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!

Nephresh

Cafe Neph(r)esh

No. 6: Café Neph(r)esh
810 Fourth Avenue

(501) 358-6694

4.0 percent of Conway restaurants reviewed

The Situation

She Said: Since we started our restaurant-review project, several people have told us to review this new place in Conway, which opened April 1. I thought it was just a lunch place, but it’s open from 10 a.m. until 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, with lunch-only hours on Monday and Tuesday, when it is open from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Recently, after a morning trip to Little Rock for Jazzercise and a pedicure, I called Jay and he met me here to try out lunch. Getting here is a little bit of an adventure; it’s quite visible from the on-ramp to I-40 eastbound off Oak as it is attached to Tipton Hurst, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to access. I missed the turn my first try and had to go around the block. The driveway/parking lot is one-way (Yes, it is, red truck driver, even if you want to turn around and go out the way you came in!), and parking can get a little tricky, or roll out onto the street if it’s crowded. Ruud, I’ll let you address the name…

He Said:

According to a sign in the restaurant, Nephesh in Hebrew means: “soul, life, passion and appetite”—the “appetite” in general being appropriate for a restaurant. The post-modern parenthetical insertion of the (r) creates Neph(r)esh—a coinage incorporating the idea of “fresh”ness, and ultimately connoting, according to the sign, “passionate about fresh food, refreshed souls, restored lives.” If this seems a bit of a heavy load to put on the shoulders of a new commercial eatery, at least we can say that the owners’ hearts seem to be in the right place, as they note on the menus that their “mission” is “To make delicious food, using high quality ingredients, sourced locally whenever available,” and that they “will donate a portion of every purchase to Project Zero [an Arkansas charity dedicated to finding homes for “every child waiting to be adopted in Arkansas”] and Loving Mosaics [a manufacturer concerned with creating a safe and healthy working environment for the most vulnerable women in Thailand]. Certainly the reliance on local sources and the charitable intent are laudable goals for any new business venture.

Ambiance

She Said: I was really looking forward to dining here, as, aside from more healthy, local options, I remembered how pretty and comfy Oak Street Bistro was when it opened in this location, but Neph(r)esh  is not luxe. The floors are polished concrete and it’s pretty bare, with a lot of hard surfaces that bounce the sound around from the kitchen machinery and anyone loud who happens to sit near you. It’s pretty open, and not too comfortable, I thought. The patio is spacious and pretty, but on the day we had lunch, there was no seating out there.

He Said: Yes—the bare interior and barely functional chairs and tables give the place a very institutional atmosphere. That coupled with the fact that this location is the black hole of Conway—the place where businesses go to die, since you can’t get there without knowing the secret passageway between the Valero and the freeway on-ramp does not provide the place with a terribly advantageous atmosphere.

Drinks

She Said: They have the usual Coke suspects, soda-wise, as well as milk, orange juice, sweet and unsweet tea as well as a special house coffee and bottled water. I had a pretty tasty unsweet tea, which I refilled before I left.

He Said: Yes, they have Coke products. Once again I opted for the Root Beer. These are fountain drinks, not bottles or cans.

Food

She Said: I went intending to order the veggie wrap (spring mix of greens, tomato, carrots, bell pepper, black beans and choice of dressing on a spinach or tomato-basil wrap), because a friend had praised it, but when I arrived and saw quiche on the menu, I couldn’t resist it. Let’s be clear: I am a lover of the egg. Eggs and I go way back. And I am devoted to quiche. I make quiche. I order quiche. I eat quiche. Even when it has meat in it, which this did, as the menu lists its ingredients as eggs, spinach, cheese, tomatoes and bacon. I chose the crustless quiche for less fat and gluten. This comes with side salad or soup, which was a choice between tomato bisque or loaded potato. I decided to try the Cayle’s Kale Caesar, which mixes kale with the traditional romaine, Caesar dressing, parmesan and croutons. They also add bacon, which I wasn’t that excited about, as Caesar salad is a good go-to for me in avoiding meat in restaurants.

