Seared duck breast
A dish so good it makes lentils exciting: duck breast served a succulent medium-rare, wrapped in skin and crisped to perfection. And those lentils? A healthy dose of slow-cooked duck confit turns these lowly legumes into a masterpiece of taste and texture. (It's not currently on the menu; let's hope new chef Joel Antunes brings it back.)
111 W. Markham St. (inside the Capital Hotel).
The best part of a good Cuban sandwich is smoky pulled pork, and Craig and Melissa Roe's Cuban taco takes that concept and runs with it. Craig's homemade pork is paired with a tangy jicama slaw and topped with fresh avocado to create a balance that's not quite barbecue, not quite taco, but entirely delicious.
1130 Military Road, Benton.
Curried carrot soup
The Arkansas Arts Center's restaurant doesn't always have this delectable soup on the menu, but when it does, order a vat of it. It's so good, even a non-cook will want to mug the chef and steal the recipe. Cooked carrots are sweet, right? Add a little curry and cream to the sweetness and your mouth will become delirious. Will the carrots make you see better in the dark? If you're making your way in the middle of the night to that leftover pint in the fridge, yes.
501 E. Ninth St. (inside the Arkansas Arts Center).
So good they almost deserve a name less pedestrian than "French fries." Until we come up with one, just think of them as the pinnacle of spuds in Arkansas. Big Orange's secret isn't much of one: Kennebec potatoes sliced in-house, blanched and then fried again when ordered, salt. The double-fry method ensures they're crisp on the outside and creamy on the inside. The Truffle-Garlic-Herb variety, which comes with truffle-oil-infused aioli for dipping, is habit-forming.
17809 Chenal Parkway (at the Promenade at Chenal).
Boulevard Bread Co.
Sure, the slow roasted Italian-style boneless pork is good in a savory, fatty way that approaches decadence, but it's Boulevard's tender, chewy ciabatta roll and pungent aioli that make this sandwich special. When the bread wrapped around your sandwich filling is as good as the filling itself, you know you've got a winner.
Multiple locations, including 1920 N. Grant St.
Brave New Restaurant
Back in the mists of ancient times, our ancestors descended from the trees and traded their diets of fruit and leaves for meat. When those first meat-eaters slept, their fondest dreams probably looked a lot like this massive plate of sausage-stuffed quail, grilled pork loin, a medallion of tender beef and a large portion of sliced wild-game sausage. Even in these modern times, it's good to indulge your inner hunter, especially from the comfort of Peter Brave's excellent patio.
2300 Cottondale Lane, No. 105.
Smoked turkey salad
This is the crack of snack food. Drop by the Heights outlet on a Saturday and the help is constantly restocking the refrigerator case with containers of the stuff. It's mostly pulverized smoked turkey with mayo and maybe a bit of relish. Most people order some saltines and dip it right out of the container until it's gone. A finger works, too.
5620 R St.
Cafe Bossa Nova
Tres leches cake
It's moist, it's coconutty, its rich, and it is the first thing you should order at Bossa Nova in case the kitchen runs out of it before you've finished your Brazilian entree. Like the entrees, all the desserts at Bossa Nova are good. But tres leches, a cool square of cold sweet milk-drenched cake, is positively hypnotic. You won't think about anything else while you eat it, except how to slap the approaching fork out of your dining companion's hand.
2701 Kavanaugh Blvd.
Capital Bar and Grill
Pickled egg salad
What if you took some briny pickled eggs — the kind they fish out of big jars in dive pool halls — and chopped up three or four of them along with enriching additions — mayo, relish? After you piled a big mound of that in a bowl, what if you surrounded it with sliced French bread and some thick, smoky, huge slices of artisanal bacon dripping with oil de swine. If you sold it for $8, you'd have a feast for two and the ideal accompaniment to a tall, cold draft beer or a tumbler clinking from ice sloshed in a high-octane spirit. Breakfast at cocktail hour? It's a champion.
