Not all the restaurants on this list can be classified as fine dining establishments. Neither can they all be classified as dives. What they have in common is that they’ve been around awhile — three decades or more — and serve items that longtime central Arkansas residents crave.
The Little Rock food scene has exploded in recent years. The city is filled with exciting new restaurants, food bloggers and ambitious chefs. They’re using a farm-to-table philosophy and putting the state’s largest city on the map as one of the best places to dine out in the South. Some of the dishes these chefs are creating are outstanding. But this list doesn’t focus on new recipes. Instead, it’s one old-timer’s highly subjective list of the 10 Dishes In Central Arkansas You Must Have Before You Die.
1. Ribs at Sims with a side of greens and cornbread — To say that Sims is a Little Rock classic would be an understatement. Allen and Amelia Sims started this barbecue icon back in 1937 during the Great Depression. The two quickly became known for their smoking techniques and their sauce. The quality didn’t decline after Ron Settlers, a longtime employee of the original location on 33rd Street, took charge.
Though the 33rd Street original is gone (replaced by a restaurant at 2415 South Broadway), the vinegar-and-mustard sauce remains. A side order of those perfectly cooked greens and cornbread is de rigueur at Sims, the city’s top barbecue shrine.
2. Tamales at Doe’s — If you go to Doe’s for dinner, you’re likely going to order a steak. That’s fine. But why come to Doe’s if you don’t get an appetizer of tamales? If it’s lunchtime, the tamales will be your meal. Woodruff County native George Eldridge spent years taking friends and business associates to the original Doe’s in Greenville, Miss. He finally convinced the owners of that restaurant to let him open the first franchise location in 1988.
Because a fellow named Bill Clinton decided to run for president in 1992, the Little Rock location was soon more famous than the Greenville original. Clinton campaign staffers and the national media hung out there on a nightly basis. During Clinton’s famous Rolling Stone interview, was it Hunter S. Thompson or P.J. O’Rourke who tried to eat a tamale with the shuck still on?
3. Chopped pork plate at the White Pig Inn — The White Pig Inn on East Broadway in North Little Rock is another classic. Its old sign out front – a white pig with the word Bar-B-Q underneath – even has its own following. That sign has been the subject of countless photos taken by barbecue aficionados through the years.
The White Pig is even older than Sims. It opened in 1920 when U.S. Highway 70 was among the main east-west routes in the country. From the start, the meat here has been prepared over an open fire, using only hickory wood. The Seaton family has operated the restaurant for three generations. The current building was constructed in 1984, so it doesn’t have the feeling of a Delta shack. But there’s plenty of history on the walls.
4. Eggplant casserole and egg custard pie at Franke’s — You’re not going to have just eggplant casserole and egg custard pie after going through the cafeteria line, though you could. You’re going to get some of the fried chicken or the roast beef, which will be carved as you watch. You’re going to try other vegetables ranging from fried okra to rice and gravy (yes, Yankee reader, rice is considered a vegetable here in Arkansas, as is macaroni and cheese).
Still, you simply must have the eggplant casserole, which long has been the cafeteria’s most famous item. C.A. Franke opened a doughnut shop in downtown Little Rock in 1919. By 1922, it was a full bakery. In 1924, he opened the original Franke’s Cafeteria at 115 W. Capitol Ave. in downtown Little Rock. C.A.’s son, W.J. Franke, became the second generation to run the operation. W.J.’s son, Bill, took over in 1983. The original cafeteria closed in 1960, but two Little Rock locations remain.
5. Pimento cheese at the Capital Bar & Grill — There are those times when a Southerner simply must have pimento cheese, and no one does it better than the folks at the Capital Hotel. You can get it over in the upscale Ashley’s restaurant as an appetizer with homemade soda crackers (which are themselves addictive), but the more laid-back atmosphere of the Capital Bar & Grill on the other side of the lobby just seems more conducive to eating pimento cheese. Here you can order a pimento cheese sandwich or have it on the burger, which rates among the best burgers in the state. The burger comes with pickles made in-house and Parmesan fries, meaning that you’ll need to set aside time for a nap if you order this for lunch.
