A hundred years ago — Thursday, March 4, 1921 — President Woodrow Wilson put his name on a document declaring a lush, mountainous strip of land in the Ouachita Mountains as Hot Springs National Park. What had been designated by Congress in 1832 as a reservation was established as a heralded bellwether of Wilson’s relatively new national parks program, with government-led protections for the 47 thermal springs that bubble up from the Earth at a feisty 143 degrees, believed by many then and now to be medicinal. To mark the centennial, we’re celebrating all things Spa City — the things that make it a geological anomaly, the things that make it a haven for lovers of pizza and gambling and cycling, and the things that keep it perennially weird.
This article was originally published Nov. 25, 2019.
Until recently, we didn’t even know what the restaurant was actually called. It has long occupied a partially gravel-covered lot about halfway between Benton and Hot Springs on U.S. Highway 70, obviously a drive-up diner, but no sign giving a name or brand to this particular operation. Usually, my wife and I just called it “that tastee-freeze” or some variation thereof, specifying, if need be, “You know, that place on Highway 70 between Ten Mile Creek and the turnoff to Lonsdale.” Where other restaurants so often try to stand out in a crowded field, this one has succeeded, it seems, by melting into the landscape, in many ways functioning as a generic symbol for old-fashioned drive-ins everywhere.
We may not have known the name of the restaurant, but we knew it met our two tests for greasy spoons. First, the parking lot is regularly filled with pick-up trucks. In fact, my wife and I have adopted a rule whereby, if we find ourselves in an unfamiliar place and need to grab a bite, we’ll drive around the various eating establishments until we find one surrounded with trucks. This has never led us astray. Second, the number of napkins thrown into your brown bag of take-out is directly proportional to how messy is the food and, therefore, indicative of its quality. And not only is this little diner regularly surrounded by pick-ups, but each bag comes with enough napkins to staunch arterial bleeding. This is what you want.
We never knew the name of the restaurant because we always paid in cash, because this little tastee-freeze always looked the sort of place that might not exactly take a credit card. I am sure that ceased to be the case years ago, but when you walk up to that window to order and see those unchanging plastic letters and numbers unevenly spelling out “PATTY MELT 569” and “BREADED PICKLE SPEARS 279” on a sun-faded Coca-Cola menu board, well, you make certain assumptions. However, on my last pass from Hot Springs back to Little Rock, I cunningly observed a sticker on the window indicating that various credit cards were welcome, and so I paid using mine, and when the receipt came back, there, at the top of that little piece of paper, stood the name of this particular eatery: Kream Kastle Drive Inn.
I proudly took the fruits of my detective work over to my wife. “Huh,” she said. “You know, everyone working inside is wearing a T-shirt with those exact words on them.” So this is how Watson felt hanging out with Holmes.
There’s a reason the Kream Kastle parking lot stays relatively full from the moment the drive-in opens at 10 a.m. to its closing at 7 p.m., and that’s because it serves decent food at a good price. The menu covers all the basics of drive-in diners: burgers, chicken sandwiches, fish sandwiches, hot dogs, chicken strips, taco salads, various kinds of fried potato or onion products, as well as an array of shakes, sundaes, frosties and floats. This is the fast food of yesteryear, before fast food became an industrialized and monotonous product engineered by vertically integrated conglomerates. (For many years now, there has also been a paper sign taped to the window advertising a catfish dinner. It’s apparently a standard menu item now, but no one has bothered to change the actual menu.)
After nearly two decades of stopping in on various trips to and from Hot Springs, we have probably tried most everything on offer and never once been disappointed. On our most recent pass, the wife ordered a regular burger with spicy fries, while I got the double bacon cheeseburger with spicy fries and a side of stuffed jalapenos. My own burger came stacked high, the bacon coiled and curved atop the two meat patties. This was not one of those absolute gut-busters that makes one sweat with the effort of digestion — it was reasonably sized and, at $6.79, also reasonably priced. Granted, I probably did not need an entire order of fries all myself, as well as those jalapenos, on top of said burger. The stuffed jalapenos ($3.99) come solidly breaded and loaded with piping hot melted cheese, accompanied by a little plastic tub of buttermilk ranch. The spicy fries ($2.79) are that variant of potato product occasionally called cajun fries or seasoned fries in other establishments — not actually spicy, but lightly dusted with a little seasoning and a bit crunchier than the standard fries. My wife also ordered a large butterscotch shake ($3.19), and while I usually drink something carbonated (to aid the digestion), after a taste of her shake, I wished I had gotten one myself.
Most people drive up to Kream Kastle and get their order to go. There are a few tables inside, but only rarely have I seen anyone eating indoors. However, there are two large picnic tables, both covered by the roof, situated just outside. So, theoretically, it’s a dog-friendly establishment, but be prepared for begging; Kream Kastle being what it is, there is probably nothing on the menu your dog wouldn’t eat.
Kream Kastle has no social media presence whatsoever. Neither does it take orders through various delivery apps. One might be tempted to call this place a throwback to an earlier era, an atavism, a living fossil. But we just call it that little drive-in on Highway 70 — you know, that tastee-freeze between Ten Mile Creek and the Lonsdale turnoff, the place where all the trucks are parked.
Kream Kastle Drive Inn
15922 U.S. Hwy. 70
Hours: 10 a.m.-7 p.m. daily