111 W. Markham St. (inside the Capital Hotel).
Cupcakes on Kavanaugh
The cake's lovely, but make no mistake, the magic is in the thick cream cheese frosting. It's been known to induce euphoric daydreams of playing hop-scotch through clouds of sugar.
5625 Kavanaugh Blvd. and 11525 Cantrell Road (at the Pleasant Ridge Town Center).
Rolling out of bed becomes exponentially easier with the prospect of these light, fluffy pancakes in your near future. The incorporation of creamy yogurt adds a tangy note that sits nicely with the addition of fruit; strawberry, banana, and apple varieties are all available and exemplary. Slather with butter if you please, but these flapjacks are good enough on their own without any syrup.
11220 N. Rodney Parham Road.
Iceberg lettuce topped with a mound of East Arkansas-style finely chopped smoked pork. That's about it. And some commercial salad dressing and crackers. But we always douse it with the Dixie Pig's unique sauce, mostly vinegar and hot pepper. Cold crunch and rich meat with a palate afterburn.
900 W. 35th St., North Little Rock.
Arkansas Fat's, a '50s-era, pine-log roadhouse that sat where the Tanglewood shopping center is today, just about ruined us on Rueben sandwiches. We spent much of the last 40 years trying to recreate the soft, sweet-sour perfection of Fat's Rueben until we discovered it at Dizzy's Gypsy Bistro. The Rueben at Dizzy's is perfect corned beef, moist sauerkraut and good toasted rye bread. After 40 years living in a Reuben desert, we're in Dizzy's at least once a week for the best Rueben in Arkansas.
200 River Market Ave.
Doe's Eat Place
How else to get primed for a saddle-blanket-sized steak than an appetizer of tamales and chili? It works at Doe's Eat Place, the skid row political hangout derived from a Greenville, Miss., namesake, which also features Delta-style tamales. Delta-style means small tamales with a moist masa wrapper around mildly spicy chopped pork. It doesn't taste vaguely of Mexico, but of the black and Italian families who vended from carts, stores and cafes along the Mississippi for generations. The plate of brown is completed by a ladle of a soupy chili, more condiment than main course. Six of them with chili cost $8.25. You can also order No. 10 cans full of tamales to take home for reheating. The steaks are best ordered on premises.
1023 W. Markham St.
Dogtown Coffee and Cookery
Pork products, the most typically seen proteins on breakfast plates, take a back seat to crispy fried chicken with this hearty biscuit sandwich. Flaky buttermilk biscuits come stacked with golden fried chicken, dill pickles slices, shredded cheddar, and a house-made honey mustard spread. Best eaten on days you can return to bed for an after-breakfast nap.
6725 J.F.K. Blvd., North Little Rock.
For a lot of people, "tripa" equals "trepidation," but newcomers to the world of crisp-fried innards can quell their fears with these flavorful, crisp-on-the-outside, chewy-on-the-inside tacos. Pay a visit to Eliella's fresh-made salsa bar to spice things up, or just go au natural with a few diced onions and a squeeze of lime. Either way, tripa this good deserves to be mainstream.
7700 Baseline Road.
Many have imitated but few have gotten just the right blend of vinegary tang, oil and seasoning that makes Ed David's version of soaked salad the local standard. Who'd have thunk of soaking iceberg lettuce in what Louisianans sometimes call olive condite — pimento-stuffed olives, oil, vinegar, oregano, garlic, celery and a bit of chopped tomato. Why would you want to make crisp iceberg limp by doing this? It's counter-intuitive, but it works. A giant platter at Faded Rose with a good length of Leidenheimer po-boy loaf is a meal in itself. Mopping the juice is expected.
1619 Rebsamen Park Road.
Szechuan green beans
Green beans deep fried in a spicy oil with hot peppers and sesame seeds: fantastic. This fiery, crunchy dish is best enjoyed right out of the kitchen. If you're dining with people who are more Cantonese than Szechuan, all the better; you'll get to eat the whole dish. Add a glass of wine and call it a meal.
