Foodie Travels: Cotham’s in the City, Little Rock, Ark.

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I realized just how much of a foodie I am when a sadness swept over me after hearing the news that longtime Arkansas dining institution Cotham’s Mercantile had burned to the ground in May. I never had a meal at Cotham’s, but I felt a disappointment that Molly and I had missed an opportunity to eat there when we were traveling about 100 miles away from the restaurant’s Scott location, just six months prior to the fire.

This summer, we had planned to fix that foodie travel omission by visiting Cotham’s on a cross-country road trip. Then we saw an online story about the fire and closure, just two weeks before our trip.

But all was not lost, for us or for Cotham’s, as the historic dining establishment continues to operate a sister restaurant, Cotham’s in the City, in the downtown area of Little Rock. The building and location are different, but the menu and the name are much the same. We couldn’t pass it by again (and we didn’t).

Cotham’s in the City has limited hours of 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday, but its minimal window for coming to eat is quite literally its only shortcoming.

The inside of the place has a deeply Arkansas feel, with local and state political campaign signs covering the walls and local people, many of them business professionals stopping in for lunch and ordering in familiar Southern accents, filling the tables.

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Cotham’s was—and Cotham’s in the City is—known for the Hubcap burger, a generous pounder that stretches outside its bun and comes with traditional toppings of lettuce, tomato, mayo, pickle and cheese. So that had to be my choice on the menu, and it was a great one. The burger was cooked perfectly, just like a well-done but not blackened homemade cheeseburger, and the toppings were all very fresh. I decided to use my fork to cut off the overhanging pieces of meat and enjoy them like a bonus hamburger steak first, following that by cutting my sandwich in half and eating the traditional burger.

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Molly enjoyed a solid plate of pintos, slaw, fried okra and jalapeno cornbread, the last of which I sampled and found to be a nice, moist cornbread with just the right amount of spice to offer great flavor without fire.

Cotham’s in the City was overflowing with lunchtime diners by the time we left shortly after noon, and I understand why. The hubcap burger was absolutely worthy of inclusion in my list of favorite all-time burgers in the Southern United States, with its fresh meat and toppings, generous size and price ($10.99 with fries). Don’t let the opportunity to enjoy Cotham’s pass you by when you’re hungry in Little Rock! We’re sure glad we got a second chance!

Cotham’s in the City, 1401 West Third Street, Little Rock, Arkansas

 

Foodie Travels: Shirley Mae’s Café, Louisville, Ky.

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Along a wall of bright blue bricks a beautiful mural reads, “Smoketown to me was a melting pot. Everybody knew everybody.”

The sentiment rests just a few blocks from Shirley Mae’s Café in the Smoketown neighborhood of Kentucky’s most populated city of Louisville, and the words and images perfectly describe the experience of eating at the nearby restaurant.

We felt like family members stopping in for a meal when we visited Shirley Mae’s for the first time. The conversations we had with the restaurant family gave us the feeling we were related to our hosts. A baseball game on TV told us we were definitely in Louisville, home of the famed “Slugger” baseball factory. And the food, well, that was what we came for, and that’s what made it feel most like we were having a familiar meal at grandma’s house.

Everything you eat at Shirley Mae’s will wow you. I guarantee you that. And I can also promise you that everything will be fresh when it hits your table. During our visit, one Shirley Mae’s family member told another to take a side dish serving back to the kitchen and replace it because it had been sitting too long.

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Both of our entrees—fried chicken wings and fried fish filets—were seasoned to perfection. (And those are just two options on a long list of main courses.) The chicken was juicy inside, cooked just right for chicken, and it had a delightful crunch on the outside. The fish had more of a cornmeal crust that sang a song inside your mouth with each bite.

While we’re talking about cornmeal, you won’t believe how good the hot-water cornbread is. One Shirley Mae’s family member told us the cornbread was “poor folks food.” Well, eating poor never tasted so good. The bread came out wrapped in tinfoil and nestled inside a small cup. It was solid with a bite of crunch on the outside, and it was soft and warm on the inside. We couldn’t eat it all, so we took it with us on the road. Wouldn’t you know, it reheated beautifully in just a basic microwave and didn’t get the least bit dry for the following three days.

Our side dishes were just as tasty. The macaroni and cheese lived up to its name: cheesy! And it was so creamy, too. My yams registered perfectly on the sweet scale, not tasting too much like a plain, soft-baked sweet potato and not seasoning too close to being sweet candy or pie.

Perhaps the best side of all, and the most-talked-about meal item we enjoyed: Molly’s pinto beans (with slaw, of course). She savored their seasoning and could tell they had been cooking a long time. Molly loves pinto beans, and I dare say these were her all-time favorite beans.

