Homemade bread, backyard chickens, allllllll the Netflix. The forced domesticity over the last year had its high points. But somewhere between “Tiger King” and “Lovecraft Country,” the walls started to close in, and one thing became abundantly clear: We gotta get outta this state. So we took out for Arkansas’s borderlands to help you plan your next road trip.
“Shreveport’s historic downtown was first built out of wood, and boy, did it burn, baby, burn. Kerosene and wood stoves and bar fights were not a good mix.” That’s the Downtown Development Authority on Shreveport’s fiery architectural history, and though the skyline today is formed of less flammable stuff, the feeling that the city’s been through the wringer lingers.
Before the oil and gas industry chewed it up and spat it out, Shreveport was once home to the biggest Red Light District in the state of Louisiana. Decriminalization of sex work in the early 1900s allowed bordellos to flourish in the low-lying “St. Paul’s bottoms” along the banks of the Red River, and madams like Annie McCune gave New Orleans’ bawdy Storyville a run for its money — until outcry from the church contingent eventually squelched the enterprise in 1917.
These days, an outpost of Larry Flynt’s Hustler strip club chain is the most visible offshoot of Shreveport’s brothel heyday, and the vice business belongs mostly to another cornerstone of riverboat culture: gambling. Blinking marquees cast a glittery reflection on the salty river water that divides Shreveport from Bossier City, announcing valet-attended casinos like Margaritaville and Sam’s Town and the Eldorado — all of which, by the way, are next-door neighbors to Shreveport’s more G-rated attractions, an aquarium, a riverwalk trail, farmers market pavilions, the Robinson Film Center and the SciPort Discovery Center’s planetarium and IMAX theater among them.
West of the river district, old neighborhoods mingle with new endeavors. A barbecue spot doubles as an auto detail business, or maybe the other way around. A sign announces that the vacant building behind it once housed the Shreveport Macaroni Company. Down the street is a Baptist church, the grand dome at the Strand Theater and the legendary Shreveport Municipal Auditorium, where the “Louisiana Hayride” show launched the careers of Hank Williams and Johnny Cash, and where promoter Horace Logan coined the phrase “Elvis has left the building.” Not far away, there’s the man-made Cross Lake, where old growth cypress trees bulge at the base of their trunks, frogs hold sway over the nighttime soundtrack, blue-collar crowds fish from lawnchairs after work on Friday and lakeside estates might be anything from modest 1970s budget digs to souped-up mansions with mulched palm trees and manicured lawns.
Some parts of Shreveport share hallmarks with Greater Little Rock. Both areas are bisected by a river. Both are stubbornly car-centric in their transportation infrastructure. Both are gentrified in patches. Both punch above their weight in their food scenes. Both have been scrutinized at a national level for their crime rates. And both have an old school psychic/fortune teller who’s occupied prime real estate downtown through good economic times and bad, even as restaurants and bars on the same block have come and gone. But Shreveport is a hybrid of ArkLaTex elements and therefore its own thing entirely — too Cajun to resemble its geographical neighbors in East Texas, too landlocked to feel like New Orleans, too libertine to feel like the Bible belt. Here are a few ways to take it in.
Ask for the Baby Shrimp Buster at Herby-K’s
A quick left turn off of Texas Avenue lands you at a Shreveport culinary institution — and one of the last businesses left standing in an economically ravaged part of town. Herby K’s is named after its late gregarious owner, Herbert J. Busi Jr. In the 1920s and ’30s, it was a package store called Flying Crow, where you could buy tobacco, candy and 15-cent fried oyster sandwiches, and it’s been owned by the same family since 1936, when Busi took it over and christened it with his college nickname. Today, you’re likely to be ushered into the canopied patio as I was, with a “How many you got? Getchoo a seat!” and then directed to a chain of long wooden picnic tables underneath a “Believe Dat!” flag and beside an antique clawfoot bathtub crowded with bus tubs. Go for the Baby Shrimp Buster ($9.95), the miniature version of Herby K’s butterfly shrimp signature ($14.95), two shrimp butterflied and smashed flat until they’re the size of your palm, then fried crisp and laid atop hunks of crusty French bread, with cole slaw, Herby-K sauce and some seriously delectable onion rings.
