First pizza, then burgers, now tacos. Chefs Scott McGehee and John Beachboard have a simple and brilliantly effective business plan: Take a popular central Arkansas staple and make the hell out of it. Fresh ingredients, novel twists, careful preparation and presentation. Sprigs of rosemary here and there. Old classics made with gourmet care. Call it fast foodie.
After the wild success of ZaZa's (fancy pizza!) and Big Orange (fancy burgers!), McGehee and Beachboard — along with Big Orange partner Herren Hickingbotham and longtime protege Ben Brainard — opened Local Lime in November, specializing in California-style street tacos, margaritas and other Mexican favorites.
Located in hoity-toity shopping mecca the Promenade at Chenal, Local Lime is deeply committed to treat-yourself indulgence. It doesn't just have aqua fresca, it has an aqua fresca of the day. If you've been craving lobster in your enchiladas or barbecue pork belly in your tacos, it's got you covered. The heavy-duty tres leches cake is so rum-soaked that we wondered if younger diners would get carded. Local Lime has more than a dozen boutique margaritas and cocktails, almost all $10 or more, featuring all manner of apricot liqueur, Peruvian bitters, rosemary-infused honey, etc. The giant, hyper-detailed menu begs you: Eat too much, drink too much, spend too much.
Fitting with this theme, there are six kinds of homemade salsas to choose from with your chips ($2.50, comes with three salsas of your choice). And, of course, they're self-consciously showy (one includes Sultana raisins, in case you were worried they might use an ordinary raisin). Over the course of two visits, we sampled them all. The standouts included a terrific creamy zucchini salsa with green chiles and pumpkin seeds and a well-made verde tomatillo. The problem — and this was a problem with Local Lime in general — is that after all the hype and flair, it was a bit of a letdown to find that most of the salsas were merely fine. Having all these unique options to choose from is undoubtedly loads of fun, but in the end we would have been more impressed with one knockout.
The taco choices are similarly lively, each packed with a medley of ingredients, not to mention loaded with words meant to whistle at foodies (crema, slow-roasted, local, shaved). We tried the beer battered fish ($11.50), carnitas ($10.50), barbecue pork belly ($12) and potato zucchini ($10). Other tacos on offer are grilled chicken ($10.50), grilled skirt steak ($11.50), local chorizo ($10.50) and grilled ancho chili shrimp ($11.50). The prices listed are for three small tacos plus two sides — a choice of cilantro lime rice, black beans, jicama jalapeno slaw, drunken beans with bacon or spicy pickled vegetables — but none of them are anything to write home about (the cilantro lime rice is the best of the bunch). It would have been nice if there was a more affordable option for a la carte individual tacos ($3.85 a piece if you go that route).
We should warn taco fanatics: You probably have a memory stored away of your all-time favorite tacos, and it's hard to avoid thinking of them when you're at Local Lime. Most likely, you got those tacos on the street, or at some dingy window-shop restaurant you were lucky enough to find. Most likely they cost about a dollar. That is not what you will find at Local Lime. For all the fussy preparation and hefty prices, the tacos fell short of the addictive magic of their roadside brethren.
Which is not to say they weren't enjoyable. The tender pork, sharp pickled onions and salty Cotija cheese were a delicious combination in the carnitas tacos; the potato-packed zucchini tacos (our overall favorite) loaded with cheeses, veggies and sauces made for splendid comfort food. The corn and flour tortillas were good, if a bit dry, and less lardy and absorbent of the taco innards than we prefer. Ultimately, there was perhaps an over-business to all of the tacos — one guest suggested that the trouble with taking the McGehee/Beachboard formula to border food was that it's the very simplicity of tacos that makes them special.
In addition to tacos, we also sampled the ceviche ($10.50), refreshing though a bit repetitive if you order the mango papaya salsa, and we thought the oily delicacy of the ahi tuna wasn't the best fit. The chicken mole enchiladas ($12.50), topped with a lovely house-made mole sauce, made us wish for more of that sauce, and in particular that the chicken had been soaking in it rather than tucked away separately. The coastal salad ($7.50) featured healthy portions of avocado and fresh fruit. We'd definitely recommend paying an extra $5 for a large piece of salmon on top, marinated in orange and achiote.
We should note that our verdict — good but not great — is a minority opinion. The place is constantly packed. We once tried to go and gave up when we found out there was a two-hour wait. Surely part of our trouble is overly high expectations, but in fairness, we're also just not the target audience. Local Lime is a long way from the little bakery in the Heights that galvanized the local scene (Boulevard, founded by McGehee a dozen years ago with his ex-wife; he sold his share in the business to her in 2009). The ambience and the food have a palpable high-end chain-restaurant vibe. This is a big restaurant targeted for a big crowd.
What it lacks, for us, is the kind of home run that would justify the inflated prices and the long lines, not to mention the long drive out west to an open-air shopping mall. For all the pizzazz, the tacos were disappointingly safe (we made generous use of the Valentina's on the table to add some kick). It was almost more fun to read the creative and extravagantly particular menu than taste its offerings.
That said, it is entirely possible that several frozen margaritas in, these critiques will seem petty. Even if there are better places to get tacos, part of what Local Lime is offering is a grand old time. So have one delicious cocktail too many, see and be seen, get stuffed on food that is fresh and inventive, if not unforgettable. After all, tacos and tequila are, most of all, about having fun. Treat yourself.