First-rate feasts

Shredded pork shoulder in steamed buns from the Southern Gourmasian food truck.

Shredded pork shoulder in steamed buns from the Southern Gourmasian food truck.
Dec 26
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Sync food reviewers list the most memorable meals of 2012.

Sync’s fearless food reviewers are some of the first on the scene when a new restaurant or food truck opens in central Arkansas, and judging from the list of many, many new places that opened in 2012 (see sidebar), choosing their favorite five meals of the year was no easy feat.

Cancun Trio Sea Wrap, Santo Coyote

I’d never been to the first Santo in North Little Rock before the branch out west opened, so didn’t really know what to expect. Sure, I’d heard good things, but I wasn’t prepared for how truly tasty their food is. The sea wrap is a great example. It’s got a lovely blackened maritime mix of shrimp, scallops and fish that’s all wrapped in a spinach tortilla. A tangy poblano dressing adds a perfect counterpoint in taste. It’s a winner.

Malaysian Roasted Lobster, RJ TAO

Here you get what you pay for, and I mean that in a good way. The pricey dish tops the expense list, but its return on investment is well worth it. The single lobster tail is grilled perfectly, which is nice enough, but the surprises are in the companion parts of the dish. First, it’s served not with drawn butter but a make-your-head-sweat chili dipping sauce that’s so worth it. Second, a fried rice base is a blast of more spicy fire, not just a bland bed for the tail to sit on. It’s all balanced by savory, sweet pineapples mixed into the rice, though. Creative and tasty, if you don’t mind hot.

Shredded pork shoulder in steamed buns, Southern Gourmasian

The proprietor of the truck said on his website that these little gems, served at his own parties, are what got him into the mobile food business, and it’s not hard to see why. Tender, juicy pork is cradled in a doughy, Asian-style steamed bun and topped with a sweet but tangy hoisin sauce. For best effect, add a squeeze of the lime served with. A great midday fix worth hunting down even if the truck isn’t parked near your office that day. I speak from experience on this.

Macaroni and Cheese Burger, The House

Wait, what? Yeah, that’s what I said when I read this item on the revamped burger menu of The House. But I also said I must try it. And you know what? It was fantastic. A formed patty of mac and cheese is dusted with crumbs and grilled, then stacked on top of a burger. There’s something nostalgic about the cheesy beef and mac combo, I think. And it helps that it’s delicious. Don’t be too proud to think that just because it sounds like a kid’s dream come true, it’s not worth trying. It totally is.

Chorizo Tacos, Local Lime

Having written about these twice this month already, it should come as no surprise I’m a fan. This is food zen. It’s the perfect mix of spicy from the local chorizo and sweet from the caramelized pineapples, all smoothed by cheese and enriched by cilantro. It’s not complex, but it’s intricate. One bite and it’s hard to really think about anything else. In fact, I think I need to go. Now.

— spencer watson

Razorback Burger, HomeGrown Gourmet Food Truck

By the beginning of 2012, food trucks were pervasive in central Arkansas. The University Market at 4Corners. Food Truck Fridays downtown. The second annual Main Street Food Truck Festival. So I start off my memorable meals of 2012 with the Razorback Burger from HomeGrown Gourmet Food Truck. I haven’t had one since, but that burger — a big, juicy burger loaded with crispy onion straws, bacon, barbecue sauce and cheddar — was one of the best meals I enjoyed this year. The jalapeños on top provided a sharp contrast to the sweet barbecue sauce, and the crispy onion straws delivered a crunch along with the savory bacon.

Chicken Pot Pie, Dempsey Bakery

I’m an omnivore and not tied to any specialty diet (fortunately), but Dempsey Bakery, a gluten-free specialty bakery downtown, is a spot fans of great food — from meat eaters to vegetarians — should check out. There are tons of delicious treats, from sandwiches and soups to cakes and cookies, at the brightly colored bakery. My choice? The Chicken pot pie. The pie is a hearty dish, larger than the usual pot pie, and stuffed with perfectly cooked chunks of white and dark (yes!) chicken, and vegetables such as potatoes, carrots and more. The thick, creamy broth is savory, and the vegetables and chicken, delicious.

H.A.M. sandwich, Hillcrest Artisan Meats

“An artisan meat shop providing locally-sourced, natural and organic meats and charcuterie products”? Yes, please, and that’s what Hillcrest Artisan Meats is. You can get a variety of meats to go, but the eatery also offers a selection of delicious, freshly made grab-and-go sandwiches. Check out the H.A.M. — a sandwich of beauty. Seriously, with its bread alternating between hues of brown and tan, and its insides of Virginia ham, salame rosa, capicola, provolone, lettuce and onion, the sandwich is a work of art. And the taste? Wow. The sandwich bursts with distinctive flavors, with the flavor of the meats and vegetables mixing perfectly with the aioli and Maille dijon.

Shrimp and Grits, Rocket Twenty One

There was some concern earlier this year when it was announced Hillcrest’s Ferneau restaurant was undergoing a change in ownership and getting a new look. I’m not sure why. The rechristened Rocket Twenty One, now owned by Frank Fletcher, still has Donnie Ferneau as executive chef, and the food is delicious. And what Rocket Twenty One does really well is offer fine dining at lunch. Get the Shrimp and Grits with Tasso. The dish is four large, expertly cooked shrimp upon a bed of grits, but what really sets the plate apart are the bits of tasso adding an interesting and pleasing flavor profile along with the tangy, pleasantly spiced sauce created with a shot of buttermilk and infused with tomatoes and green onions.

Fried Chicken, Sweet Soul

Meat and two — the working man’s dish is a staple of many central Arkansas restaurants. Not many places do the filling meal better than Ottenheimer Market Hall’s Sweet Soul. The newish River Market restaurant offers sandwiches, including a po-boy and a burger, and comfort foods such as chicken fried steak, catfish and fried chicken as grand as any Southern grandmother can fry up. Sweet Soul’s fried chicken crust is not as crispy as one might find on fried chicken at other places, but is packed with a peppery mixture of spices that makes every strip of crust burst with flavor. And it locks in the juices of the succulent chicken. And the sides? The black-eyed peas and mashed potatoes are outstanding.

— shea stewart

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