When the waitress brought the plate, I could not believe it: The crustless quiche was so thin and small, I almost laughed. It was, I’m sure, not even a quarter of an inch thick. I have never in my life seen a piece of quiche so small in a restaurant, or, for that matter, anywhere else. At Trio’s and Bossa Nova in Little Rock, the quiche serving looks like one fifth or sixth of a pie. This was more like a really wilted frittata. I think there was one piece of all the ingredients mentioned in the description in the serving, one wafer-thin piece. It tasted fine, so I ate it up, and then ate the kale salad. This is not Neph(r)esh’s fault, but I’m not a big kale fan, unless it’s really softened and served wilted in things, like a smoothie or a warm quinoa salad. So, I got a little tired of it before I finished it. I was desperate, so I took a bite of Ruud’s turkey sandwich, and got such a big dollop of mustard, I couldn’t taste anything else.

I was still really hungry, so I ate half of the dessert we decided to split, Alaya’s chocolate cake. This was pretty yummy, “undry” (remember, we don’t like the “M word” around here) and chocolaty. It tasted like “church-lady cake” from my childhood, a single layer with a thick spread of frosting on top. When they say they use high-quality local ingredients here, this cake makes me believe them, since it tastes like the from-scratch desserts I was lucky enough to eat growing up in small-town South Dakota.

He Said: I will bear witness that yes, you had quiche that was the size of a Dorito.  I think the best that can be said about the food here is that it is hit-or-miss. Going for the low-fat options as usual, I ordered a roasted turkey sandwich. It came with a slice of cheese (I opted for Swiss as less fatty than cheddar), lettuce, tomato, mayo, and mustard, and I chose to have it on rye bread (there are several other bread options). I asked them to leave off the high-fat mayo. Perhaps this is why the mustard tasted so strong. Ultimately the sandwich was unremarkable, though the mustard did give it a little kick.

I ordered a cup of the tomato bisque on the side, not expecting much, but as it turned out the soup was the highlight of my meal. It wasn’t simply a pureed tomato soup, but included a few garnishes as well as pieces of tomato and onion in the creamy soup, and it tasted very nice. I might have been happier to have had a bowl of soup and made that the meal.

And yes, I agree that the chocolate cake was excellent. Very rich and a delicious brownie-like icing. Probably not the best fat-free option in the place.

Service

She Said: When you walk in, menus are in a rack for you to peruse before you go up to the counter, where you order. We kept one, as they are just printed on paper and seem to be to take and share. At the counter, the friendly, helpful staffer answered our questions and gave us our cups and number, so they could bring us the food. When she didn’t know about some ingredients, she went and asked someone else, who came out with the recipe and shared every ingredient. This showed me that they “get-it” when someone asks about ingredients—there are so many reasons someone may need to know about what is in the food he is ordering. The waitress  was very patient with The World’s Slowest Orderer, wasn’t she, Ruud?

He Said: I’m not sure what you’re referring to, Jones. But she was quite friendly. And while this is not a sit-down-and-give-your-order-to-a-waiter kind of place, the chef and another worker came by our table as we ate and asked if we needed anything else. So for an order-at-the-counter place, the service was pretty good.

She Said: Yeah, I felt a little conflicted about not telling them about my disappointment with the portion size. If they had served me the wrong food, or something was wrong with the food they had given me, I would have told them, but I’ve never complained about portion size in a restaurant before (never had to).

What We Got and What We Paid: A wafer-thin slice of quiche and kale Caesar salad, a roasted turkey sandwich, a cup of soup, a fountain drink, an unsweet tea and a dessert to share for $24.63.

 

Rating

She Said: I’m not in a hurry to return. They were super friendly and I appreciate the social good they are trying to do by donating some of their profits to worthy causes, but the food was not filling or satisfying… except for the cake. I might come back for coffee and dessert sometime, if I could sit outside on a nice day.

He Said: I’m not going to rush back. There are certainly places for lunch that I like a lot better.

So…He Said and She Said: Move this hit-or-miss eatery down your list, unless you’re Jay Ruud and order what he got, maybe skipping the sandwich—but don’t skip the cake.

Fridaypicture

TGI Fridays

TGI Fridays
No. 5: 3.3 percent of Conway restaurants reviewed
1105 East Oak Street
(501) 329-8300

The Situation

He Said: In addition to the fast-food places like McDonald’s, Conway is home to a number of slightly more upscale chains that feature “casual dining.” TGI Fridays bills itself as a chain featuring “traditional American,” so it is on a par with places like Chili’s and Appleby’s. Fridays was founded in New York 51 years ago, and has more than 1,000 restaurants world-wide, which means that like McDonald’s, one of the main things it has going for it is consistency: You do know what you’re going to get when you come to Fridays.

