IT’S A BELGIAN WAFFLE UNDER THERE: Press Waffle Co.’s house waffle is topped with house-made whipped cream, Nutella, strawberries and cookie butter. Rhett Brinkley

There was an uncharacteristic degree of pandemic optimism in the editorial office when we first began discussing the 2022 Natives Guide a few months ago. We knew we’d likely have received our booster shots, our kids would be vaccinated, delta would hopefully be fizzling out. It’d be the Natives Guide to moving forward out of the pandemic: Here is a list of local restaurants that boldly accepted the challenge of opening during the global health crisis, defying the odds in a time of inauspicious volatility! If you haven’t yet, go try them in 2022.

And although we got our boosters and our kids vaccinated, the delta variant still roared back after Thanksgiving and a new, scary, more contagious variant, omicron, emerged. I won’t speak for my colleagues, but I have been reduced back to my usual pandemic cynicism.

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After two years, however, we have a pretty good idea of what works. Clean air, masks, distance and vaccines provide protection. And while we don’t know exactly what omicron is capable of yet, life and business won’t stop in Arkansas. The state lawmakers would be more likely to host a public mask burning than mandate them again. But that doesn’t mean we can’t do our part and still have some fun along the way. So vax up, mask up, open a window or spread out a bit, and if you’re uncomfortable, take your food to-go and leave a fat tip. Here is a list of local restaurants that boldly accepted the challenge of opening during the global health crisis, defying the odds in a time of inauspicious volatility! If you haven’t yet, go try them in 2022.

Rosie’s Pot & Kettle

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Friends Katie McDaniel, Alisha Black and Liz Maxey were set to open their new restaurant, Rosie’s Pot & Kettle, in March of 2020. They were scheduled to be cleared by the health department and fire marshal the same week Governor Hutchinson mandated dining rooms be closed to the public.

“That put us back an entire month before we could actually get cleared to get open for to-gos only,” McDaniel said.

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Rosie’s, named after Rosie the Riveter, officially opened in April of 2020 in Little Rock’s East Village neighborhood, about a half-mile from Fidel & Co., in the building that previously housed Calvin’s Soul Food at 423 Bond Ave.

Brian Chilson
The footlong chili dog at Rosie’s Pot & Kettle.

Known for its plate lunch specials like meatloaf, pot roast and a cheeseburger featuring local beef sourced from Leis Creek Cattle in Clinton (Van Buren County), and a variety of scratch-made pies and cheesecakes, Rosie’s had to get through the early stages of the pandemic capacity restrictions without any help from the federal government. Being a new business without bills and payroll from the prior year, Rosie’s did not qualify for the first round of the government’s Paycheck Protection Program [PPP] loan. Despite all the challenges, Rosie’s has grown and continues to grow, McDaniel said. “We’ve been very fortunate.”

Brood & Barley

The owners of Flyway Brewery opened gastropub Brood & Barley on June 25, 2020, in the space that once housed Core Brewery at 411 Main St. in Argenta. Chef Brayan McFadden moved to Central Arkansas from Philadelphia in January of 2020 to head up the new restaurant, which was targeting an April opening. The team at Brood & Barley had already begun ordering inventory and started the hiring process when the dining room shutdown was issued on March 19. Brood & Barley has since become a popular food destination in Argenta and won Best New Bar in the 2021 Arkansas Times Readers Choice poll.

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Brian Chilson
GROWING THROUGH THE PANDEMIC: Flyway owner Jess McMullen (left) convinced his cousin Brayan McFadden to move to Arkansas to open a new specialty taproom, Brood & Barley.

Rock City Kitchen, RCK Revenue Cafe, Rock City Tacos

Joe Vincent has opened not one, not two, but three restaurants downtown during the pandemic. Vincent opened Rock City Kitchen on July 20, 2020, in the Arkansas Department of Finance and Administration Building at 1515 W. Seventh St. The location was originally going to be a new restaurant from Flint Flenoy, who owns Flint’s at the Regions and Flint’s at the Flight Deck.

“He never did kind of get it going, just due to the pandemic and him having other locations, so he asked us what we [thought] about it,” Vincent said. Vincent said timing couldn’t have been worse, but the location was ideal for the times in an area where people were still going to work.

