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Have sake, will travel Arkansas
A taste of the state's suitability for rice brews
Unlike many eating places, Arkansas’ homestyle restaurants take an equitable stance toward sake.
Namely, they don’t allow it, same as wine, beer, and spirits. BYOB is barely legal in Arkansas, where most of the nation’s remaining dry counties are clustered. Voters in Hot Spring and Polk counties last year approved alcohol sales, but the state’s still not an ideal venue for sauntering into dinner with a bottle of Junmai Gingo.1
Somehow, this hadn’t occurred to me when I pressed Jamie Graves, Japanese portfolio manager of Skurnik Wines, to choose a quintet of imported sakes to match with Arkansas’ most iconic foods.2 I was headed down to Hot Springs to report this past Monday’s feature on the opening of Origami Sake, and thought it would be fun to see if sake was as good an aesthetic as agricultural fit for The Natural State, which is responsible for more than half of the U.S. rice output.
Graves was game, although he had a few questions about the list of dishes I emailed. “I’d be lying if I said I knew what fried pie is,” he wrote. “Just deep-fried…pie?”
In that case, he made the call for Hojo Biden, based on its caramel notes, but the name—which means “pastoral beauty” in Japanese—made me feel patriotic about illegally drinking it in a park with a standout Feltner’s Whatta-Burger apple pie. National symbolism aside, the sake’s faint nuttiness and zing of acid were a fine partner for sugared fruit.
I ended up visiting several parks on my swigging-and-sampling tour, which began with a bottle of Gikyo Junmai Ginjo, wrapped in newspaper by its producer, apparently attentive to the concerns of vagrants like me. Graves selected the Gikyo to go with tamales from McClard’s Bar-B-Q, a Hot Springs institution which for more than a century has peddled the legend that Alex and Gladys McClard were gifted their sauce recipe by a motel guest who couldn’t pay his bill.
Neither Graves nor I anticipated that the cashier at McClard’s would sneer at my request for a measly tamale and upsell me to a half spread. “Half” means just one tamale, but “Spread” means it’s blanketed with crisped Fritos, chopped beef, saucy baked beans, raw onions, and shredded cheddar applied with the restraint of a Skyline Chili cook.
I’m not sure any non-carbonated beverage could stand up to that kind of meaty freakery, but the Gikyo didn’t have a chance: It registered as harsh and alcoholic, with the tamale’s tomato-based sauce blunting the sake’s promised hints of melon.
Because I was so besotted by the deep-fried pie, when I needed to cut one stop from my sake tour, I decided not to detour in search of chocolate gravy. Instead, I took the savory route, picking up a French dip from the storied Ed Walker’s Drive-In in Fort Smith.
Graves had name checked Shinkame Junmai when asked about the accompanying fried pickles, which—unlike the aforementioned Frito pie—could be classified as quasi-Japanese. Sake has been poured alongside tempura and pickles since the 1500s, so I shouldn’t have been surprised that the Shinkame’s elegant and cohesive richness was a more flattering complement to the fried dills than Ed Walker’s ranch dressing.
Still, the site of my apotheosis was Camden, Arkansas, a Ouachita River town policed until March by the state’s oldest cop, 93-year-old Buckshot Smith. Fittingly, I purchased my white cheese dip from the state’s oldest restaurant, The White House Café, and took it across the street to a public park at the one-time train depot.
While Graves had assured me that Zaku 'Miyabi no Tomo' Junmai Ginjo “has a beautiful fruitiness and glossy texture that will offset the richness of the cheese dip,” what made the pairing especially lovely was that the sake tasted soft and clean as freshly laundered towels, while the dip featured all the best aspects of processed cheese and spice. The two wildly disparate items were remarkably harmonic.
Maybe sake really does belong in Arkansas.
But will it come from Origami? Only paying subscribers who got to read about the brewery in Monday’s newsletter can hazard an educated guess. Join them—and the rice-fueled conversation—now!
I’ve done my darndest to write about sake without wading into its complexities, but if you’re looking for a primer on sake types, True Sake’s overview is a good place to start. From there, you’re on your own in the rabbit hole.