Grab a seat and a saison at Great Raft Brewery
Taking its name from the Red River logjam that created Shreveport in the first place, Great Raft’s brews are ubiquitous on taps all over town at Shreveport staples like Marilynn’s, Orlandeaux’s and Ki Mexico (see below), and for good reason. Open only four days a week, this spacious brewery boasts its offerings with a grid of colorful rotating signs along its back wall, which range from the easy drinking 318 Golden Ale, to the fruity Walker Melon Texas Ranger, to the funky, mayhaw-infused Future Self wild ale. Meanwhile, a painting of Jeff Bridges as Lebowski against a silhouette of Louisiana hangs on the wall, inviting patrons to abide likewise. There’s no patio, per se, but if the place is too crowded for your comfort, grab a growler or some cold ones to take home; the canned and bottled offerings are different than what’s on tap, so check both the wall signs and the cooler up front for options.
Feed a stingray at the Shreveport Aquarium
Built in 2017, this aquarium manages to straddle the fence between its dual roles as novel amusement and ecological steward. Dwarfed by the Riverside casinos that flank it on most sides and lit solely by eco-conscious LED lighting, the aquarium is home to sharks, lionfish, seahorses, a mesmerizing group of diaphanous sea nettles, and to Sunshine, an adorable rescue albino red-ear slider turtle. Especially kid-friendly are the newer interactive exhibits where, after a mandatory hand rinse, you can feed a snack to a stingray or use a gentle two-finger touch to pet an anemone or a starfish.
Get a glass of Malbec and a duck-scallion pancake at Lucky Palace
Lucky Palace isn’t the secret it once was; word tends to get out when your beloved owner’s life story appears in The New York Times, or when the James Beard Foundation takes note of your wine program, or when ESPN’s “TrueSouth” features you on an episode. Maybe more of a secret, though, is how to find the front door. Lucky Palace, bizarrely, occupies a sequestered portion of a budget motel in Bossier City called Bossier Inn & Suites. Likely, you’ll do what I did, which was follow my phone’s GPS to 750 Diamond Jack Blvd. and become immediately disoriented by mixed messages on a building next to an Oyo gas station, which bears both a vintage neon “Lucky Palace” sign on the top and vinyl wrap on its windows printed with the words “Rack 2 Rack Billiards.” You might then wander into a dark, smoky pool joint, turning every head at the bar. The jukebox may grind to a halt. Don’t worry. Someone will eventually take pity on you and yell out, “You looking for the restaurant?” You’ll make your way through the haze to an exit behind the pool tables, then through a dim corridor to the hotel lobby, at the back corner of which you might manage to spot the big black sign on the wall indicating that Lucky Palace does indeed exist. Finally, you’ll step in. When the server comes, utter these magic words: “We’d like the duck and scallion pancake.” Out will come a platter ($22) with chili crisp at its center, the perimeter lined with wedges of warm, doughy scallion pancake topped with long shards of green onion, duck sauce and generous hunks of uncommonly succulent Peking duck breast. The wine list clocks in at 24 pages, dwarfing the tiny food menu and offering — after a formal letter of introduction by Lucky Palace patriarch Kuan Lim — an enormous list of wines Lim has selected from all over the world. You can’t go wrong here, so just follow the mandates of your palate and your pocketbook; you’ll find everything from a $5 glass of Malbec to a $1,400 bottle of 2002 Cabernet Sauvignon from Rutherford Harlan Estate.
Give a nod to Lead Belly
Downtown in front of the Shreve Memorial Library — an impressive feat of architecture itself — stands a monument to folk music godfather Huddie William Ledbetter, better known as Lead Belly. Though he was a multi-instrumentalist, he’s best known for developing a signature style on the 12-string guitar, and is responsible for recording (and preserving, probably) bedrock blues tunes like “Midnight Special,” “Goodnight, Irene,” “Black Betty,” “The Gallows Pole” and “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” He’s also cited by the likes of Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger and Kurt Cobain and Odetta as a catalyst for much of the rock music that sprung from the blues in its formative days. Here at the corner of Texas and Marshall streets his likeness stands, created by artist Jessie Pitts and installed in 1996.
