BEST LONG-AWAITED ALBUMS On Tuesday, Fast Weapons Records released Bonnie Montgomery's self-titled full-length album debut. On Aug. 5, Partisan Records will put out Christopher Denny's "If the Roses Don't Kill Us." Both are must-buys for anyone who appreciates rock 'n' roll-flecked country and folk, sharp songwriting and distinctive voices. At different times, Denny and Montgomery have been the toast of the Little Rock music scene, talents friends tell friends about, that attract multigenerational audiences, that lead to talk of "when they will break out." Denny, a North Little Rock native with an otherworldly voice that can recall Roy Orbison, has been flirting with fame for a while. He's toured nationally, had his songs licensed by advertisers and TV shows and hung out with Rick Rubin. But he got mired in addiction and depression. More than half a decade later, he's mounted a comeback. By all indications, it's going to be a success. Early press for "If the Roses ..." has been glowing. NPR is currently previewing the album on its website. Montgomery, a Searcy native, is a classically trained composer and opera singer, whose operetta about Bill Clinton's boyhood received attention from the New Yorker and international press. But lately she's made her living on sweetly sung, timeless-sounding country-folk ditties, playing just about every venue in Central Arkansas and touring the globe opening for Gossip, the internationally beloved pop band cofounded by her high school classmate, Nathan Howdeshell, whose guitar stylings often give Montgomery's songs a nice rockabilly punch and whose Fast Weapons Records is putting out this record. If there's any justice in the world, this album will put Montgomery on a path to a wider audience. LM
BEST TIME KILLER Though there's plenty to see in the abyss of the Internet, one of my guilty pleasures in recent months has been the "Missed Connections" pages on Craigslist Little Rock, which allow those who saw somebody somewhere to shout into the electric Grand Canyon on the off-chance that the person they're talking about might respond. Never has there been assembled a greater collection of near-poetic regret, hope, remorse and lust than in that space. For example: "Cajun's 7/20/14: You were there with a group of women. Dressed very attractively. Never got a chance to get over and introduce myself. Hope you see this." That, friends, is damn near a haiku of longing, not to mention one of the widest nets ever cast for womankind. Nice try, Cajun's Guy. Nice try. DK
BEST ARKANSAS ACTIVITY TO FINALLY GET AROUND TO DOING WHEN YOU HAVE OUT-OF-TOWN GUESTS My wife has been wanting to go crystal digging ever since we moved to Arkansas, but it took a German buddy coming to visit to actually get us out on a quartz hunting mission. (German buddy: "What do you do in Arkansas?" Us: "We dig for crystals!") We took the pleasant hour-and-a-half drive to Jim Coleman Crystal Mines in Jessieville, just northeast of Lake Ouachita. So there are no surprises, let's be clear about what's involved: You go out to a big pile of red dirt that has been hauled in from the mines and dumped. You climb up the dirt and wade through the mud. You pick and hack at the dirt and the mud with crappy tools. That doesn't sound promising, but it's surprisingly addictive. Is it magical vibes from the crystals? Or just the pleasure of frequent rewards for repetitive labor? (It's kind of like playing the slot machines if you won more often, and were — sort of — in nature.) Whatever it was, I got the fever. Only our heat-exhausted German buddy could pull us away. We still cherish our best finds, clear and perfectly shaped, Earth's own knick-knacks. Next time we'll wear more appropriate shoes. DR
BEST GRAPE I've managed to convince my kid that fruit is an acceptable dessert thanks in part to grapes as sweet and delicious as Jupiter, a seedless table grape bred by the wizards at the University of Arkansas System's Division of Agriculture Fruit and Breeding Program. "It's our most exciting grape currently," says Dr. John Clark, professor of horticulture, in a not-very-exciting YouTube video that the U of A's Agricultural Experiment Station put out last year that's still worth watching if only to see the purple delights swaying gently in the breeze. That video, and Jupiter Grapes in general, are good reminders that Arkansas is still the Wonder State. We buy our Jupiters from Cleveland's Cedar Rock Acres at the Argenta Farmers Market. Cedar Rock's Sheldon Sturtevant says he expects to have some to sell through early August. LM
