Hello. I’m Jay Ruud and I’m glad you’re here.

Eat It, Conway!

A He Said/She Said Romp Through the Restaurants of Conway

Jay and his awesome wife (poet and novelist Stacey Margaret Jones) attempt to eat their way through conway. Our goal is to eat at, and review, every restaurant in Conway, Arkansas. if we miss one, please let us know!

McDonalds

McDonald’s Oak Street

McDonald’s
Restaurant No. 3: 2.1% of Conway Restaurants Reviewed
220 E. Oak Street
501-327-2117

The Situation

He Said: We vowed to eat at every restaurant in Conway, and that does include fast-food places. Lots and lots of fast-food places. My most vivid memory of McDonald’s is taking my daughter there in Wisconsin Dells when she was about 6 months old and giving her French fries to suck on, which she loved from that moment on. But that’s why fast-food places are important—families with kids can’t afford to take them all to Mike’s Place every week, unless they are independently wealthy, so they need someplace with cheap food that they can get in and get out. The thing that McDonald’s has going for it more than any other fast-food joint is its consistency—no matter where you are in the world, you’ll find a McDonald’s, and you’ll know what to expect there, at least when it comes to the quality and service of the place. I remember finding a McDonald’s just off St. Mark’s Square in Venice and grabbing a Coke on a hot day, and walking along the street sipping it when a couple of ecstatic American tourists came up to me saying, “Mickey D’s! Where is it?” Or ducking into one with my daughter in Tokyo when we decided we were tired of Japanese food, and finding they had a special item on the menu: Teriyaki Burgers. Of course, prices vary widely: In various parts of the world where McDonald’s is a kind of exotic treat, it can get pricey. My wife and I peeked in the door of the McDonald’s in Oslo to find that a Quarter Pounder cost the equivalent of 17 U.S. dollars.

Still, though consistency is the byword, we’re going to plan to hit every McDonald’s in Conway, and see just what the differences are.

She Said: And we’ll eat different things during our various visits. I’ll be honest, I was looking forward to this! I don’t eat at McDonald’s often, unless we’re on a road trip, when I find it irresistible. But, as anyone who has food issues and a whole-foods focus, McDonald’s is not high on my list. If you read Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma¸ the fast-food chapter is largely about corn, because corn is a big part of the McDonald’s food chain, including, at the time of Pollan’s writing, grain-fed beef. This is a problem, because cattle are ruminants; they eat grass, unless they are made to eat grain. Recent unconfirmed pokings about on the Internet tell me that the company sources its beef from concentrated animal feeding organizations, which means that while one cow may provide anywhere from 1,000 to 4,500 hamburgers, there may also be many animals in your little burger, not the ideal situation for whole-foods-centric eaters. And there may be up to 30 ingredients in your hamburger bun, which is also not a food situation I willingly seek out.

But I like the taste of McDonald’s. This is why I allow myself to eat it on some occasions. As a kid, I almost never got to have it, so I was pretty focused on getting my hands on a standardized burger like only they make. Part of me is still that 8-year-old from a tiny town in South Dakota who thought Mickey D’s was exotic and a very big deal.

 

Ambiance

He Said: All McDonald’s do not look alike, though they do have similarities. Like most, this one was bright and clean, a cheerful atmosphere. There is no children’s play area here, as there is at some McDonald’s. They do, however, have WiFi. There are three kinds of seating available: tables with hard chairs in the middle, booths with soft benches along the margins, and in one small area booths with high tables that seem suited for working on a computer.

She Said: Yeah, I thought it looked great, and I recalled the re-do they’d had here awhile ago, though I honestly am not sure I have ever been inside in the 13 years we’ve lived here. Upon entering I thought even with the WiFi, it might be harder to work in than Starbucks because there was a lot of ambient noise, some kind of grinding—maybe a shake machine—and then a pesky timer noise occasionally as well. There was some flotsam and jetsam about on some of the tables and the floor, but it was generally clean and bright. Our booth was definitely comfy and roomy.

