By Kat Robinson
Dishes you should try before you die in The Natural State, from our state’s most enthusiastic culinary cheerleader.
Arkansas delivers a cornucopia of culinary riches that bear heralding for their excellence. But what if you had to narrow down a final selection of food items, meals and traditions to a select few? What would you include? When it comes to the veritable wonders of our state, here’s my short list.
The first thing I crave when asked about what dish I’d like most is the Mista salad at Lazzari Italian Oven in Jonesboro. It’s a sweet vinaigrette-soaked salad with pepperoncinis, tomatoes, black olives, lettuce, cucumbers and mozzarella cheese, and it’s the only one quite like it in the state. I dream of sitting down at a table where a waiter writes his name upside down in crayon for me to see, slicing into the crusty, sesame encrusted bread and savoring this remarkable salad.
I have been known to drive miles out of my way for a slice at Tommy’s Famous A Pizzeria in Mountain View. That Chicago-sauced, Detroit-crusted disc with its hefty dose of cheese is comforting and identifiable with the hippie bungalow in which it’s created, a welcome darkly-lit abode where locals and tourists brush elbows.
A craving for fried catfish would take me straight away to The Shack in Jessieville, where the fish is always light and never muddy, in a perfect thin batter that crisps so well, best served alongside a mess of salad. When I seek tangier choices, it’s the set-up of fixings at Catfish Hole in Alma, where it’s a real challenge not to fill up on green pickle relish and the best sweet hush puppies in the state before those family-style platters of fish come to table.
Speaking of pickle, when it comes to fried pickles, I won’t step on one side of the debate or another in the camps of pickle chips or pickle spears. Instead, I’ll dip into a basket of hand-sliced pickle planks the way Bernell Austin intended, at The Old South on US Highway 64 in Russellville. If I’m feeling decadent, I’ll ask for Old South salad dressing alongside the ranch for dipping.
When it comes to the subject of chocolate gravy, I have to head to Fort Smith and slide into a seat at Calico County, where a basket of hot cinnamon rolls will be brought to me while I decide my breakfast fate. I might add country fried steak or a couple of over-easy eggs next to those hot biscuits.
And when it comes to fried chicken and the need to feel like a part of the family, I know I have a place at the table at the Monte Ne Inn Chicken Restaurant, where I will be greeted with a big pot of white bean soup and a small loaf of homemade bread and fresh apple butter, followed by green beans, coleslaw, mashed potatoes and cream gravy and incredibly juicy fried chicken, all that I can eat, even all thighs if I ask for it.
Many of these culinary delights I take with me, grabbing a package along the way to savor later. That’s how coffee cans of Rhoda’s Famous Hot Tamales in Lake Village end up in my freezer, and white paper wrapped packages of smoked turkey from Coursey’s Smoked Meats slide into my fridge. I have also been known to place a to-go order for a couple of plates of fried chicken and spaghetti with soaked salad and cloverleaf rolls from The Venesian Inn, which are picked up in a big cardboard box and opened with anticipation by my family when I pull in the driveway.
I have licked the aluminum foil that had been wrapped around a paper boat containing a pound of Sim’s barbecue meat more times than I can count.
There are also the sensations of food love that come to mind, seasonal dishes that are fondly remembered in the months in-between, such as the heart of Arkansas spring when the strawberries begin to ripen, best enjoyed over the thin, buttery shortbread at the Bulldog Restaurant in Bald Knob each May. In June, thoughts turn to the flavor of the first true Bradley County pink tomatoes out of the field each year, not those pasty imitations in a grocery store but those translucent skinned, full of flavor orbs that dribble down your chin on first bite. July’s peaches find themselves celebrated in a bath of cream at the heart of the peach milkshake at Fat Dawgz BBQ and Something Sweet in Clarksville. Fresh, sweet watermelon is obtained in August along US Highway 167 from the Pinkeys, the Johnsons and the other families who till their melons in Cave City soil.
Burgers? I’ve had a few, and in some places, I seek them out, like the Southwest Burger at The Ohio Club in Hot Springs and the Bull Burger at Smokin’ Bull in Emerson. I’ve also busted diets dining at Spudnut Shoppe in El Dorado and made a Smush of a caramel-topped doughnut atop a cinnamon roll while sitting in the old bowling alley lobby at Jeri-Lin’s Donuts in Blytheville, and before the year is out, I am determined to do it again.