6. Smoked turkey sandwich and a cherry limeade at Burge’s — The original Burge’s is in Lewisville in far southwest Arkansas. This list is limited to Central Arkansas, but the Heights location of Burge’s has been around long enough (36 years) to qualify as a classic, especially since a couple of generations of Little Rock residents have now grown up on its turkey sandwiches and cherry limeades (perhaps with a side of onion rings). After moving to Lewisville from Shreveport in 1953, Alden Burge began smoking turkeys in his back yard for friends and family members. Soon, he was selling smoked turkey and chicken dinners before Friday night football games. He bought a dairy bar in 1962 at the intersection of Arkansas Highway 29 and U.S. Highway 82 in Lewisville. The Lewisville location is still in business.
The Little Rock restaurant follows Alden Burge’s original instructions for smoking turkeys. Just try getting into the place for lunch on a Saturday, and you’ll see how popular it remains.
7. Buffalo ribs at the Lassis Inn — It’s safe to assume that most Central Arkansas residents don’t know how to get to the Lassis Inn. Their lives are much poorer for not knowing. If you’re headed west on Interstate 30 after leaving downtown, look to the right as soon as you pass the Roosevelt Road exit. That’s it! It’s the blue building with the neon beer lights in the window.
Lassis Inn – in some form or fashion – has been in business for more than a century. It started with catfish and buffalo being sold out of the back of a home. Elihue Washington has operated the inn for almost three decades now. You can get catfish here, but you can get catfish a lot of places. Go for the buffalo — not the mammal but the bottom-dwelling fish pulled by commercial fishermen from the slow-moving rivers of east Arkansas. The “ribs” from the big-boned buffalo are about five inches in length and guaranteed to have you planning your next trip to Lassis Inn.
8. The hubcap burger at Cotham’s — The Little Rock location will suffice for this giant burger, but you probably should head out to the original Cotham’s in Scott for the full experience. The building, which hangs over a cypress-filled Arkansas River oxbow lake – was constructed in 1917 and long served as a mercantile store. In 1984, a couple of tables were added to feed local farmers. Politicians such as Bill Clinton and David Pryor made Cotham’s famous, and soon the crowds were packing the place, leading to a full-blown restaurant.
The hubcap has been talked about by Rachel Ray on national TV and featured on the Travel Channel’s program “Man Vs. Food.” In fact, Food Network Magazine once voted it the best burger in Arkansas, a state that has more than its share of places with good burgers.
9. Gumbo at the Oyster Bar — The Oyster Bar has been around since 1975, but it looks like it has been around since 1924, which is when the building it occupies in Stifft Station was built to house a grocery store. There are those of us who think about gumbo on a regular basis, and that craving often leads us to the Oyster Bar, which fits the definition of a “joint” with its backdoor entrance, its vintage refrigerator door (with memorable bumper stickers attached) hanging from a wall and its great jukebox.
As any Louisiana native will tell you, there are as many ways to make gumbo as there are people who make it, but the okra-and-shrimp gumbo at the Oyster Bar always proves satisfying, especially after adding a touch of Tabasco.
10. Foot-long chili dog at the Buffalo Grill and chopped steak at the Faded Rose — OK, we’re going to cheat and give you an extra one. In Louisiana that’s known as lagniappe, and in bakeries it’s known as a baker’s dozen. Here’s our reasoning: Your trusty correspondent first moved to Little Rock in late 1981 to serve as a sportswriter for the Arkansas Democrat. He lived in an apartment on Rebsamen Park Road. The Buffalo Grill opened on Rebsamen Park in 1981. New Orleans native Ed David opened the Faded Rose right next door in 1982. Your correspondent would sleep late and then go to work after lunch, alternating between the two restaurants.
Paul’s chili dog at Buffalo Grill is a gut bomb in the very best sense of the term with chili, cheddar cheese, mustard, onion and slaw. Over at the Faded Rose, it’s important to start with the Creole soaked salad (mixed lettuce, chopped tomatoes and green olives tossed in a garlic vinaigrette just like the Creole Sicilian joints do it in New Orleans). That’s followed by the chopped sirloin, which comes in a lemon butter sauce with a big slice of grilled onion on top. On the side, have the potato wedges with the buttermilk dressing for dipping.