BEST MEMOIR OF LITTLE ROCK IN THE '80s Acclaimed Little Rock novelist Kevin Brockmeier made his first foray into nonfiction this year with "A Few Seconds of Radiant Filmstrip: A Memoir of Seventh Grade," which is precisely what it sounds like: a poignant, elaborately rendered account of Brockmeier's seventh-grade year, in 1985-86. "There's this idea that only big lives, momentous lives, are worthy of memoir," he said earlier this year in an interview with the Times, "and I remember thinking, well, maybe, but isn't every life momentous — or at least wouldn't it be if you approached it with enough care, enough perceptiveness? Take any one year of any one life, recount it with clarity and sympathy, and shouldn't it matter?" He said the book also marked his "hardest effort to capture Little Rock as it actually exists, or at least as it did back in 1985," and it succeeds on this front as well, with an evocative sense of place that can't help but trigger nostalgia in even the most jaded Arkansans. WS
BEST PLACE TO BUY A WIDGET While we're all about supporting our local hardware stores, there are times when you're in the middle of a project and you just don't have the dough to buy a $30 hammer or a $9 paddle bit for your drill, no matter how good the service. When that happens, put on your hang-dog face and head for the Little Rock outlet of Harbor Freight Tools in the shopping center with Big Lots at the corner of University and Colonel Glenn/Asher avenues. Sure, it smells like Shanghai took a polyurethane dump in there, the tools are around the quality that they give to laborers in South American prison camps, and nothing in the joint is some great heirloom you're going to lovingly cradle in a mahogany box and hand down to your grandkids, but when you have your toilet ripped out some Saturday afternoon with $12 in your pocket, and you find that you REALLY need a ratsafrackin' pipe wrench that must be no less than 19 inches long and no more than 22, it's a good name to know. Also, they've just got a lot of interesting stuff, like vibrating rock tumblers, super-long hemostats, tool boxes, crazy strong magnets, hydraulic presses, tarps, power tools (nothing you'd want to make a living with, but maybe OK for light duty), dollies and floor jacks, all of it dirt cheap. You get what you pay for, but if all you have to pay is a little, sometimes you have to go to Plan B, for Broke. DK
BEST PRE-DINNER SNACK Deviled eggs are a delicious snack — but they're most frequently served at events that are awkward and often don't have alcohol (funerals, church gatherings, neighborhood watch meetings). For that reason, deviled eggs have some undeserved bummer associations. Leave it to Czech-born chef Tomas Bohm to rescue the appetizer for the restaurant crowd, with the dynamite Truffled Deviled Eggs at The Pantry. OK, we can understand being leery at the truffilization of all things, but in this case it adds a needed jolt of flavor. The innards are well whipped, creating the perfect light and fluffy filling, then topped with Parmesan crisps. Perfect prologue to a night out eating and drinking with friends. It's like a church potluck, but awesome — the deviled kind. DR
BEST DOG With apologies to the very attractive dog model that graces these pages, the Best Dog in Arkansas is clearly Champion "Champ" Bartholomew Alewishious 3000. Back in January, Millie Fiser, 60, was pushed down and threatened by a robber who demanded money as she was taking her trash to the curb outside her 18th Street home in Little Rock. She was saved when Champ — Fiser's arthritic, 11-year-old pitbull terrier — leaped over a backyard fence and drove the man away after hearing her cries for help. Champ then lay next to her and kept her warm until help arrived. DK
