Wild About Sliders
North Little Rock’s Flyway Brewing Company takes us on a venison adventure
By Michael Roberts
Photos by Brian Chilson
It was clear from the moment we entered Flyway Brewing Company’s North Little Rock brewpub that Arkansas Wild had found a group of brewers, cooks, bartenders and servers as excited about the Natural State’s outdoor abundance as we are. After all, the brewery’s name itself is a reference to the Mississippi Flyway, and duck-related décor is the rule in the dining room.
This outdoor theme extends well beyond decoration—a love of wild game also informs the brewery’s excellent menu of delicious bar food.
“The idea was to try things that can be harvested in the state,” says Flyway co-founder Jess McMullen. To that end, ingredients like bacon-wrapped quail, wild boar meatballs and fresh trout adorn a menu that’s unlike any other in the state. And, of course, Flyway’s rotating cast of 11 different microbrews make everything very easy and enjoyable to wash down. We were here to learn some wild game secrets from the folks who have made that their culinary niche.
Jess led us to Flyway’s spotless kitchen, turning us over to head cook Dylan Graves, who introduced us to the dish he was preparing: a venison slider topped with goat cheese, arugula and a fresh blueberry reduction made with Flyway’s Bluewing Blueberry Wheat beer (and a copious amount of luscious berries). After expressing a bit of skepticism that a decent burger (even a small one) could be made using ultra-lean venison, Dylan smiled and revealed his secret ingredient: bacon.
“I’ll cook up some bacon and retain the fat,” he said. “Once the bacon grease cools off, I’ll add that and the crumbled bacon to the venison—along with some green onions, sautéed garlic and an egg for binding it all together. That way there’s some fat added to the lean venison.”
As the blueberry reduction simmered into a thick, syrupy glaze that smelled like springtime, Dylan prepared several four ounce patties and let them chill for about 10 minutes, moving with practiced ease. “I grew up cooking,” he said. “My grandparents owned a restaurant in Mountain Home, and so this has always been in my blood.”
It was just at that moment when Ryan Frank, one of Flyway’s brewers, dropped into the kitchen holding pint glasses of something very dark and delightful: an 11% ABV chocolate stout the brewery is calling the “Lord God Bird”—a colloquial name for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. It’s a beer that’s heady without being heavy, and it made for excellent palate preparation.
We watched in hungry anticipation as Dylan seared the venison patties in a cast iron grill skillet, then layered on the toppings. The first bite was perfectly balanced bliss: savory, slightly gamey venison backed up by smoky bacon, the bite of arugula, tangy goat cheese and all pulled together by the succulent sweetness of the blueberry reduction. The second bite was just as good. As a matter of fact, the second (and third) sliders that yours truly ate were too. It’s clear that wild game is not just a gimmick for Flyway—it’s a way of life.
Want to try your hand at Flyway’s venison sliders? Dylan was kind enough to let us have the recipe. And if you’d like them to do the cooking for you, be sure to check out their fantastic North Little Rock taproom. They’ll be announcing their Otto Blonde brew coming up in March—and $1 from every pint of that beer sold will go to the Audubon Society.
Flyway Brewing Company
6 slices bacon (retain fat)
2 pounds ground venison
1 tablespoon garlic
1 tablespoon Worcestershire
½ tablespoon chopped green onions
2 tablespoons olive oil
Directions: Fry bacon until crisp, remove and let cool. Sauté the garlic in the bacon fat until translucent. Allow bacon fat to cool. Mix all ingredients by hand, taking care not to overwork the meat.
Form small patties and allow to chill for 10-20 minutes. Cook until internal temperature reaches 145 degrees. Yields 12-15 sliders.
6 ounces beer
1 teaspoon lemon zest
1 ½ cup fresh blueberries
¾ cup sugar
Directions: In a small saucepan, bring beer to a boil. Add blueberries, sugar and lemon zest and bring the mixture back to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, stirring occasionally, until sauce has thickened (about 20 minutes).
To build your sliders, place arugula, a venison patty, a slice of soft goat cheese and a dollop of the blueberry reduction on a slider bun. Serve and enjoy!