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story.lead_photo.caption Potato Crusted Salmon with tartar sauce and chef’s choice Brussels sprouts with a small side salad is served at Cafe 1217 in Hot Springs. - Photo by Sean Clancy

HOT SPRINGS -- When a pair of assignments took me here for a couple of days last month, one of the first things I did was scout out a good spot for lunch.

Through a little online digging, and at the suggestion of a co-worker or two, I ended up at the venerable Cafe 1217. Opened by chef Diana Bratton in 1997, Cafe 1217 has carved out a niche by serving fresh, slightly upscale, somewhat eclectic lunches and dinners.

Cafe 1217

Address: 1217 Malvern Ave., (U.S. 270B) Suite B, Hot Springs

Hours: 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Monday-Friday. 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday

Cuisine: American

Credit cards: AE, D, MC, V

Alcoholic beverages: Beer, wine

Reservations: Yes

Wheelchair accessible:Yes

Carryout: Yes

(501) 318-1094

cafe1217.net

Both of my visits were solo lunch affairs and both were rewarding.

As a 1217 newbie, I was a bit confused on my first stop. The restaurant has a couple of different ordering options. There's a chalkboard on the wall above the opening to the kitchen that lists first course salads, entree salads and sandwiches. Then there's the display case, like one you'd see at a grocery store or deli, where you can view a selection of entrees as well as sides.

I had no idea what my first move should be, but a helpful staff member behind the counter quickly stepped in to explain that I could order off the chalkboard, which included January specials, or choose from the entrees and sides displayed in the case.

Entree salads ($9.95) include Fresh Fruit with Blackened Chicken Salad and Mocha Muffin, Southwestern Cobb and Chicken Fajita Tostado, among others. Under sandwiches, most of which are also $9.95, are yummy-sounding concoctions like the Mediterranean Grilled Cheese ($10.95), The Reuben, and the signature 1217 Egg Salad. There is also a Grilled Ahi Tuna Burger ($12.95) with ginger lime slaw and wasabi aoili served on a toasted Kaiser bun that I almost pulled the trigger on. But I was instead swayed by the New Orleans Style Muffuletta ($11.95) with Genoa salami, cured ham, mortadella, Swiss, provolone and olive salad on a toasted ciabatta roll.

It was a good pick. As noted, the sandwich came not on a muffuletta loaf, but on ciabatta. Not exactly authentic, but I'm not opposed to a good ciabatta. The sliced meats were piled high, though certainly not to Dagwood Bumstead heights, and the cheese was nicely melted. The olive salad was a little thin. Another spoonful spread across the inside of the bun would have been perfect.

The muffuletta was among the January specials, and came with a nicely done and faintly spicy rice and vegetable side salad that was part of a rotating cast of salads of the day (house garlic pepper potato chips were an option). The rice, carrots, roasted corn and squash were served cold and complemented the sandwich quite well. It was a nice departure from my usual preference for chips alongside most any sandwich.

I figured I should at least give a green salad a spin, so I ordered the Mixed Greens ($8.95) -- lettuce, cucumber, tomato, onion, shredded carrots and cabbage with a good vinaigrette on the side -- which would have made a fine enough lunch in itself, especially when paired with soup. This day's choice was a hearty, creamy mushroom that was the highlight of the meal. I ordered a cup ($3.80), but could have easily plowed through a bowl ($4.50).

If the soup was the best part of an all-around pleasing lunch, perhaps my smartest move of the day was ordering four of Rosy's Authentic Hand Rolled Tamales ($3.95 each) to go.

Life is short and sometimes cruel, so one should never pass up a chance to have tamales and these were an excellent discovery. I brought the quartet -- two filled with pork and two with roasted poblano with corn and cheese -- home for supper that night with my wife.

Brilliant move. The tamales were thoroughly satisfying, with a smooth and not grainy texture and, like several other Cafe 1217 options, are gluten-free. The shredded pork was well-seasoned and the poblano, corn and cheese mixture was a fine combination.

I rolled up to Cafe 1217 at the perfect time on my maiden visit. The place was nearly empty when I got there and filled up quickly over the course of my meal. There is no piped-in music, so it was easy to eavesdrop on conversations, which leaned toward Oaklawn and the recent cold snap.

On my second visit, the joint was jumping, and I was not only afraid there wasn't a seat available, but that it would take ages to get my order.

Wrong on both counts.

I went with an entree from the display case this time, ordering the Potato Crusted Salmon with tartar sauce ($10.95) and chef's choice Brussels sprouts.

I found a table and figured I'd be waiting a while, but quickly heard my name called and scooted back to the case and picked up my plate.

The salmon was covered by a potato blanket that I was hoping would be at least a little crispy. It wasn't, but it was still good and even a bit airy. The fish underneath had a subtle flavor. In fact, it wasn't until I started dipping it into the tartar sauce, which had nice dill zip, that the fish went from rather under-seasoned to really good. It was like the difference between sushi and sushi with soy sauce.

The Brussels sprouts were wonderfully roasted, just this side of soft, and had the earthy, greenish taste that one either loves or hates, and I happen to love.

I ate too much, really. It was a deceptively hearty plate that included a little side salad. But there was a job to do and a whole case of pie and cake slices on the other side of the entrees that needed investigating. Among the goodies was a fat slice of pecan pie ($4.50) that was calling my name.

The slice was chilled and would have been even better warmed up with a scoop of vanilla ice cream on the side, but it was still a fine dessert; the filling was thick and creamy and the pecans were chewy. It was a sweet, final note to a wholly pleasurable lunch.

And yup, I did order another batch of tamales to go.

Photo by Sean Clancy
This order: Mixed greens with creamy mushroom soup and New Orleans Style Muffuletta. Behind the unsweetened tea is a to-go container filled with Rosy’s Authentic Hand Rolled Tamales.
Photo by Sean Clancy
The chilled pecan pie is a fine dessert at Cafe 1217 in Hot Springs.

Weekend on 02/08/2018

Print Headline: Spa City's Cafe 1217 a hot tamale

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