A week ago, this writer would have been one of the first to tell you that Central Arkansas needs another sandwich-and-soup shop the way we need an extra month called Sweatsumore shoehorned in between July and August. There's something of a glut in the salad-n-sammich market, and most of the ones that are here, in our experience, just aren't all that overwhelming.
Then we tried out the new joint called Newk's Express Cafe on the freeway near McCain Mall. Though we weren't expecting much — we've been let down too often by the genre — Newk's turned out to be something of a treat on every front we sampled, with big, carefully-made portions, a nice menu featuring good food, quick service, and prices that won't leave you wishing you'd hit the McDonald's just up the freeway.
Part of a chain with locations in 12 states, Newk's isn't doing anything all that revolutionary. It's just that their selections are a bit more upscale than a place like, for example, Jason's Deli, at a comparable price. Their big menu features 10 kinds of salads, 11 styles of 10-inch, thin crust pizzas, 14 sandwiches, and a rotating selection of soups. On our first trip to Newk's, we tried the toasted Italian sandwich ($7.99) and our companion gave one of the veggie pizzas ($8.29) a twirl. The sandwich turned out to be excellent and nicely sized, featuring loads of capicola, mortadella, pepperoni, salami, provolone, fresh veggies, and a spicy red-pepper sauce to give it a little kick. The pasta salad we ordered as a side was a bit of a letdown, but the sandwich hit the spot. Ditto for our companion and her veggie pizza, with grilled portobello mushrooms, bell peppers, basil pesto artichoke hearts, goat cheese, red onion and more. Though the goat cheese wasn't doing it for her, she said everything else about the pizza was great, and there's probably a good chance Newk's could substitute some other cheese for you on request.
On a later visit, companion decided to sample the soup menu, selecting their tortilla soup and half a pesto chicken sandwich ($7.79). We, meanwhile, tried one of their Ultimate Salads ($8.99), with mixed greens, grilled chicken breast, ham, turkey bacon, cheddar and honey mustard dressing.
Again, both our orders turned out to be really fine, particularly our friend's spicy, complicated bowl of tortilla soup, which paired perfectly with the chicken, roasted peppers and goat cheese of her sandwich (she liked the goat cheese that time ... go figure). Our salad, too, was very good, served in a bowl that could have easily doubled as a helmet in event of an air raid, with very fresh ingredients and just enough of their spicy-sweet dressing. Though we were worried about the amount of meat in the salad — we're prone to think that getting too complicated with anything other than the veggies sorta defeats the whole purpose of having a salad — it turned out to be a good pairing once we tossed it a bit.
Overall, we found Newk's to be a comfortable, quick, affordable, tasty dining spot, one sure to be hopping between now and Christmas as the traffic at nearby McCain Mall fills with holiday shoppers. The ultimate measure for this reviewer is whether or not we'd return to a place on our own dime (as opposed to the Arkansas Times'). We'll be back soon.