We washed down our meal with sweet tea and grape Kool-Aid (All the best soul food restaurants serve it, we now understand. Just read here and here.)

After paying for our food, we enjoyed a few nice conversations with Shirley Mae’s family members. We learned about their lives, and they learned about ours. Our connection felt just like a Sunday afternoon front-porch talk with relatives.

And that’s why the Smoketown mural caught my attention so much. “Everybody knew everybody.” That’s how it felt at the restaurant that serves homecooked favorites with unbelievable flavor. Eating a meal at Shirley Mae’s is a beautiful combination of savoring delicious made-to-order food while also discovering your family in this world is bigger than you realized. In this melting pot, you don’t have to share blood and a tree to be family. All you have to share is food and your heart.

Shirley Mae’s Café: 802 S. Clay St., Louisville, Ky.

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5 tips for building a BLT sandwich that hits the spot

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In the summer South, a fresh “mater” sandwich is an annual seasonal rite of passage. How that sandwich is assembled is completely up to the consumer (though the ingredients are obviously not open to debate for anyone with the idea it must be done only one way), enabling foodies to get quite creative in finding the perfect recipe.

My favorite way to enjoy a tomato sandwich is the BLT, or bacon, lettuce and tomato, which goes a step further than its simpler “mater” cousin. Just a plain BLT always does the trick for me, but it really hits the spot when I take a little extra care to enhance the sandwich.

On a recent summer day, I made Molly and me a couple of BLTs for lunch, and I spent some time experimenting to jazz up our meal. The whole experience—making the food and then really enjoying it—got me thinking about the keys to perfecting such a longtime regional food staple.

Here’s a five-item, must-do checklist for making your own great BLT.

1. PICK LOCAL TOMATOES: For “mater” sandwich and BLT purists, there may be no more important choice than using a fresh, local tomato picked from the garden. If you don’t have a garden or know someone who does, consider your options at a local farmer’s market. A fresh tomato free of preservatives and pesticides will absolutely be more flavorful and much juicier. Our go-to tomato source in summer is a small network of home gardeners that are family members and neighbors. Once you have the right tomatoes, sprinkle the cut slices with a little salt and pepper to really make them pop. That’s what my grandpa always did, and I understand why every time I take a bite.

2. CHOOSE FRESH GREENS: The L in BLT stands for lettuce, but that’s not a requirement. You can go with another green, or no green at all if that’s not your thing. (Folks who like true “mater”-only sandwiches go with mayo and fresh white bread only, not needing the bacon or the lettuce to be complete.) Nice fresh spinach leaves are my favorite because of their flavor, their crunch and their lack of extra moisture. When you have a juicy tomato, you don’t really need other “wet” ingredients to find the right sandwich balance.

3. SEASON AND CRISP THAT BACON: Normally, a little pepper is nice, but I recently went farther with a light sprinkling of pepper and a slight caramelizing process with brown sugar. The result was a sweet and savory bacon that had even more flavor. Whatever you do, even if it’s no seasoning at all (after all, it’s bacon, right?), you’ve got to establish a crunch. My mama’s right: limp, chewy bacon is never good. If you end up with bacon that troubles you in the crisping attempt, try a few minutes on aluminum foil in the toaster oven, or slide each piece onto a toothpick and bake it in the oven. (That last one’s a trick we learned at a bed-and-breakfast inn in eastern North Carolina.)

4. GET SAUCY: Duke’s mayonnaise might be the most preferred choice of “mater” and BLT sandwich aficionados. That’s a fine standby that’s been delighting home chefs for decades, and for many foodies this is where you can stop reading this step and go on to the next. But we also live in the aioli and specialty-mayo age. How many times have you read a restaurant menu and seen the word aioli or something akin to “chipotle mayo”? There’s so much you can do to jazz up a sauce to slather on a sandwich. Recently, I decided to create a sweeter mayo, so I combined two teaspoons of Duke’s with a teaspoon of local honey. The result was an even fancier sandwich.

5. MAKE A SOLID BREAD SELECTION: I know many tomato lovers who prefer plain white bread for their “mater” sandwiches. Again, that’s an OK choice, but the BLT begs for a more solid selection. You need something that can hold up against the juiciness of the tomato, the greens, your sauce selection and that crunchy bacon. (As Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon Cooper would argue, it’s all about the moisture barrier between the juicy vegetables and the bread.) If I’m using white sandwich bread, I like to lightly toast the slices or even grill them in a pan on the stovetop for a little more heft. To go a step further, consider selecting an even heartier bread, such as potato, brioche or ciabatta.

Finally and most important to always remember when you’re cooking at home, this is your #FoodieScore, and your taste will guide your ingredients and your results.

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