- Brian Chilson
- FLAVORFUL: Spicy Chicken and Dumplings at Southern Gourmasian.
It's been a few years now, but we can still remember hearing about a new food truck getting ready to hit the streets of Little Rock with a fusion concept that would pair Asian cuisine with Southern cooking — and we can remember the skepticism we felt. Could such a concept ever work? Could anyone ever pull it off? And even if it tasted good, were the people of Little Rock going to accept it?
The truck, of course, was The Southern Gourmasian. And within months of its debut, it had not only proven that its fusion menu was delicious, it had also won over the hearts and taste buds of Little Rockers from downtown to out west. The Southern Gourmasian started racking up awards and provided a sense of legitimacy to the Little Rock food truck scene that helped grow the vibrant truck scene we have today.
So when we heard that the Gourmasian team was moving into a brick-and-mortar spot downtown, we felt none of that skepticism from years ago. The only questions in our mind were how the place would look and if the transition from food truck to full dine-in service would cause any kinks in the flow of service. After a couple of visits, it's safe to say that The Southern Gourmasian is doing things just like it always has: excellent with a side of delicious.
The new Gourmasian dining room is attractive and comfortable, with the signature Gourmasian dragon built from found wood and hanging on the wall at the entrance. Tables and chairs aren't crowded together (an important thing to us), and the high ceilings give the whole place a comfortable, open feel. As one of the first restaurants to open in the renovated Sterling building, we hope future tenants will take a look at this restaurant as an example of how good, low-key style is done.
Service was very friendly and attentive if a touch confused. Our table wound up with menus where the dishes did not match up, leading to some discussion with the waiter as to which list of dishes was the correct one for that night. Even once that was solved, our first two starter choices, the Lobster Kimchi Fritters and the Jalapeno Poppers were put in as orders only to have our server return moments later to tell us that both items had been 86ed for the evening. Not a great start, but our server was so genuinely upset he had led us astray that we felt more amused than upset at the situation.
We finally got some starters that the kitchen could do, and the initial confusion melted away into a delightful meal. The Galloping Horses ($6), a tasty dish of build-your-own lettuce wraps, was a Thai-spiced masterpiece of ground pork and peanuts topped with fresh aromatics, all pulled together by just a touch of sweet chili sauce. The bibb lettuce provided was crisp and fresh, the pieces large enough to handle the pork filling — and since the warm filling is added at the table, the lettuce wasn't wilted from the heat.
Our second starter, the Sher Ping Pancakes ($5), was also quite good, if not what we expected from seeing "pancakes" in the name. Each pancake is actually a dough pocket filled with seasoned pork, which we found tasty, especially when dipped into the sweet-and-sour sauce provided on the side. It's telling that this dish was easily the weakest of the meal — and it's still one we wouldn't hesitate to order again.
We also had difficulties with the entree menu, but this time it wasn't the kitchen's doing — there were just too many great choices to make. We've long been fans of the spicy Chicken and Dumplings ($8.50) and the Shredded Pork Buns ($7.50), but we felt like we should try something different and new since we were in new surroundings.
To that end, we ordered a bowl of ramen ($9), because good, authentic ramen is a dish that we knew the Gourmasian team had been wanting on the menu but just couldn't make work out of the truck. Folks that see a bowl of ramen for nine bucks and start thinking about those little packets of instant noodles need to understand that this ramen bowl is in an entirely different galaxy. In the Gourmasian version, smoked dashi broth is ladled over tender, taut noodles while shredded pork shoulder swims around one of the best poached eggs in the city — it's as different from those instant noodles with the pack of flavor powder as a light bulb is from the sun. Each part of this dish would be delicious on its own; together they form something spectacular.
Even better than the ramen bowl, though, was the Korean Fried Chicken ($10), which our table declared might be the best fried chicken in the state. Now, this isn't classic Southern fried chicken; but although it lacks a thick breading, it still has that moist, juicy flavor to the meat that all good fried chicken has. The chicken is fried so that the skin is crispy, then sauced with a flavorful concoction that makes eating this chicken a rather sticky, decadent affair. The cornmeal pancakes and slaw served with the chicken were wonderful accompaniments, but that crispy, piquant chicken was a superstar that should become a bigger part of the overall food conversation in the city.
For people who love the Gourmasian classics, the restaurant is providing most of them at prices very comparable to what they were charging from the truck. It's also added a few new dishes, like the ramen, that are just as good as what Gourmasian has always served — and longtime diners looking for something fresh to eat should be sure to check things out. Lastly, anyone who shied away from ordering food from a truck should come down to the dining room of the new restaurant and let The Southern Gourmasian do what it did for us: Put skepticism to bed with a stomach full of delicious food.
Despite its move to brick-and-mortar status, the Gourmasian food truck is still in operation, most regularly at the Hillcrest Farmers Market. The truck is also available for event catering, with a contact form available on the website for more info — or just call the restaurant between 2-5 p.m.