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Restaurant transitions: Juanita's cheese dip recipe 'not even close' to original, co-founder says

by Eric E. Harrison | December 31, 2015 at 1:47 a.m.
The white cheese dip at Loca Luna, according to owner-chef Mark Abernathy, is made from the original recipe he and colleague Frank McGehee created for Blue Mesa in the mid-1980s.

A couple of days after it closed at 614 President Clinton Ave., in Little Rock's River Market District, Juanita's posted upon its Facebook page, "as promised ... the famous Mesa Dip recipe":

5 lb White Cheese Melt

1 1/2 quarts milk

15 oz canned diced green peppers

8 oz finely chopped onions

1 tablespoon ground white pepper

2 oz finely chopped cilantro

2 Tbsp finely diced jalapeno

1 Tbsp cumin

Place all ingredients in a double boiler and heat until melted through. Stir and add milk to desired consistency when it becomes too thick.

Do not, however, confuse this with the original Blue Mesa cheese dip, says Juanita's and Blue Mesa co-founder Mark Abernathy.

"No. Not even close," he says firmly. "There are at least three major important ingredients that are not in there," including two cheeses, he says. Abernathy and Frank McGehee pioneered white cheese dip at Blue Mesa, which, Abernathy says, "to my knowledge, was the first white cheese dip in America." Nor is this recipe close to the one he's currently using at Loca Luna or the variation on Juanita's original yellow cheese dip he's using at Red Door.

Equally insistent, if not more so, is Frank McGehee's son, Scott McGehee of Yellow Rocket Concepts, who, considering he happens to sell quite a lot of cheese dip at Local Lime, Big Orange, Lost Forty and Heights Taco & Tamale, would certainly know.

"For the record: [This] is not my dad's original recipe for Mesa White Cheese dip," he says. "They have eight total ingredients, one of which is not in the [original] recipe, and the original has 14 ingredients. I tell you this because my dad would be horrified that such an incorrect recipe would possibly be attributed to him.

"I have a huge amount of respect for all the Juanita's owners and operators. I'm sure that the recipe that they have is delicious. But out of respect for my father, who inspired or wrote most of the Juanita's and Blue Mesa recipes, it is absolutely not the recipe."

Oh, and "Mark and I will not share the original recipe. Ever."

Meanwhile, the Juanita's folks have provided this subsequent clarification: "[T]his is the recipe that's been served at Juanita's for at least the past 7-8 years since Dennis ran the kitchen. I do believe that at some point someone decided to start using the white cheese melt to save money instead of the jack, white Cheddar and Asiago cheeses (I think those were the ones in the original recipe)."


While we had him on the line, Abernathy also reports that, while he's still doing some tweaking on the new menu and in particular on a couple of new dishes, the face-lift is complete on Loca Luna, 3519 Old Cantrell Road, Little Rock. Those new menu items include a gnocchi dish (that's one of the ones he still considers a work in progress), a grilled flat-iron steak, bison meatballs, crab-and-lobster stuffed tilapia and pretty much the entire slate of appetizers; and he has added a section of small-plate appetizers called "bites." He has made a few, mostly vintage-based, changes to the wine list, and he has come up with some more-or-less regular specials, including a 38-ounce, two-person Tomahawk rib-eye. But the menu still has "some classics we had to keep. We wanted it to remain Loca Luna." That includes pizzas and that cheese dip.

Physical changes include a new look for the front of the restaurant, such as a new logo; a reworked patio, bar area and all the lighting; and a major resurfacing for several of the walls. "After 20 years, it was time," Abernathy says. The completion now allows him to focus on menu tweaks at next-door Red Door.

Ponchitos Mexican Grill, 10901 N. Rodney Parham Road, Little Rock, has closed and everything that ever indicated it was once called that has been stripped from the exterior. The phone number, (501) 246-5282, hadn't yet been disconnected by deadline, but it forwards automatically to a voice mail box that nobody appears to be checking.


You may remember all the fuss over the announcement that, starting in early October, McDonald's would be serving all-day breakfast, and since a good many Mickey D's outlets are open 24 hours, "all-day" really does mean "all day." What all the hoo-hah and advertising never quite got around to saying, however, was that "all-day breakfast" has never meant "McDonald's will serve everything on its breakfast menu all the hours of the day." (Compare the complete breakfast menu, available online at, to the all-day breakfast menu, at Among the things you won't find: the Big Breakfast with the scrambled eggs.)

Look at an all-day breakfast menu in any McDonald's in Arkansas or any of about a dozen Southern and Southeastern states, and all the breakfast sandwiches are on biscuits. The McMuffins are McMissing.

"Bottom line: there wasn't enough room on our grills to make the eggs for both our McMuffins and our Biscuits," explains the official corporate website.

"The decision was made based on a product mix, and in the central Arkansas co-op we sell 72-73 percent biscuits and 37-38 percent muffins," adds Michael Retzer, who owns and operates a score of McDonald's restaurants in Arkansas and another 40 or so in Shreveport and in the Mississippi Delta. "There's three regions in the U.S. that have gone 'biscuits' and the rest have gone 'muffins,' and that's why the national advertising is geared toward muffins."

It's all based on grill capacity. The biscuits involve folded eggs on the sandwiches; the muffins take a round, poached egg. After 10:30 a.m. the grills are also producing burgers, chicken sandwiches, and so on, so there's room on the grill to make folded eggs or round eggs, but not both. And, "Our customers expect us to be fast and get the food out to them in a timely manner, and we have to make sure we stay focused on that as well," Retzer says.