BEST PLACE TO SCORE FANCY SALT Salt enhances flavor (it's science!). Do high-end sea salts enhance flavor more? Based on our own home-kitchen taste tests, we say that the good stuff really does make a difference for certain dishes as table salt (don't waste it as cooking salt). If you want to give it a try, Dandelion in the River Market district has you covered with around 30 varieties of sea salts, sold in bulk (most are $2 to $3 per ounce). They come from all over the world and range in hue from pastel pink to ink black. Plus, there are various infused concoctions — vanilla bean, sun-ripened tomato, porcini mushroom, venom hot pepper and Q's Bloody Salt, a housemade specialty for Bloody Marys. If you get a little thirsty sampling all the options, you can get a tea brewed for you in the store from among the many varieties of tea leaves available. DR
BEST LOCAL ENTREPRENEURIAL DREAM Tofu misozuke is a Japanese delicacy that involves aging tofu for months in a paste that includes miso, sake and sugar. "I needed a proper cheese substitute," said AiLien Draheim of Little Rock, who describes herself as a part-time vegan. "In my opinion, this is as close as you can get. It's got the creaminess, the umami, the stank of an aged cheese." Draheim has made two batches so far and is still perfecting her recipe. One day, she'd love to start a business offering up Arkansas-made tofu misozuke. The link between the Natural State and Japanese cuisine isn't so far-fetched. Arkansas became the first state to grow soybeans for edamame commercially in 2012, when 12 Arkansas farmers partnered with a food company in Houston. Meanwhile, Lonoke County rice farmer Chris Isbell — who previously made a name for himself growing high-quality sushi rice — has recently been growing an even more prized rice varietal for premium sake, the signature alcoholic beverage of Japan. Former Big Orange bar manager Ben Bell, who trained in Tokyo in 2013 to be a certified advanced sake professional, is hoping to eventually open a sake brewery in Central Arkansas, perhaps using rice grown by Isbell. Which means that it's possible that Draheim could eventually make entirely local tofu misozuke. "My dream is to make it with tofu made of Arkansas soybeans, miso made with Arkansas soybeans, and sake made by Ben Bell of Arkansas," she said. "How nice would it be if it was a 100 percent Arkansas product?" DR
BEST BIRD-THEMED MESSAGEBOARD If finding improbable, but actual, things in Arkansas — and we're not talking politics here — gives you a thrill, we've got the thing for you. It's a message board that will email you tips hot off the keyboard to things rare and wonderful. Sign up to be among the first of your peers to know that if you hurry, you'll see a greater roadrunner in the parking lot of the Other Center. That there was an albino American robin in Conway, "snow white with pink eyes and legs." That nine Western kingbirds are checking out Frazier Pike as a summer home, and that speaking of Western kingbirds, a scissor-tailed flycatcher/Western kingbird hybrid is being seen — and photographed — in Arkansas. That a Snowy Owl had flown way out of its range to perch on a LR port authority building. That in April there was, yes, a two-headed bluebird hanging out in North Little Rock (both heads functional). This is good stuff, no? Rara avis city!
Here's how to get in on the chase: Email firstname.lastname@example.org and put in the message body "subscribe ARBIRD-L" and your name. Nothing else. Leave the subject line blank. You'll get a confirmation from the University of Arkansas site and subscription instructions, sort of like Mission Impossible, but not. You can also go to the listserv website, https://listserv.uark.edu, and read from there after you've registered. The latest string provided a woman in Newton County advice on how to see a scarlet tanager. Asked and answered immediately ("anyplace where you can bird in mature forest at high elevation in Newton County"). LNP
BEST BIRD SCULPTURE This honor goes to Jeff Sharp's "Tread Lightly," a beastly night-black owl sculpted from tires, captured presumably as it swoops upon some hapless rodent. The ceiling bulbs gleam like moonlight over the bird's downturned cranium, and it's difficult to distinguish those deathly talons from the tread flowing like melted rubber over the exhibit stand. We love this depiction of fearsome natural vengeance because it's just plain scary. Sharp won a Delta Award for his bird-menace entry in the Arkansas Arts Center's Delta Exhibition. CG