She Said: I’m a Gen-Xer, so I can’t go to a casual American-dining chain like Fridays without visions of Chotchkie’s and Flingers of Office Space fame: Jennifer Aniston and her flair, the memorabilia-filled walls and the corporate-mandated verve of the servers. Even after several years of graduate-school-motivated, late-evening fried food and alcohol sessions at this particular Fridays, Mike Judge’s fake but oh-so-real restaurants come to mind. Judge himself said the places in his movie were based on real restaurants in Irving, Texas, that were adjacent to a large office park and were frequented by the white-collar “inmates” of those businesses.

 

Ambiance

He Said: All Fridays restaurants look pretty similar. That’s part of their consistency. You know there will be a lot of red and white stripes in there. And you know there will be antiques or memorabilia on the walls. The Fridays in Conway has two seating areas—a bar and a more family-oriented dining room with booths and tables. We sat there.

She Said: Yeah, Ruud, the bar can get loud if there is karaoke, though I’ve dined comfortably in both areas. It’s also worth noting that I feel comfortable coming here alone, and for women, that’s worth something. Many of the booths are pretty private, and all the seating is comfortable. I admit, the memorabilia is interesting to me; I always notice something I hadn’t seen before. This time it was a giant Yoda on the wall.

 

Drinks

He Said: Since as well as wanting to be known as a family-style restaurant, Fridays wants to be a “late night” restaurant as well, it has a huge drink menu, which I’ll let my awesome wife Stacey Margaret Jones talk about.

I will say that they have a large selection on nonalcoholic drinks as well (that’s the “family” part coming in). They offer a lot of teas, juices and slushies, as well as the usual suspects in the form of Coke products. I had my usual Root Beer.

She Said: I really like their cocktail menu here, actually. There are lots of yummy-looking variations of standards. I’ve tried various margaritas and mojitos here, and they’re always tasty. This time, I was eyeing the lighter version of the cosmopolitan they offer, only 150 calories!, but went with the regular model in the end. I had a glass of cabernet with my dessert. Both were tasty and not skimpy pours.

Food

He Said: There is a huge variety of items on Fridays menu, from burgers to chicken and pasta to sandwiches to steaks and fish, so it would be difficult to come here and not find something on the menu that appealed to you. Also, Fridays has always tried to cultivate a reputation of being nutrition-aware and offering low-calorie and low-fat options Like many large chains, they offer a nutrition guide on their Website that allows consumers to compare the nutritional content of their standard meals. For me, of course, this means checking the fat content.

In practice, however, these low-fat items are few and far between. Of the myriad appetizers on the menu, finding one with fewer than 30 grams of fat is a chore, and since as I’ve mentioned here before I have to try to keep my daily fat intake down to 50 grams, that’s a lot. I ended up sharing some of my wife’s Crispy Green Bean Fries which were delicious of course, but, as I found later, contain 65 grams of fat. Fortunately, I only ate a few of them. Next time I will probably opt for the Pan-Seared Potstickers, which contain only 17 grams of fat.

There are a few low-fat options in the entrees, but you need to search for them. The Bourbon Barrel Mahi-Mahi has only 14 total grams of fat, as does the Bourbon Barrel Chicken, which I opted for this evening. I could order two sides with the meal, and my rice pilaf and steamed broccoli added 1.5 grams to that—11 of those coming from the rice.

I was particularly disappointed in the broccoli, which can be made tasty without adding tons of butter or cheese. But there was no attempt to spruce it up at all, and it was quite bland. With the chicken, I ran into the opposite problem, for though it probably could have been very tasty—it seemed cooked to perfection—I couldn’t taste anything but pepper, with which it had been doused. Thank goodness for the rice, which helped me tone down the heavily peppered chicken, and add a little flavor to the particularly bland broccoli. At this point I can’t say I’m enamored of the low-fat options at Fridays.

For dessert my wife ordered the “Brownie Obsession”—billed as “A warm chocolate-fudge brownie topped with vanilla ice cream, Ghirardelli® caramel sauce and pecans.” That’s got to be low-fat, right? (1200 calories, actually. With 6o grams of fat) I had to have a taste, anyway, and it was indeed all that it was cracked up to be. But not, I’m afraid, something I could eat.