Every diner owes him or herself the opportunity to enjoy the exquisite dishes of the state, from BMF Chicken on Sundays at The Hive at 21c in Bentonville to Duck With Duck at Brave New Restaurant in Little Rock, to a breakfast of Eggs Sedona at the Red Apple Inn in Heber Springs. Or maybe, just maybe, each of us needs to get into a plate of fried mushrooms at the Wagon Wheel in Greenbrier or a plate lunch at BJ’s Market Café over in North Little Rock.
And whatever it might happen to be, I’d love a final course of caramel meringue pie at Charlotte’s Eats and Sweets in Keo or that strawberry pie from Gavin’s in downtown Harrisburg. That would be the icing on a perfect list of Arkansas food experiences.
A bite-sized look at the 100 places around Arkansas you have to try before you die!
__ CATFISH HOLE – Alma
Get your fill of hushpuppies and catfish at the Catfish Hole.
__ HAMBURGER BARN – Arkadelphia
Chow down on a Bubba Burger at the Hamburger Barn.
__ BULLDOG RESTAURANT – Bald Knob
Follow lunch with the famous strawberry shortcake at the Bulldog Restaurant.
__ WHO DAT’S – Bald Knob
Try a bowl of award-winning gumbo at Who Dat’s Cajun Resturant.
__ SQUIRREL COOK OFF – Bentonville
Try a squirrel shish kabob at the World Championship Squirrel Cook Off this September.
__ THE HIVE – Bentonville
Experience the famous BMF chicken at The Hive before exploring the art exhibits at the 21c Museum Hotel.
__ THE HOLLER – Bentonville
Take a bite of a Holler Melt before playing some shuffleboard at The Holler.
__ THE PREACHER’S SON – Bentonville
Enjoy some steak frites in the unique setting of The Preacher’s Son.
__ DIXIE PIG – Blytheville
Chow down on a pig sandwich at the Dixie Pig.
__ JERI-LIN’S DONUTS – Blytheville
Savor a caramel-topped doughnut at Jeri-Lin’s Donuts.
__ KREAM KASTLE – Blytheville
Feast on a burger or barbecue sandwich at the Kream Kastle.
__ CAVE CITY – Cave City
When in season, pick up a fresh Cave City watermelon to enjoy with the whole family.
__ FAT DAWGZ – Clarksville
Get a Texas size cinnamon roll and a peach milkshake at Fat Dawgz.
__ GREG & JIM’S – Colt
Take on the famous “Fat Boy” cheeseburger at Greg & Jim’s.
__ MIKE’S FAMILY RESTAURANT – Colt
Try a slice of homemade pie at Mike’s Family Restaurant.
__ HIDDEN VALLEY CATFISH – Conway
Enjoy the Cajun Fish Filet at the Hidden Valley Catfish House.
__ MIKE’S PLACE – Conway
Take a bite of delicious prime rib at Mike’s Place.
__ BOB’S GRILL – Conway
Catch up on the local gossip with a grilled blueberry muffin at Bob’s Grill.
__ DONDIE’S – Des Arc
Work your way down the seafood buffet aboard Dondie’s White River Princess.
__ CRAIG BROTHERS – DeValls Bluff
Fill up on barbecue at Craig Brothers Café.
__ TAYLOR’S STEAKHOUSE – Dumas
Scarf down the famed porterhouse at Taylor’s Steakhouse.
__ SPUDNUT SHOPPE – El Dorado
Try your first Spudnut, a potato flower doughnut, at the Spudnut Shoppe.
__ GRIFFIN RESTAURANT – El Dorado
Enjoy a farm-to-table meal while watching some live entertainment at the Griffin Restaurant.
__ JOHNNY B’S GRILL – El Dorado
Stop in for breakfast at Johnny B’s Grill.
__ SMOKIN’ BULL – Emerson
Take a bite out of the famous Bull Burger at the Smokin’ Bull.
__ LOCAL FLAVOR CAFÉ – Eureka Springs
Dine on pan-fried tilapia at the Local Flavor Café.
__ KENNON’S DAIRY BAR – Fair Oaks
Follow a cheeseburger with a chocolate milkshake at Kennon’s Dairy Bar.
__ ROOTS FESTIVAL – Fayetteville
Sample the cooking of some of the region’s finest chefs at Fayetteville Roots Festival in August.
__ HAMMONTREE’S – Fayetteville
Try a gourmet grilled cheese, like the Cheebacca, at Hammontree’s.
