Saying hello to the new neighborhood deli
What does it mean to have a “neighborhood something”? Neighborhood grocery. Neighborhood coffee shop. Neighborhood deli. For me, for those places that I describe as my neighborhood whatevers, the term connotes a level of intimacy, of shared interests and goals, a feeling of, in the best instances, a familiarity that approaches the familial. It’s a term, a term of affection even, for those places where the servers or shopkeeps know your name, your regular order. But then what do you do when one of your most prized neighborhood whatevers goes away?
I’ll admit that I shed a tear when I first saw the posting on Facebook in early December. One of my prized possessions—because when a place is your neighborhood something it really is yours, no matter how many people you might share it with—Hillcrest Artisan Meats, my neighborhood deli, would be closing at the end of the month. H.A.M. was a nationally known deli that played its own significant role in the recent gilded age of Little Rock’s dining scene. The reasons for the closing were typical of the restaurant industry: money, time, family. Even as the general wave of sadness swept over those of us who claimed H.A.M. as our own, we collectively seemed to settle upon the consensus that whatever replaced H.A.M. was going to have some big shoes to fill.
It wasn’t long before we had our first inkling of what was to come in the heart of Hillcrest: In February, it was announced that the space would be home to a new concept from Tomas Bohm, the owner of both The Pantry, the impeccable West Little Rock bistro dedicated to Eastern European fare, and its Hillcrest sister, The Pantry Crest. With the news came a sense of ease, but also more questions. Will The Pantry’s signature charcuterie board be available? Can Tomas Bohm, the man whose name is synonymous with hospitality open what is, essentially, a fast-food joint? Will they still offer duck fat? I would come to learn that the answer to all of my questions was ‘yes.’
I’ll be the first to admit that I was a skeptic. I don’t like change, especially when that change potentially endangers my regular access to duck fat and European butter. Unfortunately for yours truly, however, change is a necessary fact of life, along with the need to eat, so of course, it wasn’t long before I found myself walking down Kavanaugh Boulevard to meet my new neighbors.
Walking through the front door, it’s obvious that Tomas and his team have given thought to every inch of the space. The shotgun-style layout of the space hasn’t changed, with a long counter running almost the entire length of the shop with seating along the opposite wall and a small dining room in back. What’s different is the tone. Where once was an up-by-the-bootstraps mom-and-pop place is now an immaculate, yet still unassuming, restaurant. The technical term might be “fast casual,” the catch-all category that is the current trend, but here, even, there is still an undeniable sense of familiarity. Cool shades of gray and dark-wood accents lend a modern air to the space, making the tiny room feel grander in scale.
Tomas is a near-constant presence in the space on my multiple visits, making his way back and forth, shaking hands and smiling. His is a smile that’s familiar to anyone who’s visited either Pantry location, bright and open, his cheeks almost cherubic, like he’s continuously surprised to have woken up and found the world to be even more beautiful than it’d been the day before. It’s impossible not to feel at ease in his presence.
I ask him later if it was hard to come into a space that was already so defined by H.A.M. and transition it to a new concept. “H.A.M. was loved in Hillcrest, but like anything else, we’re making it our own,” he says.
The emotional attachment people can have to business is something Tomas knows well. When his first The Pantry location opened in the footprint of the the venerable Little Rock establishment of Alouette’s, it took awhile before customers understood the distinctions between the two. “People kept asking, Hey, do you have this? Hey, do you have that? … but no, it’s a completely different restaurant.” He understands that it’s a matter of both time and the perception that comes with time.
Growing up the son of a hotelier in the Czech Republic, Tomas learned firsthand how integral service and hospitality are to the guest experience. For Tomas, hospitality starts with his staff, making sure his employees feel invested and know their purpose. “At this point, I want to make sure that everyone behind the counter knows their role in creating the guest’s experience.” He admits that in the few short weeks that District Fare has been open, it’s been a constantly changing atmosphere for his staff. “We’re still learning and changing, but I want to make sure people feel comfortable eating there. From ordering and leaving or sitting down and staying, we’re there to take care of you.”
The closeness of the space brings guests—and at any of Tomas’ restaurants, you’re always a guest, never a customer—just feet from the kitchen with only a waist-high wall separating you from the stovetops and prep stations. The forced intimacy, the way the staff and patrons are constantly flung into each other’s orbits, it all fosters a sense of community in the space. No matter what side of the counter someone is on, the food served here and the act of eating it is its own micro communion.