 

Drinks

He Said: You haven’t been inside, Jones, because you always go through the drive-through, which reminds me, they have a 24-hour drive-through service here on Friday and Saturday nights, which is probably good to know! But I digress: Obviously when we talk about drinks at McDonald’s, we’re talking mainly about soft drinks. And water. But they also have tea, sweetened or unsweetened, which is pretty good. I opted for an unsweet tea as probably the healthiest choice. Well, except for the water.

She Said: Oh, I love McDonald’s unsweet tea, and on my fast days, when my calories are limited, if I need a pick-me-up, this is the drive-through I hit to meet my craving. I don’t like sugar or sweetener in my tea, so it needs to taste great, and this does! But, today, I went for my “ideal meal,” and that meant a chocolate shake. When I ordered, I expected the staffer to say to me, “Our shake machine is broken,” which I swear has been the answer I’ve gotten for the past five years at any McDonald’s I’ve been to nationwide. But, voila! This nice man just punched in my order like no big deal. This meal was getting more and more exciting at every turn! And the shake was delicious, just as great as I remembered before the international shake-machine freeze-out…

Food

He Said: The challenge at McDonald’s has always been finding something healthy to eat. Responding to a public outcry in recent years, McDonald’s has made this task easier of late. Still, as I’ve mentioned before, fat is my nemesis. McDonald’s has in fact made it easy to evaluate their meals, since you can look up their menu online and figure out what your healthy choices are. For example, according to their Website, a Big Mac has 540 calories and 28 grams of fat. Since my goal is to try to stay under 50 grams of fat per day, spending more than half of that on a single item is just not in the cards. A regular McDonald’s hamburger, on the other hand, has 250 calories and only 8 grams of fat—much more doable.

One reason we tried McDonald’s now is that they are currently using Conway as a test market for a new item for their menu, “chef-crafted sandwiches.” This is an item that enables you to choose among three possible proteins—a quarter pound of beef, crispy chicken, or grilled chicken; three possible toppings—maple bacon Dijon, sweet barbecue bacon, or pico guacamole; and two buns—sesame seed or “artisan” (a word that means “hand-crafted” and “made carefully one at a time,” two things I’m pretty sure are not the case with buns at McDonald’s). Since bacon is anathema to me on my low-fat diet, and since guacamole has a lot of fat even though it’s a vegetable, I opted for the barbecue sauce without the bacon, the artisan bun and the grilled chicken. I assume this had about the same number of grams of fat as the regular artisan chicken sandwich, which was only 6 grams. It’s possible the barbecue sauce added a few grams, but it was still a light-fat option.

As for the taste, well, it was not bad for fast food It bore the same relationship to a barbecue chicken sandwich at a real barbecue place as, say, Olive Garden food bears to actual Italian food, but it was a healthy choice and could be a reasonable alternative for someone needing to make a fast-food stop and trying to eat conscientiously.

She Said: As I mentioned, I went for my ideal meal, and this was not the healthiest, though your comments, Ruud, about the relatively low fat grams in the burgers makes me feel better. First, I ordered two hamburgers. You always give me a hard time about this: “Why don’t you get a Quarter Pounder? Or a Big Mac??” Because I like the taste of the burgers! The problem for me with the hamburgers is that one is not enough, and two is too many. I also ordered a medium French fry, which I did in spite of an article I read in the New Yorker on our honeymoon in 2001 that suggested that McDonald’s French fries kill more people a year in the United States than cigarettes.* (That tells you a lot about me, what I read on my honeymoon. God bless my husband’s heart.) And to continue my pursuit of the ideal, I added on an apple pie. Now, I grew up on the cherry pies at McDonald’s, or even the wild berry pies I enjoyed in Prague’s McDonald’s in the 1990s when I could afford to go there on a Czech salary, which was about twice a year. But I really do enjoy those apple pies. The whole meal, true to the McDonald’s brand promise, was exactly what I thought it would be, tasted exactly how I thought it would, and I consumed it all with delight.