__ HERMAN’S RIBHOUSE – Fayetteville
Devour the Herman’s cut bone-in ribeye at Herman’s Ribhouse.
__ HUGO’S – Fayetteville
Enjoy a Bleu Moon Burger downstairs at Hugo’s.
__ SASSY’S RED HOUSE – Fayetteville
Polish off a plate of Irish Nachos on a bed of waffle fries at Sassy’s Red House.
__ FOGHORN’S – Fayetteville
Test your taste buds with a fiery plate of hot wings while watching the game at Foghorn’s.
__ DELTA Q – Forrest City
Start your lunch with a bowl of delicious pork rinds at Delta Q.
__ CALICO COUNTY – Fort Smith
Start your day with an amazing breakfast at Calico County.
__ BENSON’S GRILL – Fort Smith
Enjoy a “man-sized” breakfast of country ham, eggs and hash browns at Benson’s Grill.
__ COON SUPPER – Gillett
Rub elbows with politicians at the annual Gillett Coon Supper.
__ WAGON WHEEL – Greenbrier
Scarf down some fried mushrooms at the Wagon Wheel.
__ GAVIN’S – Harrisburg
Savor a delicious slice of strawberry pies at Gavin’s.
__ RED APPLE INN – Heber Springs
Try the Eggs Sedona at the famed Red Apple Inn.
__ PASQUALE’S TAMALES – Helena
Enjoy a handful of Joe St. Columbia’s fresh tamales at Pasquale’s Tamales.
__ HOPE WATERMELONS – Hope
Compete in the annual watermelon eating competition at the Hope Watermelon Festival.
__ FAT JACK’S BAR – Hot Springs
Slurp down some oysters after a day at the races at Fat Jack’s Oyster and Sports Bar.
__ MCCLARD’S – Hot Springs
Enjoy a plate of barbecue smothered in the famous McClard’s sauce at McClard’s Bar-B-Q.
__ OAKLAWN PARK – Hot Springs
Chow down on a corned beef sandwich between races at Oaklawn Park.
__ THE OHIO CLUB – Hot Springs
Enjoy a Southwest Burger while listening to live music at The Ohio Club.
__ OZARK CAFE – Jasper
Stop in for brunch at the Ozark Café.
__ CLIFF HOUSE INN – Jasper
Feast on some fried green beans while taking in the view at the Cliff House Inn Restaurant.
__ THE SHACK – Jessieville
Chow down on a plate of fried catfish at The Shack.
__ LAZZARI ITALIAN OVEN – Jonesboro
Start a great Italian dinner with the Mista Salad at Lazzari Italian Oven.
__ THE GRILL – Jordan
Try the wild mushroom pasta at The Grill at Whispering Woods.
__ CHARLOTTE’S – Keo
Savor a slice of caramel meringue pie at Charlotte’s Eats and Sweets.
__ JJ’S LAKESIDE CAFE – Lake Village
Polish off a delicious fried pork chop at JJ’s Lakeside Café.
__ RHODA’S – Lake Village
Grab a can of tamales at Rhoda’s Famous Hot Tamales.
__ BURGE’S – Lewisville
Take home a smoked turkey or ham from Burge’s Hickory Smoked Turkeys & Hams.
__ DOE’S EAT PLACE – Little Rock
Feast on a massive cut of incredible steak at Doe’s Eat Place.
__ FRANKE’S CAFETERIA – Little Rock
Lunch on the time-honored eggplant casserole at Franke’s Cafeteria.
__ LASSIS INN – Little Rock
Chow down on a plate of fried catfish at Lassis Inn.
__ ONE ELEVEN – Little Rock
Enjoy an exquisite meal at One Eleven or private dining at the Capital Hotel.
__ ALL ABOARD – Little Rock
Have lunch in the fun and unique atmosphere of All Aboard Restaurant & Grill.
__ BRAVE NEW RESTAURANT – Little Rock
Dine on duck while enjoying an incredible view of the Arkansas River at Brave New Restaurant.
__ BRUNO’S LITTLE ITALY – Little Rock
Enjoy some of Arkansas’ best Italian cuisine at Bruno’s Little Italy.
__ CAJUN’S WHARF – Little Rock
Try the Oysters Bienville at Cajun’s Wharf in Riverdale.
__ GREEK FOOD FESTIVAL – Little Rock
Grab a gyro at the International Greek Food Festival this summer.
