Saturday, October 10, 2009

Hot Springs, Arkansas is one of those resort towns I haven't been to in ages, at least up until about a week ago. Not surprisingly it has changed a bit since I was last there about 20 years ago. It looks in some ways like any typical tourist friendly town with the variety of chain restaurants and box hotels, with downtown playing host to an active restaurant and kitschy gift shops. Typical but overall not too bad. I've seen far worse and thus haven't been back to certain areas of Tennessee or Missouri for fear of a redneck kitsch overload.

It was a fun weekend getaway with my husband and parents, but the trip was plagued with bad weather and dismal food. The only time I saw blue skies was in the car about an hour from home. The food? It was a mixed bag of good, bad and just plain awful.

At least we started off with the good food. On the way, we made a stop for lunch at The Diner in Cabot, Arkansas. My husband and I had stopped there once prior and we were not disappointed this time either. The fried catfish, one of the daily lunch specials, was some of the best I have had in a long time. Everything we ate was quite good. The atmosphere doesn't hurt either; the staff makes even the passerby feel welcome, and the day we went Michael Shaw was playing his guitar and singing. (Many kudos to him too, he is quite the talented guy and can cover a range from John Denver to the Beatles to Johnny Cash and do a mighty fine job at them all.)

Our final destination wasn't actually in Hot Springs, but rather Mountain Harbor Resort & Spa, which sits tucked away on Lake Ouachita in the Ouachita National Forest between Hot Springs and Mt. Ida, Arkansas. It's secluded but a relatively short distance from the more metro areas, and it's really not quite what I typically envision when I think "resort & spa." We reserved a cabin near the lodge & restaurant with a wooded view. I have to admit I was a bit disappointed that it seemed a bit older and smaller than I'd expected. The floor plan was odd too; for a two bedroom, two bath cabin, I wouldn't have expected the bathrooms to both be at the end of the hall, not at all attached to either bedroom and small enough to induce some serious claustrophobia. For two couples, it was workable but not the ideal scenario. While it was small and definitely dated, the cabin was neat, clean and very convenient to the lodge restaurant.

We did discover one problem that might not be so easy to overlook though. It seemed chilly in our cabin, and despite turning on the heat, it wasn't getting much warmer. We strolled over to the restaurant for dinner and mentioned the problem to the front desk. Just after we'd ordered our dinner, one of the resort managers came to our table. "I have good news and bad news. You were correct about your heat not working, and the bad news is that it isn't going to start working anytime soon either," she told us. She gave us an apologetic look and continued, "however the good news is we want to move you to another cabin, and we'll be giving you a free upgrade!" She told us about the new cabin's location, which was not located right at the lodge, but nearby and it had a view of the lake. We agreed, she provided our new cabin keys and we continued with our dinner.

Speaking of dinner, the lodge restaurant is relatively small and doesn't have a huge menu, but the food was quite good. It's home-cooking with a few culinary touches that take it up a notch from basic southern lodge food. Good examples were two dishes I sampled, the Key West Chicken Sandwich and the Southwestern Style Baked Potato. Neither had that heat-n-eat pre-made taste, which I initially had expected to find based on the location and appearance of the resort overall.

After dinner we moved to our new cabin and the difference was dramatic. This was what I had expected to find and then some! A real gem, tucked away in the woods, yet with a large back deck providing views of the lake and woods around it. High ceilings, a small but serviceable kitchen, bedrooms each with their own private bath and french doors leading out to the deck. It was newer, with a better floor plan, and most of all, more spacious. For a weekend escape it was a perfect location.

The following day, we had a late lunch at Burl's Country Smokehouse in Royal. Royal, like several other communities in the area, are the epitome of what southerners describe as a "wide spot in the road." There are plenty of them, with an equal number of little diners and dairy shacks so that at least you know if you're lost, you won't have to go without food for too long anyway. Back to Burl's, it's not so much a restaurant as a deli and country store with some seating available. Based on the delicious scent wafting through the cool fall air, it was obvious Burl's had an active smokehouse on-site. Both the turkey and ham were as smoky good as the smell outside had led me to expect, and it was well worth the stop for lunch.

This was where the good food on this trip ended. I could skip the rest, but sometimes my travels serve not just as a recommendation but as a warning of pitfalls to avoid. Porterhouse in Hot Springs is one such place. It looked good from the street, but that was where it ended. In short, it was a place that at one time might have been good, but since then all the employees with any culinary talent have moved on, leaving it to the has-been and wanna-be upscale steakhouse staff. The food was not horrible (wait for it, that's next) but it lacked inspiration or anything interesting.

