Foodies can sink their teeth in Little Rock for a satisfying
Little Rock, Ark., may not be the first place you think of when it comes to interesting and creative food and drink but it should be. The city is experiencing a culinary explosion and the boom is being heard far from the banks of the Arkansas River that flows nearby. Forbes Travel Guide listed Little Rock as one of its five 2014 Secret Foodie Cities, the only Southern community so honored.
As down-home as you want to be or as dressed-up as you can get, the city simmers influences from Paris to the Mississippi Delta in the same cultural stew. Here’s a taste of what’s cooking in The Rock.
ONE ELEVEN AT THE CAPITAL
Like the Capital Hotel (AAA Four Diamonds) in which it resides, One Eleven at the Capital seamlessly blends the city’s history with modern flair. Known for years as Ashley’s at the Capital, the new name was unveiled in August 2014 to coincide with a stunning makeover.
At once contemporary and classic, the bright new space is relaxed, yet with a few surprises. The biggest of which is looking up from your mound of shrimp and grits ($11–$14) to see a James Beard award-winning chef grinning at your enjoyment. That intimacy is part of what drew Chef Joël Antunes to Little Rock’s most famous dining room.
Antunes developed menus in step with the decor, lending sophisticated touches to familiar fare as inspired by his rural French upbringing. Highly recommended are the four-course Express Lunch ($16) and three-course 3 Cocottes ($14), the menu of which changes daily. Sized for lunch, the multi-course meals display Antunes’ range of skill at a price that defines affordable luxury. The Chocolate Parisian Cake ($8) is a can’t-miss closer.
SOUTH ON MAIN
The best restaurants deliver a sense of place through the food they produce. South on Main gets that; the very name is both directions and destination, telling you where you are and hinting at where this whole thing is headed.
The downtown eatery opened in August 2014 in the heart of a revivalist neighborhood. The gently aging space, for years a bar and music venue, is breathing easy once again in a manner that’s quirky without trying too hard.
The menu follows this elegantly eclectic theme, what Chef Matt Bell calls “refined Southern.” Guests are treated to smart, unfussy dishes, rooted firmly in local culture.
South on Main sources as many ingredients as possible locally, rotating menu items according to what’s in season. Of the year-round dishes, critics rave over the ribeye ($24) and pork chop ($18) dinners; Bell lists the pork trotters appetizer ($8) among his personal favorites because it demonstrates what Southern cooks have always done, which is a lot with very little.
There’s little subtlety about Cache, and that’s by design. Perched on a choice corner in the city’s River Market District, the two-story Cache (pronounced as in, “Hello, I’m Johnny,” but named for a river in Illinois) is meant to turn heads. Floor-to-ceiling windows open completely in nice weather, and luxurious guest appointments throughout surround an open kitchen.
Still not impressed? Cache offers the city’s more exclusive dining experience at its Chef’s Table where steps from the kitchen, parties of up to eight enjoy a multi-course gourmet meal with wines to match.
Such an experience isn’t cheap; in fact, you can spend as much as you want at Cache. But, as Matthew Cooper, executive chef and general manager notes, the restaurant isn’t just attracting high-rolling locals or flush execs from out of town. A typical dinner crowd sees a range of customers, and the lunch menu offers a taste of Cache at competitive prices.
Recommended are tuna tacos ($14) and chili hanger steak ($16) appetizers; Cooper calls the braised pork shank ($23) a personal favorite.
Chef Scott McGehee is well-traveled in his career, having honed his craft in Italy and the West Coast, but his style as reflected in ZAZA is anything but pretentious. What is on ready display is the chef-driven culture of the place, producing bold flavor pairings that are still relatively simple and accessible.
McGehee, executive chef and partner in the ownership group behind seven local restaurants, said new concepts and evolving dishes are what keep the menu interesting. For ZAZA, which opened in 2008 in the tree-lined Heights neighborhood not far from downtown, that means creating artisan salads, wood-fired pizza, and gelato with fresh ingredients in interesting combinations. In fact, ZAZA and its sister restaurants are the single-largest purchaser of local organic produce in the state.
Recommended eats include the consistently good margherita pizza ($11.50), the unconventional Green & White pizza ($12.25), best-selling ZAZA house salad ($10.50), or McGehee’s personal pick, the new sesame ahi tuna salad ($13.50). As for gelato ($3.95–$5.50), just close your eyes and point–all 12 house-made-daily flavors are winners.
DIAMOND BEAR BREWING COMPANY
Even as his brewery was landing World Beer Cup gold medals, growing sales upwards of 35 percent per year, and planning its move into a new space, Diamond Bear President Russ Melton had yet to quit his day job as late as 2013. But moving into the new company digs–three times larger than the former location–means his moonlighting days are officially over.
In addition to providing considerably more production capacity for the company’s multiple gold medalist Pale Ale and Irish Red, plus other year-around brews and seasonal suds, the North Little Rock brewery also christened Arkansas Alehouse offering well-made, tasty dishes to go with the company’s beers on tap. Try the Rueben ($8.50) or the El Cubano ($8.25) sandwiches and be sure to opt for the outstanding macaroni and cheese. The freshly baked pretzels ($7) are also highly recommended.
