By the time the end of the year rolls around, I’ll have eaten about 390 meals at 225 different restaurant establishments. Nonchain restaurants in Little Rock/North Little Rock make up just over 30% of them, 6% are in Northwest Arkansas and 4% are in other parts of our state. The remaining 60% of the restaurants fall outside Arkansas borders. (I wish our borders were a smidge wider so I could have included the delicious salmon with chorizo-corn hash I had at Pecan Point Brewing in Texarkana, Texas, but alas … .)
I just read “Down and Out in Paradise,” Charles Leerhson’s biography of Anthony Bourdain, and now I’m racing through the pages of Bourdain’s “Kitchen Confidential” on my phone every night as I lie on the hardwood floor beside my 18-month-old son’s crib. He’s got a cold that makes him needy, so my wife, Liz, and I take turns all night long serving as the presence in the room he needs to fall back asleep. He tosses and turns every half-hour or so and never fails to peek over the edge of the mattress to ensure we’re there. It’s awful. We were past this stage, but for the last two weeks, we’re back in the trenches with the baby.
Liz and I fantasize about the trips we will take when our children are more self-sufficient; trips to places that Bourdain and his film crew visited for “Parts Unknown.” Trips to places without a kids menu. But for now, when we treat ourselves to a prepared meal, it’s usually something chosen for its speed and convenience. With the exception of the Popeye’s Chicken Sandwich, we are anti-fast food people, though in a desperate moment with the baby screaming on the way home from Motley’s Pumpkin Patch in October, we introduced our children to Wendy’s. I couldn’t have felt more defeated to say into the crackling drive-through speaker, “I think I need a Feed the Fam meal deal.” My 5-year-old was blown away by how easy and delicious the whole process was.
I write all this to say that after compiling my list of the 10 best meals I had in Arkansas this year, I recognize they are not the kind of meals you consume on special occasions. I didn’t have time for meals like that this year — at least not while in the state. For my 40th birthday, our moms watched the boys so Liz and I could eat Fried Rice Croquettes with Tuna at the Antler Room in Kansas City. We escaped to San Antonio to eat Akaushi Steak Tartare at the Fairmount Hotel’s rooftop oyster bar, and we managed a summer trip to New Orleans for Hot Crab Couyon at Bearcat Cafe. When I traveled for work, I ate similarly inviting dishes — Birria de Cabrito at Ruins in Dallas, a Watermelon Ceviche in the Texas panhandle and Spanish Style Escargot at Paces & Vine in Atlanta. I can eat like that when I’m hours and hours away from my children. But when I am not, I mostly only eat out for lunch, which is how I explain the somewhat boring nature of this year’s list.
I also recognize that I have fallen into the routine of going to the same places over and over. The chopped salmon salad at Cheers has made this list three years running. It’s good and it deserves to be considered for the list every year, but I recognize that it’s my responsibility to get out there and find its competition in the state. Raduno, The Oyster Bar, Allsopp & Chapple, Farmer’s Table Cafe, Brood & Barley, Kemuri and Three Fold Noodles and Dumpling Co. have all appeared in two of my last three lists. I don’t want to be a creature of habit, but it’s happened.
To combat this issue next year, I just sent Liz a text vowing to make a list of every restaurant in Little Rock so that I can visit them all in 2023 instead of repeatedly hitting the restaurants I inevitably frequent. She likes the idea, she said. And then after a short pause for segue, she replied, “Come get your youngest child. Not taking a nap is a worse offense than not sleeping at night at this point.” The short exchange is the perfect representation of where my ambitions as an eater run up against my responsibilities as a parent.
Tomato & Onion Soup, Danny Trejo as “Machete.” Leverett Lounge. Fayetteville. 8.24.2022.
I told a coworker’s husband my go-to Fayetteville restaurants are Farmer’s Table Cafe and Mockingbird Kitchen, so he recommended I try Leverett Lounge. Fifteen minutes later I was sitting at the bar, overlooking the tiny kitchen. The chef describes the “Danny Trejo as Machete” (which is not on their current menu) as ancho braised beef short rib, chorizo mashed potato, crispy red onion, queso fresco, and jalapeno relish. The brilliant thing about this dish is that everything on that plate could be divvied up and forked at the same time, so that each bite had the full range of flavors and textures. This meal was not my overall favorite of the year, but it may have contained the single best bite. I hadn’t planned on ordering soup, but as soon as I tasted the entree and understood the caliber of food I had in front of me, I needed to try more things. While the short rib was the hero of the meal, the tomato and onion soup held its own, reminding me of the tomato basil soup at Raduno that has appeared on this list previously.
Dry Aged Pork Chop. Allsopp & Chapple. Little Rock. 9.7.2022.
The pork chop came with grilled apple and a cherry bourbon glaze. I’m a sucker for cherries and that fruity tartness worked well on this plate that essentially sat in a butter bath. The entire entree was a beautiful battle between sweet and savory — banana sweet potato mash, butter, juicy pork, butter, cherry bourbon glaze, butter — and I was the big winner. I need A&C to open for lunch.
Catered Dinner (Beef & Mushrooms, Cheese Grits, Chicken Skewers, Calamari, Oysters, Gumbo, Key Lime Pie Bites). The Oyster Bar. Little Rock. 11.4.2022.
Had I been left alone in the room with this private buffet spread, I might’ve hurt myself. Thank gawd there were witnesses there to shame me back into my place. I lived in New Orleans for three years, but I never had Gulf oysters as good as the ones I get at The Oyster Bar in Little Rock. They are big and have the unmistakable Gulf taste, but they are also cleaner than most. (Also, I was a broke graduate student in New Orleans, chasing the cheapest oyster specials I could find around town.) Their gumbo is fantastic, and this trip introduced me to The Oyster Bar’s chicken skewers and beef & mushrooms. Chicken skewers have a low ceiling for me because I feel like they are food for people who make most life decisions based on fear. But the beef & mushrooms impressed me for a restaurant that specializes in Cajun seafood.
