In the oral history of White Water Tavern that ran on our cover two weeks ago, we didn't include much on the history of the bar's kitchen over the years — frankly, there wasn't room amidst stories of fire, bared breasts and terrorist plots. But at different times over the years, food's played just as central a role in shaping the bar's character as cheap beer and live music.
In the early days, the business class flocked to the bar at lunch for burgers, which old timers still swear by. Sometime after the second fire, Sims Bar-B-Que put its name over the kitchen door and installed a smoker out back. More recently, the kitchen's been an occasional stop-over for local cooks with initiative. For a short time last year, Davis Clement's jerk-chicken tacos and slow-roasted pork at lunch hinted at the skill he would bring to Boulevard, where he served as chef until a few weeks ago (Boulevard's porchetta, maybe Little Rock's great sandwich, is his legacy).
Now, Nick Castleberry seems poised to make White Water Tavern once again a place you think of come mealtime. The Seventh Street dive's vibe and small kitchen is just the sort of place he feels comfortable. A Little Rock native who spent the last 15 years cooking in Seattle, Castleberry returns home with a CV that lists dozens of restaurants, including stints as sous chef and chef at glowingly reviewed fine dining spots. More recently, he was at the vanguard of the "pop-up" restaurant movement in Seattle, where young chefs set up restaurants-within-restaurants (or bars), taking over on off nights or in places where food was an afterthought and running a one-man-show — prepping, cooking, cleaning and even, Castleberry told Seattle Weekly, "killing the pig and sticking it in the back of the truck."
Back in town because of family and the economy, Castleberry's picked up at White Water where he left off in Seattle: serving a shifting weekly menu that reads like an organic-minded aesthete's idea of a gastropub, with an emphasis on local ingredients, a commitment to making as much as possible in-house (e.g. bread, mayo, sauces) and a price point he says working class folks can afford. Call it culinary D.I.Y., a punk rock-style ethos to match Castleberry's head-to-toe tattoos and the intensity he brings when he talks about food.
"Using local foods is such a cliche these days," he told us recently, when we peeked into the tiny kitchen. "A lot of chefs talk about it but don't really follow through. You'll never see a Sysco truck dropping off anything for me; everything I buy comes from Argenta Market, farmers markets, local providers (like Farm Girl Pork), Whole Foods or the Italian importer I used in Seattle."
All that local, organic focus costs of course. But Castleberry says he's willing to live on a smaller margin to keep the prices down. In the early weeks, $9 was the ceiling. Last week, he dropped it to $8. Poor man's specials have made regular appearances: vegan pasta salad, vegetarian mac and cheese, an egg salad sandwich — all for $3.
Other items on the menu during Castleberry's first month: the BELT ($8), a BLT plus hard-boiled egg, slathered with creamy aioli and served on buttery, toasted homemade bread; a thick grilled-cheese ($7.50) topped bracingly with a bit of local fruit preserves (for a dollar more it can become a ham and cheese or an egg and cheese) and delicious, rich chocolate crepes ($3), topped with soft cream, chestnut honey and a pinch of sea salt.
Of course part of the appeal of following any gifted chef is watching the menu shift. Our first taste was the cold salad ($5.50), a simple but terrifically memorable appetizer of watermelon slices, cucumbers and feta tossed with apple vinegar, olive oil and mint, with some thin homemade pita on the side. A pita wrap ($8) lined with Mexican-style pork and beans, lettuce and tomato and topped with a piquant chimichurri sauce was a welcome appearance on the menu two weeks in a row. More decadent: the fried mac and cheese ($4.25), a golden ball of deep fried deliciousness that wasn't so rich and greasy that, as an app, it ruined our main course, but was rich and greasy enough that we're sure the kitchen sells the hell out of 'em once the concert crowd starts getting into its cups.
Aside from the mac and cheese, Castleberry's rarely delved too deep into heart-attack food. All sandwiches and wraps have come with a delicious mini-penne basil pasta, tortilla chips, a pickle and a piece of fruit (last week, a slice of blood orange), which provides a nice balance to the heavier options. A version of a hummus-based vegan wrap has been a regular fixture. And Castleberry has always included at least a couple of items that hint at his elastic view of pub grub. Like baby bok choy ($4), topped with fresh ginger, garlic, lemon juice and chilies; pasta ($6) with tomato sauces, eggplant, Ricotta cheese and basil and slow-cooked pork ($9) semolina, vegetables and pomegranate chili peach sauce.
For now, Castleberry says he's conducting market research, seeing what works and for how much. In typical pop-up form, he's only serving on Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, from 5 p.m. until midnight. Plans are in place to begin lunch service on Fridays, from 11 a.m. until 2 p.m. beginning Dec. 3. If that goes well, look for Castleberry to add more hours.
Castleberry's at White Water Tavern
2500 W. 7th
On most nights, Castleberry is a one-man show — cooking, cleaning, waiting and bussing tables. But he moves quickly; we never waited long. That said, don't expect table service when you arrive. You'll find menus at the bar. Return there to place your order, get drink refills and pay your tab.
5 p.m. until midnight Tuesday, Thursday and Friday.
Credit cards accepted, full bar, takeout available. Check Eat Arkansas for updates on the schedule.