The restaurant is a good place to unwind after the brewery tour and tasting, popular with locals and tourists alike. And don’t forget to grab a six-pack in the retail store as you leave, especially if you’re from outside the state. Diamond Bear is currently only available in Arkansas, although the company is planning on expanded distribution.
ROCK TOWN DISTILLERY
If necessity is the mother of invention, then a layoff can give birth to a dream, even a dream as precocious as Rock Town Distillery.
Owner Phil Brandon launched the downtown business, billed the state’s first legal distillery since Prohibition, in 2010 after the company he worked for changed hands and pink slips followed. Since then, his dream job has earned a hatful of international spirits awards and USA Today’s tag as one of the South’s best craft distillery tours, hosting 600 to 800 visitors monthly.
If you’re going to sell products named for the state, they had better be constructed from native materials. Brandon sources his corn, wheat, and a particular variety of rye from farms within 125 miles of his copper still.
Bourbon is the headliner at Rock Town, particularly the single barrel reserve that was named “US Micro Whisky of the Year” by Jim Murray in his 2015 edition of the Whisky Bible. A single barrel, as well as rye and smoked varieties, each lend their own character.
Vodka, gin, rum, and even moonshine enthusiasts also will find their handcrafted libation of choice in the on-premises store.
Travelers seeking new culinary experiences can toast Little Rock as a foodie’s destination that is sure to satisfy.
Dwain Hebda is a new contributor from Little Rock, Ark.
January/February 2015 Issue
Salsa is fine, but cheese dip rules in Arkansas.
Some dishes are synonymous with their places of origin: Buffalo wings, Kansas City barbecue, Chicago deep-dish pizza. In Arkansas that dish is cheese dip, a creamy concoction that is a staple throughout the state’s Mexican restaurants, as well as eating establishments of many other stripes.
Just as it is hard to quantify the state’s obsession with the dish to outsiders, it is also hard to pinpoint precisely what makes it so popular in and of itself. If you’ve never sidled up to a bowl, it is simplicity defined–melted cheese, spices, and whatever twist the particular establishment wants to throw in, like adding meat or peppers. Dip your chip and enjoy the company.
In Arkansas, the dish is so beloved, it has inspired a short film and the World Cheese Dip Championships in Little Rock, which was held in October. When Arkansan Kris Allen won American Idol a few years back, a joint in his hometown (Conway) awarded him free cheese dip for life.
Not unlike other places with a passionate following for a particular dish, a fierce debate rages over which establishment serves up the best in the state. One fact not in dispute, however, is the birthplace of the dish. Mexico Chiquito, a small local chain headquartered in Little Rock, traces its cheese dip-soaked roots back to 1935 and a restaurateur by the name of Blackie Donnally.
Donnally came to central Arkansas from the Texas/Mexico border and launched Mexico Chiquito in Hot Springs. A year later he moved the business to North Little Rock. The original building wasn’t much on atmosphere, according to Chad Jones, president of the local restaurant group that since 1979 has owned and operated Mexico Chiquito. In fact, the earliest location had dirt floors. But the food packed them in from hundreds of miles headlined by the cheese dip which is still served exactly as it was back then.
“The recipe that we have is the original recipe that (Donnally) used,” Jones said. “It has not changed since they opened.”
Mexico Chiquito’s version is the very definition of old school, starting with the color. Yellow cheese is all that ever been used and it’s still all you can get at one of the restaurant’s four central Arkansas locations.
“The white cheese dip kinda seems to be the popular thing now and people ask, ‘Hey are you gonna change? You gonna make your cheese dip white?’” Jones said. “No, this is who we are, this is what we do. We don’t need to do several things halfway, let’s do a few things and do them very well.”
Even as cheese dip has spread to other parts of the country, often fancied up well past the original intention, it can still get a dismissive sniff in certain food circles. Not so at Mexico Chiquito, where they ladle up an estimated 2,000 pounds of cheese dip per week. Though the company doesn’t operate any sort of e-commerce, they’ve been known to ship the delicacy all over the United States.
“It’s all made in each store in small batches multiple times a day,” Jones said. “The stores don’t know what’s in the spices. The spice company’s out of town and they blend all the spices so that when they come into the store, they just have numbers on them. Nobody knows what’s in it except us and the spice company.”
Not that there isn’t a sort of guerilla cheese dip underground that has been trying to crack the code for years. Jones shakes his head and grins at the lengths to which people are willing to go to try and unlock the secret spice mix that gives the dish its unique character.
“You get on the Internet there’s all sort of recipes,” he said. “People keep telling me, ‘I’ve got it I’ve got it figured out!’ OK what’s in it, how’d you make it? And they’ll tell me and I’m like, ‘Yeah, OK, that’s…not even close, but OK.’ But they swear they have it.”
He’s equally tickled by the way home cooks and restaurants will try to one-up the “keep it simple” mandate Mexico Chiquito has perfected in its cheese dip. He said much of the company’s success can be attributed to obsessive attention to consistency and not overthinking things.
“As many people have tried to copy it and want to know what’s in it, you know, in the end it’s not real complicated,” he said. “Everybody with all the recipes and all the things you see, everybody just goes over the top on well, you put this in and that in.
“It’s doing what you do and doing it great. It doesn’t have to be complicated,” he said. “Just make the food fresh, make it often, get it to customers quickly, that’s all you have to do.”
Dwain Hebda is a new contributor from Little Rock, Ark.
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