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Cheese pleases, lot squeezes

By Jennifer Christman

This article was published March 27, 2014 at 3:28 a.m.

the-rooster-cogburn-at-the-main-cheese-shown-with-chips-is-a-sandwich-of-smoked-pastrami-swiss-cheese-sauerkraut-pickles-mustard-and-thousand-island-dressing-on-marbled-rye

The Rooster Cogburn at The Main Cheese, shown with chips, is a sandwich of smoked pastrami, Swiss cheese, sauerkraut, pickles, mustard and Thousand Island dressing on marbled rye.

Correction: The Gut Shot sandwich is one of the offerings at The Main Cheese restaurant in Little Rock. The sandwich's name was misspelled in this review.

The Main Cheese, specializing in “gourmet grilled cheese and more,” is located next to, of all places, a gym.

As we stood outside waiting for our names to be called into the promised turophile paradise, we witnessed a parade of buff, slim and sweaty bods moving to and from workouts. This, while we contemplated which type of cheese we’d select for our Main Cheese Donut.

Yes. Grilled. Cheese. Doughnut.

If the name doesn’t give it away, the menu does: The Main Cheese’s main thing is cheese. Melty sandwiches with Arkansas-inspired names like the Pinnacle and the Pig Trail are at the menu’s center (you can substitute gluten-free bread for $1.50), joined by soups and salads.

A local operation, The Main Cheese opened last month in Little Rock’s Pinnacle Station Shopping Center in the space that formerly housed Sai Gon Cuisine and Gina’s Sushi. It’s as tricky parking in the busy lot as it is leaving the lot, which only has one entry/ exit (and don’t even think about making a left on hectic Arkansas 10, aka Cantrell Road).

The inaccessibility doesn’t stop there. There’s usually a wait to get in to The Main Cheese (on one visit it was 15 minutes; another it was 20) and there’s no bar or nook in which to wait comfortably - just a tiny front lobby with few seats. They don’t offer carryout, at least not while they get settled. They are closed on Sunday, and they close for a couple of hours midafternoon - even on Saturday. (We empathized with a miffed caller, who drove all the way from Sherwood for a late Saturday lunch, only to be turned away with several other bewildered patrons. Who closes at 2 p.m. on a weekend afternoon?)

The restaurant says it plans to expand its hours, as well as its menu (perhaps they’ll add some more exotic cheeses?) and carryout capacity in a few weeks.

But if you can get in, get parked, wait it out and get seated - and in the right room, more on that in a minute - expect a mainly good time.

On our first visit, a hostess led us past the cheery, bright and loud main dining room full of families with small children and into an equally noisy, claustrophobic cave-like alcove painted the color of Velveeta with tables of people that were too close together. There were no windows, just a flat-screen TV in the off position.

“It’s like an MRI,” my date joked. Or the cry room. Or the naughty corner. But our pleasant server, who took our order on a tablet, helped us to feel less ostracized.

An appetizer, the fresh-tasting Caponata ($5.25) spread of eggplant, diced tomato, black olives, capers, garlic and basil, served with plain pita chips soothed our spirits and stomachs, although it was surprisingly more sweet than tart.

Soups are $3.95 per cup, $5.25 per bowl. On a rainy, chilly evening, the tomato dill soup with crusty croutons hit the spot. But the creamy potato cheese soup was neither creamy, nor cheesy; it was merely milky.

The restaurant was out of the first sandwich I ordered, so I selected the Rooster Cogburn ($8.25) with smoked pastrami, Swiss, sauerkraut, pickles, mustard and Thousand Island on marbled rye. My date chose The Gun Shot ($8.25) with blackened chicken breast, applewood-smoked bacon, pepper Jack cheese, grilled jalapenos and the restaurant’s signature “Knock-your-socks off-sauce” on a toasted brioche bun.

We felt a slight letdown when our dinners arrived. They were just … sandwiches. Good sandwiches, but just sandwiches. The Rooster Cogburn, while tasty, seemed not that different and no more decadent than a Reuben elsewhere. Same for the Gun Shot, which was a satisfactory spicy chicken sandwich. I guess we were expecting more pizzazz, more cheese, just … more.

But we were wowed by the restaurant’s house-made chips ($1 with sandwich; $1.95 separate), fried to a delicious shade of dark and served with the addictive lime-sriracha aioli called TMC sauce. Crisp on the outside, tender on the inside, the house fries ($1.50 with sandwich; $3.25 separate), cooked in rice bran oil, also were a treat. We preferred both to sweet, cider-vinegary cabbage slaw that comes complimentary with sandwiches.

Then it was finally time for the main attraction: The Main Cheese Donut dessert ($3.50). Sure, there’s cheesecake, chocolate lava cake and Key lime pie on the menu ($5.45-$5.65) too. But who can pass up a glazed doughnut cooked with choice of Fontina, cheddar or Muenster? (Actually, the gals at the table next to us could. They stared with skepticism.)

Cooked outside-in, so that the sugar glaze melded with the mild Muenster, the doughnut, accompanied by a serrated knife to facilitate sharing, was a delight. Still, even it didn’t seem as amazing as it could have been. Nor did our Fontina doughnut on a subsequent visit. Perhaps they could be sprinkled with some confectioners’ sugar or plated with a drizzle of raspberry sauce? Something.

Our second visit, we waited until we could get a seat in the main dining room. And we set out to make the cheesiest selections.

Served in a small casserole with plain pita chips, the creamy appetizer Artichoke & Cheese Dip ($6.25) of artichoke hearts, parmesan, Asiago, sundried tomatoes and garlic was blissfully bitey.

My vegetarian Farmers Market ($7.95) was a fine mess of Muenster, cheddar, avocado, parmesan, arugula and slightly acidic grape tomatoes that kept sliding out of the multigrain bread (sliced tomatoes might be a better fit). It came with the chips my date ordered. While his came with the slaw I ordered.

My date was pleased with his customized Main Cheese sandwich ($5.25) with cheddar and shaved ham ($1.50). Other $1.50 meat options are chicken breast, pork, roast beef, pastrami and bacon. Vegetables ($1) are avocado, baby spinach, sauteed onions, red onions, sun-dried tomato, sauerkraut and grilled jalapenos. Sauces (50 cents) are Thousand Island, “Knock your-socks-off-sauce,” barbecue, red pepper aioli and Cyndi’s gourmet sauce, a blend of roasted garlic, cumin, Dijon and mayonnaise.

For kids, there’s the Little Cheeser half a grilled-cheese sandwich ($3.95) or the Little Chickadee chicken tenders ($4.25); both come with a side of chips, fruit or fries.

And for adults there’s a befitting beer and wine list, anchored on a cheeseboard.

Available from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Thursday is a Let’s Do Lunch special, featuring a half sandwich, side salad or cup of soup and seasoned chips for $8.25.

The Main Cheese also offers six entree salads, from a Southwest Quinoa ($7.95) to a Thai Peanut Fusion ($8.75); add chicken for $2.50.

They didn’t tempt us, but we bet they’d interest the people at the gym next door.

The Main Cheese

Address: Pinnacle Station Shopping Center, 14524 Cantrell Road, Little Rock Hours: 11 a.m.-2 p.m. and 4-8:30 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-2 p.m. and 4-9:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday Cuisine: Sandwiches, salads, soup Credit cards: MC, V Reservations: No Alcoholic beverages: Beer, wine Wheelchair accessible: Yes Carryout: Not yet (501) 367-8082 themaincheese.com

Weekend, Pages 31 on 03/27/2014

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