Little Rock has more stellar lunch spots than we deserve, and it’s entirely possible to escape most of them without busting your budget for the entire day. Here, we highlight a few steals for the noontime hour. Among them: a reliable River Market slice of pie, a tender torta and a Banh Mi that won’t break the bank.
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Chicken Shawarma Sandwich
Layla’s Gyro, $4.99.
9501 N. Rodney Parham Road, Suite 7.
For all the clamor and sizzle of a crowded Monday lunch visit to Layla’s Gyros, you might think the Greek diner had been closed all weekend (it’s open both Saturday and Sunday) and fans needed a fix. Behind the countertop, just a few feet away from a host of what seem to be regular patrons, cooks shave shards of beef and lamb from red-hot autodoners, and the smell of garlic and halal ground beef wafts from the flat grill. For $4.99, you’ll get a Chicken Shawarma Sandwich with enough heft to forgo any accompaniments: sliced chicken marinated in lemon, garlic and a spice mix, packed into a pillowy pita with lettuce, tomato, cucumber and creamy tzatziki sauce. Or check out the crispy Falafel Sandwich counterpart — same price, same format, but stuffed generously with brawny chickpea croquettes. Either way, don’t plan to eat these Middle Eastern delights in the car or on a first date; Layla’s sandwiches are multi-napkin fare.
Fried Pork Chop Sandwich
K. Hall & Sons Produce, $3.29.
1900 Wright Ave.
Landing at K. Hall & Sons in the middle of a weekday brings a deluge to the senses. Coolers and freezers line the walls of the outsized bodega, packed with piles of fresh fruit, frozen ducks, frog legs in bulk and smoked sausages. Signs blanket the interior brick behind the cash register, administering warnings that range from “Watermelons: We guarantee ripeness, not sweetness” and “We cannot serve you if your drawers are showing. Please cover ’em up or leave the premises.” (And, when a holiday is imminent, stacks of vibrantly frosted, ready-to-eat sheet cakes beckon, in flavors like caramel and strawberry lemonade.) Those looking for a weekday lunchtime bargain will want to take a spot in the line against the west wall and order up the Fried Pork Chop Sandwich. Between two slices of white bread slathered with mayo and mustard, you’ll get a bone-in pork chop fried to a golden crisp and topped with lettuce, tomato, pickle and onion — hearty on its own, but still a bargain when paired with a bottle of soda from the iced beverage barrels nearby, or a few slugs from a half-gallon of HallBros2Go Wright Ave. Watermelon Lemonade.
Slice of Pepperoni
or Mushroom Pizza
201 E. Markham St.
On one end of the pizza snobbery spectrum: a slice of Hunt Brothers from the truck stop. On the other: a disc of carefully fermented dough topped with things like gorgonzola and pine nuts and prosciutto, then charred in a raging wood-fired oven. Somewhere in between those two extremes, there’s a golden mean: the ready-made lunch slice from Iriana’s. Reliably enormous and generously cheesed, it’s swiftly delivered to your table (or to a carryout paper plate wrapped in a modest brown paper sack) for a scant few bucks. The upsized supreme version — which Iriana’s calls “Clean the Floor” — will still run you under five bucks, and the plain cheese slice is $2.99. Technically, these are served weekdays between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m., but they do tend to run out of the pre-fashioned slices when River Market foot traffic swells, so err on the earlier side.
Banh Mi Thit
Mike’s Cafe, $4.
5501 Asher Ave.
Here’s how Max Brantley, in a 2018 list of editor’s picks, described the Banh Mi Thit at Mike’s Cafe: “No slice of pate here. You choose beef, pork or chicken; each comes dipped in a sticky sauce. The meat is dressed with crunchy fresh and pickled vegetables, plenty of fresh cilantro and slices of fresh hot peppers (watch out!). They stuff a torpedo- shaped bun that is served hot and crusty. They call it an appetizer, but it’s easily a lunch. And it costs THREE DOLLARS. That’s right. THREE DOLLARS.” It’s FOUR DOLLARS now, but still a bargain.
Three-Piece Chicken Wing Dinner
K. Hall & Sons Produce, $4.49.
1900 Wright Ave.
Devotees of K. Hall & Sons (see Pork Chop Sandwich, previous) know we could easily have populated this cheap eats list entirely from the Wright Avenue mainstay’s menu. Another meal we have to mention is the chicken wing dinner. Requesting it means you’ll leave with a red-and-white cardboard lunch box bursting at its folded seams with starchy sustenance: a soft white roll and four fried potato wedges (or Jo-Jo logs, if you like) accompanying three enormous chicken wings rendered crackly by a deep fry and a subsequent stall under a heat lamp.
Chicken Rice Bowl
Aji Ramen Bar, $6.50.
301 N. Shackleford, Suite F3
Look for the banner bellowing “NO RAMEN, NO LIFE.” Inside the otherwise unremarkable storefront, you’ll find the lunch crowd at Aji Ramen bent over steaming bowls of broth, plucking bits of pork belly, seaweed and soft-boiled egg from within. Behind the bar in the compact kitchen there’s an exercise in efficiency — a trio of cooks working in silence against a backdrop of stacked pots, pans and bamboo steam baskets. Most of the menu at Aji skews under the $10 mark, but the Chicken Rice Bowl is a steal. For $6.50, you’ll get a generous pile of piping hot (and perfectly sticky) rice, blanketed by medallions of chicken tenderloin and a few steamed broccoli florets, all speckled with sesame seeds and drizzled with a sweet sauce that can, if you like, be tempered with a dusting from the canister of red pepper powder you’ll find within reach at every seat. (Bonus at Aji: clean, gender-neutral restroom facilities.)
Taqueria El Palenque, $5.99.
9501 N. Rodney Parham Road
In a region swarmed by mediocre Mexican restaurants, it’s helpful to be able to separate the wheat from the chaff, and we count this tiny but vibrant strip-mall cantina as a favorite alongside the likes of Pinches Tacos and La Hacienda. Inside Taqueria El Palenque, towering stacks of corn tortillas from Little Rock treasure Tortilleria Brenda sit on stainless steel shelves in a clean, open kitchen, next to giant stock pots of meat simmering on the stove. For $5.99, you can score a soft bolillo roll stuffed with lettuce, tomato, onion, sour cream, jalapeno and avocado, served with salsa roja, salsa verde and your choice of protein: asada, chorizo, pork pastor, jamon, chicken, beef tongue, pork or barbacoa beef. Oh, and take heed: Taqueria El Palenque is closed on Mondays, but opens for lunch at a chipper 10 a.m. the rest of the week.