She Said: Yeah, Ruud, I can see why I’m not losing weight these days. These review meals are killing me, and this one is no exception. I didn’t have the All-American Stacked Burger, which is more than a week’s worth of Weight Watchers points on one plate. But I did have the green beans, as you mentioned, which were a handy go-to when I was trying not to eat any meat or dairy but still go out with friends. For this outing, I chose the pecan-crusted chicken salad for my entree. This has 1,080 calories and 71 grams of fat. It’s a salad, but it’s not healthy. It is delicious, though. The chicken is really tender, and the pecan coating is rich and satisfying. There is dried fruit and cheese in the salad, as well, so every bit tastes great. I had to work hard to resist ordering a side of fries. They are delicious, and so I’m going to warn my readers: If I’m at Fridays with you, and you order fries, I’m going to eat some right off your plate.

So, how did I have room for dessert? Maybe it’s just that fatty-food phenomenon that occurs when you’re eating lots of fat and calories and you just want more. The dessert was delicious, and I don’t want to think about how I’ll have to run 12 miles to work that one dish of this meal off. But I guess you don’t go to Fridays for health food.

We know that restaurant portion sizes are increasing, and because of our exposure to these heaping plates, we are conditioned to think we need more in our meals at home. Ruud’s serving sizes were actually pretty healthy, but given the calorie count of my meal, I think the size of my order is part of the problem, not the solution.

Service

He Said: Friday’s does have fine service. You are greeted by friendly hosts/hostesses who hold the door for you, and you get seated where you like if possible, get your drink order, appetizer, and entrees all promptly, and the servers are always friendly. This is something they do well.

 She Said: Well stated. We had a friendly waitress this evening, who was chatty but not overbearing. She talked to us about our choices as if we were friends she had invited over, but wasn’t going to crowd. They have the take-your-time/efficiency dichotomy down to a science here.

What We Got and What We Paid: Fried green beans, a pecan-crusted chicken salad, bourbon chicken, broccoli, and jasmine rice, a root beer, a cocktail and a glass of wine. Oh, and the Brownie Obsession. All for $48.82.

 

Rating

He Said: Yeah, I’m not in a big rush to come back. When I do, I’ll probably order something different.

She Said: It’s a fun place for cocktails…and delicious fatty food. They are great at service and a “chillaxing” meal. But, it’s low on my personal go-to list because I struggle so much to find something I don’t feel guilty about eating when what I want is everything else on the menu. When I convert these dishes to treadmill time, it’s not worth it.

So…He Said and She Said: Go here for a delicious caloric splurge and tasty cocktails. Go somewhere else for healthy options.

meanbean

The Mean Bean Cafe

The Mean Bean Cafe

No. 4: 2.7 percent of Conway restaurants reviewed based on current list
2501 Dave Ward Dr. (Nutters Chapel Plaza)

Conway, AR 72034

(501) 336-9957

The Situation

She Said: It’s a common scenario in our Conwegian lives for me to pick up my husband at work at UCA and drive on down to the Mean Bean for lunch. We’ve been coming here for lunch dates since we moved to the state in 2003. This charming little place has about 12 tables and is only open for lunch, so we’re generally strategic in arriving before noon. But if there is a wait, they are very efficient about seating you in a small waiting area and letting you peruse the menu while you hope for a table. This day we were celebrating the first class of Jay’s last summer school class ever before he retires in August, so I saved up some calories to enjoy my favorite Mean Bean offerings.

He Said:  Yes. Full disclosure: This is our go-to lunch place in Conway, so we’re not likely to be giving it a bad review. This is one of the first places we ate in Conway 13 years ago. It has been open for lunch since 1995 and is something of a Conway tradition, or at least a tradition for UCA employees looking for a quick lunch getaway. They like to bill themselves as Conway’s “best kept secret,” but they always fill up by around noon, and there is often a wait after that, it’s really not much of a secret. It certainly won’t be after this review.

 

Ambiance

She Said: It’s a sweet little eatery, but not cloying or twee. There’s a TV usually tuned to CNN but the sound is muted. The seating is comfortable (we snag a booth if we can, but the middle row of tables are cozy, too). I’ve come here in yoga clothes or work wear, and I always feel comfortable. It’s often seat-yourself service when you arrive, and they aren’t cranky if two of you take a whole booth. There are two tables outside, but I prefer inside to the parking lot décor.

He Said:  The parking lot’s not so bad, Jones. At least you can eat in the fresh air on beautiful days in fall or spring. But it is relatively small inside, and looks essentially like the diner it is.

