There are times when we'd give just about anything to once again walk into a restaurant, sit down at a table and have a leisurely meal.
But there are still a number of restrictions in place, and we have observed a wide disparity among restaurants that have reopened as to how those restrictions are enforced. No, for example, not every front-of-house staff member we've encountered is wearing a mask properly -- if at all. And even fewer customers are masked as per Health Department mandates.
Given recent increases in viral statistics, we -- and you -- can certainly be forgiven if there's still a healthy (or at least we hope it's healthy) reservation about making reservations.
So, garcon, keep boxing up our food so we can take it home to our humble tables. Here's our credit card details, sir, miss or madame. Please add a generous tip to our check. And thanks.
RIVIERA MAYA, 801 Fair Park Blvd., Little Rock, (501) 663-4800, rivieramayalittlerock.com, facebook.com/pg/rivieramayaarkansas
WHAT WE GOT: Four tacos al pastor ($11.50). The price -- nearly $3 per -- seems high for street tacos, but Riviera Maya does a fine job of putting a considerable amount of diced marinated pork on flour or corn tortillas (we chose corn) with onions (we asked them to hold the onions) and cilantro (which comes thickly packed in a separate foam container so you can decide just how much or if you want to add it). As always, a very few chunks of pork were inedibly fatty and/or gristly, but not many, and we made a pretty good lunch, adding in with the fresh, crisp triangular tortilla chips and two kinds of salsa -- a slightly chunky, somewhat spicy red and a nice dark-brick-red-brown chipotle.
HOW IT WENT: This Riviera Maya -- there's also one at 11701 Interstate 30, Little Rock -- has opened up its dining room, so we thought it would be easy to place a walk-in order. It wasn't. There's still an entirely separate to-go department operating out of a back door into the kitchen. Signs all over the front and side windows point customers thither; you can place and pay for a walk-in order on the spot but it's a bit of a nuisance to the fully masked staff; they'd rather you call it in and have them bring it out to your car. As with most Mexican restaurants, food came out fairly quickly -- perhaps five minutes.
HOW IT'S GOING: Nearly a dozen cars were waiting for curbside delivery in a recent lunch period; we got the last parking space in the row. The dining room was busy, too.
FORBIDDEN GARDEN, 14810 Cantrell Road, Little Rock, (501) 868-8149; facebook.com/pages/Forbidden-Garden-Formerly-Forbidde-City/213655612037975
WHAT WE GOT: Szechuan Chicken and Shrimp With Cashew Nuts ($11.50). This was a favorite when the restaurant was called Forbidden City and was on the lower food-court level at Park Plaza, which was close enough to home and office to visit frequently. In 2011, owners Annie Koo and Joey Chang, having lost their lease, moved west and reopened a downsized establishment, calling it Forbidden Garden, in an L-shaped shopping center at Cantrell Road and Taylor Loop, where their neighbors include Buffalo Wild Wings and a Walgreens. We don't get out there often, but we still enjoy this dish, which features medium-size shrimp, bite-size chunks of chicken and cashews in a brown, hoisin-accented sauce.
HOW IT WENT: Our order, for which we paid when we picked it up, was ready when promised -- 20 minutes, close to the time it took us to get that far west -- though we did have to sit for a couple of minutes while Annie dealt with the customer ahead of us.
HOW IT'S GOING: There were three other orders waiting for pickup either by customers or third-party delivery services, and two customers walked in to order while we were there.
PHO THANH MY, 302 N. Shackleford Road, Little Rock, (501) 312-7498; phothanhmy.food87.com; facebook.com/PhoThanhMy
WHAT WE GOT: Bun Thit Nuong Cha Gio ($9.95). This has been our go-to to-go dish for a lot of years, and we were quite happy to revisit it: a large bed of thin white noodles, topped with a goodly portion of grilled, marinated pork, and slices of Vietnamese egg rolls with herbs, fish sauce, ground peanuts and bean sprouts, all of which you are supposed to toss together, plus a portion of lightly pickled carrots and daikon (a kind of Asian radish). The egg roll slices start out slightly crisp and crunchy, and we usually also get an order as an appetizer, but the longer they sit the softer and chewier they get, so it's a temptation to eat them first, which is a mistake. It's a big dish and there's a bit of a risk that you could get tired before you finish.
HOW IT WENT: The restaurant, in converting to takeout only (a banner out front says they'll consider reopening the dining room but not while they're understaffed), installed a takeout window in the brick wall to the right of the front door. You can order through the window, but it's preferable to hunt down a menu online and order over the phone. Our order was ready when we arrived, though we had to wait -- properly distanced -- behind two other customers until we could pay for and claim our food.
