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RESTAURANT REVIEW + PHOTOS: Core, Little Rock's SoMa neighborhood blend like mac, cheese

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Photographs by Eric E. Harrison

Foghorn’s Philly comes with fries at Core Brewing in SoMA.

The dining and drinking options in Little Rock's SoMA neighborhood continue to expand, particularly along the stretch of Main Street between 12th and 15th streets. A pub-pastry-provender crawl could begin at Community Bakery and end up three blocks south at The Root.

Among the most recent additions is the Core Brewing Public House -- the most recent expansion in a burgeoning mini-chain of Springdale-based Core Brewing Co. brewpubs that includes one on Main Street in North Little Rock's Argenta District, two in Fayetteville and one each in Springdale, Rogers, Hot Springs and Siloam Springs.

Core Brewing Public House SoMA/Foghorn’s Express No. 4

Address: 1214 Main St., Little Rock

Hours: 3-9 p.m. Monday-Wednesday, 3-11 p.m. Thursday-Friday, noon-11 p.m. Saturday, noon-9 p.m. Sunday

Cuisine: Bar food plus

Alcoholic beverages: House brand craft beer plus “light” bar

Credit cards: V, MC, AE, D

Wheelchair accessible: Yes

(501) 353-2489

Core Brewing SoMA is, at first glance, a cozy spot with a large handful of tables in the front room, most low to the floor but a few elevated with high stools, plus a nice, cushy conversation pit in front of the largest of the half-dozen TV screens. There's also seating at the bar, which dispenses from about a dozen taps a variety of Core Brewing products and one "import" -- a pear cider from a California source because, as the bartender explained, folks like a cider, and Core doesn't make one. At 5 percent alcohol, it has a nice balance between sweet and tart and was a good choice on a hot summer night.

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Pickle chips top the ground beef and melted cheese atop the Cheese Burger Mac. + Enlarge

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The boneless wings — to-go with Honey BBQ Signature Sauce — come in six-, 10- and 20-piece orders at Core Brewing in SoMA. + Enlarge

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A pint of Helles Bock is among the Core Brewing beer choices. + Enlarge

Core also serves practically the entire range of Rock Town Distillery spirits, plus a couple of non-Rock Town tequilas, because, said the helpful bartender, Rock Town isn't yet making a tequila.

The walls are a dark, rich red; lighting is mostly indirect and not much light makes it through the front windows, which keeps the atmosphere kind of dark, even on an otherwise outside-bright Saturday afternoon. Sports programming appears on some of the TVs; at least a couple of others play classic-rock music videos, which provide the material for the in-house music. A cooler is crammed full of six-packs of Core product, which you can buy for carry-out -- even, because this is a brewpub, on Sunday. Legally. (You can also buy to-go beer by the growler. But you cannot legally pour your on-premises purchase into a to-go cup. Sorry.)

In stark contrast is the big, bright back room, with a half-dozen picnic tables spread around a monster walk-in refrigerator and various pieces of brewing equipment, though we saw no indication that any brewing actually takes place on this premises.

Rather than endure the strain of originating his own menu, owner and namesake Jessie Core has come up with a novel solution: He has tapped into Foghorn's, a Northwest Arkansas chicken wing restaurant, for his brewpubs. The one for this location, he explained when it opened in March, is "customized for our location, a little smaller" than the one you'll find on the restaurant's website.

Operating as Foghorn's Express No. 4, the tiny SoMA kitchen produces some decent, upscale bar food, including some of the Foghorn's "starters" -- chips and queso, pork rinds, fried pickles, jalapeno slices (all $6.49) and cheese curds ($7.99); boneless or "traditional" wings and tenders; a few sandwich options; various mac and cheese preparations; and a trio of salads.

Portions on everything we tried were surprisingly large and all of it went well with the stuff on tap, the selection of which we made with knowledgeable help from the bar staff, which was also the wait staff. (On one weekend evening as the place started to fill up, an actual waitress showed up and took the floor.)

The Foghorn's Philly ($10.99), while it no longer shows up on the printed menu, is, we have been assured, still available. It's a half-pound of steak (chicken is also an option) grilled with sauteed onions and topped with more melted cheese on a toasted hoagie roll. The native Philadelphian in our party pronounced it reasonably authentic (no green peppers, which a true Philly cheese steak does not contain), but he had to eat it with a fork because the kitchen split the roll before toasting it on the grill, which made it pretty much impossible to lift the sandwich without the entire contents -- steak, cheese and onions -- falling out and dropping into the paper-lined basket. It was hefty enough to make a meal even without the monster pile of hand-cut, reasonably seasoned fries, most of which we regretfully left behind.

We were also unable, though we made a mighty effort, to quite finish the Cheese Burger Mac ($10.99). The kitchen tops the house 3 Cheese Mac n Cheese with plenty of ground beef, plus melted shredded cheese and dill pickle chips (!) and a Signature Sauce (your choice from among the 14 on the menu). The macaroni was surprisingly firm -- pretty close to al dente, which for mac and cheese is practically unheard of -- and the thick three-cheese blend had a pretty good tang, augmented by the melted cheese that held together the ground beef on top. The pickle slices added a flavor kick as well as a textural dimension. Based on the waiter-bartender's recommendation, we chose the Gold sauce for its mustard-y base, and it worked pretty well with the "burger" component.

There are two other 3 Cheese Mac bowl options, both $10.99: the Deluxe Mac, topped with boneless wings, melted shredded cheese and choice of Signature Sauce, and the BBQ Pork Mac, topped with smoked pulled pork cooked in a Signature Sauce. Just plain 3 Cheese Mac n Cheese is available as a side item (small $3.49, large $6.49), but could conceivably serve as an appetizer, small entree or a kid's meal. (The "Kid's Menu" includes mac and cheese in a wing or tender combo.)

We got the six-piece boneless wing plate ($7.19 with one sauce) to go. The "wings," actually chicken breast chunks, are large, breaded and lightly fried, and came well coated in the Honey BBQ Signature Sauce. You can also choose one of eight dry rubs. They supposedly come with ranch or blue cheese, and we forgot to remind the bartender about the blue cheese we wanted, but we didn't really miss it. Wings and tenders are tossed in a sauce or dry rub with ranch or blue cheese on the side.

Want more wings? The 10-piece order is $11.29; the 20-piece, which you get with two sauces, is $21.49. The wing and tender plate ($13.49), features six wings and two tenders, with fries. And if you spot the flier on the back-room door, you can take advantage of the temporary $20 to-go special: 20 wings and a six-pack.

Weekend on 08/02/2018

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