It makes sense that the storefront in the Arkansas Studies Institute, directly across from the River Market, is a bit of an Arkie-centric take on Cracker Barrel, with piles upon piles of Natural State shirts and elastic-stringed Razorback noses for the tourist crowd. The inviting 4 Square Gifts, occupying what was once a portion of a 19th century grocery wholesalers warehouse, also recalls that food past, offering Arkansas-made hot sauces (an impressive, diverse array that alone might be worth the trip for some). But it's the lunch menu — wraps, paninis, smoothies, ice cream, desserts — that's bringing in business from the regulars.
The portobello mushroom and pepper panini ($5.95) may not advertise itself as a vegetarian twist on the Philly cheese steak, but it certainly tasted that way. It's a generous sandwich, evenly grilled on berry wheat bread with American cheese holding together sharp green pepper slices and sauteed portobello bits. For a sandwich of the sort, it's surprisingly rich.
Another, the grilled panini ($5.95), is well on the way to becoming a staple of our downtown lunch routine. It's a standard take on a caprese: mozzarella and tomato, but with a bright pesto sauce instead of basil leaves. It's always great to see the classics done right, and this is exactly that, thanks to the proportions. The slices of cheese are thick, the pesto generous and the lightly cooked tomato not too thin and not too thick.
The Caesar salad ($5.95) is another classic 4 Square takes well to. The romaine lettuce looked and tasted as if it just came out of the garden. A flavorful dressing complemented the crunchy croutons without drowning out the freshness of the salad. The menu also offers a house salad ($5.65) and smaller chickpea, fruit, Greek and sprouted mung lentil salads ?($2.95-$3.95).
Perhaps we should give the wraps another try. The hummus wrap ($5.95), a sizable affair with plenty of thinly sliced carrot and onion to accompany crisp spinach, was wrapped around a bland hummus. But given the strength of the rest of what we tried, we're more than willing to chalk the hummus up as a simple misstep. Besides, I've heard nothing but great stuff about 4 Square's hummus and portobello wrap from friends with the pickiest of palates.
And what store of this type would be worth its weight in whey without smoothies? 4 Square offers two sizes ($3.49, 12 oz.; $3.95, 16 oz.) in varieties from the natural Berry Brain Storm with raspberries, strawberries, blackberries, and blueberries to the decadent Peanut Paradise, all peanut butter, chocolate syrup, ice cream and whey protein.
Though the lunch emphasis is on healthy foods, 4 Square doesn't skimp on the desserts. There's ice cream and a display case of sweets from Argenta's Hunka Pie. Even though, in the local pie landscape, we're dedicated to Avant Tarte's (find 'em on Facebook) offerings, we were willing to be momentarily disloyal. After all, journalistic responsibility called ... in the form of delicious pie. We dove right in to the richest offering, a chocolate pecan pie. It was surprisingly light, its oozy, creamy consistency an indulgent end to a tasty, healthy lunch.
4 Square ?Deli & Gifts
405 President Clinton Ave.
All sandwiches and salads can be combined with the soup of the day for $6.25 (salad) or $7.95 (sandwich or wrap). For the kids, there's a grilled cheese sandwich ($3.95) and a PB&J ($4.49).
9:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 9:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 10:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday.
Credit cards accepted. No alcohol.