BUT… almost immediately afterward, I did not feel good. I am not for one second implying that there was anything wrong with the food, except that it was fast food. My body is not that used to it, and since I’m a little food-sensitive (a sugar soda on an empty stomach equals a headache within 10 minutes), I felt this carb fest before we departed the premises around 4 p.m. I actually thought I would get hangry within a few hours, though, and I didn’t. I stayed full and satisfied, food-wise, the rest of the day, though I did crave more carby-fatty-sugary things even if I wasn’t hungry. And my first words when I woke up the next day were, “I want a healthy breakfast. Now.”

*The article, in the March 5, 2001, New Yorker, by Malcolm Gladwell, “The Trouble with Fries” states, “As many Americans now die every year from obesity-related illnesses–heart disease and complications of diabetes–as from smoking, and the fast-food toll grows heavier every year.” Gladwell singles out trans fats as particularly dangerous, and Google searches indicate McDonald’s still uses hydrogenated oil in making its fries; hydrogenated oils contain trans fats. 

Service

He Said: One of the signature characteristics of the McDonald’s franchises is their service with a smile, and that’s what we got. A very friendly server (granted, he seemed to be the on-duty manager), took our order and got it delivered promptly, and made sure we had sugar and salt when there were none of these set out anywhere.

She Said: It did take a little time to get waited on at the counter, but the manager dude immediately apologized for it, so I didn’t mind. (At a recent meal that cost more than 10 times this one, we had to wait awhile for our waiter, so it can happen anywhere.) I also liked the way the manager talked to the staff, task-focused, but humane and respectful.

What We Got and What We Paid: Two hamburgers, medium French fries, small chocolate shake, apple pie, barbecue chicken and medium unsweet iced tea: $13.78.

Rating

He Said: Well, I won’t be back any time soon, but I will say that McDonald’s is pretty much what it purports to be: a fast-food place where you know what you are getting, and one that makes some effort, within the constraints of the fast-food milieu, to provide some healthy options for those customers who need or want them.

She Said: It’s complicated. But I will say it’s very good at what it’s good for—even if I personally don’t want that very often. If and when you do, go to this McDonald’s and eat and drink. (Their shake machine actually works!)

So…He Said and She Said: Go Here and Eat This if This is What You Want.

 

Mike'sPlace

Mike’s Place

Mike’s Place
808 Front Street
Conway, Arkansas 72034
(501) 269-6453

The Situation

He Said: Mike’s Place has a special niche historically among the restaurants of Conway, since it is the first place in town to take on the archaic law making Faulkner an infamous “dry county.” While I do not drink alcohol myself anymore for health reasons, I am well aware that decent restaurants make much of their profit margin on alcohol sales, so that before Mike’s Place getting anything beyond a fast food taco was virtually impossible. So even if I hated the food here, I’m still inclined to be grateful for its existence.

She Said: Yeah, even though we love Little Rock’s restaurants, I am so glad we don’t have to go there every time we want a civilized meal (with a cocktail). This evening was my “party” for passing my yoga teacher training, and after dinner we were going to the 30th anniversary screening of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, all with #mymom who is still visiting from South Dakota. Of course, having been with us since mid-April, she’s eaten at Mike’s Place several times, but I wanted one of my favorite restaurant meals in Conway to celebrate becoming a registered yoga teacher, so here we were.

 

Ambiance

He Said: Mike’s is a fairly large space, with comfortable booths as well as tables, a side room for larger parties, and an outdoor dining area in a courtyard behind the building. It is a rich looking interior with a lot of wood, and is a comfortable place to dine. It can get crowded, though, which can make it noisy, and which also means that you probably want to have a reservation, even on a weeknight, if you want to be certain of getting a table.

