Going out to eat could mean a lot of things in 2020. In early spring our only options were curbside takeout and delivery service. Now you can eat in parking lots transformed into patios and sit under heat lamps. You can still get curbside takeout. You can order from a third-party app on your smart devices, leave a tip and get your food delivered to your door without any human interaction whatsoever. (You can even go sit in a fairly crowded dining room, evidently, as long as you wear a mask for a few minutes.)
It may sound complicated, but it’s never been so simple. Restaurants have to make it easy on us because they’re struggling and we’re struggling. Often, when you decide to eat out in whatever fashion, it’s going to be a $15 to $20 investment. And that’s wonderful when it’s in your budget: You’re supporting local, your tips go to reliable and dependable food service workers and you’re probably enjoying delectable flavors because Little Rock is a great food town. However, if you’re watching your spending, eating out can really add up. But there remain cheap eats to be had in Central Arkansas. You just have to do some research, listen to those who have an ear for deals and, if you’re lucky, you can try some places you’ve never been before. There are local options that far outshine fast food, which isn’t even all that cheap anymore. It’s been a rough year for restaurants, so be patient and kind, wear your mask, and when budgeting be sure to include a generous tip.
If funds are a little low but you still want to have a few beers and a little something to eat, Four Quarter in Argenta has you covered. You can get a very decent grilled cheese sandwich with housemade chips for $4.50. If you have 75 cents more, you can wash it down with an adorable 7-ounce Miller High Life pony for $5.25. Or just skip the food and get a sixer of High Life ponies for $4.50. There’s a patio out back if you want to enjoy the open air. The rest of the menu is great, too, and you can take your food to go if you’re not ready for bar life yet.
415 Main St., NLR
Is there a more convenient lunch than a New York-style slice of pizza? I don’t think so. The lunch slices at Vino’s are so big they’re served in a 10-inch pizza box. And the lunch special at Vino’s is hard to beat. You can order a one-topping slice (I opted for a cheese slice because I’d just watched “Home Alone” and Kevin’s right, cheese pizza is lovely), a dinner salad and a drink for $8.27 with tax included. And it’s worth mentioning that Vino’s dinner salad is unique. Most restaurants offer mixed lettuce, tomato and maybe croutons and charge nearly $5. Vino’s dinner salad features a generous helping of mozzarella, green and black olives, onions, green bell peppers and fresh mushrooms. It blew my mind as a teenager and still does today. It also has the best phone number in town: 375-VINO.
923 W. Seventh St.
You probably haven’t been to Mama’s Gyros. I hadn’t either, but I should’ve visited a long time ago. Located on Kiehl Avenue in Sherwood, the family-owned business has been around since 1990. I picked up an old-style street gyro for $8.95, stuffed with a mixture of lamb and beef or chicken, tzatziki sauce, tomato, onion and a side order of fries wedged in the pita. Mama’s also has two daily Brown Bag Specials. One is a small gyro, chips and a small drink for $5. The other is a small hamburger or cheeseburger with chips and a small drink for $5. Mama’s also has a daily gyro, fries and drink special for $8.95. The restaurant’s interior is small, so it’s just doing curbside pick-up and delivery through Bite Squad for now.
3309 E. Kiehl Ave., Sherwood
I’m enamored with the idea of a soda fountain cheeseburger, or one you might get sitting at the counter in a coffee shop in the days before everything became supersized. For a burger, K Hall & Sons’ is on the smaller side — tidy, simple, easy to eat. You don’t have to use two hands or feel any inclination to smash the bun down to size or cut the sandwich in half for easier consumption. It’s my preference, and K Hall & Sons does it perfectly for $3.79. All the flavors combine in perfect cheeseburger harmony. K Hall also offers a jumbo size for a dollar more. The regular cheeseburger at K Hall with fries and a canned soda is $7 and change. I couldn’t finish the fries, but I wanted to and thought about it, then thought about it again.
1900 Wright Ave.
You can catch planes taking off and landing from the Clinton National Airport while en route to Pull Up At Big Dave’s in East Little Rock. It’s nestled right off East Roosevelt Road in a red brick building. Dave’s smoker sits on the edge of the parking lot creating aromas that invite one to pull up. It was chilly when I went, but I cracked the windows to let the smell permeate my car. Orders are taken through a window outside and then you wait in your car until your number is called.
It’s worth the trip. You can get a pulled pork sandwich, a side and a soda for $9.80 with tax included. If you’re willing to spend a little more, try the spare ribs, which are coated with Dave’s signature rub and slathered with sauce and served with two pieces of inch-thick white bread.
6214 E. Roosevelt Road
I used to work at Boulevard Bread Co., and I learned that I only needed a half sandwich to get me through the post-lunch shift. It’s no real secret that Boulevard’s half sandwich is more of a whole sandwich, and according to Boulevard Bread Co. employees, the customer favorite is the turkey sandwich with pepper jack, tomato, avocado, mixed field greens and mayo. Customers swapping the customary baguette for 8-grain heart-healthy bread is a lasting trend. It comes with Dirty brand kettle chips of several flavor varieties. The half sandwich and iced tea (Boulevard’s tea has fruity, floral notes, but it’s not sweet and you should try it) comes to $9.99 after tax. Another very popular Boulevard sandwich, and rightly so, is the breakfast sandwich with pancetta, fried egg, lettuce, tomato and aioli on 8-grain. If you haven’t tried to kickstart your morning with this, don’t wait any longer because you can get it and a cup of coffee for $8.88 with tax included.
1920 N. Grant St.
(Heights, 663-5951, 1417 S. Main St. (SoMa, 501-375-5100)
Donuts are synonymous with office life, and you’re probably always within a few miles of a Shipley’s. But if you’ve never been to Mark’s Do-Nut Shop off Camp Robinson in North Little Rock, you’re missing out. One bite into a glazed donut and I had to turn my podcast off and just have a silent moment. One more bite and I decided that it might be the best donut I’d ever had in my life. I’m not joking around here.
As Daniel Walker wrote in 2012 in the Arkansas Times, “It’s a completely ethereal experience sinking your incisors into a hot, golden glazed donut from Mark’s.”
Three donuts and large 16-ounce coffee are a whopping $5.24, and you can get a dozen for $10.57. I will be back and probably too frequently. It’s closed inside and just serving drive-thru. The line was about eight cars deep at 8:30 a.m. and stretched out to West 41st Street, but it moved fast.
4015 Camp Robinson Road, NLR