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Friendly EJ’s adds to menu

By Eric E. Harrison

This article was published January 16, 2014 at 3:30 a.m.

The soup (cup of pepper Jack chicken) and half-sandwich (El Diablo) combo saves money at EJ’s Eats & Drinks.

EJ’s started out in the mid-2000s as a hole-in-the-wall storefront deli at the appendix end of a Kavanaugh Boulevard strip center in Hillcrest.

Having long outgrown that space, which was being demolished for a bank branch, EJ’s moved to Sixth and Center streets downtown in 2006, nearly tripling its floor space, more than doubling its seating capacity and making a success out of what had been a revolving-door space.

They kept the 24 Formica-topped tables with red plastic plush chairs left from the previous tenant (J’s Place)and gave the walls a good wash of red paint. On the south wall, they hung some of the Stephano pop art portraits (including one of John Belushi in Animal House that has since grown into a tribute to Saturday Night Live and its alumni) that used to grace its Hillcrest space.

Among the other decor accents, whimsical and otherwise: a collection of baseball memorabilia (mostly focusing on the Chicago Cubs) and, over the bar and cash register area, four clocks, providing “times” for various cities, including Little Rock, which is the only one that’s correct.

EJ’s occasionally expands its menu, recently adding a handful of entrees to its tasty soups, sandwiches, salads, appetizers, wraps and burgers. Newcomers are another double handful of sandwiches, appetizers, soups and desserts.

A welcome addition to EJ’s list of mostly fried appetizers are the Spinach and Artichoke Rangoons ($5.95), perhaps more like empanadas or crisp fried gyoza than the traditional folded-over Chinese-restaurant rangoons, filled with a rich, plentiful spinach-artichoke-cheese mixture, dusted with shred-grated parmesan and served with a side of tangy dipping marinara sauce. There were plenty for two to share; it’d make a full meal for one.

Also new to the soup list ($3.95 cup, $4.95 bowl): Pepper Jack Chicken, with plenty of chicken shreds in a “broth” thick and cheesy enough to be a queso. We also sampled EJ’s consistently dependable tomato basil. Looking for a bargain? Opt for EJ’s $7.95 half-sandwich with a cup of soup.

The more than two dozen sandwiches, which used to be classified as either “Classic” or “Top Shelf,” are all “Classics” now, including the new ones, all of which cost $7.95 for “regular,” $9.75 for large (essentially a foot long) including a pickle spear and EJ’s house-made chips.

There are extra charges for splitting sandwiches at the table; adding bacon or avocado; subbing fries, onion rings, soup, fruit or salads for the chips; or putting the sandwich on ciabatta instead of the standard white or wheat hoagie rolls. There’s also a build-your-own option from a list of seven meats, eight cheeses, nine vegetables, five breads and eight condiments.

Among EJ’s newbies is the Rachel, so named because it’s “just like her brother Reuben, but with pastrami” instead of corned beef, paired with sauerkraut, Swiss and “special sauce” on marble rye. Those looking for the thin-shaved New York deli pastrami will probably be disappointed, but the meat was reasonably lean and matched up well, balance-wise, with the other sandwich ingredients. (Diners can make Rachel “angry” by adding pepper Jack, jalapenos, salami and spicy mustard.)

We also had some pastrami atop our new New Yorker burger ($7.95, a bit confusing because the menu lists it as $7.25 a la carte without the chips and pickle), also featuring caramelized onion, Swiss and “horsey-sauce” on half a ciabatta roll.

We remembered to ask about the presence of lettuce and tomato (there isn’t any) but forgot to ask about mayonnaise, which may have been present, or maybe it was a component of the “horsey-sauce” but in any case would be foreign and unwelcome on red meat to an actual New Yorker. Otherwise, once we got over the shock of seeing it served on a roll instead of a bun, we enjoyed the burger, which was served medium-well, and the combination of flavors created by the unusual construction.

We revisited with pleasure one of our old favorites, the El Cubano - pork loin with ham, Swiss, pickle slices (a welcome change from the original pickle spears that occasionally fell out of the bread and made this sandwich hard to handle) and spicy mustard. And we tried and enjoyed a newer cousin, the El Diablo, choice of chicken or pork with pepper Jack cheese, mild jalapenos (and not many of them), onions, lettuce, tomato and “fire sauce” (not as fiery as we expected).

We recommend EJ’s grilled Parmesan Chicken, topped with provolone, parmesan and red sauce.

And we can also recommend one of EJ’s entrees: a trio of Fish Tacos ($8.95), unidentified fish (we’re guessing catfish from the flavor) blackened and served in soft tortillas with a tangy chipotle ranch, cheese, lettuce and pico de gallo, and served with chips - tortilla, not potato - and salsa.

EJ’s was one of the area’s very first places to make chips, a process that took a while to perfect - sometimes serving chips, for example, that weren’t completely fried. It has been a while since we encountered that, however. They come now in four varieties: regular, jalapeno, barbecue and ranch - in the case of the latter three, cooked in, not sprinkled on. Chips cost $1.95 for a regular order, $3.25 for a large.

EJ’s has always offered brownies and cookies, but now they’re formally ensconced on the menu under the new heading “Desserts” along with apple pie bars, chocolate, peanut butter and pecan pies, and truffles. We also spotted cheesecake in the dessert fridge by the register while we were fishing out a pleasant to-go slice of pecan pie ($2.95).

Service was universally friendly; all the servers we encountered were seemingly happy to see us. Since just about everything is prepared to order, food can take a while to come out of the kitchen, but we never felt as though we were waiting any extraordinary length of time even when the place was peak-busy.

EJ’s Eats & Drinks

Address: 523 Center St., Little Rock

Hours: 10:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 10:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday

Cuisine: Sandwiches, soups, salads, wraps

Credit cards: V, MC, AE, D

Alcoholic beverages: Full bar

Reservations: No

Wheelchair accessible: Yes

Carryout: Yes

(501) 666-3700

ejseats.com; ejslittlerock.com

Weekend, Pages 33 on 01/16/2014

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