1900 N Grant St.
Mexican shrimp cocktail
It's just boiled shrimp, cocktail sauce, diced avocado and fresh chopped cilantro in an ice cream sundae glass. But it's cold and tangy and sweet and the Fish cooks the Gulf shrimp just right, to firmness but not tough. No limp crustaceans here.
511 President Clinton Ave.
The Food Truck
The breakfast burrito is a fine invention for these busy times: Take an entire plate breakfast and wrap it up to go in a flour tortilla. And nobody does it better than Jeffrey Palsa does from the back of his faithful truck, Preston. Fresh scrambled eggs, bacon, mushrooms, tomatoes, and gooey cheese all come together in bite after bite of day-starting bliss, culminating in a gold standard by which all other burritos should be measured.
Various locations; find the latest on Twitter @foodtrucklr.
The oldest continuously functioning restaurant in Little Rock with the single-most requested recipe. The key here is cooking the eggplant to mush, making a dish more about breadcrumbs and cheese and warm comfort than the purple vegetable. Don't knock it until you've tried it.
400 W. Capitol Ave. (inside the Regions Center Building) and 11121 N. Rodney Parham Road.
Hillcrest Artisan Meats
Squishing a freshly-baked, chewy Boulevard Bread baguette between a foil-wrapped brick and a hot, buttered pan takes an already tasty sandwich to near mind-altering status. Thinly sliced La Quercia's prosciutto Americano joins zesty raw red onion, house-made aioli, tomato and provolone to create an unconquerable sandwich. (They're probably even making their own bricks at this always impressive palace of pork.)
2807 Kavanaugh Blvd.
Tuna tataki bento box
Tuna tataki — thinly sliced tuna, lightly seared and served swimming in a ginger and vinegar sauce — stars in this bento box, but we've grown addicted to this lunch-only special because of all that comes with it: miso soup, a small salad topped with tangy ginger dressing, a handful of edamame, potato salad and your choice of a sushi roll (eight pieces). Ten bucks. The roll that all those in know get, the inexplicably-named Happy Chad, doesn't sound that special: salmon, avocado, Japanese mayo and tempura flakes. But it's creamy deliciousness.
205 W. Capitol Ave.
Steamed, pan-seared, or deep-fried, the humble dumpling can be addictive, and these tiny morsels of finely ground pork nestled in a crisp wrapper are some of the best. For a place that specializes in sushi, Igibon's non-sushi menu is spectacular, although nothing compares to these little dumplings served screamingly hot from the fryer with a simple soy and rice vinegar sauce.
11121 N. Rodney Parham Road.
Sweep the Floor pizza
There's a simple reason Iriana's Pizza is a local fave: great ingredients, artfully prepared. Their flagship pie is the Sweep the Floor, a beautiful, cheesy ballad of thin-sliced onions, peppers, black olives, meats and other veggies on a perfect, chewy foundation. Pro tip: get them to slice your wedges generously so you can fold 'em, lest the burden of goodies results in the dreaded Pizza Droop.
201 E. Markham St.
Spit-roasted lamb doesn't normally make appearances within crispy pockets of bread seasoned with Italian herbs and filled with gobs of mozzarella cheese, but it certainly feels at home there. Douse with tangy tatziki, bright with lemon and dill, and it's a big fat Greek-Italian flavor wedding you'll definitely want to be invited to.
Multiple locations, including 9501 N. Rodney Parham Road.
Ice cream sandwich
Looking like the happy offspring of a traditional ice cream sandwich and a hot fudge sundae, the Loblolly open-faced brownie sandwich is the sort of thing that can be enjoyed with a fork and knife or eaten on the go. A thick layer of gluten-free brownie is topped by a heavy layer of the small-batch creamery's handmade ice cream, then finished with a swirl of chocolate and just a few pecans. Worth a trip to South Main by itself, these ice cream sammies go well with an old-fashioned soda from the Green Corner Store soda fountain.