HOW IT'S GOING: There were several customers coming and going during a recent lunchtime. The parking area in front of the restaurant was actually almost full.
TAZIKI'S MEDITERRANEAN CAFE, 8200 Cantrell Road, Little Rock, (501) 227-8291, tazikiscafe.com; facebook.com/TazikisCantrellRoad
WHAT WE GOT: Chargrilled Lamb Feast ($13.49), with a Greek salad, a baked pita chip and choice of roasted new potatoes or basmati rice. The lamb, done up in a light garlic sauce, came separately wrapped in aluminum foil that helped keep it tender and tasty and reasonably hot throughout its journey home. The Greek salad was fresh and came with two little plastic cups of a gelatinous, almost Caesar-like Greek dressing that was just enough to cover the feta-dusted mixed greens and sliced red onions, tomato and red bell peppers. We wish it had come with more than one nicely spiced pita chip. The excellent rice, packed in a separate foam bowl, had a slight citrus accent. There was plenty of food and represented a pretty good meal for the price.
HOW IT WENT: Taziki's could qualify as a chain since it is headquartered in Alabama, but all of the several Arkansas branches are owned and operated by a local franchisee. The location we visited was the area's first, and closest to us, but the one way out Cantrell at Chenal Parkway does have a drive-thru window. The restaurants have all opened their dining rooms, so we went ahead and placed and paid for a walk-in order in a fairly long line of dine-in and takeout customers. There are no longer printed menus, in keeping with state Health Department directives (not every restaurant we've visited adheres to this guideline, which says paper menus are OK but not the plastic-coated ones that would have to be sterilized between customers), so we had to wait until we got to the front of the line to see the menu board. It only took us a few minutes but it was difficult to maintain proper social distancing; luckily most, though not all, of the people wore masks (the restaurant has a big pile of them with a huge jug of hand sanitizer in the entrance). It took less than 10 minutes for our order to come out, handed to us around a Plexiglas partition by a masked-and-gloved employee.
HOW IT'S GOING: The place was jumping during a recent weekend lunch period with in-house and takeout orders. Many customers headed out onto the back deck where they felt comfortable removing their masks
ROCK N ROLL SUSHI, 12800 Chenal Parkway, Little Rock, (501) 313-4241; rnrsushiu.com; facebook.com/rnrsushi.littlerock
WHAT WE GOT: Miso soup ($2.95), edamame ($4.95) and the Slash Roll ($13.95). The "rock n roll" theme is rife throughout the menu, with a long list of "Opening Acts" (appetizers) and a long, long list of rolls, "Classics" or, in the case of specialty rolls, "Headliners." Those are named for various performers (Crue, Axl, Kiss, Journey, Scorpion, Zeppelin, Cyndi, Tommy Lee, etc.), musical numbers (Thriller, Abby Road, Sweet Home Alabama, Jailhouse and, of course, there had to be a Good Times Roll), locales (San Quentin, Sunset Strip, Green Room) and circumstances (Jam Sesh, Sharp Dressed, Panama and Reggae). There's also a small selection of nigiri (raw fish on rice) and some hibachi-cooked entrees. A beer-and-wine license, we're told, is pending.
Our Slash Roll consisted of tempura shrimp and crab stick inside, tuna and avocado outside, with a wee dollop of Sriracha atop each piece to give it a little extra kick. The menu also mentioned tobiko (those red-orange flying fish eggs), but we didn't find any. We enjoyed the roll, though each piece was a little bigger than would fit comfortably in the mouth at one time. The kitchen kissed the firm edamame (boiled/steamed soybeans in the shell) with just the right amount of salt. The soup, however, would have been disappointing under any circumstances -- bland, with tiny shreds of seaweed and tiny tofu cubes -- even if it hadn't been stone cold. And it wasn't like it had cooled off on the way home -- it didn't appear to have even the residual warmth that would have meant it was ever hot in the first place.
HOW IT WENT: This place, too, at first glance, would appear to violate our "no chain" rule, but it, too, is a locally owned franchise, and besides, it's brand new, so we're stretching the outline a bit. The small dining room is open, but we placed and paid for our order by phone. You're supposed to call the phone number, prominently posted on an outside banner, on arrival for curbside (well, parking-lot) pickup, but it was consistently busy for several minutes, so we finally ended up going inside. Staff was wearing masks but not all of them had them arranged properly over nose and mouth; it felt a little weird watching unmasked diners' mouths chomping what might have been Chili Peppers Rolls.
HOW IT'S GOING: Even in the midst of a pandemic, folks flock to new places, and this is no exception. In addition to the diners-in, the staff kept on the hop handling takeout orders and setting up the small patio to handle a large family party.