She Said: Mike’s has the prettiest outdoor dining area in all of central Arkansas, honestly, in its pretty rear courtyard area. I like to sit inside (I don’t like The Nature) where I can look out at the fountain. We got to Mike’s early (5:15 p.m.) this night, so we didn’t have a reservation, but when we left, the place was hoppin’. I just love the interior design and décor here. It’s comfortable and plush without being pretentiously posh. I always feel like I’m in a lovely, comfy cocoon with good food and drinks when I’m here because there’s almost no natural light, and it’s a completely controlled and pleasing environment from the bar to the booths.

 

Drinks

He Said: Well, there’s a cocktail list and wine, about which I’m sure my awesome wife Stacey Margaret Jones will have something to say. But let me do my grumbling here: why do most of the better restaurants never provide a list of what they have to drink that is nonalcoholic? I suppose I answered my own question above in “The Situation”—the alcohol is where the profit margin is—but I don’t like the assumption that people like me do not exist. If you don’t drink, or can’t drink, or are too young to drink, how do you find out what they have to drink? I just order something and if they say they don’t have it, then at least they’ll tell me what they do have. I ordered a Coke, to which the reply was “We have Pepsi products.” Good. Put that in your friggin’ menu. Anyway, most people’s answer to that is exactly what mine was. “Oh, then make it a Mountain Dew.”

She Said: You’re busting out the curmudgeon there, buddy! While I chose not to have a cosmopolitan tonight, Mike’s Place makes a delicious one, which I have sampled many times. They do offer Malbec by the glass on the wine list, which is another feature of the restaurant I love, as that is my favorite wine. So, that’s what I had! #mymom just had water.

Food

He Said: As you will no doubt learn more often than you care to if you read these blog posts consistently, I have chronic pancreatitis and so have to stay on a very low fat diet.  This can make eating out a challenge, and one of the many reasons I’m contributing to this blog is to help steer the many people who are, or ought to be, on low-fat diets into some good eating. At a lot of restaurants there is little choice. There is some choice at Mike’s. Most of the appetizers are fried or have cheese or cream that pushes up the fat content. What I chose was the soup—I encourage you to ask about the soup at Mike’s. Today it was chicken and rice, a pretty simple, basic soup that was delicious Mike’s way. It was thick as a stew, with a few spices that gave it a pleasant little kick.

The best thing on the menu at Mike’s is the pecan-encrusted grouper. Unfortunately, pecans, like most nuts, are filled with fat, so it’s not a good choice for a low-fat diet. I had the Mike’s Grouper instead, and could have chosen it fried (not a good idea for the low-fat folk), pan-seared, or grilled. I tried it grilled, and was pleased with it, though I might have liked the texture better if it had been pan-seared (it was a little crispier on the outside than I would have preferred). You get your choice of two “lagniappes” with an entrée (a word borrowed from Cajun restaurants), and while some of these are fatty, many of them are not. I skipped the rice since I’d had it in the soup, and picked steamed broccoli and a baked potato, though I couldn’t have the sour cream or cheese or bacon on it. So it was blander than I would have preferred. But healthier. Overall, the meal was good.

She Said: Well, we went here so I could eat the pecan-encrusted grouper, which I call “fish candy,” it’s just so delicious. But first, I chose the crawfish-red-pepper bisque for my starter. I love this soup. Tonight it wasn’t as thick and creamy as I remembered, but it was delicious. Then, of course, I went for it with the entrée, the nutty, yummy grouper, with my two sides of the “smashed” potatoes and the parmesan spinach. I do love the side options Mike’s offers, especially when I am trying to watch calories. All the lagniappes are tasty and give you an opportunity to make your entrée more tailored to your food needs or tastes.

#mymom had an entrée salad, and it was great-looking. She brought a lot of it home.

I’ll take a little blog real estate here to praise the yummy rolls here that come with your meal. I don’t always want to eat bread (carbs, arthritis-inducing gluten, etc.), but I love it when I’m here and can enjoy one of these warm, fresh dinner rolls with lots of butter. Don’t miss them!

