Each year we augment readers' choices in the Best of Arkansas category with an utterly random roundup of superior things as determined by the staff of the Arkansas Times. This year's crop:
BEST BEACH Gotta be Sandy Beach, on Greers Ferry Lake just outside Heber Springs. Frequented mostly by townies — it's buried back behind a neighborhood, with nary a sign alerting visitors to its presence — the wide, trucked-in-sand public beach lies on a picturesque point jutting into the lake, with nice views of the water and surrounding hills. Stop at the gas station in Heber and ask. They'll point you in the right direction.
BEST TRUCK STOP The Pilot Travel Center at Alcoa Road and I-30 down in Saline County gets the nod for — if nothing else — their 2-for-$2 Polish dogs, bladder-buster fountain sodas featuring buttons to add in lemon, vanilla and cherry flavoring, not to mention their mind-bendingly varied array of chips, candy, CB radios, chrome, caffeine-kicker drinks and other trucker gear. For those whose wheels number considerably less than 18, it's a 10-minute safari into the blue collar world of the working trucker.
BEST GROCERY STORE You might pay a little more at Hestand's in the Heights, but you get a lot more, as we discovered when our neighborhood Kroger shut down for renovation. At Hestand's, you don't have to settle for tomatoes from California or watermelons from Texas. The cozy, old-fashioned store has the old-fashioned habit of selling locally grown produce. It also has a quality meat department; try the bacon-wrapped filet. It has charge accounts. It has delivery service. It has parking within a few feet of the front door. (They'll carry your groceries to your car, anyway.) It has homemade cakes and pies. And we'd forgotten what real pimento cheese tasted like until we went to Hestand's. We're not eating Mrs. Fletcher's anymore, Toto.
BEST FREE VIDEOS We know that Netflix has pretty much taken over the rented DVD market, but some of us still like to pick out our own videos, and some of us are cheap too. "Eclectic" is an overused word, but it applies to the selection at the main library of the Central Arkansas Library System. And all you need is your library card. If you want to see Bela Lugosi in the 1932 version of "Chandu the Magician" – and who wouldn't? – you'll find it here. If you want the recent, and magnificent, BBC production of "Little Dorritt," that's here too. It'll have you asking yourself, "Why can't Americans act?"
BEST WAY TO STOCK YOUR LIBRARY Speaking of CALS-related goodness, River Market Books and Gifts, the book store that the library operates in the Cox Creative Center, is the best used-book deal we've ever come across. As in far and wide. The books, culled from donations to the library, don't follow the typical half-off-the-cover-price formulation that most used bookstores follow. Instead, everything is simply dirt-cheap. Mass-market paperbacks ring in usually at $2. Trade paperbacks and hardcovers, $4-$5. Last November, the bookstore expanded to the third floor, effectively adding 50% more floor space and vastly increasing its inventory. So if your tastes run even a touch broad, you're bound to leave the store with a heavy load.
BEST MEAL DEAL This is easy and right downstairs from the Times. It's the lunch special at Iriana's Pizza — a huge slice of pepperoni pizza (about a quarter of a small pie), a tossed salad (with a freshly made bread stick) and a fountain soft drink for about $6, tax included. It is also the best pizza in town and we'll fight anyone who claims otherwise.
BEST SMALL ART GALLERY Beside Lauray's Jewelry, through a nondescript door and up a steep flight of stairs, lies a long, skinny, historic loft that, a few times a year, turns pianist/filmmaker/photographer/essayist/human encyclopedia Chuck Dodson's home into TheGallery@404B. You have to walk a few blocks north from the nucleus of the Hot Springs monthly Art Walk to get there but, once inside, it's a rare breath of fresh air. The inviting, homey space houses pieces from local and international artists, ranging from the hip, neon-on-white works of Hot Springs duo Pedigree to the "political pop art" of Israel's Mike Darnell. For fans of heady music, it's occasionally an essential place to stargaze; Jonsi, the epic Icelandic singer/composer behind Sigur Ros, and ambient rock heroes Hammock have both played there. Because there's no sign or storefront to announce itself, the gallery may be hard to find, but, once there, you'll find it's even harder to leave.
BEST GHOST TOWN Sorry, Moko, Zinc and Sloniker's Mill: Graysonia still reigns supreme. It's been 60 long years since Brown Hickman, a retired logger, packed his bags and single-handedly changed the former boomtown from a "Pop. 1" remnant of its former glory to a proper, completely abandoned ghost town. Decades previous, the pre-depression Clark County township was dynamically alive, home to a silent movie theater, a flourishing school, three hotels, numerous dens of iniquity and a bustling lumber mill. Okay, maybe "bustling" is an understatement: It was home to the single most efficient lumber mill in the entire South. Even greater, the mill's long-quieted frame still stands, eerie, hushed and ready to be explored. (That is, explored carefully, y'all.) Also, we suspect Graysonia actually puts the "ghost" in "ghost town." For years, during our frequent trips to the ruins, we've been faithful to a secret camping spot: a grassy knoll on the banks of the Antoine that once held the town's ice factory. That factory may be gone physically, but it's hanging on in spirit. Year-round, our little pocket of the woods inexplicably stays six or seven degrees cooler than the rest of town. No, really. We swear it. BEST BATHROOM GRAFFITI With each word, all caps, stacked on top of each other like a pyramid of juvenilia, "Mom Dad Poop Racecar" in Midtown Billiards' left men's stall may not be Moliere, but the list of palindromes exemplifies the idiot genius of toilet scrawl and makes us belly laugh like an ether-huffing mule every single time.
BEST SHORT WEEKEND GETAWAY Mountain View is only a few miles away and makes the perfect let's-get-the-hell-out-of-Dodge-for-the-weekend destination. Get there in the early evening, after the sun cools down a bit, for some fried green tomatoes and killer bluegrass tunes. Before you get there, Blanchard Springs Caverns are just down the road and, at a cool 65 degrees throughout the caves, it's a great place to spend a hot afternoon.
BEST FLAN We've tried flan, that creamy, custardy Mexican restaurant dessert staple, all over town and for our money La Hacienda, at the bottom of Cantrell Hill, has the best. It comes with a little whipped cream and chocolate sauce, which we're not really a fan of, but the dessert itself is a treat. And, like a lot of other things at La Hacienda, it's not very expensive.
BEST WILDLIFE That would be the herd of runty deer that have become regular sights in and around Knoop Park, the heavily forested belt around the waterworks plant in Hillcrest. (Sorry. A motorist mowed down one not far from the park not too long ago.)
BEST PARK Knoop Park. See deer above. But also, this park — its ridge-running trail and downtown overlook with WPA rock work — is for the most part accessible primarily on foot. You have to want to be there. This produces increased respect for the environs by most users. (Though, sadly, not always.)
BEST FUNERAL HOME We added the category this year, perhaps because many of us find we have business there more often. Custom, size, price, location and other obvious factors enter into selections. For us, the pick will always be Ruebel Funeral Home. They won points with us years ago as a newspaper obit desk hand for respecting deadlines and, most of all, spell-checking. That attention to detail happened to be typical of the service we received there. No up-selling in the casket room, either.