There aren't many foods that we can claim as Arkansas inventions, but the fried pickle is one of my favorites. Originally popularized in Atkins, Arkansas by Bernell Austin at the Duchess Drive-in, the battered and fried treats have spread across the country to become a staple of bar and diner fare everywhere. And even though they haven't made Atkins brand pickles since 2002, there are still good fried pickles to be found in the state. Here's a selection of my personal favorites, and I hope you'll all share yours down there in the comments.
*Gus's Fried Chicken: The pickles at the newly opened Gus's franchise in the River Market are some of my favorite fried pickles in town.
Like the Atkins originals (apparently my research lead me astray), Gus's uses spears of crunchy dill pickles as opposed the more commonly found pickle chips. The spears are expertly breaded and fried, resulting in a juicy, tangy center coated with crisp seasoned breading. A delight with or without the ranch dressing served to the side, these pickles are a must-order for anyone headed to Little Rock's new chicken palace.
*Eat My Catfish: When it comes to fried food in general, you can't go wrong with Saline County catfish joint Eat My Catfish. Shrimp, fish, and chicken will all please the palate here, but it's the fried pickles that keep me coming back for more. Hamburger dill slices are dredged in a spicy batter and fried to a crisp. The result is a pickle chip that is crispy and soft all at once, with a higher breading-to-pickle ratio than the spears at Gus's. Throw in some of Eat My Catfish's excellent house-made ranch and you've got an appetizer that will leave you wanting more.
*The Tavern Sports Grill: Like your fried pickles with a side of every sport on television at any given time? If so, the Tavern Sports Grill in West Little Rock is for you. The Tavern has more televisions than a Best Buy and they are tuned to any number of sports. The beer is cold, the wings are good, and you can't miss their chip-style pickles, served hot and fresh with a side of spicy ranch. This is bar food done right, served in one of the few Promenade restaurants that doesn't take itself so seriously.
*Slim Chickens: Lastly, it was the fried pickles at Slim Chickens that helped change my mind about the place after an initial negative review. Unlike the soggy fried mushrooms I got on my first visit, the Slim's pickles proved to be top notch: crisp on the outside, soft in the middle, with a batter that clung lightly to each pickle but didn't overpower the flavor. I still don't think their chicken strips are anything to write home about (although they're tasty enough), but those pickles were fantastic — and there were a lot of them to boot.
There are plenty of places in Central Arkansas serving up pickles; Cotham's in Scott, Cock of the Walk in North Little Rock, and Homer's out on Roosevelt have all been recommended to me as places to go to get your pickle on. The fried pickle is the unsung hero of Arkansas cuisine, and it's one I celebrate any time I can. So get yourself into a pickle with me, and be sure to let me know what places I'm missing — I'll travel a fur piece to get at a deep-fried pickle.