Service

He Said: The service here was truly impeccable. We were seated right away, our server came to our table within minutes, brought our drinks quickly, brought our orders in a timely way, kept checking on us to make sure everything was all right, asked about desert, and brought the check without letting us languish afterwards, and did it all with a bright and friendly (but not overly friendly) manner.

She Said: Exactly what He Said. Mike’s Place servers are so professional they make a great dining experience possible.

What We Got and What We Paid: Appetizers and entrees for three, two glasses of wine, and a Mountain Dew: $82.38.

 

Rating

He Said: Of course we’ll be back—it’s still the premiere restaurant in Conway. The food is good, even if you decide you’d have been happier with something else. Next time I go I’m having the salmon, I believe.

 

She Said: Oh, I love it. I love the grouper, the pizza, the shrimp scampi, etc. I love the experience of eating in a place that clearly knows what its doing when it comes to making your night out pleasant and tasty.

So…He Said and She Said “Go Here to Eat…and Drink.”

UmamiPicCollage-2

Umami Sushi Lounge and Grill Fusion

Umami Sushi Lounge and Grill Fusion
500 Amity Road
Conway
(501) 358-3880

The Situation

She Said: I was supposed to be fasting (it was a Monday, on which I usually eat only about 500 calories), but we had also had a big weekend, with Jay being named a distinguished alumnus of his undergraduate alma mater and me earning my registered yoga teacher certificate (200 hour). So, we thought a mini celebration before the big celebration was in order, and after a gentle yoga flow class, Jay wanted to go out. So we collected my 90-year-old mother from home after Savasana and went out to a Japanese restaurant on our (east) side of Conway.

Sushi is often a go-to for me when choosing restaurants because I’m more comfortable eating fish and seafood than birds and mammals, and because the lack of added ingredients to the fish and rice makes it feel to me like a cleaner meal. That is, of course, before the tempura and cream cheese are added, but we all have delusions we cling to, right? Another thing I like about sushi is that it is possible to get slightly smaller portions of food than the heaping plates of entrees and sides we’ve become accustomed to in America when dining out—such heaping platters have actually changed portion sizes at home, as we now think we need to eat as much food at home as we would be served at places like Applebee’s.

He Said: Yoga makes me hungry. And Japanese seemed appropriate. They do yoga in Japan, right?

Ambiance
She Said: Umami is a large, open restaurant, well lit, with pretty red round banquets, benches and booths. Patrons can select tables or Hibachi, and we almost always get the former for a quiet dinner. While it’s not loud, it’s actually hard to hear: I had trouble hearing my mother across the table or Jay when he turned his head away from me. It’s a white noise factor, I think, with music and fountain water that can overwhelm your dining companions (but not the dude-centric table 2 yards away that was dropping the F-bomb every other word, which I would normally not be sensitive to, but am aware of when my mother is with us).

He Said: I didn’t really have a problem hearing. Though maybe I just didn’t know I did, since I didn’t hear the guys at the other table. The atmosphere is not exactly cozy—more sports-bar like, with TVs around where NBA playoff games were being broadcast. I will say that the chairs are nicely padded and really comfortable.

Drinks
She Said:
As usual, the cheese stands alone. I was the sole imbiber, and I chose a cucumber cosmopolitan off the cocktail menu. Both of those words are irresistible to me on a drinks menu and combined, all I can do is say yes. It was delicious, “grown up” enough to feel like a cocktail, but not so strong that I couldn’t taste the drink’s flavors mixing together in the glass. Once I finished my food ahead of everyone else, I had a glass of Cupcake Cabernet, also tasty and a generous pour.

He Said: If you’re like me and can’t drink for health reasons (or just don’t drink for your own reasons that are none of my business), you appreciate a place that actually has something to drink that isn’t alcoholic. I got the unsweetened iced tea, though the waitress was a little taken aback when I asked for actual sugar, instead of Sweet and Low. She managed to find some. Look, sweetened iced tea is way too sugary, and I like to control what I put in, all right? So don’t shame me, server. Anyway, you can probably find something to drink other than water if you come here.