__ LOBLOLLY CREAMERY – Little Rock
Savor a scoop of delicious double vanilla ice cream from Loblolly Creamery.
__ SAMANTHA’S TAP ROOM – Little Rock
Start dinner with the surf and turf queso blanco, cheese dip filled with grilled steak and shrimp, at Samantha’s Tap Room & Wood Grill.
__ SIMS BAR-B-QUE – Little Rock
Scarf down some barbecue ribs from Sims Bar-B-Que.
__ STAR OF INDIA – Little Rock
Stop in for the lunch buffet at the Star of India.
__ CORNBREAD FESTIVAL – Little Rock
Enjoy some fluffy and delicious cornbread at the Arkansas Cornbread Festival.
__ FADED ROSE – Little Rock
Come in for a steak dinner at the Faded Rose Restaurant.
__ CHEESE DIP CHAMPIONSHIP – Little Rock
Fill up on the dip at the famed World Cheese Dip Championship.
__ KEENEY’S – Malvern
Munch on some barbeque ribs at Keeney’s Food Market.
__ JONES BAR-B-Q – Marianna
Stop in for a barbecue sandwich from James Beard Award winner Jones Bar-B-Q.
__ TACKER’S SHAKE SHACK – Marion
Slurp down a famous chocolate milkshake at Tacker’s Shake Shack.
__ STROUD’S DINER – Mayflower
Start your day right with breakfast at Stroud’s Diner.
__ HOOTS BBQ – McGehee
For a dessert worth the drive, stop by Hoots BBQ.
__ TOMMY’S PIZZERIA – Mountain View
Enjoy a Chicago-style, Detroit-crusted pizza at Tommy’s Famous Pizzeria.
__ BJ’S MARKET CAFE – North Little Rock
Grab a plate lunch at BJ’s Market Café.
__ GADWALL’S GRILL – North Little Rock
Enjoy a Reuben from Gadwall’s Grill.
__ LINDSEY’S HOSPITALITY – North Little Rock
The barbecue is as good as the hospitality at Lindsey’s Hospitality.
__ OARK CAFE – Oark
Try a delicious burger at Oark Cafe General Store.
__ COLONIAL STEAKHOUSE – Pine Bluff
Enjoy a roasted prime rib of beef at the Colonial Steakhouse.
__ MONTE NE INN – Rogers
Fill up on fried chicken at Monte Ne Inn Chicken Restaurant.
__ TACO VILLA – Russellville
Take a cheese dip to go from Taco Villa.
__ FELTNER’S WHATTA-BURGER – Russellville
Take down a whole order of French fries and a milkshake at Feltner’s Whatta-Burger.
__ THE OLD SOUTH – Russellville
Try the famous fried pickles at The Old South.
__ SLADER’S – Searcy
Experience the Russian-style dumplings at Slader’s Alaskan Dumpling Co.
__ AQ CHICKEN HOUSE – Springdale
Dine on a plate of chicken over the coals from AQ Chicken House.
__ NEAL’S CAFE – Springdale
Fill up on some famous meatloaf from Neal’s Café.
__ COURSEY’S – St. Joe
Pick up a smoked turkey and cheddar sandwich from Coursey’s Smoked Meats.
__ FERGUSON’S – St. Joe
There’s no better cinnamon roll than what you’ll find at Ferguson’s Country Store and Restaurant.
__ THE VILLAGE STEAKHOUSE – Star City
Cut into a delicious steak at The Village Steakhouse
__ DUCK GUMBO – Stuttgart
Sample some of the finest gumbo in the world at the World Championship Duck Gumbo Cookoff.
__ TOAD SUCK BUCK’S – Toad Suck
Dine on delicious ribeye at Toad Suck Buck’s.
__ THE VENESIAN INN – Tontitown
Experience the famed fried chicken and spaghetti at The Venesian Inn.
__ GRAPE FESTIVAL – Tontitown
Enjoy some grape ice cream or a plate of spaghetti at the Tontitown Grape Festival.
__ PINK TOMATO FESTIVAL – Warren
Celebrate the state fruit at the Bradley County Pink Tomato Festival.
__ PANCHO’S – West Memphis
Start dinner with a bowl of famous cheese dip at Pancho’s.
__ CAJUN EXPRESS – Wheatley
Enjoy a mess of crawdaddies or a massive ribeye at Cajun Express.
__ BLACKSHEEP BBQ – Yellville
Chow down on a plate of brisket at Blacksheep BBQ.