“You have the state Capitol right there, the news station [KARK], Children’s [Hospital], UAMS is not far. It sounded like a great opportunity because these people still needed to eat, they still had to wake up in the morning, they still needed coffee, breakfast, you know, the things we need to put in our body to make sure we get through a workday.”

Brian Chilson
Joe Vincent opened Rock City Kitchen in July of 2020.

While Vincent and his team were just getting started with Rock City Kitchen, an employee at the DFA’s Ledbetter Building at 1816 W. Seventh St. inquired about whether he had any interest in another space that had been used as a cafeteria/breakroom for years. The couple who had been running the cafeteria took the pandemic as an opportunity to retire and move on to other endeavors, Vincent said. All the equipment he would need to open, like the vent hood, stovetops and refrigerators, came with the space. Aside from a cosmetic makeover, it was ready to go.

Vincent opened RCK Revenue Cafe on Aug. 20, 2020, one month after Rock City Kitchen’s opening. Both Rock City Kitchen and RCK Revenue Cafe offer the same concept and menu and also provide catering services. The menu features burgers with turkey and vegan options, chicken wings, catfish, a variety of sandwiches, soups, salads and daily specials such as Soul Food Monday, fish specials on Friday and Taco Tuesdays. Taco Tuesday was so popular, in fact, that Vincent decided to base his next concept on it.

Brian Chilson
Rock City catfish.

Vincent opened Rock City Tacos on May 5, 2021, in the former Poke Hula at 415 E. Third St., becoming the first Black-owned, brick-and-mortar restaurant to open in the River Market in a decade. Shortly before opening, the new taco restaurant started getting a lot of attention from the media, Vincent said. Local news stations were calling, as well as the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

“It started to spin out of control,” Vincent said.

Vincent opened the store on Cinco de Mayo and “it went crazy,” he said. “So many people showed up. We ran out of everything. Everything that could’ve went wrong went wrong at the same time,” he said. “So it wasn’t perfect, it wasn’t pretty, but in the end, it still turned out to be a great day for us. We were definitely overwhelmed, but [there] was so much support from the city of Little Rock.”

Every day can’t be as busy as Cinco de Mayo, but Vincent said it helps being in a location within walking distance of the River Market and near hotels and businesses.

“We’ve done pretty good over there considering the times that we’re in right now,” he said.

Cypress Social

The Keet family’s JTJ restaurant group opened Cypress Social in August of 2020 in the former Cock of the Walk building at 7103 Cock of the Walk Lane after completely deconstructing the interior of the building, from the roof to the floors. A destination restaurant by design, Cypress Social offers 8,000 square feet of indoor space with an additional 2,000-square-foot, tri-level deck.

Brian Chilson
Cypress Social

The menu is Southern-inspired, featuring items such as the Blackened Redfish Pontchartrain, Shrimp and Grit Cakes and Delta-style Tamales. Cypress Social won the 2021 Arkansas Times Readers Choice award for Best New Restaurant in Little Rock/North Little Rock.

Rock N Roll Sushi

Jason Alley and Chris Kramolis opened Rock N Roll Sushi in West Little Rock at 12800 Chenal Parkway on May 29, during the Phase I response to the pandemic. Co-owner Alley said that despite only being able to open up at 33% capacity, it went well because there was a lot of excitement and buildup to it.

Brian Chilson
The Sweet Home Alabama Roll.

Alley and Kramolis opened their second location in SoMa at 1224 Main St. on Saturday, Aug. 15, in the space formerly occupied by Atlas Bar, which closed on July 1, 2020, due to the pandemic. Rock N Roll Sushi offers a variety of rock ’n’ roll-themed sushi rolls, a hibachi menu, multiple appetizers and catering services.

Charlee’s Good Time Drinkery

Charlee’s opened during Phase II of the restaurant reopening amid the coronavirus to 60% capacity in August of 2020, in the ground floor of the Prospect Building on North University. It acquired the late-night private club license from Local Union, permitting it to stay open until 5 a.m. (it was mandated along with other bars in the state to close at 11 p.m. for more than two months.) The menu largely consists of elevated bar food like wings and pulled pork smoked in-house, a chopped cheeseburger, a Cuban sandwich and a pot roast sandwich.

Charlee’s chopped cheese.

At press time, Charlee’s was amid a move to the River Market District in the space formerly occupied by Damgoode Pies at 500 President Clinton Ave. Owner Rodge Arnold said late last year the target date for the reopening was Dec. 20.

