2021 was supposed to be an improvement on the year 2020 for restaurants, dining and all things Eat Arkansas. In January, coronavirus cases were climbing to record numbers, but vaccines were becoming available, offering a glimmer of hope. However, restaurant employees — essential workers in the early pandemic days when everyone non-essential went home — were stuck in group 1-C, not eligible to receive the vaccine until mid-March, after the capacity directives on restaurants had been lifted. In February a record-breaking snowstorm caused a water main downtown to rupture, flooding the basements of two Main Street restaurants, forcing one to close for months. Over the course of the year restaurants grappled with labor shortages, inflation, supply chain issues and two new COVID variants, and despite it all, you could still go out to eat. It might have taken longer, the menu item you wanted might not have been available, but for the most part, the issues weren’t glaringly obvious for customers. But that doesn’t mean they weren’t there (tip well, please).

Despite all the pandemic-related problems, it was a great year to Eat Arkansas. Quesabirria tacos made a splash, we took a deep dive into the flourishing local taco truck scene, we did a 6th grade science fair experiment at the office with local glazed donuts, new restaurants emerged and announced 2022 openings, Jones Bar-B-Q in Marianna nearly burned down, but built back with help from the community and then made a major publication’s 2021 restaurant list. 2021 wasn’t all terrible. Here are this year’s 21 most-read food stories from Eat Arkansas.

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21. Basements of Main Street restaurants flood after water main rupture

by Rhett Brinkley

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Soul Fish Cafe

“It’s just another headache is what it is,” Chris Tanner of Samantha’s Tap Room said. “You just get through all this shit, get all the restaurants finally half opened up, and then God Almighty, here we go again.”

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20. Arkansas’s star from India: Sami Lal

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By Rhett Brinkley

Matt White
THE LIVING LEGEND: Sami Lal.

We profiled the gregarious Star of India proprietor who was inducted into the Arkansas Food Hall of Fame this year.

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19. A beginner’s guide to bourbon

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By Griffin Coop

Dominick Guzzo

If you’re in the spirit for a new spirit this year, don’t be afraid to give bourbon a try. Here’s a beginner’s guide to help you on your way.

 

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18. Best Cafe lives up to name

By Rhett Brinkley

Brian Chilson
BAKED, DIPPED, GRILLED AND TORCHED: The Creme Brulee French Toast at Best Cafe.

The Hot Springs motor court restaurant has fashioned itself into a destination.

 

17. The timeless appeal of Newport’s Postmaster Spirits

By Jordan P. Hickey

Arshia Khan
THE POSTMASTER: Owner Ross Jones with his wife, Lua.

If that name clangs any bells, if it whispers of any hangovers past, it’s likely because of the all-too-timely product that brought an orange wave of headlines back in April 2019: Trump Tonic. (“Trump tonic will grab you by your ‘wherever,’ ” the back of the bottle reads.)

 

16. Kream Kastle is a greasy spoon and a living fossil

By Guy Lancaster

Bacon Cheeseburger at Kream Kastle.

Where the parking lot is always full of pickup trucks and the number of napkins thrown into your brown bag of take-out is directly proportional to how messy the food is, and, therefore, indicative of its quality.

 

15. Hot Springs hooch: New distillery emerges from pandemic leaner, wiser

By Dwain Hebda

shelves of moonshineBrian Chilson
Flavored moonshines are the specialty at Crystal Ridge Distillery in Hot Springs.

A Hot Springs family fired up Crystal Ridge Distillery at the beginning of the pandemic. With flexibility and creativity, they made it work.

 

14. Pridgin Family Brewery joins growing list of small-town Arkansas beermakers

By Brian Sorensen

Brian Sorensen

Opening a brewery was a gamble for the Pridgin family. Even with Country Monks and Prestonrose seeing success nearby, beer tastes in Logan County still tip towards cheap industrial lagers.

 

13. A guide to open air dining in Central Arkansas

By Rhett Brinkley

Brian Chilson

Patios for days.

 

12. Jones Bar-B-Q Diner lands on New York Times 2021 Restaurant List

By Rhett Brinkley

Daniel Walker
James Harold Jones

In the same year that a fire almost completely destroyed the iconic barbecue institution in Marianna (Lee County), Jones Bar-B-Q Diner made the The New York Times Restaurant List comprised of 50 U.S. restaurants selected by the newspaper’s critics, editors and reporters.

 

11. The movers and shakers of the Central Arkansas condiment world

By Rhett Brinkley and Lindsey Millar

Truth Sauce, pepper relish and party ranch, oh my!

 

10. Cheap eats in Central Arkansas

By Rhett Brinkley

Brian Chilson

Seven meals for under $10.

 

9. The Arkansas Barbecue Trail

By Rhett Brinkley

Barbecue tourism in Arkansas is a thing and it’s time for you to hit the road.

 

8. Arkansas beers to try before you die

By Brian Sorensen, Rhett Brinkley, Stephanie Smittle & Lindsey Millar

The brewing scene in Arkansas has blossomed over the last decade, and we’re here to help you navigate those foamy waters with a selection of a few Arkansas beers worth seeking out.

 

7. Lonoke County’s Finest: The Grumpy Rabbit is field trip-worthy

By Rhett Brinkley

Brian Chilson

There’s a fantastic new restaurant in Central Arkansas, and it isn’t located in the Heights, Hillcrest, SoMa or Argenta.

 

6. The Central Arkansas taco truck guide

By Rachael Bourné, Guy Lancaster, Jason Woods, Lindsey Millar, Stephanie Smittle, Austin Bailey & Rhett Brinkley

photo of Alejandro Guitierrez of Tacos GodoyStephanie Smittle
Alejandro Guitierrez of Tacos Godoy

Little Rock (and to a lesser extent North Little Rock) taco truck culture is booming. When we last rounded up mobile purveyors of authentic Mexican food in 2010, there were about 15 trucks regularly found in Southwest Little Rock. Today, there are closer to 30, and that number is growing all the time.

 

5. Restaurant owners can open up dining capacity to 100%, but many think it’s too soon

By Rhett Brinkley

In Early March, restaurant owners sounded off about the capacity restrictions being lifted in a time when many service industry workers were not yet eligible for vaccination.

 

4. Big Bad Breakfast coming to West Little Rock in early 2022

By Rhett Brinkley

Lindsey Millar
BIG BAD BREAKFAST: The Creole Omelette.

Big Bad Breakfast — founded in Oxford in 2008 by chef and author John Currence, a New Orleans native and James Beard award winner — has become a staple in Oxford and beyond, known for its high-end, decadent breakfast fare.

 

3. The best donuts in Central Arkansas

By Rhett Brinkley

picture of best donuts in Little RockBrian Chilson

Circling the local “plain glazed” scene.

 

2. Best restaurants in Arkansas 2021

By Arkansas Times Staff

Matthew Martin

To ring in the 40th anniversary of the Arkansas Times’ Readers Choice restaurant contest, we saluted the restaurants that got us through a tumultuous 2020.

 

1. “I want the tacos for dipping” — Quesabirria via La Casa De Mi Abuelita Maw Maw’s House

By Rhett Brinkley

Brian Chilson

Instagram-worthy tacos for dipping.