Food
She Said:
We ordered to share but pretty much stuck to our own plates as we were all pleased with what we got. I tried the mashed potato karokke, which the menu said had ham in the center, but which, I, thankfully, didn’t notice (not being a big mammal eater, I almost didn’t order it because of this). This is a deep fried mashed potato cake with veggies—and theoretically ham—with a special house sauce, and it is like the crack of the plant world. I shared bites with #mymom and Jay, but I did so reluctantly. I might not fit into my stretchy jeans tomorrow, but it was worth it. These were like little potato amazeballs.

For my entrée, I ordered my go-to here at Umami, the Crazy Monkey roll, which has mango slices and tempura flakes on a roll with cream cheese and shrimp. I noticed with the first bite that something seemed a little tough and bland, and I realized the shrimp was overcooked. That’s not usually a problem at sushi restaurants! It was a little disappointing, as this was a caloric splurge on a day I was not supposed to be doing that. Oh well, the mango was tasty and fresh.

#mymom had egg rolls and the Asian sesame chicken salad, and she really enjoyed both.

He Said: Though I may sound like the impossible restaurant patron, in addition to the drink abolition I also have a very restrictive food diet, one that a good number of Americans share, or should. I really have to stay on a very low-fat diet, and that precludes my eating red meat, deep fried foods, heavy cream or butter sauces and whole eggs, and miscellaneous other high fat foods, like nuts, olives, and even avocadoes. All of this is to say that I’m usually going to be ordering the healthiest things I can find on the menu—fish and poultry, vegetarian, and such, while looking longingly at my wife’s entrée. I have to say that the small bite of karokke that I tried from her was to die for–which might not be a figure of speech if I had eaten the whole thing.

At a Japanese restaurant, there is usually a wide selection of things I can eat, though since I don’t actually like sushi myself, that narrows the choices down for me. I ordered the edamame appetizer, which was very tasty and tender—the beans were a bit younger and more tender than the kinds usually used for that dish, I thought. For the meal I had the Miso Glazed Salmon. The salmon was pan-seared, perfectly cooked (the biggest danger I’ve found with salmon is overcooking), and the miso glaze sweet and delicious. It came with two spears of asparagus tempura which were a perfect accent, and lay on a generous bed of steamed rice. Under the rice was hidden a little surprise: a helping of green beans. Part of the surprise was that the beans had a bit of a kick to them—they were peppered and had another spice which made them just the slightest bit zingy. They formed a nice contrast to the rice, which was, well, steamed rice. All in all, it was a delightfully tasty meal.

Service
She Said:
I thought our waitress was great. She was prompt once we sat down, she dealt with others around us efficiently, she asked us when wasn’t sure what we meant to avoid a problem later, and she was friendly and attentive without being overbearing or “pulling focus” (when you find yourself at dinner paying more attention to the wait staff than the people you came to talk to). She did bring the check really fast at the end of the meal, when I was feeling like I might have a sweet tooth. Do they have dessert? I have no idea. That was not suggested or offered. I found myself pondering a DQ run on the way home…

He Said: All true. I kidded about the sugar in the tea, but the waitress was attentive but unobtrusive. I couldn’t’ have eaten dessert anyway. But I’m guessing if she had asked for some, she’d have been glad to take the check back and refigure it. But yes, it seemed like we might have been getting rushed a little at the end.

What We Got and What We Paid: Appetizers and entrees for three, a cocktail, a glass of wine, and an iced-tea: $76.16.

Rating

She Said: I’ll be back. It’s close to my neighborhood and there are a lot of things on the menu I’d like to try. The korokke alone was worth the price of admission.

He Said: Obviously, I’m going back if she is. But I’d certainly come back again for the salmon. They did have a couple of other things on the menu (like a salmon-burger, for instance) that I’d like to try myself.

So…He Said and She Said “Go Here to Eat.”