HOT SPRINGS — Deep in our hearts, we know the city of Hot Springs didn’t name Cones Road for its mighty King Kone drive-in. But we like the idea of a such a Wonkaesque civic tribute to this kingdom of cones, which sits at the corner of Cones Road and Malvern Avenue in the Spa City. A Sonic even cheekily opened up several years ago across Cones no doubt to catch some of the creamy cross-street vibes. Good luck with that, America’s Drive-In; King Kone is what you want to be — or, perhaps, to be generous, what you once were.
King Kone’s large menu, a dictionary book of flavors, covers the entire front of the purple cinder-block building. But if you’re here, you probably have some variation of ice cream and/or burgers on your mind. And if you’re here, you’re probably not alone; even the sleepy mid-afternoon, a down period for most eateries, will still usually see a steady stream of hungry hopefuls ordering at the walk-up window.
And bless King Kone’s large menu. Under “Mexican” (loosely defined), we have four different kinds of nachos, and Frito pie and chili by the pint. Under “Dogs,” we have all the dog sizes: corn dogs and mini corn dogs, chili cheese dogs and chili cheese footlongs. Gilding the lily are other sandwich options — chicken, grilled chicken, pork tenderloin, BLT, chicken club, BBQ and grilled cheese — and the always-available shrimp, chicken, and catfish baskets that someone must order, but we rarely see in action anywhere except catfish places.
King Kone’s sides, meanwhile, stand aside to no sandwich. Its onion rings winningly meld Panko-coated crispness with the gooey mush of fried onion slices; the Curly Q fries, cut in-house, actually taste like potatoes, and you’re likely to find an errant potato end in your order.
Under “Healthy Choice” (also loosely defined), we have the welcome options of veggie burger, black bean burger and turkey burger. We should note the menu has it spelled “Healty Choice,” perhaps as a legal dodge, for these burgers are just as big and hearty as their bovine counterparts. “We sell a lot of veggie burgers,” said a between-scoops Tera Drain, “and we make them ourselves. That started back in the ’90s — my sister’s best friend was vegetarian.”
Drain is the third generation serving up soft-serve here; King Kone is part of the fabric of Hot Springs. Her grandfather, Kenneth Rainwater, bought the business and moved it to this location in 1971 after operating his Rainwater’s Dairy Bar. Among King Kone’s unique sweet treats are the homemade nutty buddy and the brownie delight. Grandpa Rainwater came up with the Kone’s signature Purple Cow, which is also a staple. Any similarly-named restaurants notwithstanding, Drain says, “We’re kinda known for the Purple Cow.”
Other King Kone shakes and malts filed under “specialty” are higher priced, but with the admittedly tantalizing flavors of chocolate-covered cherry, Oreo, hot fudge, peanut butter, orange creamsicle and … a fried pie shake? Next time, King Kone, next time.
With a 6-year-old and 3-year-old twins, Drain already has the next generation ready to work the restaurant’s grill and mixer — and she laughed that she could actually use the help now. Drain herself was only a few years older when she started working at King Kone. “I would hope that one of my kids would want it,” she said. “I would love for it to continue to stay.”
Over the years, Drain said folks have mentioned King Kone expanding to an additional location, or moving from the present one. What, and leave Cones Road? No way, Drain said: “The goal is to keep it in the same spot. Don’t mess up something that’s good.”
1505 Malvern Ave.
Hours: 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Mon.-Sat.
Other info: No alcohol; outdoor seating and call-ins available.
King Kone helped manifest something that’s been in the back of our minds as we dine across the state that we’re calling The Arkansas Napkin Paradox: Restaurants that need the heaviest napkins often have the chintziest ones, and restaurants with the nice napkins — like the ones that worth storing in your glove compartment for future use — often serve the stuff that requires them the least. We’re still working out details like The Cloth Clause, but this serviette inequity may hold true nationally as well.