Any restaurant that has survived nearly 24 years has some secrets to success. Izzy's not only has survived, it has thrived — expanding a couple of times in its then way-out-west Cantrell strip-center location near Taylor Loop Road before moving a few miles west and into a huge new free-standing home at the Ranch several years ago.
Remaining true to its original “everything-from-scratch” mentality is perhaps the number one reason Izzy's has continued to grow and attract new devotees. From its signature tamales to desserts, soups and even salsa and salad dressings, Izzy's makes things fresh every day.
That might sound like a no-brainer, but these days it's not. Food service companies have seriously upgraded their selections over the years, and even some of the “best” restaurants in town cut corners and serve some items right out of a Sysco or Ben E. Keith package. (Side notes: Always ask your waiter which desserts are house-made; at barbecue restaurants ask whether they make their own side items and sauces. The answers, if truthful, might surprise you.)
Another key to Izzy's success is applying its fresh, from-scratch focus on items that have near universal appeal in these parts — burgers, sandwiches, salads, pizza, pasta … and cheese dip, the ultimate Arkansas appetizer.
A recent dinner reinforced why Izzy's is rocking right along in its third decade and why even on a frigid holiday-season Tuesday evening the sprawling place was semi-packed. We started where so many meals do — with cheese dip. Izzy's bills its version as “real cheeses, spices, fresh-made,” so we're assuming that means no Velveeta and rather a white sauce base with cheddar and other “real” cheeses melted in. That strategy created an ultra creamy dip, but it could have used more spice, particularly cumin and red pepper. Our other starter, the black bean soup, was an unexpected superstar — thick, rich and well spiced.
Izzy's tamales definitely compete for “best-in-town” status, somewhat by default since so few places make and serve their own. But no matter how large the field of competitors, Izzy's tamales would shine. The shredded beef filling is hearty and unique — finer-ground pork is the norm — and the firm cornmeal casing has just the right herb touch. Vegetarian tamales also are available, one of several offerings aimed at the non-meat crowd. Despite the burger-fries-pizza components of its menu, Izzy's does make a conscious effort to appease the healthy diner. There is a “lite plate” section, vegetarian options in every category and a selection of Chinese hot teas.
Years ago, a now-adult nephew proclaimed Izzy's burger his favorite, and he undoubtedly isn't alone. It has everything to qualify — a seven-ounce, hand-patted, griddle-sizzled patty served on a toasted bun with a slice of cheese if you want it (not the pasteurized, extruded-into-plastic variety) and all the normal condiment and veggie accoutrements. Juicy and yummy. (One complaint, maybe our only major one: Izzy's is a Miracle Whip shop; no mayo to be found; bad call.)
Pizza wasn't in the original Izzy's menu mix, but it's a big deal now, and it more than holds its own. Izzy's bills its brick-oven pies as “California style,” which is consistent with the nature of some of the pre-determined ingredient combos offered. Chicken, spinach, feta, artichokes, shrimp, zucchini and sliced almonds (?!?!?) are certainly Left Coast inventions that frankly offend this pizza purist.
But this pizza purist sometimes is wrong. The “Izzabella Chicken” outshone the Italian sausage, mushroom and onion “build-your-own” model we devised. Creative, tasty and satisfying, it included large chunks of chicken breast, hunks of artichoke, toasted almond slivers (yes, they were good) and crumbled feta joined with the more traditional tomato sauce base and mozzarella-provolone topper. We did enjoy the freshly diced purple onion and the fennel-laden Italian sausage on the other pizza, but it seemed a bit skimpy compared with the Izzabella.
Slurping down a from-scratch Izzy's chocolate milkshake will impart more than an ice cream headache. It'll make you wonder why you ever settled for a Wendy's “Frosty.” Hand-scooped Yarnell's vanilla, generous squirts of chocolate syrup and whole milk are loosely blended and served in a huge shake canister that'll fill a mug at least twice. Simple and absolutely delicious.
The lemon icebox pie is sublime ecstasy. The lemon is distinct but not overly tart, and the pie is incredibly creamy. Crushed walnuts in the homemade graham cracker crust add a pleasant taste and texture bonus. Don't miss this pie!
Izzy's doesn't break a whole lot of new culinary ground, though it does exhibit creative flourishes within its tried-and-true menu categories. It does things the right way, the old-fashioned way, and that dedication has paid off with a long and successful life in a fickle, volatile industry.
5601 Ranch Drive
Save room for a piece of creamy homemade lemon ice box pie. You'll never have better.
11:00 a.m.-8:30 p.m. Monday-Thursday. 11:00 a.m.-9:00 p.m. Friday-Saturday.
Credit cards accepted. Inexpensive prices. Beer and wine.