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Culinary curmudgeon

September 25, 2021 at 12:00 a.m.

I was talking with someone earlier this week about how El Dorado is, in many ways, a different place from the town I grew up in.

I never thought I'd see the day when Ice Cube did a show here, but that's happening next weekend. I never thought I'd see things like what the folk at the Murphy Arts District are doing happening here, but they are. I never thought El Dorado would get a brewery, but we have one. I never thought that we'd get a place to go and throw axes, or even that there would be places to go and throw axes, but we have one.

We have managed to be one of the places where Starbucks isn't, but we have PJ's (and I like it better anyway). A place like Mule Kick at MAD isn't anything teenage Caleb ever thought would fly in this town, but here it is.

Teenage Caleb would be glad to be wrong though.

But he would have liked to have had a place like PJ's where he could have hung out. Or Art Beats, for those of you who remember it. It was a cool place. But he missed that by a few years.

There is something else that needs to change in this town if we're going to keep moving into a brighter and better tomorrow, twirling towards progress.

We need more restaurant variety, fellow townsfolk.

It's a high aspiration, I know, but we need it.

A friend of mine who has his ear about town told me that there was, not terribly long ago, the possibility of getting an Outback Steakhouse here.

Now, it is my belief that Outback Steakhouse is nothing to write home about, but that's not my point. Don't get it twisted, it's not terrible. But you can get a blooming onion that's just as good at JJ's BBQ already.

I mention Outback because my friend told me that the people who do market analysis to figure out where new Outback Steakhouses will open concluded that El Doradoites (Is that what we call ourselves?) would not spend the money necessary to eat at Outback. They decided not to open an Outback here because they think we're cheap.

I have heard some fellow locals say the same thing -- that is, that we are, on the whole, cheap when it comes to eating out.

So, first of all, some of y'all need to quit being cheap. There, I said it.

Let me start with what we already have that's good.

Fayray's is solid. It's as fine a dining experience as you'll have anywhere, and I've dined at some swanky joints. Commander's Palace in New Orleans? Yes. Tavern on the Green in NYC? Yup. Fancy Parisian cuisine? I've had it. And as I said, Fayray's is solid.

Some of you will disagree with what I'm about to say, perhaps even adamantly, and that's okay. You can't re right about everything.

Oriental Gardens is far and away the best Chinese food in town. Ms. Ling serves up great food. I've eaten Chinese in San Francisco's Chinatown, and that's as authentic as Chinese food gets here in the Land of the Free. I'd put Oriental Gardens up against what I had there any day.

Sweet Mama T's will make you raise up and, well, slap ya mama.

Best burger? Rascal's. T-Model's is a close second. Best BBQ? Pupp's (a recent and welcome addition to the El Dorado foodscape). Best deli? Timberlane Meat Market. Best pizza? Well, that was La Bella until it closed. I'm still waiting for that spot to be filled. I confess I'm kind of a pizza snob. La Piazza is good Italian, though. The best donuts ever created by human beings? The Spudnut Shop (Need it be said?). Best Mexican? La Ranchera, over on East Main. There's a restaurant in addition to the grocery store, and you're missing out by not eating there. I'm just telling you. The other 412 Mexican places we have do not compare.

When I first moved back, I said we needed a Japanese place and we've since gotten two. Yamato is good, and Hachi Hachi is fantastic. Both steps in the right direction.

So here's what we need:

1. A Greek/Middle Eastern place. We had one once, El Dorado. I was only a child, but I remember. It was called the Bethlehem Restaurant. The Baumgardner family went there a number of times. It didn't last long because of the culinary incuriosity of the El Dorado populace in those days. It's what Jesus ate and y'all let it close. We need another one. We need redemption.

2. An Indian place. Indian food is my favorite food. Samosas and naan and curry and kofta and korma and biryani and vindaloo and saag paneer and spiced teas and rice pudding and mango lassis and really just all of it. I need it here and you do too, even if you don't know it yet.

3. A Vietnamese place. Pho (pronounced "fuh") places are all the rage these days. If you don't know what pho is, look it up. It's a delicious Vietnamese soup. But I was loving Vietnamese food before pho got hot. There's a Vietnamese restaurant in Camden now. They have beaten us to getting one. But then, they also beat us to getting a brewery, so maybe Camden is just moving up in the world. We love you, Camden.

4. A Thai place. There is nothing quite like Thai food. It is spicy in a way that other food isn't, but many of its dishes also have a sweetness. And it's so colorful and rich and complex. And Monticello has a Thai place and we don't.

We have got to do better.

Some of you may think that El Dorado wouldn't support places like this, but I don't think that's true. As I said earlier, El Dorado is a different town now than it was when I was growing up. I think perhaps we have become more culinarily adventurous. We just need some intrepid restaurateurs to step up.

Let's try something new.

El Dorado will be better for it.

Caleb Baumgardner is a local attorney. He can be reached at [email protected]

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