Chicken Livers App (shared), Pork Osso Bucco. Red Door. Little Rock. 11.3.2022.
I forget about Red Door and its sister restaurant, Loca Luna, both of which used to be staples in my life 15 years ago. Was Red Door called Bene Vita back then? But when my out-of-towner in-laws suggested picking up take-out, I looked forward to it. I don’t know why I forget about it. The Pork Osso Bucco was a massive hunk of tender meat that satisfied my inner Viking — an inner Viking who doesn’t mind his dinner showing up in a clam-shell to-go box. In a desperate attempt to educate myself about osso bucco, I unearthed an Arkansas Times article from a decade ago with the headline “At Red Door, osso bucco is king.” In a year in which I will describe some of my favorite meals by saying that they aren’t consistently good anymore, I’m glad to find this one is apparently as good as it always has been. Also, if you are a chicken liver person, these were good ones that came with gravy and hot pepper jelly — a choice for the ages.
Noodle Bowl with Pork, add Egg. Three Fold Noodles and Dumpling Co. Little Rock. 6.1.2022.
Three Fold is my most frequented restaurant this year (if you don’t count all the times I hit up Starbucks for those mediocre sous vide egg bites) and my favorite dish is the Noodle Bowl with pork. I’m a noodle man and Three Fold has some of the best. I feel like the chopped pickled veggies/cilantro combo understands who I am as a person. I used to go the tofu route, but the pork is just too juicy to pass up. HOWEVER, lately the pork has been fatty. As has the beef in the beef noodle soup (which nearly made this list). To the point that I have to ask myself if the proper etiquette for pulling chewed animal fat from my mouth is the chopsticks I used to put the bite into my mouth (I think it is), and then I have that awkward moment where the person I’m eating with sees me put the fatty ball onto my tray. It’s weird for everyone, and I pray Three Fold has not decided to try and cut some costs via the cuts of meat they’re purchasing. Stay tuned.
Ahi Tuna Niçoise. Zaza Fine Salad & Wood Oven Pizza Co. Conway. 8.23.2022.
Zaza has become my place to go when I need a salad. I mostly alternate between the Petit Jean Ranch and the Santa Fe South, but when I stopped into the Conway location this summer, I noticed their salad special had a lot of things in the ingredients list that speak to me: cherry and heirloom tomatoes, green beans, roasted potato, Niçoise olives, 8-minute egg, ahi tuna, white anchovies, caper berries, lemon-garlic-anchovy vinaigrette. I got my salad to go, but I was so excited about it that I ended up eating it in my truck before I left the parking lot. I assume the salad didn’t appeal to a lot of people, but I appreciated such bold choices for a salad special. A month later I visited a French bistro in Dallas with a Nicoise salad on the menu, but it didn’t come close to this one. Put it on the regular menu, please.
Chicken & Goat Cheese Nachos App (shared), Chopped Salmon Salad. Cheers. Maumelle. 9.26.2022.
The Chopped Salmon Salad at Cheers is the best salad I’ve ever had and the Arkansas Department of Tourism should list it amongst our state’s top amenities. I could have chosen to list any of the seven instances I had with the salad this year; I opted for the time I also got the nachos — because why not include bonus nachos — but ultimately that appetizer was forgettable and a nonfactor in this ranking decision.
Sushi Rolls (Princess, Volcano, Red Dragon, Kemuri, Beverly Hills, Mango Tango) (to go). Kemuri. Little Rock. 2.10.2022.
For years, I adamantly told anyone and everyone that Kemuri was easily the best sushi restaurant around, and that was still true at the beginning of the year. When ordering with friends, I basically didn’t care what we ordered because I knew it would all be good. I could order the same six rolls twice in a row — and I did, a week apart — and have a different favorite each time, which is the best-case scenario. But at some point this year, in what I hope is a coincidence, the rice-to-fish ratio became more and more unfavorable. While this meal from February made my top 10 — and I stand by the ranking — my last visit to Kemuri barely broke the 50th percentile.
Fried Chicken Lunch Special with Collard Greens, Cucumber & Tomato Salad, Hash Browns, Cornbread. Cache. Little Rock. 5.12.2022.
After my first few meals at Cache, just after they opened, I wrote them off as the kind of place that charges too much for mediocre food because they had decent plate presentation. But this year I discovered their $12 lunch specials and started showing up for the value, oddly enough. But I don’t rank meals based on anything but taste. Their fried chicken lunch gets it done. Comfort food done right from an unlikely venue. I’ve had the selection multiple times this year and the sides are always shuffling, but for me, the savory collard greens, fresh cucumber & tomato salad, and cornbread are as good as it gets. I’d trade the hashbrowns if I could. I also recommend the taco salad on Tuesdays. Skip the ginormous chicken fried steak on Wednesdays — it’s mostly breading.
Ribeye with Collard Greens. Samantha’s Tap Room. Little Rock, Arkansas. 9.20.2022.
People told me to come for the Cuban, so I came, but it didn’t do anything for me. And I’ve been to their party room for their catering, which was OK. I usually stick with the Chopped Salmon Salad because it’s nearly identical to Cheers’s (same owner). But this is the best meal I’ve ever had here. A good steak done right — seasoned, wood-grilled mid-rare, and finished with herbed butter — is hard to beat. But the greens were even better.