BEST WEEKEND CHEAP EATS The premise of Fonda's $1 Taco Saturday is simple: For a buck a piece, eat as many delicious carnitas and carne asada tacos on homemade soft corn tortillas as you can. Oh, and the outstanding margaritas cost $4. Perfect chips and salsa are free. You stuff yourself, get a little tipsy, and spend maybe ten bucks. Fonda is in a crappy strip mall in West Little Rock, but don't be fooled by the ambience — this place is a hidden gem. DR
BEST NEW LOCAL FILM SERIES Splice Microcinema first emerged in March as a mysterious, anonymously run Facebook page offering links to articles about the revival, all around the country, of small, communal, alternative film screenings. In April, the series began in earnest, screening early Jean-Luc Godard films on 16mm in the back room at Vino's. Over the summer, it's picked up steam and in the process has become a vital part of the Little Rock film scene, offering Orson Welles deep cuts and locally produced, VHS B-movies alike. As of this month, Splice relocated to Few, a "design and development agency" housed above Lulav on Sixth Street, and plans to continue serving world cinema classics, Hollywood cast-offs and subterranean cult fare on a biweekly, donations-only basis. Put simply, this is exactly the sort of thing that Little Rock needs more of and should support at all costs — we hope other aspiring curators, show-promoters and no-budget creative-types take note. Why complain about what Little Rock culture lacks when you can fill in the gaps yourself? WS
BEST INDIAN SNACKS OK, honestly Veggi Deli could be an editor's pick in any number of categories: Best Indian, Best Vegetarian, Best Hole in the Wall, Best Snacks, Best Place to Order a Bunch of Food for a Party, Best Surprisingly Good Family Restaurant in the Back of a Grocery Store. Hell, it might just be the best place to eat in town. Veggi Deli makes outstanding traditional street food from northern and southern India, all $3 to $6. Tucked away in the back of Asian Groceries in northwest Little Rock, the little cafe features a dizzying array of distinctive and memorable flavors. Soak them up with the crispy rice-flour crepe of the Dosa Sambar and the crunchy puffed rice of the Bhel. Oh, and don't miss the samosas. Really, come hungry, try everything. DR
BEST NOSTALGIA-INDUCING ROADHOUSE A 39-year wait was worth it. Herman's Ribhouse, a 50-year-old roadhouse on College Avenue in Fayetteville, still serves draft beer in frozen mugs, heaping plates of peppery ribs, bargain-priced giant boiled shrimp, slab steaks and monstrous burgers in the cozy confines of a wood-paneled, red-checked-curtain highway joint. R&B on the sound system completes the old-school vibe, though we'd still substitute Schlitz for one of the many craft beers on tap, including a couple from local microbreweries like Core of Springdale. Last time we were there, Bill Clinton was a law professor and spinning campaign stories from 1974. Forty years later, both Herman and Bill seem to be doing OK, though skinny Bill could do with a burger. MB
BEST SURVIVOR STORY Few people have stared death in the face as closely as Kali Hardig, the young Saline County victim of Naegleria fowleri — the so-called "brain-eating amoeba" — who seems to have made a full recovery from her ordeal last summer. She is now 13 and leading a happy, active life, according to a BuzzFeed piece published this July about Hardig's improbable survival. Out of about 130 known infections in North America in the past 50 years, Hardig is only the third person to have survived contact with the parasite, which subsequent testing revealed to be present in a now-shuttered water park in Little Rock that she visited before becoming sick. (The amoeba is found in warm freshwater lakes throughout the South, but actual infections are very rare.)
With such an uncommon disease, it's impossible to say how Hardig got so lucky. Use of an experimental drug may have helped. What's certain is that major credit goes to the staff of Arkansas Children's Hospital, the quick response of Hardig's parents and the sheer miraculous unpredictability of the human body. BH.
