I have discovered a few new local specialties in the last week.
The most pleasant discovery was James at the Mill, a real restaurant just 15 minutes away. By real I mean that the interior was clearly decorated by someone with a design background (aka no ancient picnic tables and plastic squeeze bottles for condiments) and the menu was not completely fried. For example, I started with Blue lump crab cake on Tomatillo salsa verde and ancho-chile aioli with frisse, spicy pecan, and 6-month Manchego salad dressed with a white truffle vinaigrette. The chef is apparently well-known beyond the region, and the food certainly tasted like it. The bizarre thing is that the restaurant is a member of "Small Luxury Hotels of the World." What would a small luxury hotel be doing in a nowhere town like Johnson, AR? And who would be paying to stay there?
The most surprisingly happy discovery was Chili Frito Pie. Not sure who invented this, but drowning Fritos in hot chili and covering the whole mixture with shredded cheddar is pure genius. We had a work charity event (one of the hundreds we've had in the last 2 months) where one area donated this for lunch like a spicy bake sale. The best part was that the chili had no beans - in the South apparently even beans are considered too healthy, and for once I'm not arguing.
The last discovery was Mary Maestri's, an "authentic" Italian restaurant in Tontitown AR, where Italian immigrants randomly settled over a hundred years ago. Mary has been there for over 90 years and although I wouldn't call fried chicken (one of her specialties) authentic Italian fare, the food was incredibly tasty. The pasta is freshly made and they heaped freshly-baked yummy rolls on our table throughout the meal; two types - one for the salad, one for the main dishes. (I've learned to stop trying to understand these bizarre-ities and just enjoy them when they're tasty.)
Anyway, during recruiting these past few months, whenever I was asked what the worst part of this place was I always said the food (no time needed to think about it either). But I'm starting to like some of the stuff around here. Here I am enjoying my Frito pie - best news is they're having another chili charity tomorrow.