The chef thought she had it figured out. Every weekend she served elegant, refined dishes at Catalpa — her quaint, 10-table Arrow Rock restaurant — to customers heading to a show down High Street at the Lyceum Theater. “I got a lot of acclaim for the fine dining,” says Liz Huff, a regular winner in the Best of Rural Missouri Contest. “I’m trained in French cuisine and I’m really good at it.”
Enter COVID-19. With indoor dining brought to a halt, Liz wasn’t sure how she was going to survive.
“I stayed in bed for two weeks crying,” she says. “I had bills. I had a mortgage. I had a kid. I had to figure out how to make it work.”
In order to survive, Liz’s kitchen pivoted from her famous roast duck and lobster to burgers, sandwiches, frozen cocktails and milkshakes served in the restaurant’s front yard. A few months and 15,000 sandwiches later, Liz knew what she wanted to do. “What came out of that was this pure joy I saw in people’s faces when they came here that summer,” she says. “I came home at midnight one evening and told my husband, ‘Fine dining is over.’ ”
In 2022, Liz moved Catalpa one-quarter mile down the road to the historic Arrow Rock boardwalk. She renovated a former yarn shop and today serves upscale, quick-service pizzas, sandwiches, frozen drinks and milkshakes to guests in a fun and open environment.
Liz’s path toward the kitchen was inspired by her mother’s interest in international cuisine. “We had Malaysian and Ethiopian food for dinner; we were the only people in Marshall, Missouri, with fish flakes in our pantry,” she says with a laugh. Liz watched Julia Child on television and was cooking lobster thermidor for her family at age 12.
After culinary school she was the food services manager at Harvard University, a butcher and ran a Spanish tapas restaurant. The pull of home eventually led her back to Arrow Rock to open Catalpa in 2011.
At the current iteration of Catalpa, Liz works in an open kitchen allowing her to see and chat with all the customers who fill her 90-seat restaurant. The beauty of the operation is the speed in which her recipes are cooked. Specialty ovens bake the sandwiches and pizzas in around 2 minutes allowing theatergoers a quick bite to eat before or after the show. Her menu features plenty of housemade sauces and ingredients from her fine dining restaurant but served in a more approachable way. “My philosophy has always been since I started, if you go to a restaurant and order off the menu, you should reasonably expect they made it or at least part of it,” she says.
Start your meal off right with a pound of Liz’s chicken wings. They’re served with your choice of a trio of housemade sauces: prickly pear, teriyaki and Buffalo. Longtime Catalpa enthusiasts will recognize the teriyaki as what Liz once used on her roast ducks.
For something lighter, opt for the Power Salad. The fresh meal starts with a plethora of lettuce and veggies from her 7-foot-tall hydroponic tower that greets guests as they enter Catalpa. On top of the veggies are dried figs, apricots and ginger. The salad is finished with Liz’s housemade fat-free strawberry poppyseed dressing, mozzarella and bacon. Guests can add chicken or tofu for a more filling meal. “It tastes like deliciousness,” she says.
Pizzas are the most popular option at Catalpa. Liz offers eight pizzas, split evenly between marinara and Alfredo bases. The 11-inch Catalpa Supreme is the most popular red sauce pizza and features pepperoni, hamburger, sausage, bacon and marinated onions and jalapenos. It’s topped with mozzarella and garlic butter. “We put garlic butter on everything,” Liz says. “Our food is good for other reasons, but the garlic butter helps.”
For a richer pie, you can’t go wrong with the Smoked Hemme Margherita. The pizza starts with a cheesy Alfredo base which is topped with rubbed and smoked cheddar from Hemme Brothers Creamery in Sweet Springs. Caprese tomatoes, local honey, black pepper and garlic butter are added before it gets bubbly in the convection oven.
“That Hemme cheese is one of my favorites. I just love those guys,” she says. “You almost can’t describe the flavor and smokiness of that cheese. Then you shred it and spread it around and it melds with the sweetness of the tomato and honey.”
New this year at Catalpa are wedgewiches, Liz’s take on sandwiches. Top billing is the Chicken Bacon 2 Cheese. First, half of a pizza crust is placed on a tray which has been spread with plenty of garlic butter. The crust is topped with mozzarella, cheddar, chicken, bacon and more garlic butter. It’s baked in the convection oven and finished with marinated onions, lettuce from the hydroponic tower and housemade honey mustard. The dough is folded on top of itself for a fresh, handheld wedgewhich.
“The buttery crust — which is actually thin — mixes well with the crunchy lettuce,” Liz says. “And then those marinated red onions have New Mexican red chiles and vinegar with a bit of sugar. It’s spicy and a little bit tart with the sweet and crunchy. It just all plays well.”
Other wedgewiches include the Pepperoni Wedge, Chicken Bacon and Blue and the Veg Wedge.
The burgers are a thing of the past at Catalpa, but the frozen cocktails and boozy milkshakes from the summer of 2020 are not. Liz wanted more retro drinks on her menu, so she enlisted her father to help with cocktails that were popular in the ‘60s and ‘70s. The most sought-after of the colorful shakes is the Pink Squirrel. The base of lactose-free Mexican vanilla ice cream is mixed with amaretto and white chocolate liqueur and red food coloring. It’s topped with whipped cream and edible pink glitter. “It’s just so classy, it’s not even funny,” Liz says.
While Catalpa may have changed from its slower-paced, intimate fine dining roots, the care and love Chef Liz puts into her dishes has not. She’s transformed a small-town storefront into an eclectic, Instagrammable — she won’t let you leave without seeing the gold toilet in the bathroom — modern restaurant that’s accessible to all.
“I loved fine dining, but that’s only for about 10 percent of the population,” she says. “I knew there was something different I could be doing. I just didn’t have the courage to do it until I was forced to. I get teary eyed thinking about that summer and the smiles, kids running around, snow cones and doggy sundaes.”
Specialties: Appetizers including chicken wings and garlic cheese sticks. Wedgewiches including the Chicken Bacon 2 Cheese, Chicken Santa Fe and Chicken Caprese. Pizzas including Catalpa Supreme, Double Pepperoni, Smoked Hemme Margherita and Buffalo Jalapeno. Frozen cocktails and boozy milkshakes.
Price: Appetizers from $12.95 to $13.50. Salads and wedgewhiches from $11.50 to $14.50. Pizzas from $13.50 to $15.50. Frozen cocktails and boozy milkshakes at $11.95.
Details: Open Friday, 5 to 8 p.m.; Saturday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. and Sunday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Closed Monday through Thursday. Expanded days and hours on Lyceum Theatre show dates. Cash, checks and credit cards accepted. Free Wi-Fi. Nonsmoking. Located at 302 Main St. in Arrow Rock. Contact at 660-837-3324 and www.catalparestaurant.com.