I have been to the mountain, and it’s made of onion rings.
Let me back up for a minute to say: Little Rock has an onion ring problem. After all, we’re a town that regularly votes the o-rings at Sonic as the top example of what a golden-brown circle of batter-dipped onion should be — and nothing against the popular drive-in, but their rings aren’t really that great. The Times’ own David Koon is of the opinion that the best rings in town are from a more local source, the Arkansas Burger Company on Cantrell, and I’ve been reading his stuff long enough to know that he’s a man of taste. My own personal favorite onion ring in town was made by a food truck, Papa’s Burgers and More; it was a sad day for me last year when Papa decided to retire.
But ring fans can rejoice: there’s a new, great onion ring in town, and it’s in a place I wouldn’t say is known for great food — Cheddar’s Casual Cafe on University Avenue. Now, Cheddar’s isn’t exactly haute cuisine, but since it’s only a few block from my house, it’s become a quick and cheap go-to on those nights where the wife and I are just too tired to cook after work. And for $3.99, the place serves up a foot-tall pile of the crisp-battered onions we crave.
At around the size of my fist, each ring is coated with a coating of well-spiced flour-based based batter that reminds me of a thicker version of that found on tempura. I’ve found (through repeated “research”) that the rings are consistently crispy and good all the way down, an important thing to note given the varied scale of crisp to soggy found in most rings. Two small cups of dipping sauce, a ranch and a spicy Cajun, are served to the side to make the whole greasy affair just that much more decadent. It’s nothing fancy, but it’s a well-made appetizer that can feed a four-top for just under a dollar a person.
I can’t say that these rings beat Arkansas Burger Company (or the late, great Papa’s Burgers), but they’re a strong entrant into the o-ring category. And for this price and quantity, you won’t find anything better at Sonic.
Cheddar’s Casual Cafe is located at 400 S. University, and they’re open for lunch and dinner daily.