He hints that at off-peak hours, special requests may not upset them. After all, the kitchens do have English muffins in stock. "Obviously, it all depends on how busy the restaurants are, but if we can accommodate the customers' wishes, we'll do it," he says. "Currently the all-day breakfast menu doesn't have the big deluxe platter with the scrambled eggs, but we've told our folks that if they can scramble an egg, and that's what the customer wants, give it to him." It'll be even easier if you're willing to compromise a little and get a McMuffin with a folded egg instead of a round one: "We could easily accommodate a muffin with the folded egg."

It's apparently not forever, either. "We plan to continue to evolve the All Day Breakfast Menu as time goes on," the corporate folks say on the website. Retzer agrees: "The plan is to continue to evolve the menus based on our customers' wishes and demands, and so I think we're going to roll into adding McGriddles to the menu [in 2016], and I would assume late [2016], or early '17, having the muffins on the all-day menu." You heard it here first.


With a Thursday New Year's Eve this year, just about everybody who's normally open on Thursday nights, plus many places that might not be, will be open and seeking customers. (For example, Bruno's Little Italy, which reopened in October 2013 at 310 Main St. in downtown Little Rock, but has not been open on New Year's Eve, will be open this year, 5-10 p.m.) We're not endorsing anybody in particular, but we have gotten some interesting menu and/or menu-party options:

• The Afterthought Bistro & Bar, 2701 Kavanaugh Blvd., in Little Rock's Hillcrest, will be offering a four-course, $70 pre-fixe meal, with choice of two salads or shrimp bisque; an entree list that includes three grilled lobster tails with tarragon cream sauce, a petit filet and a whole roasted Cornish hen; and, for dessert, choice of two desserts. Call (501) 663-1196.

• Cache Restaurant, 425 President Clinton Ave. at River Market Avenue, Little Rock, will have two dinner seatings, 6 and 8 p.m. A $75 dinner ticket ($125 and $200 with wine pairings) includes choice of four salads (including a duck prosciutto with melon and a caprese variation with avocado), five "second courses" (seared scallops with bacon, Cajun-spiced gulf shrimp and grits, gnocchi with lump crab, onion soup, steak tips with Maytag bleu cheese, escargot), five third courses (6-ounce filet with parmesan pommes frites and haricot verts, pan-seared Atlantic salmon, mushroom-stuffed quail, shrimp etouffe, fennel coriander pork loin) and five desserts. Oh, plus access to both floors of the party and, of course, a champagne toast at midnight. Party-only tickets are $50. Visit This weekend, the River Market restaurant will kick off its 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday brunch. The menu will include smoked salmon with red onion, creme fraiche, bibb lettuce, sturgeon caviar and sesame crackers; duck prosciutto with melon; biscuits with sausage gravy; shrimp and grits in a creole broth with chorizo and parmesan; and a seafood omelet. Call (501) 850-0265.

• And if you're still looking for a high-end New Year's Eve dinner option in Northwest Arkansas, The Hive at the 21c Museum Hotel, 200 N.E. A St., Bentonville, will have two seatings, 5 and 8 p.m., for executive chef Matt McClure's table d'hote menu ($52-$64), which includes beef rib-eye, celery root, hen of the woods, broccoli and bordelaise. And Friday's New Year's Day Brunch, 11 a.m.-2 p.m., will feature "special Southern dishes" and "Hive classics" along with cut-price brunch beverages. Call (479) 286-6575 for reservations or visit

Confidential Business Intermediaries, a business brokerage network in Arkansas and Missouri, is handling the sale of a central Arkansas "home-style BBQ restaurant." CBI's agent, Kristi Patton, noting that their name after all includes the word "confidential," won't identify it further, but you may be able to recognize it from these description snippets: "Established in 1985 ... serving up some of central Arkansas' favorite barbeque for 30 years ... hot, fresh catfish with all the fixins! ... The current owners are the second generation and took over the restaurant in 2000. It is now time for them to retire and let the next generation 'pitmaster' [take over]. ... This restaurant sits on a corner, double lot on the main thoroughfare in one of central Arkansas' fastest growing communities. Much of the building is new after a recent remodel and most of the furniture is custom made by hand." Interested? Financials and more details are available at; call Patton at (501) 860-1425 or email

One of our sharp-eyed Spa City observers reports that the former Crispino's Pizza Company, 2608 Albert Pike, Hot Springs, is apparently turning into a Greek-American place called Cafe Alexander. We got no answer by deadline at the listed phone number, (501) 767-0700.

And in case you missed this story last week, the developers of John Daly's Steakhouse, on Front Street, just north of Toad Suck Square in Conway, have received unanimous approval from Conway's historic district commission for a building to house the 4,500-square-foot steakhouse, named for the professional golfer and Dardanelle native, and at least five second-floor lofts. The developers will need additional approval to move forward with razing two existing buildings. Project CEO Sam McFadin cited safety reasons for the rejection of initial plans to remodel the two currently vacant buildings, which formerly housed a shoe store and a Pentecostal church. The project has a target date of late spring or early summer; as many as 10 steakhouse locations are in the works, including one in Fayetteville, over the next five years.

Has a restaurant opened -- or closed -- near you in the last week or so? Does your favorite eatery have a new menu? Is there a new chef in charge? Drop us a line. Call (501) 399-3667 or (501) 378-3513, or send a note to Restaurants, Weekend Section, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, P.O. Box 2221, Little Rock, Ark. 72203. Send email to:

Weekend on 12/31/2015

Print Headline: TRANSITIONS


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