The next day on our trip home we stopped in at La Hacienda. Over the years, I have seen it promoted as the place for Mexican food. Whoever "they" are that determined this was the place, they lied. It didn't start out as a bad experience, the chips and salsa were both good. After that, the wheels fell off the tasty train. The tamales were some of the worst I have ever tasted anywhere. Truly awful. Its a shame too, as they looked homemade and visually were appealing. The taste failed to live up to anywhere close to what I expected. Not to be totally disparaging of the place, the service was very good. The remaining dishes I sampled, including tacos and carnitas were both just average, not a grand disaster like those tamales thankfully!

So overall, we had a good weekend relaxing at our cabin but the eats were a mixed bag of hits and big misses. Either way it's an adventure, and those are never a bad thing. They're the stuff that makes for good memories!

Friday, October 02, 2009

Destination : BBQ and Pie

Going to a new restaurant based on a review is always a risk. Do I know the person who gave the review? Is this a trusted friend, someone who I know has similar tastes and tolerances to my own, or is this an unknown reviewer out there in the vast blogosphere? This past week I took a chance, based on a review of two pie shops and a bbq restaurant in DeVall's Bluff, a small town just southwest of Brinkley and I-40 in Arkansas.

So the husband and I loaded up with our neighbors and headed off for a short road trip for a BBQ lunch and some pie for desert. After a drive through the flat farmlands of the Delta, where the farmers always seem to have too much (or not enough) rain, we arrived at what was not a lot more than a wide spot in the road. The sign greeting us read "DeVall's Bluff, population 780." This definitely would be an interesting experience at least.

First stop in town was for lunch at Craig's BBQ. It's the typical older bbq shack building from the exterior, and even more simple and dated inside. Layers of linoleum peek out around the floor, showing that the sign outside proclaiming "est. 1947" probably isn't an exaggeration. Our enthusiastic and friendly waitress arrives and we order up the pork bbq and lemonade to drink, which she coyly assures us is good, "'cause I made it." One sip and I agreed, it was good lemonade, less tart and more sweet than most. The bbq wasn't quite what we expected, as it was sliced rather than pulled pork. I'd also read a review on that warned of the heat levels to their sauce. The sandwiches arrived already sauced, and I wisely chose mild. I sampled the medium sauce version my husband ordered and as I consumed more cooling lemonade I pondered just how flammable was their hot sauce. I was saving my bravery for later or I'd probably had to ask for a taste of the hot sauce, just out of curiosity. I don't know I quite agree with RoadFood's overall review of "Worth driving from anyplace," but it would make a good stop along my way if I were traveling through the area.

Next stop: Pie Shop. Not just any generic grocery store bakery, but a step back in time to Family Pie Shop (also known as Mary's Place.) Just across the street, set back from the highway about 100 feet is this white cinder block building with "pie shop" hand painted on the side. We passed the driveway a couple of times, debating in the car if that actually was the real entrance or just a driveway to a house next door. My friend and I stepped in through the screen door and instantly I was transported back to my grandmother's kitchen both from the sight and the smell. Ms. Mary came out to greet us and told us what kind of pies she had today. "Chocolate, coconut and one or two apricot fried pies." She carefully gathered up our selections from her kitchen, slipping the chocolate mini-pies (about 5-inch individual pies) into Styrofoam containers and graciously thanked us for stopping by. She genuinely seemed to take modest pride in her work and that alone made me glad we sought out her pie shop.

As we stopped at a local gas station further down the road headed home, we dove into the pies. It was simple, good homemade pie. It wasn't one of those overpriced concoctions that boasts vast mountains of meringue above a mediocre filling, it was all clearly homemade and good. Not a "turn the car around, I need more NOW" type of good, but tasty nonetheless. I don't recommend that neat freaks or those indoctrinated to the southern small-town restaurant kitchen go inside; it's not a shiny commercial production kitchen but a hodge-podge of ovens, plastic bowls and utensils from 10 years ago or more, low lighting, no seating for customers, and its one nod to the modern world, a substantially-sized commercial grade stainless refrigerator.

Overall it was a good trip for the company, the adventure and trying something new. I can't say I was as overwhelmingly impressed with the food as the reviews led me to believe, but both are worth trying as a stop along the road. And the service? It's typical of a small town in the Mississippi delta, it's consistently more friendly and inviting than many other places I've been.