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story.lead_photo.caption Lobster Crab Bisque is among the soups du jour Tuesdays and Sundays at Newk’s Eatery in the Park Avenue shopping center. - Photo by Arkansas Democrat-Gazette / ERIC E. HARRISON

Newk's Eatery, a Mississippi-based minichain, continues its northwest-ward expansion with the recent opening of a third central Arkansas outlet, in the Park Avenue development on Little Rock's South University Avenue, where its neighbors include Panera Bread, Cheddar's and Target. It joins existing Newk's restaurants on North Little Rock's Warden Road and Hot Springs' Higdon Ferry Road.

The space, on the ground floor of one of mixed-used development's apartment/retail buildings, is larger than you'd expect, with front and rear entrances, the latter giving direct access to the grab 'n' go counter. (You place to-go orders for made-to-order items at the front counter just as you would if you were eating there.)

Newk’s Eatery

Address: Park Avenue development, 314 S. University Ave., Little Rock; also in North Little Rock and Hot Springs

Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. daily

Cuisine: Fast-casual soups, salads, sandwiches, 10-inch pizzas

Credit cards: V, MC, AE, D

Alcoholic beverages: Wine and beer

Reservations: No

Wheelchair accessible: Yes

Carryout: Yes

(501) 663-6395

Two- and four-top wooden tables and lightweight, stripe-padded chairs are packed pretty closely together (there's also some booth seating), so as to maximize the available seating during busy periods, especially at lunch. Some of the walls are brick, others plaster; some of them have a series of abstract paintings. Oompty-oomp, uptempo music, alternating pop and jazz, plays over the sound system.

If you'd rather not crane your neck at the menu board while in the front counter area, you can grab a paper menu to figure out your fancy among the entree-size salads (half salads are available as part of combos), soups of the day, toasted sandwiches and 10-inch pizzas. You get a number you squeeze into the stand at your table and a food runner brings your order, surprisingly quickly, out of the busy, partially open kitchen.

Fill your own soft drinks; a variety of condiments, including grate-shredded cheese, a jar of capers, roasted garlic in the clove, oregano and red peppers for the pizzas and complimentary plastic-wrapped grissini (thin, crisp bread sticks) are available on a round table near the entrance.

We wanted very much to like Newk's; it's pleasant, it's efficient, it's quick (even during the lunch rush), it's friendly and you don't have to bus your own table when you're done.

Against all those pluses we must set this minus: Most of what we ate there verged on blandness, lacking some significant flavor aspect and therefore needing some perk-ups from that condiment table.

Take our Grilled Steak sandwich ($7.50), reasonably lean "beef tender" on a hoagie roll with provolone cheese, caramelized onions and a horseradish spread. If the horseradish spread had any bite at all, we had a hard time finding it; maybe if the kitchen hadn't skimped on it we might have found out. Same with the caramelized onions, which added no discernible flavor to the sandwich.

We scrunched some of that roasted garlic into a spread and added it to the roll and that helped a little; in retrospect, perhaps we should have loaded it down with capers. In any case, even with the garlic boost it was pretty much too dull to finish.

However, our Italian sandwich ($7.50) produced considerable zip, via the spicy Italian meats -- cappicola, mortadella, pepperoni and salami -- plus provolone, a bit of vivid Creole mustard, yellow onions, hot cherry peppers and "Italian sauce" -- oil and vinegar with some infused spices. We did have them hold the mayonnaise and tomatoes.

Intrepid Companion praised the sausage crumbles on her Sausage & Pepperoni pizza ($8.20) as coming pretty close to those she remembers and likes from a hometown parlor, and the sliced Roma tomatoes, but that's where the praise ended.

There wasn't enough sausage, pepperoni or fresh basil garnish atop the tomato sauce, mozzarella and provolone cheeses to give the pie much of a kick, and although the menu's category description asserts that "We brush the dough with garlic-infused olive oil to make it extra crispy," our crust, or at least the bottom, was extra flabby.

Other pie choices that might be more successful, or at least less ordinary:

• Spicy Shrimp ($8.95), with chili oil, mozzarella and Parmesan, roasted red and yellow bell peppers, sliced Romas and crushed red chiles, garnished with cilantro

• Mediterranean ($7.80), with garlic olive oil, grilled chicken, mozzarella and feta, sliced Romas, kalamata olives, artichoke hearts, red onions and pepperoncini peppers

• Five Cheese ($7.70), mozzarella, Paremesan, provolone, goat cheese and smoked Gouda with a basil pesto sauce.

We were bored by the third or fourth bite of our Four Cheese Mac and Cheese ($4.30 side, $6.50 entree); perhaps if the mix were adjusted and we got more of the sharper Asiago and less of the white Cheddar, Parmesan and Swiss, this wouldn't have been so low-common-denominator. Or perhaps we should have gone ahead and ordered the Pimento With Bacon Mac and Cheese ($5.95 side, $7.95 entree). They're both available as part of side-mac combos with a half sandwich, a bowl of soup or a half salad.

We can find no major flavor faults with either of our soups -- a rich, tangy Lobster Crab Bisque, one of the five Sunday and Tuesday soups du jour ($3.75 small, $6.75 large, $12 jumbo, which was marred only by an overabundance of scallion slices, and a Corn & Crab Chowder available on Monday and Saturday. Other days offer other varieties, and there's always at least one vegetarian selection and one "low-calorie option."

Newk's salads will have to wait for subsequent visits, but we have our eye on the Shrimp Remoulade ($10.45) and the Black & Bleu ($8.50) with "beef tender" and gorgonzola.

Weekend on 05/22/2014

Print Headline: Newk’s needs more flavor

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