First Taste: Heights Taco & Tamale Co.

Ark Meets Mex in the Heights
47_heightstaco_webIt’s the frozen mojito. It’s always something, and this time, it is undoubtedly the frozen mojito.

45_heightstaco_webAt each of Yellow Rocket Concepts’ restaurants, there is a particular dish or drink that makes repeat customers of its diners. At Local Lime, it’s the house margarita, smooth and fresh.

At Big Orange, it’s that white-truffle pecorino burger, which is the very definition of umami goodness.

At ZaZa, it’s the way you can convince yourself that you’re eating light when your salad is actually 2 pounds of food topped with an entire fried chicken breast.

And at Heights Taco & Tamale Co., the newest endeavor from the omnipresent restaurant group, it’s that mint-topped frozen mojito. They’re calling it the Spring Fling, and much like its parent restaurant group, the frozen cocktail is the result of careful planning. It has its own logo (a vaguely pre-Colombian-looking eagle) and comes with its own take-home swag (a koozie, brilliantly emblazoned with “I stole this from Heights Taco & Tamale Co.” on the bottom).

Presented in a thin Collins glass, the Fling isn’t muted by too much sugar and fluff. You can taste the fiery rum, which is chased by a fresh bite of lime and mint to counter the punch. On the restaurant’s cozy drinking porch, with bar stools facing Kavanaugh Boulevard and the hum of the Heights, these Collins glasses are easily drained. As is the case with its cross-town cousin, the Local Lime marg, the Fling is sinister in its sipability, and you can find yourself feeling that giddy buzz after just one round. (Lee Edwards, creator of this and many other Yellow Rocket cocktails, is a bad man. Which makes his recent departure to a job in Kansas City all the more heart-wrenching.)

60_heightstaco_webLuckily, Heights Taco & Tamale Co. has no shortage of buzz-abating “Ark-Mex” bites, which are a cheese-smothered blend of Tex-Mex and Arkansas Delta flavors. That blend is most readily experienced in tacos like the SouthMex Fried Fish, where fried catfish replaces the typical tilapia and comes topped with a red-chile tartar sauce and tart pickled green tomatoes. There’s also the wholly successful pickle-fried-chicken taco, with thick strips of chicken breast, tangy from a pickle juice brine, accompanied by a red-pepper chowchow, that quintessential Southern relish. Most tacos come wrapped in house-made flour tortillas (flaky and almost pitalike), save for a braised ground-beef taco served in a hard corn tortilla shell that’s a nod to the crunchy tacos so beloved in our youth and so pervasive at the address’s former tenant.

28_heightstaco_webThe whole of Heights Taco & Tamale Co. is familiar. The building itself is well known to Little Rock diners as the spot where Browning’s Mexican Grill lived before Yellow Rocket scooped up the space in 2014. Beyond the pueblo-style facade, the bright interior bears the fingerprints of the group’s designer extraordinaire Amber Brewer, who has left no corner untouched. In the front seating area, a wallpapered accent wall, boldly blue, is hung with a faux-vintage metal sign that blares “Hola” and is missing just the right number of light bulbs to seem like an authentically “found” object. At the bar, plush turquoise leather bar stools come complete with backs, inviting you to settle in for an ultra-comfortable round or two. Underfoot, the bright mosaic tile floor is littered with complicated floral patterns that will lead to no shortage of shoe-centric Instagram shots, to be sure.

50_heightstaco_webWhile the menu is certainly an elevation of the aggressively popular Tex-Mex style, the familiar formulas are still there. At a certain point, there is only so much chefs can do to make this cuisine original, and some dishes here—like the ground-beef tacos, chicken fajitas and guacamole—are just on par with what’s available at long-standing Tex-Mex spots around the metro. Instead, the restaurant shines where it’s been able to find a sweet spot between familiar and fresh. It’s in the fried-chicken tacos and the just-spicy-enough cheese dip. It’s in the dense chocolate cake with zippy sour-cream frosting. And it’s most definitely in the Delta-style tamales, a dish chefs Scott McGehee and Ben Brainard tinkered with for weeks to create a recipe worth mentioning in the restaurant’s name. The resulting blend of slow-cooked pork and chicken surrounded by a steamed corn and masa coating are made fresh daily by a team that comes in well before sunrise. Orders are served with saltines and hot sauce, but you’ll want to upgrade to the optional chili and cheese-dip sides for the full experience.

And should heartburn strike, as heartburn often does when chili and cheese are on the table, you’ll know where to turn—right back to the soothing cool of that Spring Fling. Because no matter how familiar the menu, that frozen mojito is a refreshingly original respite that we’ll be back for. Soon.11_heightstaco_web