chilies, chipotle, verde tomatillo, house tomato, zucchini or mango papaya. The mixes, like the inclusion of raisins, pineapples and carrots in the chipotle, aren’t necessarily about what tradition would dictate, but about finding the right flavor notes.
And there’s certainly a lot of that going around, too, as evidenced by the eight different taco creations, which range from chicken or steak to potato zucchini or pork belly. You’ll often see some of those flavorful salsas on the taco spread, but none appear without their own identity as well, like the local chorizo with its caramelized pineapples (more on that later).
Those who know the philosophy of the proprietors probably won’t find that very shocking, as it’s one that’s all about minimalist perfection. A perfect taco doesn’t have to pile on loads of different stuff, it just needs a few things that are as fresh as possible. And, unsurprisingly, it works.
For that, we can be thankful.
Ancho chili shrimp tacos ($10.50)
Thanks to poor planning (or being too anxious to try it), I ended up with an order of guacamole and mango salsa, both toppings on these tacos, as appetizers. But I didn’t combine the two the way this creation did, and the result was pretty sublime. Some of the mango sweetness was lost in the creaminess of the guac, but the pairing sure worked. I didn’t quite get the brassiness I’d expected from the ancho chili shrimp, but the shaved jalapeño did the trick by providing little packets of punchy heat. (sw)
Local chorizo tacos ($10)
I should say up front, I’m a sucker for chorizo. I can be dead set on ordering one thing, but once I see something with chorizo in it, my mind is changed. However, these were the first to catch my eye, and I’m glad they did. The spicy ground sausage was tempered by the sweet citrus of the pineapple in perfect harmony. A little jack cheese played a sort of background matchmaker. A touch of cilantro added depth. But if there’s a more perfect pairing than this chorizo and pineapple, I challenge anyone to find it. (sw)
Queso blanco ($6.50)
With tomato, poblano peppers, corn, onion and jalapeno all mixed in, this cheese dip almost looks like a chowder. And the experience is more like a chunky salsa than the thin, runny dips you see elsewhere. That’s not a bad thing in my book, but it may not work for purists who think such queso should be just queso. It’s a creation I’d easily put in the top tier of restaurant dips, but I’d caution that it may not be what even the most frequent queso consumers would expect. (sw)
Local Lime margarita ($8)
This margarita was six years in the making, Scott McGehee told our table during lunch. A short list of ingredients keeps it simple. This reviewer fell into a deep, somewhat creepy, infatuation with this margarita. It started innocently enough with the declaration, “This margarita and I are soulmates.” Which led to, “I never want to get pregnant again, so that we never have to be separated, margarita.” And then, [breaks margarita’s ankles so it can never run away] “God, I love you.” (mt)
IN A NUTSHELL
A much-looked-for venture from veteran restaurateurs offers Mexican cuisine from local-as-possible ingredients. A menu of taco plates takes center stage, paired with carefully crafted margaritas in an atmosphere that blends contemporary and Southwest elements.
Location: 17815 Chenal Parkway, Suite F-105, Little Rock
Phone: (501) 448-2226
Hours: 11 a.m. - 11 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m. - midnight Friday-Saturday (temporarily closed Mondays)
Alcohol: Full bar