Atmosphere aside, the real star of District Fare is the meat, from the glass cases holding bacon and deli options to the wall-sized, glass-fronted case hung with curing charcuterie. It all offers a glimpse into an aspect of the food industry that customers rarely see. There’s an almost grotesque beauty to the slabs of pork wrapped in muslin that hang in the coolers, and with the kitchen on full display, the transformation of that pork into food is made into an act of public art.
Planning for the small, but effective menu took as long as the restaurant’s renovations. For two months, Tomas and his chefs held weekly tastings to test out different recipes and combinations. “You could just tell by people’s body language when it was right or if we needed to change something.” The resulting menu is a concise list of sandwiches ranging from prosciutto to porchetta, grilled cheese to cauliflower.
On the day that I sit down to talk with Tomas, it’s 9:30 a.m. We’re facing each other at one of the long pub tables that have become a signature of The Pantry Crest’s first floor. It’s always struck me as odd to be in restaurants before they’ve opened for the day, like you’re seeing them at their most vulnerable—seeing them naked. Regardless of the time, however, hearing Tomas talk about his menu is making me—read: my stomach—wonder if District Fare will be open by the time we’re finished.
While the restaurant is geared toward meats of all kinds, one of the standout menu items is actually the cauliflower sandwich. Tomas admits that out of all the items offered, this was one of the hardest to create. “A lot of the time, the vegetarian option is an afterthought,” he tells me, “but we wanted to make it more.” The sandwich is rich and hearty with roasted cauliflower doused in romesco and cheese. Another highlight, the pastrami sandwich, is the result of weeks of work. To get the recipe just right, Tomas sent his salumist to New York City on a research trip before embarking on several weeks of in-house brine tasting and tinkering. “A new recipe,” Tomas says, “takes a week to test, so to really get the brine just right took us months.”
While Tomas has his own favorites, mine is the porchetta sandwich. Porchetta is what my imaginary Italian grandmother makes for me in my dreams, a tightly wound pork roll stuffed with rosemary, garlic and other herbs. At District Fare, it’s slathered in aioli and topped with kale, which provides a slightly bitter contrast to the salty pork. Out of all the sandwiches on offer, it’s the only one I’ve ordered twice.
Aside from its sandwich offerings, District Fare also sells an impressive collection of meats, cheeses and other items. Pâtés and eggs, cornichons, and dates, olive oils and honey, everything you could need to make an impressive charcuterie spread. A meat cooler offers rarer items such as locally produced steaks, whole rabbits and bresaola. The array has an air of do-it-yourselfness, like it’s inviting you to take your restaurant experience home with you, to recreate it in your own kitchen. And they’re happy to create a custom meat-and-cheese platter for their guests to take home: You supply the board; they supply everything else. I’ve found myself rushing in on several occasions to just pick up a baguette (delivered fresh each day by Arkansas Fresh Bakery) and a jar of their house-made chicken pate. At home, on my back patio, they lend my afternoons a touch of provinciality. The glass of rosé I pair them with helps, too.
I keep going back to District Fare, trying new things and eating more baguettes than I care to admit in print, but over time, I begin to see what is perhaps the deli’s most subversive aspect: It starts to feel like my neighborhood spot all over again. People learn my name, learn that I always want the epi baguette, learn me. And isn’t that the point of having a neighborhood something, the point of Tomas’ special brand of hospitality itself?
“Restaurants are the heart of each neighborhood,” Tomas tells me. “There are plenty of other businesses, but restaurants are that social gathering point.” As the owner of Hillcrest’s tentpole restaurant, he should know. Hillcrest is a special place—even Tomas will admit it—and he hopes residents will feel proud to have District Fare in their neighborhood. “When you open a restaurant, especially in a neighborhood like this, there needs to be a moral obligation, not just to yourself but to the neighborhood, to make sure that people feel invested.”
Tomas admits that it will take time for District Fare to entrench itself into the fabric of Hillcrest the same that The Pantry has. He turns pensive, then admits to me that he sometimes wonders what District Fare might look like had H.A.M. not come before it. “It is what it is,” he finally says. The truth is, though, without a history of a neighborhood deli in Hillcrest, District Fare might never have materialized at all. And while I can’t vouch for my neighbors, I suspect that we’re all ready to welcome a new face to the neighborhood. Even if that face is a familiar one.