Available at The Green Corner Store Soda Fountain, 1423 Main St.
The Coastal Salad with salmon
As they've done at Big Orange and ZaZa, John Beachboard and Scott McGehee (along with chef/partner Ben Brainard) put as much care into the salads at Local Lime as they do their entrees. The Coastal might be Beachboard and McGehee's best yet. It's a Romaine and spring mix base; topped by grapefruit, orange, cilantro, avocado slices and onion slivers, and drizzled with citrus vinaigrette. If we could eat it every day — particularly topped with Local Lime's salmon filet, marinated in orange and achiote — we'd hop aboard the carb-free, caveman-diet bandwagon.
7815 Chenal Parkway (at the Promenade at Chenal).
Lynn's Chicago Foods
Italian beef sandwich
The hoagie comes dipped in beef juices, the dense Italian bread sopping up just enough broth to amplify flavors without leaving a gloppy, soggy mess. It gets a small helping of giardiniera — a spicy, pickled blend of bell peppers, jalapeño, cauliflower, and celery. Resist all urges to dip your whole head in broth.
6501 Geyer Springs Road.
Braised Arkansas rabbit & dumplings
Ordinary "chicken and dumplings" feels pedestrian when stacked up against this stew, rich with cream and smoked cheddar and hopping with braised Arkansas rabbit. Tender flour dumplings also come along for a swim. The rabbit is just faintly gamey, but fork tender — so delicious, you'll never look at Bugs Bunny the same way again.
1615 Rebsamen Park Road.
Bite into a MaryClare macaron and the delicate outer shell and cookie almost deflates in your mouth, giving up its last dying breath for your consumptive pleasure. Fragrant, floral flavors from the smooth, creamy filling tantalize the taste buds — and now, polishing off a half dozen is not only feasible, but a moral obligation.
Order online or via phone. Info at maryclaremacarons.com. Pick-up available at Hillcrest Artisan Meats.
McClard's Bar-B-Q Restaurant
Glorious excess. Fat and moist hand-rolled tamales are the base, topped with slow-cooked Great Northern beans speckled with bits of smoked meat. Then a scattering of McClard's fine chopped barbecue. Then a heavy dose of grated yellow cheese. Oh, and I forgot the Fritos. All but the most serious eaters opt for a "half-spread." Optional, but obligatory (trust us), is a side of McClard's lightly dressed cole slaw.
505 Albert Pike Road, Hot Springs.
Mercado San Jose
It's not every day that you get to squirt salsa on your sandwich. Here, buttered rolls take a trip to the flat-top, coming out hot, toasty, and crunchy. Fill with your choice of meat plus cheese, lettuce, tomato, sour cream, avocado and refried beans. It's only made better with an accompanying cold bottle of pineapple Jarritos.
7411 Geyer Springs Road.
Lox and bagel
It's a trip to the Big Apple without the hassle of cab fares. Smoked salmon, whipped cream cheese, thinly sliced red onion, briny capers and red tomato slices all sit atop a chewy "everything" bagel with toasted garlic, poppy seed, and sesame. Eat enough of these things and you'll swear you can see the Empire State building out the bagel shop window.
10848 Maumelle Blvd., North Little Rock.
Crazy Spicy Chicken
Don't be fooled by the normal version of this dish: The kitchen at Chen's will up the heat to crazy levels on this stir-fry on request. Just ask for "extra heat." The result is a plate of crisp-fried chicken and seitan bits that burns with the excellent fire of Sichuan peppers. Don't fight the heat; get a cup of hot tea and sweat your way to satiety.
3901 S. University Ave.
Mylo Coffee Co.
