Around the year 230 CE, Zhuge Liang, Chancellor of the Northern Chinese state of Shu Han, equal parts famed politician, adroit strategist, and feared warrior, returning with his army from a rout of the Nanman king Meng Hou, came upon a swollen and rapidly flowing river. Despite numerous attempts at the crossing, Zhuge Liang’s army was not able to pass.
Locals told Zhuge Liang that the only way to appease the river deity and thus gain the right to cross was through the sacrifice of 49 of his own men whose heads should be cast in water, as was the custom of barbarian hordes of antiquity. Being loyal to his men, Liang shrewdly instructed them to slaughter their livestock, fold the meat into loaves of steamed bread and throw that into the river in tribute. The river deity, conned by this clever culinary subterfuge was calmed and Zhuge Liang and his army were soon across the raging currents and bound for home.
Around the year 1992, Robert Fitzgerald Diggs, better known as The RZA, hit upon the notion of forming a rap group comprised of Staten Island’s best MC’s, some allies, and other rivals. The formation of a rap group was not novel; The RZA’s innovation was convincing the record label to allow each of the nine original members to sign individual recording contracts, effectively making them free agents. Much like ancient Zhuge Liang, the RZA was a cunning strategist; he had long term vision for himself and his family- the amassing of generational wealth, of building something for the long term. Method Man put it best, when he said about RZA and the Wu Tang’s vision for “domination” of the music industry:
“We trying to make our shit so that our children, word, so that our children, all our seeds and whatever, they got something for theyseleves right there.”
And now there exists a place, a nexus, if you will, where these seemingly disparate, yet undeniably intertwined figures come together. Like the poles of a magnet, these men are worlds apart yet the laws of the universe say that they must meet; their attraction is undeniable. This crossroads, where post-Han dynasty China intersects with early-’90s “Shaolin” is the dimly lit back corner of Little Rock Bar, North Fourth Street’s favorite not-quite-dive.
This place, is of course, Chef Marcus Meacham’s new micro-concept Steam, so named for the legendary steamed mantou which is the base for each of the six sandwiches on the carefully curated menu. These soft but dense buns are cousins to that other now ubiquitous Chinese steamed bread, bao. Mantou roughly translates to “barbarian’s head” in reference to their flat bottom and round top and tracing their origin all the way back to Zhuge Liang and his fateful river crossing. The name is also a subliminal nod to C.R.E.A.M., one of the Wu-Tang Clan’s most recognizable hits. When asked if this reference was intentional Chef Marcus laughs, saying, “I can’t answer that one way or the other. Just know that our checks start at #36, a cheeky reference to the Wu’s debut album, which also contains the aforementioned track.
The menu is made up of six hefty sandwiches, all overflowing from the dense white fold of the mantou bun. There is the fresh Veggie bun, an umami bomb of herbaceous mushrooms and fresh cucumber, roasted red pepper, carrot, red onion and sun dried tomato vinaigrette. Next is a very faithful Cubano featuring a succulent pork tenderloin, honey ham, and swiss. The Cubano stands out with its use of relish over traditional dill slices as well as a crusty, charred bun courtesy of a quick pass through the plancha. There is a pepperoni roll that chef claims is based on those microwavable pizza sandwiches beloved by potheads everywhere, “but, ya’ know, a good version,” he is quick to add. There is also a more traditional pork belly bun with the compliment of hot mustard kimchi and cucumbers. You can also find the curtly named Thigh, a deconstructed play on fried chicken featuring jalapeños and hot sauce. And finally comes the Bulgogi beef burger, with molasses ketchup and American cheese, loosely based on Chef Marcus’s Tastemade “drop” video, which, on last check had over 10 million views. Each sandwich is served in a pagoda Chinese take-out container filled to the brim with house-seasoned kettle chips and a scratch-made pickle spear that finds a nice balance between briny and sweet. Any of these efficiently packaged meals will run you $10, with the exception of the Veggie which comes in at $8. This menu, a slight departure from the at-times elaborate plates Chef Meacham forged at Powell’s Kraft House #5, is really solid and finds the chef punching in his former Bodega weight class, moving him closer in taste (and price point) to his original, pre-suburb audience.
But what makes Steam so exciting is its effect on Chef himself. Before opening, I had occasion to tour his Lilliputian kitchen, tucked away in a corner inside the dimly lit bar. I wondered given the size and scope of the space, would I expect to find Chef in low spirits, him seeing this as a reduction in status? I was pleasantly surprised to find him more energized than I’ve ever seen him, making light of the cramped conditions of his new kitchen. He wore a custom made apron and True Cooks snapback; he looked trim, in fighting shape. Camera ready.
He moves quickly through the space and the menu, drawing my attention to the custom signage by Clint Davidson, best known for his graphic work at Yellow Brick Pizza and Seventh Son Brewing. Chef Marcus highlights a long list of ingredients that, despite the special limitations at Steam, would be made in-house to his exacting standards. According to him, his enthusiasm has a simple source:
“This,” he says, spreading his arms and gesturing around his tiny kitchen, “this is just me, right? I own this.”
And that’s the big difference between Steam and other venues that Marcus has been associated with. This time, he’s the owner. The boss.
“I’m going for something that is easy to replicate,” he says. “I’m building a concept that can easily be introduced to other bars and places that that don’t have food yet. Its like, ‘Hey! You want food but you don’t want to f*ck with the hassle and the headache of a major build-out?’ Steam is the concept for that. Steam at Little Rock is just the beginning.”
As we talk more, Marcus alludes to the myriad other projects he has in the works: scouting other locations for Steam, a pop-up with his former sous chef Charlie Umland, and an as-yet-unnamed mystery project in Olde Towne East. Chef Meacham, while keeping an almost granular focus on the present, also has a sweeping view of his future. It would appear that he is building an empire.
And here we see the real connection between Chef Meacham and his predecessors, Zhuge Liang and The RZA. What binds these men together across the vast expanses of time and geography is the ability to think strategically, to take what is at your disposal—be it steamed bread, a band of unknown MCs, or a tiny kitchen—and use those things to their full benefit to advance your cause.
Even to this day, the name Zhuge Liang, at least in China, is synonymous with intelligence and strategy. The RZA with achievement in both artistic endeavors and business. Marcus Meacham and Steam represent the best of both men and are poised to create a foundation for a lifetime of success.
And that ain’t nothin’ to f*ck with.
Little Rock and Steam are located at 944 N High St.