Eat a bowl of Tonkotsu ramen at Noble Savage Tavern
Across the street from the Lead Belly statue, you’ll find a shotgun tavern called Noble Savage, where a painting of Frank Zappa reigns over the beautiful bar, and they’re likely to be cranking Esperanza Spalding or the like if it’s too early for the nightly live music to have started. And why would you want to visit a late-night bar before late-night hours? It’s the ramen. Made daily from scratch under the name Ghost Ramen, Noble Savage’s head chef John Ortiz and crew send out tediously rolled wheat noodles crowned with chili oil, soft-boiled egg, bean sprouts, roasted artichoke or Kobe steak well into the evening, sought out for the slow-simmered broths that bolster each bowl. Ramen is served until 10 p.m., but my AirBnB host, who recommended the spot, said they often sell out well before that hour.
Hit the penny slots at Sam’s Town
If you can stand the smoke (and maybe the desperation) in the air at Shreveport’s riverboat casinos, the glittering marquee lights at Sam’s Town beckon until the wee hours of the morning, offering blackjack, Mississippi Stud and three floors of slots and table games. Though the laws that restricted Louisiana casino operations to the water — and required casinos to keep a mariner on staff as well as an operating paddle wheel — went by the wayside in 2018, the district remains river-centric, and is the chief contributor to the state’s tax revenue.
Grab beignets and coffee at Marilynn’s Place
Situated in an old gas station in a residential area of town, Marilynn’s is your fix for a piping-hot beignet sitting under a mountain of powdered sugar, or for a punchy Bloody Mary. Or grab a styrofoam cup and fill up on locally roasted Rhino Coffee at the bar. With its open-air layout and predominantly outdoor seating, it’s a great place for those of us who are vaccinated but not yet ready to cram into a crowded dining room. Other than the pillowy beignets, you’ll find one of the most impressive lists of po’ boy fillings (Cochon de Lait! Curry fried catfish! Brisket! Bell pepper and eggplant!), any of which can be shoved into beignets for the Bill Weiner Experience ($13.95). Brunch seekers: Sunday’s your chance. Otherwise, you’ll have to go down the street to Marilynn’s sister (brother?) restaurant, Ralph’s Place, where breakfast is served all day.
Shop for art at Agora Borealis
Across from the offices of the Shreveport Times in an industrial area downtown sits Agora Borealis, a storefront art market for local and state talent, with a few regional artists thrown into the mix. Hand-carved wooden canes, homemade soaps, metal sculpture, laptop stickers, pewter earrings and a variety of prints await, and this is absolutely your best bet for toting home a functional and/or delightful souvenir.
Eat tacos and elote at Ki Mexico
Ki Mexico is what happens when a family business ethos blends a flash tattoo aesthetic with a breezy tent patio and killer diller tacos stuffed with fresh inventive stuff like cactus and redfish. Don’t skip the elote ($4.81), served with a monster knife and fork in a Ki-branded metal tin so you can slide the cotija-coated kernels off and eat ’em with a fork. This is not Tex-Mex, so don’t expect chips and salsa to materialize upon entry, but do go for the Guacamole Show ($10.77), which offers a flight of four of the spot’s six house-made salsas. When it comes to a taco, everything is laid bare, and that’s great for Ki Mexico, which has absolutely nothing to hide and everything to boast about. If you love The Fold in Little Rock, you’ll love Ki Mexico. (Also, do as the sign instructs and “wear your pinche mask,” y’all.)
Saunter through the botanical garden at R.W. Norton Art Gallery
This is Shreveport’s Central Park, nestled between retail strips and residences and home to lazy picnics, outdoor classrooms for local schools and late-morning joggers in athletic wear. Here, Japanese maple and ferns and camellia hover close to the ground, under a canopy of towering pines and oaks and around a babbling stream, and the sloping hills make for a scenic way to spend a morning. The shady path around the 40-acre garden, dotted with sago palm and azalea and jessamine, is laid out in brick and flat enough to be accessible to slower walkers or to wheelchairs, but has enough of an incline that if you want to kick your heart rate up a little after those beignets, you can. Take a good book along with you, and maybe a Claritin, and note the hours at rwnaf.org; the garden is currently only open for daytime walks on Thursday through Saturday.
