Hot Springs: Fork You

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Hot Springs is a town of aromas. While the tourism board would like to entice you with outdoorsy scenes of frolicking on the lake, the reality is that this town is one which holds its center due to the eateries. Forget the “National Park” logos; this place is a silhouette of a grill, surrounded by 2,000 forks trying to get inside of it. If you are trying to avoid eating like a newly-awakened 15-year coma victim, this place is not for you. Even the ambulances yield to people trying to make turns into the parking lots of the local places to eat.

Last night, people who for some reason like me invited me along for a culinary trip to the Back Porch Grill, a steakhouse on the lakeside. I, of course, balked at eating meat as I usually do and instead had delicious grilled asparagus, salad, baked potato, vegetables, and a napkin. I ate the napkin by mistake, as I thought it was some sort of crépe. I also had some avocado quarter fries, which are cardiac-event starter packs, if you’ve never had them.

Earlier today, I parked the car a couple of miles from where I’m staying and walked. Yes, there are ‘better’ places to walk recreationally, but my old habits often flare up and insist that I do some urban walking. Being in another place allows me to stroll through as if I’m a traveling dignitary, one whose mission it is to see as much as possible while not feeling self-conscious. Walking a trail might connect you to nature, but walking the streets gives you a window into the place you’re visiting. And, instead of bears, you might be accosted. Being the keen mind that I am, instead of walking when it was cooler, I instead waited for clearer skies to ensure that my head might catch on fire. (It’s a fact that the sun is at least a million miles closer to Earth here in this part of the state.)

It’s difficult to walk and focus when you’re distracted by almost visible waves of cooking aromas. If I were a food critic, I’d say my review would be this: “There’s too much of it.”

Within a block of where I parked, I could count 20 places to eat, ranging from Colton’s, BBQ, pupusas and Southern-Style. (PS: ‘Southern-Style’ simply means it’s been murdered with oil and/or suffocated in gravy, much like my arteries.)

When I walked past some older apartments, a man sitting on the stoop near the street raised his hand and offered a bit of wit about the heat. I, of course, asked him, “Are you saying I’m whiter than a set of bed sheets and will burn like my mom’s toast or are you saying I’m too old to be doddering around?” He laughed and slapped his thigh. He asked, “What’cha listening to?” and pointed to my headphones. “Il Volo,” I said and he nodded his head as if he had just seen the group live in concert in Amsterdam. “Keep your head cool,” he told me, as I walked away. I’m not sure if he meant for me to be cautious about the heat or adopt a lighter philosophical touch in life; one never knows in these situations.

When I doubled back to intersect with the main road near Oaklawn, a couple arguing in Spanish approached me from the other direction. I turned down my headphone volume to hear them. In an argument as old as time, they were arguing about where to go eat, with the woman objecting to walking so far when there was BBQ just five minutes away. To them, I was invisible. As we drew close, in Spanish I said, “Colton’s has BBQ and what he wants.” The woman’s eyes widened and she said, “¿Qué dice?” (“What?”) So, I stopped long enough to point them toward Colton’s, where they could both eat exactly what they wanted without walking two more miles. I felt like a tourism guide at that point. (A nosey one, too.) I’m sure they reminded themselves to not assume they couldn’t be understood, even if it was some white-legged guy wandering the streets who might be eavesdropping.

While I was ambling about the town, I received a couple of texts, informing me that we were scheduled to dine at Fisherman’s Wharf again. When my wife texted to tell me, all I could think of to reply was, “Til death do us part.”

I have life insurance where I work, so death while eating wouldn’t be a terrible way to go. In fact, I’d agree that it’s likely.

My initial reaction when I read the words, “We’re eating at Fisherman’s Wharf tonight” was one of shock. I felt exactly like a fallen soldier from the Battle of Gettysburg might feel if he were resurrected and forced to relive and die on the bloody battlefield. I decided the analogy was unfair, as the soldier at least would have been armed. It would be awkward for me to start shooting the lights and windows out at a restaurant for bad service or food. Entertaining, too – just illegal.

For me, it’s more about the banter and interaction than it is the food at group meals. Large groups tend to take longer than trimming Methuselah’s toenails and the truth that food and service vary wildly. I’m glad just to be included. Everyone who knows me also knows that I simply can’t get bored, not even when the place I’m eating at is willfully trying to poison me or get me to run from the establishment in tears. There are times, though, when we need to be able to go out and dine and throw penalty red flags at the waiters and or managers at restaurants. Trying to get 3 people fed is a Ninja Warrior Challenge; with 20 or more, it would be easier to shoot them all and hide the bodies.

It’s weird how people will stand over their sinks and eat raw hot dogs for supper but insist on spending 12 minutes discussing the subtlest differences in dressings for their organic Hungarian carrot casserole appetizer. (This is the “Nathan Rule” of eating, by the way.)

My last visit to Fisherman’s Wharf was so epic that I followed up on the visit with an Iliad-length review, one which I published under a pseudonym. It’s a good thing, too, because it literally started an internet war on Zomato (Urbanspoon) and another review site. This pleased me to no end, I must admit. When we went to eat there, the meal took so long that I established residency in 7 other states just waiting to finish it. Also, I invented a new time measurement standard: the FW. I packed so many jokes into that review that I thought Netflix was going to pick it up as a series. When we left the restaurant, it had taken so long that I quipped to the staff that I needed to see a breakfast menu. In short, that visit was the de facto standard for “terrible,” if terrible could be defined as “being tortured while both angry and amused.”

By the way, the restaurant is on a scenic arm of the lake. It’s beautiful. But beware. Most people eat outside on the deck, with “outside” being the key word. Hot Springs can be hotter than a Republican fact-checker at a debate. I speculate that even though it’s outside, the staff has a secret thermostat for the areas where large groups congregate to dine. They get irritated if you jump off the railing and into the lake, no matter how much you start sweating. They get really irritated if you throw them into the lake. That waiter Pete is still mad at me to this day.

For a few years, all of us have amusedly laughed at Fisherman’s Wharf for our last experience, if only because we weren’t allowed to purchase the business and bulldoze it in frustration. It’s located on the lake and could be one of the best places to eat in the state of Arkansas. It should be, but a commitment to quality is much more difficult to maintain, especially when available staff seems better suited to watch Mystery Science Theater 3000 than dealing with hungry miscreants like me.

So, in a town which memorializes great food, I’m going to instead return to the gastronomical scene of the crime and revisit my sins. While I’m optimistic that everything will be different, I can’t shake the foreboding that the Book of Life might be open there, awaiting my presence to inflict a new level of torment upon me. Perhaps I will get “time served” credits for being willing to return? I did try to arrange a revisit last year but was slapped and thrown into the trunk of an abandoned 1972 Dodge Dart just for daring to bring it up. Nevertheless, some anonymous sadomasochist decided for us all this year. I also can’t shake the idea that each time we visit this restaurant that we aren’t part of either a prank tv show or one of the reality cooking shows where the guests are fed pig testicles and sprayed with goat urine – and not the expensive brand of goal urine, either.

Joking aside, I would love to be proven wrong and have the best meal possible. If not, I’m taking my snorkel mask with me.

PS: ‘Concealed Carry’ in these scenarios means you have a bag of snacks hidden in your purse, even if you are a man. It would be embarrassing to die of starvation at a restaurant, don’t you think?

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