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Arkansas chow goes global

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DOING BOSSA NOVA: A taste of Brazil.
  • DOING BOSSA NOVA: A taste of Brazil.

Though barbecue and fried catfish may in some parts of the world be considered exotic foods, Arkansas has never made a top 10 list for having the most ethnically diverse restaurant section in the phone book. For the most part, our options are limited to two categories: greasy Chinese and greasy Mexican. But palates they are a-changin’, and a welcome handful of imported cuisines are infusing the state with a little international flair and attracting a devoted following. Some examples:

• Rosalia Monroe, chef and owner of Cafe Bossa Nova, is from Belo Horizonte, which is the capital of Minas Gerais, which is the state of Brazil best known for its excellent cuisine. How lucky we are that she has chosen to pour her knowledge of that region’s best food into Arkansas’s only authentic Brazilian restaurant, at 2701 Kavanaugh Blvd. in Hillcrest.

Many of Rosalia’s recipes require imported ingredients, like hearts of palm, crema de leite and yucca root, and even a seemingly mundane order may be sided with the surprise of a fried banana. Her most popular dishes are the salpicão — a creamy chicken salad with peas, carrots, apples, and fried potato sticks, served over rice; and the tres leites (literally “three milks”) — a melting coconut cream cake that manages to be rich but not heavy, sweet but not sugary.

Saturday is a holiday of sorts, when the traditional black beans and rice dish — a daily menu staple, vegetarian favorite, and ubiquitous side item — becomes feijoada, the national dish of Brazil. The pão de queijo, known affectionately to devotees as “Rosalia’s famous cheese bread,” is a small miracle, and addicts (myself included) may purchase it frozen, to be cooked at home in the wee, desperate hours when the cafe is closed. Following that line, Rosalia hopes next to open a Brazilian bakery. We hope she will.

• Four thousand years ago, Vietnam was called Van Lang, and it is this ancient name that Tuan Huynh (who some call Tony) chose to call his restaurant at 3600 University Ave., across from UALR. In this way, he says, people will know it is a place where they can find authentic Vietnamese cuisine.

The business originated with Tuan’s sister, who had been cooking at home and making daily lunchtime deliveries of hu tieu — a noodle soup native to My Tho, where the Huynh family is from — to the local Vietnamese community. Four years later it is little wonder that Van Lang’s soups are among the restaurant’s most popular dishes: Tuan’s sister still makes stock from scratch every day, an eight-hour process that results in a fragrant, nuanced broth.

Van Lang’s many rice and noodle dishes come from all parts of Vietnam, but most are from Tuan’s home region in the Mekong Delta. These dishes rely upon vinegar, chilies, and fresh herbs for flavor, and have a clean, light taste characterized by heat and tang. Common ingredients like ginger, lemon grass, and cilantro are aromatic, filling your nose and lungs with exotic vapors rather than filling your belly with heavy, greasy sauce.

Given how flavorful, healthful, and inexpensive this cuisine is, it is baffling that so many have yet to discover Van Lang.

• There is nothing inherently romantic about traditional Bavarian food. Schnitzel, braten, and wurst are hardly words one would call “sweet nothings,” and yet the Bavarian Inn Restaurant in Eureka Springs became such a popular romantic dining spot that a 21-room Alpine-style lodge was built to accommodate weekending couples. All of the rooms feature Jacuzzi tubs (some heart-shaped), gas fireplaces, and private balconies. Weddings, catered with traditional Czech-German cuisine, are considered a specialty.

The Bavarian Inn offers a different take on the typically manly meat-plus-starch formula, and the flavor of these largely pork-based dishes often focuses upon the play of sweet versus sour, as sugar dissolves into vinegar in the sauteed cabbage and the sauerbraten. The long-standing uncontested menu favorite is goulash, a Hungarian beef stew seasoned with paprika and served with dumplings. Adventurous diners should try the roast rabbit — a rustic delicacy to which the Inn’s German preparation is ideally suited.

These are by no means all that Arkansas has to offer in the way of world cuisines, and the following deserve honorable mentions. La Maison des Tartes in Fayetteville offers a rotating selection of sweet and savory tarts, freshly baked specialty breads and quiches and a French-heavy international Sunday brunch. At eponymous restaurants in Fort Smith and Hot Springs, Rolando Cuzco brings his native Ecuadorian touch to a fusion of Latin American cuisines. The food floats somewhere between Mexico and Cuba: tamales and taquitos share plates with black beans and rice. Finally, while Italian food may not seem especially foreign to most Arkansans, Yuri and Michael Waters, the couple behind the Italian Couple, are just that. One word: carbonara. And then two more: homemade limoncello. Bella.

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