Core Brewing’s Argenta Public House got off to a rocky start for their first Central Arkansas location. When they opened up shop in the former Starving Artist location on Main street they made the decision to follow the brand’s theme of a beer focused spot, void of any food. In fact they even stripped out the kitchen before opening the doors.
The result was non-existent crowds, leaving some readers to write in questioning if the location had already closed. They missed the ongoing trend of increasingly better brewery food each time a new place opens. Breweries are no longer a Mo’s Tavern type place where dudes stop off after work for a few beers before going home to the family. Breweries are becoming a night out for couples, an after work meeting place, and a spot to take the whole family for a casual dinner.
So when the folks at Core came around and decided that, yes the location did need food, it was no surprise. Every brewery in town can attest to crowds and ticket prices going up dramatically when food is offered. Still, the other Core locations that have food serve the bare minimum to meet ABC standards, usually hot dogs, popcorn, catered in BBQ. To say that my expectations were not very high and I lowered the priority on checking out the menu would be an understatement.
If you walk into Core Argenta expecting ballpark hot dogs prepare to be as shocked as I was at the menu.
Core hired in NWA food trucker Jeff Wetzel, aka the French Cowboy, who owns and operates Le Bouvier. Our NWAeats writers have frequently raved about his Bentonville truck, and for good reason. Wetzel’s truck is a french cooking meets gastropub blend, something he brought to the new Core menu reflects that perfectly. Everything is fresh and house made to the highest standards, yet highly approachable even for your average friend who cares nothing about food and just wants to go grab a few beers after work.
“I really wanted to go with a gastropub style menu. I am equal parts classically trained French chef and Texas redneck,” Wetzel says with a smile. “I think the menu reflects that perfectly.”
The menu starts with a handful of sharable tapas. We checked out the BLT bites which are little mini open-faced BLT sandwiches with creme fraiche and a balsamic syrup topping. It is a great late summer snack, especially paired with a lighter beer. Then we gave the Gulf Coast Deviled Eggs a shot, I must not have read the description well because I was a little shocked when they came out and were pink. The deviled eggs here are picked in a red wine and then served with a fried oyster, bacon, and remoulade. Again, the simple approachable dishes with a little touch of extra, unexpected pizzaz.
“We are making nearly everything from scratch here, using local ingredients every chance I get,” Wetzel says. “I am doing everything from curing our own bacon that comes from pigs out of Bansley Berkshire farms outside of Hardy, to making pickles to go on our burgers. For everything else are using fresh ingredients, we are receiving shipments of seafood twice a week for example.”
That strategy really shines on the dinner menu and daily specials. We tried a moules frites special the visit. The dish has steamed mussels on a large bed of fries and topped with a white wine chorizo cream sauce. It is the type of dish that you will have a hard time finding any brewery in the country, not just the state, willing to throw out there. The best part is that the execution is perfect. Not too high culinary for the average beer drinker to enjoy, but a strong notch above your typical bar food.
That is not to say that typical brewery food does not exists. The mandatory burger is obviously on the menu. The half pound of beef is cooked perfectly throughout and topped with their house cured bacon. The big seller in the early stages of the menu has been a beer battered fish and chips. A rosemary BLT (think bigger version of the tapas item), turkey sandwich, oyster po’boy, buddha bowl (basically a huge salad), and fish tacos, that will find their way in our mouth soon, round off the entree portion of the menu. Along with the menu will be a strong rotation of daily specials with seasonal ingredients.
Last, and certainly not least, comes an item that will make Core a destination. Swanky donut holes (my word, not theirs). My writer in NWA has raved about these donut holes for some time now, and finally I got a chance to check them out. The unconventional donut holes are made with freshly fried ricotta, rolled in cinnamon and sugar, then served over a strawberries. They are every bit as good as advertised. In fact, if you are going to get just one thing, grab the donuts. Mostly because they are a perfect reflection of the completely unexpected menu being served at Core.
The prices on it all are very reasonable. Tapas run $5-8 for an extremely generous portion, entrees are $9-14. They plan to start lunch service next week with mostly the same menu. Beginning September 3rd in time for the first Razorback game, they will start a brunch service with new items including house made bacon, sausage, and chorizo along with pancakes made from the donut hole batter, and more.
Is Core offering up the best brewery food? Hard to say. Lost Forty always has solid food, neighboring Flyway has perfected two menu items (with multiple variations), and Rebel Kettle is on the verge of rolling out a new menu that has shown flashes of brilliance in the few bites I have sampled.
Core’s menu however takes brewery food to a place it rarely goes, and it feels like Wetzel is just scratching the surface of where he plans to take the menu. Wetzel is trying to move Core into a new direction, in fact the Argenta Public House is a pilot concept for the company. It is a model that, in my opinion, the company needs to take very seriously because it makes Core a place people will want to visit.