PASS THE PAPUSAS: Good stuff.
Given that life hasn’t afforded this reviewer nearly enough coin to travel as extensively in Latin America as we once hoped (we’ve had to clean out the sofa cushions a time or three to make it to Taco Bell, much less Machu Picchu) it has been a delight in recent years to see the Latino culture come to us, as it were. Our Latino neighbors have brought a welcome bit of color — not to mention entrepreneurial drive — to what were previously some of the waning areas of our fair city, and for that, we’re eternally glad.
Given our college-age dreams of Spanish-accented travel, we’ve wanted to dive into the burgeoning cuisine of Southwest Little Rock for some time now. And thanks to some amigos from our sister paper, El Latino, we were recently introduced to what can only be called a hidden gem: La Regional.
If you didn’t know it was there, you’d probably drive right by. Situated next to a defunct barbershop on Baseline Road (the owners, we hear, have bought the space and plan to expand), La Regional’s main business is serving the Latino community as a spiffy, full-service grocery store — which is an education in itself for the browsing gringo. Their meat counter offers pretty much everything but the oink, moo or cluck, and the shelves are stocked with such oddities as cakes of rock-hard brown sugar wrapped in banana leaves from El Salvador, Mexican bodice-buster novels and head-on dried shrimp (even the Coca-Colas in the cooler, we found, are imported from Mexico — they have a different flavor, our helpful guide informed us).
As much as we liked gawking, what we came for is in the back left corner as you walk through the store: a small grill and a half-dozen Formica booths. Crammed most days with Latino workers on lunch hour, it has been a chore to find a place to park it on some of our recent forays to La Regional — and sometimes an even greater chore to make our order clear to the staff, whose English is possibly a tad better than our Spanish (which is to say: one of our companions tried to order water in a glass recently and somehow ended up with a Styrofoam cup of coconut milk, which was good, we must add). However, with a great, authentic menu of items from all over Latin America, any wait you might experience for a table (or any good-natured confusion from the always gracious ladies behind the counter, who seem to find our tenuous grasp on their language hilarious) will be well worth it.
From the hand-lettered menu, we’ve tried several dishes so far, and still haven’t had a bad meal (a word of caution, however: If your Spanish is shaky — or you don’t have a helpful interpreter as we did initially — it’s probably better to stick with the things you have heard of. As our amigos pointed out, it’s pretty much the only way to avoid being unintentionally served something they wouldn’t eat on “Fear Factor”). On a recent visit at lunch, we had another helping of what has become a favorite: tamales con creamas. A regular companion with us, meanwhile, broke new ground and went with the enchiladas.
Ah, how do we begin to describe our love for the tamales con creamas? For $4, you get a nearly business envelope-sized corn tamale, stuffed with spicy shredded pork. On top, they ladle a generous helping of cream sauce — which is actually more like a white, liquid cheese — and on top of that, a moist, crumbled farmer cheese. Put it all together, with a couple spoonfuls of their homemade salsa verde or a dangerously hotter homemade red salsa, and you get the idea it’s what Ritchie Valens orders every day in the cafeteria up in Rock ’n’ Roll Heaven. While we figure we sacrifice eight or nine months of cardiovascular health every time we gorge ourselves on the tamales con creamas, it’s worth it.
Equally as good, we soon learned, was our companion’s order of enchiladas. Don’t mistake this for the standard, cheddar-covered crud you get in your Hungry Man TV dinner. For six bucks, you get a plate groaning with spicy rice, refried beans and four big diced-chicken enchiladas. It’s all doused in a great mole sauce and more of that delicious cream. If you were born north of Laredo, we can almost guarantee it tastes like nothing you’ve ever had in your life, with strong flavors of smoked pepper, chocolate (yes, chocolate) and anise (that’s the flavor of black licorice to you folks from Cabot). We know, we know: sounds weird. But just try it.
We wish we had space here to walk you through the joys of every item we’ve had so far at La Regional (like the pupusas — great little meat-filled corn pancakes from El Salvador — or the cheap-at-twice-the-price $1.50 tacos, which feature a soft tortilla covered in flavorful strips of steak, chunks of avocado and fresh cilantro with a wedge of lime). Suffice it to say, however, that you’re liable to bump into us if you take a trip over there any time in the near future, and we’ll fill you in. Given some of the “delicacies” they have under glass in their meat counter, however, everything on the menu that our long-forgotten high school Spanish can’t conjure up the definition for is just going to have to remain an intriguing mystery.
7414 Baseline Road
In addition to grabbing something to eat, be sure to take some time to browse the shelves at La Regional. With a big selection of stock from Mexico, Central and South America, a trip down the aisles is a journey in itself.
8 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. daily.
Inexpensive. Credit cards accepted (pay at the main cash register of the store).