 

Drinks

She Said: This is lunch only, so there’s no alcohol, and even though I usually restrict my coffee drinking to breakfast, I order it here because it’s delicious and freshly made. Cream comes in little disposables. The unsweet ice tea is very nice as well. Refills of everything abound.

He Said:  They also have lemonade, and soft drinks (Coke products). I usually have Root Beer. But the iced tea is also good, as is the lemonade.

Food

She Said: There is a reason we’ve been coming here for 13 years. The food is delicious, fresh and satisfying, and they don’t jack with the menu all the time and remove my favorites, as many eateries feel compelled to do. They are a soup-and-sandwich kind of place with tasty salads, as well, and I can find something here no matter what kind of mood I’m in: vegan, vegetarian or comfort (when I need to “eat my feelings”). This day, I had my favorite, chicken salad on a croissant, no tomatoes, with French fries and a pickle spear—which is usually the first thing I devour on the plate. They have tasty vegetarian offerings that can be made vegan to order, and they still taste like there is nothing missing. And this is the first place I ever ate that standard southern-menu item, the salad with fried chicken on it! You can choose your sandwich and bread and side items. Their fries are crispy on the outside and tender on the inside, but the Ruffles they serve as a side are also my favorite. Everything is my favorite! My only quibble is that the mayonnaise I like on my fries comes in the little packets instead of in a little condiment dish—they’re hard to open when your hands are French-fry-y.

This is one of the places I order dessert, as all of the Mean Bean offerings are home-made. They have a long list of tempting sweets, but I cannot resist the strawberry cake. It’s so perfectly “undry” (I don’t use the “M word,” and you shouldn’t either), and flavorful. They serve it with cream cheese frosting and whipped cream, which gets a little sweet for me, but I do the best I can every time. I’m down to ordering this about once a year. Strawberry cake day is a great day!

He Said:  I used to love the BLT on marble rye with potato chips from the deli at Mean Bean (the bacon was perfectly done and there was an abundance of it, and the bread was really tasty), but I do now have to think low-fat. There are a lot of healthy choices at the Mean Bean: several salads and some vegetarian dishes, which I don’t have because they all include cheese and that increases the fat content significantly. However, they do allow you the option of “veganizing” those vegetarian dishes, so that if I wanted a Spinach Burrito, I could leave off the “signature cheese dip” and have it with spinach, onions and mushrooms and wrapped in a flour, spinach or jalapeno tortilla, and get some salsa rather than cheese.

But I didn’t do that. What I ordered was the turkey burger, which I could get without cheese, of course, but with lettuce, tomato, pickle, onion, and mustard (skipping the high-fat mayo option). You can also substitute a cup of soup for the potato chips that generally come with every sandwich served here. The tomato-basil soup is a healthy and delicious option.

Dessert looks great, but there aren’t a lot of low-fat options there. I’ll leave it up my awesome wife to deal with dessert.

Service

She Said: The service is consistently friendly, professional and efficient at the Bean. But, if you can sit in Michelle’s section, you should. She’s been waiting on us for 13 years, and she knows us very well. She knows that Jay likes root beer, and I like strawberry cake (which she makes herself… along with their new dessert offering, quadruple-layer fudge-brownie torte, and all their other desserts). She’s lively and pleasant and always glad to see us, and everyone else she waits on.

He Said:  Even if you aren’t lucky enough to sit in Michelle’s section, the service is always professional and fast here—they know they are a lunch place and people have to eat quickly and get back to work. And they know they’ve often got people waiting for table. So they tend to be pretty prompt and there’s generally not much of a wait for food. A few items on the menu—the Turkey Burger included—take a little more time, and they warn you of this on the menu, with a caveat saying this item will take an extra ten minutes to prepare. So basically, they will be quick, or you’ll know the reason why!

What We Got and What We Paid: A turkey burger with soup (substituted for chips for $1.49), chicken salad on a croissant with fries, strawberry cake, root beer and coffee for $27.50.

Rating

She Said: I love the Bean! Whatever freaky food mood I’m in, they have something delicious to serve, and they are friendly and relaxed so that the whole experience is pleasant from start to finish.

He Said: I’ll certainly come back, and probably often. They have good food, a lot of healthy choices, a pleasant atmosphere, and prompt and friendly service. (And Jones, when you edit this, you’d better not remove the Oxford comma in my previous sentence).

She Said: You’re killing me, Ruud.

So…He Said and She Said: Go Here for Lunch … and save room for dessert!

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.”