It may be hard to believe that the single greatest pastry in Little Rock can be found at a bakery without a storefront, currently operating only on Saturday at a farmers market, serving baked goods off plastic tables on a sidewalk. Nevertheless, Mylo's kouign amann is the pastry all other pastries aspire to be. Multilayered puff pastry, rich with butter, sweet with caramelized sugar, flaky and delicate — they sell fast, so get there early or you'll be driven to mourning until the next Saturday rolls around.
2200 Kavanaugh Blvd. (Hillcrest Farmers Market).
In a time before refrigeration, our forebears learned to use smoke, salt and sugar to cure and preserve meats. Lucky for us, the results are so delicious that you can still find these meat products around despite the advent of the walk-in cooler. One of the most perfect combinations is found at Tomas Bohm's Pantry Restaurant, which takes prosciutto, country pate, and thin-shaved pork loin and adds some bratwurst, spicy mustard, and a selection of cheese and olives to make the entire thing a perfect feast of an appetizer.
11401 Rodney Parham Road.
Pho Thanh My
With serving bowls the size of craters, it's difficult not to fill up on pho at this humble Vietnamese establishment. But you've done yourself a disservice if you pass up the banh mi with char-glazed pork. There's a perfect interplay of sweet, tender pork with raw julienned carrots, thinly sliced cucumber, a handful of cilantro sprigs and jalapeno.
302 N. Shackleford Road.
Walk inside and you'll be beaten silly — like Apollo Creed in "Rocky IV" — by the plethora of Philadelphian memorabilia. But luckily, Rocky's has managed to also deliver a knockout with its fabulous representation of this classic Philly sandwich. Don't scoff at the sight of bright red tomato sauce slathered on top — it's a crucial part of Rocky's formula.
6929 J.F.K. Blvd., North Little Rock.
The Root Cafe
Pinning down "the best burger in town" is a highly subjective and often controversial affair, but it's quite likely that this one's camping out near the top of many Central Arkansas burger enthusiasts' lists. No frills, no gimmicks, just 1/3 pound of pure bovine bliss. Locally produced yellow cheddar and beef so fresh, you'll swear it was probably less than two hours from moo to mouth.
1500 S. Main St.
Taqueria Samantha No. 2
Burrito al pastor
When this Geyer Springs taco wagon began opening on Sundays, we made a joyful noise. The usual taco combos all appeal, but in the land of the one-handed man, the burrito is king. A vast flour tortilla from Brenda's Tortilleria is mounded with pastor, the Mexican gyros of seasoned bits of pork, reheated on a grill that's launched a million tacos. Then comes rice and plump pinto beans. You can ask them to stuff in lettuce, tomato, crema, avocado and such, but it's already a meal. The salsa verde is standard, but don't fail to ask for a side of the red chipotle salsa. We go back and forth trying to decide which is best. It's always a tie. Lime is provided for a touch of sharpness. Also a grilled jalapeno. And, who knows why, a sack of TGI Friday's potato skin chips. We eat in the car on the parking lot of a Mexican party store with plenty of dulces inside for dessert.
7521 Geyer Springs Road.
Shipley's may not have originated in Arkansas, but we've certainly embraced it as our own. Countless early morning staff meetings have been made brighter with these donuts. Show up with a dozen, and you're a bona fide office hero. The dense, chewy potato flour dough and sweet, silky sugar glaze is unmistakably Shipley's. There are few logical reasons to wake up before 6 a.m., but hot glazed from Shipley's is certainly one of them.
Multiple locations, including 7514 Cantrell Road.
There are plenty of iconic Central Arkansas restaurants, but when we have out-of-town guests hungry for a quintessentially Little Rock dining experience, we always opt for Sims. And we damn near force our guests to order what we get without fail: the rib dinner, with a side of baked beans (flecked with nice pork pieces) and greens and cornbread (which counts as one side!). Let the tangy vinegar-mustard-and-brown sugar sauce the ribs come swimming in mix with juice from the greens and use the cornbread to sop it all up. Recommended with a cold 40 oz. and a seat near the jukebox.
