by Kevin Shalin
Time to jump in the car for a quick food trip to one of these Arkansas towns.
While the summer is a fun and exciting time, there is no denying that boredom can strike at any moment. Fortunately for us, Little Rock is surrounded by some great towns–all within an hour’s drive–that offer a culinary scene just begging to be checked out for the day.
Hot Springs is now known for more than just horse racing and bathhouses. Food is currently a big draw for out-of-towners. As you approach town, take the Gorge Road exit for a short, yet scenic drive toward Red Light Roastery Coffee House on Park Avenue. Its owners have converted the 100-year-old house into a tranquil setting for coffee lovers. After enjoying a cup of coffee on the porch, head into town for some relaxed dining. Recent additions of Deluca’s Pizzeria and SQZBX join the beloved Rocky’s Corner to form somewhat of a pizza powerhouse in the Spa City. Next, combine history and great food with visits to The Ohio Club and McClard’s. The former, a gangster and baseball player hangout of the 1920s, is Arkansas’ oldest bar and home to a variety of tasty burgers, including its namesake, The Ohio Burger. The iconic McClard’s falls on just about every national list for great barbecue joints. Take a seat at the bar and partner up with a friend to take down the Whole Spread, a two-tamale plate topped with Fritos, beans, chopped beef, cheese and onions. If there is still room for dessert, both Will’s Cinnamon Shop and Morrison’s Fried Pies are must-stops. Will’s has mastered the cinnamon roll and Morrison’s coconut cream and peach hand pies can’t be beat.
Scott is the closest but also the smallest town on this list. Even better, the two places to hit up actually share a parking lot. The Curve Market is a delightfully relaxing, open-air spot to purchase plants, produce and various other sundries, many of which are locally made. It’s impossible to leave empty-handed, so stock up on items like Wayne Plantation Sunflower Oil, Robbi’s Salsa and a few bags of the insanely addictive PoppyJ’s Popcorn. Afterward, walk over to Seaton’s Scott Place for some barbecue and fried catfish or jump back into the car and head southeast for a 10-minute drive on Highway 165 to Keo. Keep an eye out for Crepe Coop, a new food truck cranking out sweet and savory crepes that sometimes sets up shop in town. Leave enough room for a visit to Charlotte’s Eats & Sweets, home to what many consider to be some of the very best pie in Arkansas. First up, however, is the signature Keo Klassic, a no-frills smoked turkey breast sandwich with lettuce, tomato, onion, avocado and Monterey Jack on sourdough. Great sandwich aside, pie is why most folks walk through the door. A piece, each, of the caramel and coconut cream, both with an eye-popping meringue, is the way to go. Just make sure to order the pie right when you sit down, as Charlotte’s has been known to sell out fast.
Has it been a minute since your last trip to Searcy? If so, you’ll be pleasantly surprised with the town’s newfound focus on food. Start the day by hitting up Wild Sweet William’s Bakery for some of the best confections in Arkansas. From cappuccino chocolate chip scones to pimento cheese kolaches to blackberry peach baby cakes, the peak of artisan sweet treats is available at this small bake house on Main Street, but only for the early risers. Make sure to arrive by 9 a.m., or run the risk of a sell-out. Either way, coffee is the next stop, so drive over to the popular Kibo Midnight Oil Coffeehouse for a cup of joe while chilling on the deck with a view of Harding University. Enjoy the morning, but know a trip to the heart of downtown is only minutes away. Spend the rest of the day on foot, admiring Searcy’s beautiful murals and nibbling on some fantastic food. Burrito Day, Savor + Sip, Chit Chat and Chew Café and Slader’s Alaskan Dumpling Co. are excellent options, within a short walk of one another, and offer distinct dining experiences. If stomach space is in short supply, hit Slader’s right before heading back to Little Rock for Pel’meni, Russian-style dumplings that travel well and make for ideal leftovers.
Conway continues to grow and so too does its increasingly diverse food scene. You can’t go wrong with starting the day at the popular Stoby’s for a breakfast burrito, pancakes or omelets, followed by a croissant at PattiCake’s Bakery just next door. The light, airy pastry is a new addition to the bakery’s already extensive menu. Burn off a few calories by walking around the nearby University of Central Arkansas campus for 30 minutes. It is now time to start thinking about lunch. Mainstays like Mike’s Place and Pasta Grill are excellent spots, but so too is WunderHaus, one of central Arkansas’ true farm-to-table restaurants offering up a modern take on European comfort food. Order the Silk Road, a plate of sliced bratwurst with a rich curry tomato sauce or the Vlad Poutine, a hearty offering of roasted potatoes covered in brown gravy, cheese sauce and braised pork shoulder. Laid back eateries like Katmandu Momo and Beebe’s Hamburgers & Hot Dogs are also great options. Katmandu specializes in meat and vegetable-filled Nepalese dumplings, while Beebe’s serves up classic cheeseburgers with shoestring fries, along with patty melts, hot dogs and turkey burgers. Each restaurant offers a quick, casual experience, which is perfect for a food tour.