BEST READING SPOT Wander down the grassy knoll underneath the southeast corner of the Junction Bridge, and you'll find a few sturdy unseen sitting spots among the rocks along the bank. If you don't let that industrial I-40 traffic spoil the solace of this natural hideaway, you've got a beautiful downstream river view. Go early or late enough and you might also enjoy the colors of an impressionist sky. Say hello to the fishermen if you see them — the guppies like to gather around the concrete foundations for the algae. No doubt the essential spot to try and fail anew Joyce's riverrun classic "Finnegan's Wake." "A way a lone a last a loved a long the —" CG
BEST DRUNK Justin Booth has become something of a phenom on the local literary scene since the Arkansas Times Observer first bought a homebrewed book of the then-homeless poet's phenomenal work from him in the River Market in 2012. He read for the Times at this year's Pub or Perish event during the Arkansas Literary Festival, and was thoroughly potted by the time my wife and I drove him home to his place on Rodney Parham. Let's just say that Dean Martin has got nothing on him in the Charming Drunk department, with Booth keeping us laughing the whole ride, discussing topics ranging from Arkansas poetry, whether he dabbles in misogyny, and a freaky librarian he once talked into a romp in the stacks. He's probably as full of shit as a Christmas turkey, but the best storytellers often are, especially while schnockered. DK
BEST (IF FUTILE) EFFORT BY PHOTOGRAPHERS TO TRY TO SAVE A HISTORIC LANDMARK Rita Henry and members of her Blue Eyed Knocker photography group have photographed the once-elegant 1913 Hotel Pines in Pine Bluff, designed by George R. Mann, to document and encourage its preservation. The Interior Design Department at the University of Arkansas's Fay Jones School of Architecture has asked students to dream up new uses for the hotel, but given its condition and the economy in Pine Bluff, a rescue is unlikely. LNP
BEST GRAPHIC NOVEL Everybody loves the first volume of "March," the graphic novel collaboration between civil rights legend and Congressman John Lewis and Nate Powell, the Little Rock-native comic artist (Andrew Aydin, an aide to Lewis, is also credited as a co-author). Everybody is right. It's a beautiful story rendered in beautifully inked frames that project the history of the early civil rights movement through Lewis' remarkable life as leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
At an authors' panel at the Arkansas Literary Festival this spring, Lewis said he hoped the book would spark a new generation into activism on issues such as immigration reform and equity in education. Read it and you'll wonder about the impact it might have — "March" is educational and moving, inspiring and accessible. Since its publication last summer, schools across the country have picked up the book as required reading.
Powell spoke to the Literary Festival audience about the pressure of illustrating such weighty, iconic subject matter (you try faithfully representing Martin Luther King Jr.'s face panel after panel). However, his art ends up being the perfect vehicle for depicting an epic of struggle and suffering and dignity — stark, declarative lines seamlessly meld with energy-laden scribbles and gentle ink washes. Powell's confessional, emotive style has always sought to coax a sense of grandeur from everyday life, but it seems even better suited to telling an epic story like Lewis'. Book Two of the three-part series is due out in early 2015. BH
BEST ONE-DAY STREET ARTS FESTIVAL The Thea Foundation brings talented artists and musicians to downtown North Little Rock's Argenta neighborhood in April for its one-day Thea Arts Festival, filling several blocks of Main Street with booths of good art and live music all day. Kids make clay pots and other fun stuff while their parents meet established and emerging artists and buy a few things and then everyone dances in the street. Can't beat it. LNP
BEST LATE-NIGHT GRUB The oldest open secret about late-night drinkers is their penchant for transmogrifying, at some dim and hazy hour, into ravenous late-night eaters. While Fayetteville's Dickson Street has long held the title as the state's most bountiful pub-crawl destination (condolences, downtown Little Rock), that strip has traditionally left its aficionados/victims with few options for the sort of quick, cheap, messy dining that inebriated sorts, as well as their designated drivers, tend to crave a few hours after dinner.
Qdoba, Waffle House and Jimmy John's all do yeoman's work. This year, though, in the shadow of Jose's, the Schulertown food truck court has arrived to shift the Dickson dining scene cheerily down-market, with a casual urbanity that makes carousing in Fayetteville feel suddenly more like Portland, Oregon. Belly up for beers or for any of seven dining trucks parked in the snug lot, most of which stay open until 3 a.m.: pizza, soul food, tamales, pies, sandwiches, all for your woozy consumption on picnic tables.
The proprietor of the space told the Fayetteville Flyer earlier this year that he hopes to keep it a family-friendly place — and it is! But when the productive people of the world head home to read stories to their kids and rest up for the morrow, those of us out making idiot-decisions will slur praises to the salvation a basket of hot fried okra confers after two whiskeys too many. SE