Wicked Taco Factory

Located downtown in the Pyramid Building at 221 W. Second St., Wicked Taco Factory opened in September of 2020. Owner Melanie Aquino said she postponed the opening for several months because downtown workers were largely working from home. Wicked Taco is an extension of Aquino’s taco truck Grills on Wheels, which she operated for years in front of Frances Flower Shop on West Capitol Avenue.

Brian Chilson
Carne asada fries at Wicked Taco Factory.

Certified Pies 

Husband and wife Kreg and Samantha Stewart and head chef Harlem Wilson opened Certified Pies at 9813 W. Markham St. in the first week of October 2020, becoming the only Black-owned pizza business in Little Rock. Operating out of Arkitchens, a 5,000-square-foot shared commercial kitchen space, Certified Pies built a quick following despite being limited to delivery and curbside service. The Certified Truth Wings are a must-order, my favorite wing experience of 2021. Stewart said the goal is to eventually open a brick-and-mortar.

Brian Chilson
GET CERTIFIED: Chef Harlem Wilson preps pies for pickup.

Black Angus 

Mere hours before 2020 began, Black Angus owner Karla Creasey found out she had to vacate the restaurant’s 28-year-old Rodney Parham location. “They gave me 30 days to vacate. Agreeing to not sue gave me 90 days, so that’s what I did,” Creasey said. So while most restaurants were trying to figure out how to operate amid the dining shutdown in mid-March, Creasey was scouting new locations. Morris Harper, son of the late Oliver Harper, who opened Black Angus at the corner of Markham and Van Buren streets in 1962, still owns the lot where Subway and Chi’s Too were located. Harper contacted Creasey and offered her the chance to put Black Angus back on the lot where it first opened. “He said when he gets to heaven he wants to be able to tell his daddy he put [Black Angus] back,” Creasey said. Known as the spot for charcoal-grilled burgers and hand-cut steaks, Black Angus opened back up in October of 2020.

 

Cinnaholic

Vegan bakery Cinnaholic opened Dec. 11, 2020, at 12800 Chenal Parkway, specializing in cinnamon rolls that are free of dairy, lactose, eggs and cholesterol. The expansion of the franchise began after the original owners’ successful appearance on ABC’s “Shark Tank.” Local owner Troy Hayes had his first Cinnaholic cinnamon roll over a game of Connect Four in Las Vegas. He turned in his franchise application three months later.

Cinnaholic

Cheesecake on Point

In May of 2021, Matcha Norwood opened a brick-and-mortar location for Cheesecake on Point at 9809 W. Markham, in the shopping center that houses Andy’s Restaurant and Fuller & Sons Hardware. Cheesecake on Point debuted as a food truck at the Main Street Food Truck Festival in 2019, selling cheesecake on a stick and a variety of flavors of cheesecake cupcakes. In addition to whole cheesecakes, personal 4-inch cheesecakes are available, as well as 6-packs or 12-packs of cheesecake cupcakes. Norwood accepts custom cheesecake orders in 6-inch and 9-inch varieties five days in advance.

Cheesecake on Point

 

Press Waffle Co. 

The pandemic delayed Press Waffle Co.’s opening about a year, co-owner Rosemary Compton told us. But people were clearly ready to try Press Waffle’s authentic Belgian Liége waffles, because when it opened in SoMa at 1424 Main St. the first weekend of September, long lines stretched outside the building and the restaurant sold out of dough. “There’s no way we could’ve predicted it, which is a great problem to have,” Compton said. “Little Rock showed us so much love and support.”

Rhett Brinkley
The Cristo waffle.

Camp Taco

Yellow Rock Concept’s newest concept, a small-batch brewery with tacos and playful cocktails in a vintage camp setting with decor that feels like you’ve walked into 1980-something, opened to much anticipation in October of this year and probably became the most Instagram-storied restaurant in Little Rock in 2021. There’s an old pink phone in one of the bathrooms that beckons the bathroom selfie.

Brian Chilson

Camp Taco offers several taco varieties (including vegan options), birria ramen, house-made popsicles and fun cocktails, such as a pina colada served in a frozen pineapple. Similar to every restaurant we’ve covered during the pandemic, Camp Taco’s opening was delayed. “We thought we’d be open in March, but the world had other ideas,” co-owner John Beachboard said.