- ENOUGH FOR A CROWD
In ancient times, a newcomer to Little Rock from a refinery town in Southwest Louisiana was beyond thrilled to discover T.G.I. Friday's and Bennigan's.
Chain restaurants were nearly exotic then, confined to population centers with sufficient density to produce the traffic necessary to pay for the cost of all those fake Tiffany lamps and fabricated faux pub antiques.
“Foggy Mountain Breakdown” provided a raucous close at Friday's, for those who weren't sufficiently mellowed by draft beer and the sideline herb sales by certain members of the rugby-shirted wait staff. Bennigan's had a couple of faces — the family-friendly dining room and the dark bar with dance floor, where the girls invariably did look prettier at closing time. (Certain guys, however, never looked much good to the opposite sex, no matter how many drinks or how late the hour.)
The food at Bennigan's was appealing, too, in part because it hadn't become so cliched it was sold in grocery frozen food cases. The appetizers all were super-sized, enough for a crowd of drinkers or to stuff a single diner. Burgers were two-fisted. The guy at the deep fryer knew his stuff. And the beer was cold. Nearly distraught over failing a vehicle inspection nearby (remember those?) and unable to afford the repair to pass absent a loan, we drowned our sorrows in a couple of schooners of draft at Bennigan's and the day looked immeasurably brighter. Soon after, we passed our probation period at the old Arkansas Gazette and learned we'd qualified for a $5-a-week raise. Happy days.
Yes, this is a restaurant review, but one where the memories are better than modern times. It's occasioned by Bennigan's return to the Little Rock area, its University Avenue landmark long shuttered.
Now Bennigan's is tucked away behind the Holiday Inn in North Little Rock. It's hard to find and, truth to tell, not particularly worth the trouble. I'm sure it's a comfort to motel travelers to see a familiar brand with a time-tested menu on the premises. You can still get a lot of food for a reasonable sum. The beer is still cold. The TV carries the NFL games. But if you are eating for something more than sustenance, there are more exciting options.
A gang of us had lunch — heaping helps of salt, fat and sugar. Here and there, a distinctive taste or two broke through the fog of factory food. But not often.
I was sad that my favorite of 30 years ago, the ultimate nacho, no longer is available as a singular dish big enough for a horse. But it occupies a portion of a huge Southwest Sampler platter ($9.99) that's still food enough for two-plus. The lettuce and tomato topped nachos come with Southwest egg rolls (cheesy and full of black beans and crisply fried) and four fajita chicken quesadillas. There's a bit of cheese dip on the plate as well as salsa and a curiously tasty pineapple pepper cream dipping sauce. Health food, no. Bar food, yes.
Buffalo shrimp were touted as a special, though what made them special we can't say. They are available daily. Fried popcorn shrimp are dredged in hot sauce and served with blue cheese dressing and celery ($7.99). Bet you can't eat a basket of these without Alka-Seltzer. The shrimp? What shrimp? The nuggets of batter were fried well enough. Some encased something vaguely rubbery and tasteless, but they smacked of neither land, sea nor air.
Burgers are a safe bet. They are tall (the buns must weight a quarter-pound) and well dressed with an assortment of toppings — chipotle sauce, pre-fab guacamole, bacon, blue cheese, etc. But the core is still a preformed burger patty. They are to an honest greasy burger what a Muzak arrangement is to “Why Don't We Do It in the Road.”
This newly constructed Bennigan's has far less charm than the old Little Rock Bennigan's, primarily because it has far less bric-a-brac on the wall. The Irish pub theme is emphasized by photographs and musical instruments characteristic of the Auld Sod, but after the Guinness on draft, you'd swear you were in, well, a plasticene motel restaurant in Anywhere, USA. Certainly not Ireland.
The menu is huge, if mostly variations on a theme of salt. You know the drill. Potato skins. Chicken Caesar salad. Club sandwiches. Ribs. Fajitas. A cheap steak. Fried chicken and shrimp. Chicken five ways. French dip, club, reuben and wrap sandwiches. Healthy notes: You can substitute a black bean burger for beef on the burger plates, which come with (limp) fries. Grilled salmon is also available, served with rice and steamed broccoli for $13.49.
If, by some miracle, the piles of fried foods don't sustain you, Bennnigan's has the usual choice of jumbo-sized desserts straight from the Desserts R Us factory in Hoboken — Death by Chocolate, cream brulee cheesecake, apple sizzler, brownie bottom pie, all under $5 but ample for two or more.
Bargain notes: You can mix and match three appetizers for $9.99 and double up on entrees for $14.49 (an additional $2.49) for ribs.
Our service was splendid. Very friendly. Very fast. Very efficient. Solicitous, but not overly so.
The bar includes the usual specialty drinks and wine. To us, it will always be a tears-in-our-beer kind of place. With a loan from pop, we were able to get that brake job and drive legally once more.
120 W. Pershing Blvd.,
North Little Rock
Appetizers and more appetizers. Nix on the Buffalo shrimp. But consider the Southwest egg rolls, heavy on black beans, and the “Irish haystack,” fried onion rings of the thinly sliced variety. Desserts are huge.
11 a.m.-10 p.m. Mon.-Thur.; 10 a.m.-11 p.m., Fri. and Sat.; 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Sun.
Moderate prices. Credit cards accepted. Full bar.