Nibble a bouchon at Whisk Dessert Bar
When a place does only desserts, best believe they do them well. Sharing a space off of Line Avenue thoroughfare with a gentlemen’s clothing store and a construction firm is Whisk Dessert Bar, a tiny treasure that we suspect is on speed dial for Shreveport wedding planners. There’s gelato and sorbet, and the pastry case is loaded with kitschy cookies and delicate French-informed confections like the impossibly dense, fudgy bouchons, sporting a powdered-sugar stencil of the bar’s signature whisk design on their tiny tops. You can also grab heftier stuff; on our visit, they were slicing up a lemon pound cake cheesecake while the kitchen buzzed with orders for custom graduation cakes.
Score some stuffed shrimp at Orlandeaux’s Cafe
This standalone eatery off of Louisiana Highway 20 is a historic staple of Shreveport and one of the oldest continuously operated Black family restaurants in the nation. I visited at 1 p.m on a sunny Friday and found the place nearly obscured by the sea of cars crammed into its parking lot, with a wait for dine-in seating, music pumping and business hopping. No patio seating here; our suggestion is to grab three stuffed shrimp to go, or to sit at the bar and pair the gumbeaux with a Louisiana-brewed pilsner from Cane River in Natchitoches with a wedge of lime. $12.50 gets you three enormous shrimp, sturdy and boldly spiced and hot as hell from the fryer. Primed by a lifetime of mildly spiced menu items masquerading as “spicy,” I requested a side of hot sauce and was sent on my way with several packets of Louisiana pepper sauce tucked into my to-go box; it was superfluous.
Fill your Instagram feed with beauty at the American Rose Center
Just outside of Shreveport in the suburbs of Greenwood sit 118 acres of lush forest with a massive, sunny rose garden at its core, and its gorgeous labyrinthian paths seem to feature sensory balms at every turn, with a reflecting pool, an Asian teahouse, tinkling wind chimes and a series of metal sculptures. The American Rose Center’s mission is all roses, all the time, with a visitors center that boasts a library full of rose reference books and walls lined with prints of bygone USPS postage stamps that featured the beloved flower. (Oh, and big, clean bathrooms; always a plus.) Bring a hat and sunscreen, as only a portion of the garden is shaded, and watch for poison ivy seedlings when you venture off of the paved paths; the landscaping team here is dogged, but so is Mother Nature. Bring $5 per person to drop into the donation box, or donate at rose.org.
Sit a spell for social hour at the Fat Calf
This neighborhood brasserie in the Highlands can be a pricey dinner if you’re on a budget, but their social hour from 4-6 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday is a perfect way to dabble. With ample patio space and a thoughtful cocktail menu, you can sit outside for a spritzy aperitif and munch on $6 appetizers — a heaping bowl of fried cauliflower florets, for one, tossed in garlic and chili oil and topped with Parmesan and lemon zest, or the equally decadent Crispy Brussels Sprouts, flash-fried and coated with Korean vinaigrette, pumpkin seeds and golden raisins. Reservations are recommended, but if you’re there ahead of dinner hour, you can probably nab a patio seat or a spot at the bar.
Eat a slice of strawberry pie at Strawn’s
This old school breakfast and burger diner has become so adored for its icebox pies that the strawberry has become a sort of Strawn’s logo. With a crispy, crackly graham cracker crust that lends a perfect hint of salt to the otherwise syrupy setup, the pie’s famous filling is a bed of cold strawberries and a thick blanket of house whipped cream. If you don’t grab one of the handful of parking spots in front, don’t fret; swing around back, where parking is plentiful and a not-so-secret staircase entrance leads you right into the main dining room. We had a slice on a Saturday morning in lieu of eggs and bacon, and regret nothing.