Multiple locations, including 2415 S Broadway St.
Chicken and dumplings
Definitely not your grandma's dumplings, this spicy dish takes crisp-seared mochi, loads it up with shredded chicken, and douses the lot in a rich, spicy ramen broth. It may be different, but it still satisfies the requirements of classic chicken and dumplings: It's the ultimate comfort food, warming a body on a cold day with rib-sticking goodness.
Various locations, find out the latest via Twitter, @SGourmasian.
Terry's Finer Foods
This open-face sandwich is piled so high with ham and Gruyere that it requires a fork and knife. It's hard to stand out with what is basically a ham-and-cheese sandwich, but this hot, gooey concoction on perfectly toasted bread does the job. This sandwich originated in French bistros as a quick snack; do yourself a favor at Terry's and spend a little time savoring this one. 5018 Kavanaugh Blvd.
The Purple Cow
For some reason, the espresso malt, long its best ice cream concoction, isn't on the menu as such. But you can order it, and you should. Maybe not daily, but once in a while everyone needs a malt. You can opt for a milkshake, but malt makes the most of butterfat. The Cow serves its shakes and malts in tall soda fountain glasses along with the still-half-full icy cold aluminum shakers in which the ice cream was mixed. It is difficult, if not impossible, to finish the whole serving, but we try. The coffee malt isn't purple, but that's for the less-discriminating, shorter consumer anyway and not the gourmand.
11602 Chenal Parkway and 8026 Cantrell Road.
For better than a quarter-century, Trio's has set the standard for creamy chicken enchiladas. But it's the totality of the dish, with firm black beans and basmati rice studded with chopped jalapenos and capped with melted jack cheese that keeps us coming back.
8201 Cantrell Road.
Black-eyed pea "caviar"
Tell folks you're going to serve them cold black-eyed peas and they might think you're spoiling for a fight. At Vieux Carre, these cold peas are mixed with onions, peppers, and a tangy dressing to form something that's a happy marriage of a cold salad and a dip — perfect for piling high on the toasted baguette slices provided.
2721 Kavanaugh Blvd.
White Water Tavern
The Double Wide
It's late, and the only thing that's been better than the band is the shots and beers that everyone's been pounding all night. Suddenly, realization: The stomach needs something solid in it to counteract all that booze. Enter the Double-Wide, a drunkard's dream of thick-cut fried bologna, melted cheese, and a fried egg between two pieces of Jonathan Wilkins' homemade bread. It might be called "Double Wide" on the menu, but during a long night of music it might as well be known as a lifesaver.
2500 W. Seventh St.
Whole Hog Cafe
Pulled pork sandwich
There are older barbecue joints in Little Rock, but none better than the plucky upstart, Whole Hog Cafe. Their pulled pork sandwich is second to none anywhere on Planet 'Cue – juicy, smoky, huge, and delicious enough to enjoy without sauce, though they offer seven varieties if you're into that.
Your Mama's Good Food
Almost as big as your head and dense enough to serve as a weapon if hurled (but who, even in a fit of anger, would waste one?), the rolls at Your Mama's are justifiably the stuff of legend. Smeared with the restaurant's honey butter, one is almost a meal unto itself.
215 Center St.
ZAZA Fine Salad + Wood Oven Pizza Co.
In a town with a glut of pizza, we've always appreciated ZaZa for differentiating itself from the rest. It's not just that the pizza is cooked Napoli-style, in a powerfully hot wood oven. It's the ingredients. A simple pie, like the prosciutto-arugula, with nothing but the aforementioned thinly sliced ham and spicy green, tangy San Marzano Tomato sauce, fresh cherry tomatoes and Parmesan, really brings that home. Try it with an over-easy fried egg on top because, of course, egg yolk makes everything better.