Each year the readers speak. We respect their choices for the Best of Arkansas.
Each year, too, we exercise our vast discretion and contribute a few bests of our own. Generally, we look for bests in categories not represented in the contest. We're particularly watchful for great Arkansas things outside our main reader base in Central Arkansas.
But, once in a while, we might even venture to disagree with a reader's choice. Our picks:
Amy Schlesing of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Her long slog to Iraq with local National Guard units has been as welcome to readers as it has been to the many family members longing for news of their men and women overseas. And here's the best thing: She's struck a good balance of human interest, dispatches on the positive work of the unit and careful reporting on the ugly aspects of the war, from the deaths of local men to the equipment shortages and general frustration that have contributed woe to this ill-considered war. She's blogging, too. Kudos to D-G for the significant investment, which includes the sizable talents of photographers Staton Breidenthal and Aaron Skinner.
BEST CHICKEN SALAD:
Amid alarming reports that the legendary Cordell's deli may be nearing its almost half-century run, we say again that the old-fashioned chicken salad (and creamy potato salad) at this Riverdale shop are as good as you're ever likely to find commercially. In Arkansas or anywhere. It's dear but worth it. Go buy some.
BEST BIG OL' DINNER ROLLS:
You know what we're talking about. Golden brown. Huge. Nearly chewy, with a perfect crown the size of a cat's head and an interior whiter than Bill Clinton's thigh. The undisputed winner here is to be found at Homer's, a little meat-n-three nestled into the anonymous industrial strip at 2001 E. Roosevelt. Always packed at lunchtime, Homer's is great with their other grub. But it's only when they bring those rolls and a bottle of honey to the table that you realize there's a flour-covered genius lurking somewhere in the back. Just thinking about it has us licking our chops. As our old granddad used to say: with half a stick of butter and some time off from work, we could eat a nailkeg full of 'em.
BEST PLACE TO GET WOOD:
No, not that kind of wood, but we like how you think. A recent convert to the world of woodworking (we almost said "the Zen-like world," but there's nothing Zen-like about the times we pound our racka frackin' fingers), we have to put in a plug for Steen Hardwoods at 116 E. E St. on Park Hill in North Little Rock. Open only on Wednesdays and Saturdays (and only then from 9 a.m. to noon) Steen's is improbably located in a cozy old bungalow with all its walls excised. Inside, owner Les Steen has created a kind of boutique for addicts of the pure grain, specializing in figured cherry, walnut, oak, ash, and all that other stuff you just can't get at Home Depot. Even better is the old-school Saturday morning camaraderie with other woodworkers who drift in and out, most ready to offer their commiseration and/or advice on request. You can't get that at the chain stores either.
BEST USED-BOOK STORE:
When you think of Dickson Street in Fayetteville, you probably think of bars, but some people come for a soberer attraction. Don Schoffel and Charles O'Donnell opened the Dickson Street Bookshop in 1978, and it's still going strong, having acquired something of a reputation. O'Donnell estimates that 60 percent of its customers come from outside Fayetteville, specifically to visit the book store. With around 100,000 volumes in stock at any one time, it's by far the biggest establishment of its kind in Arkansas. A book lover can spend hours in here. In fact, if you're in Fayetteville and trying to stay out of the bars, this may be the best place to do it. It's open from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and from 1 to 6 p.m. on Sunday.
Arkansas recently landed its first Starbucks locations as the Seattle-based chain colors in the last remaining squares of its global-domination matrix. Starbucks should have noticed us sooner, because Arkansans are serious about their coffee, and we are blessed with a generous assortment of local coffeehouses. Standing out in the crowd is Boulevard Bread Company, where the baristas are trained by owner Scott McGehee to make the kind of coffee you don't need to cover up with milk, caramel, or whipped cream. Of course, we are talking about a true espresso, the short, strong, black shot of caffeine that the Italians usually drink standing up. Boulevard uses fresh organic beans that are ground to order. The coffee grinds are packed tight for the hot water that pushes through to create a consistently rich drink. Often the Boulevard process achieves the crema - a light-brown head that is the sine qua non of espresso making. What we like the most about ordering an espresso at Boulevard is that several times the barista has been unsatisfied with her own work. She will say, for instance, that the water flowed through the grinds too quickly, which produces a bitter brew, so she is going to try again. It is that kind of perfectionism that inspires true amore.
God bless our winner, the Flying Saucer, for the breadth of its beer selections and general devotion to the malt. But call us unsophisticated. The best beer in Little Rock is the big mug of draft Michelob served at the Pizza Cafe. The thick glass mugs are cooled glacially in a freezer. The beer on tap is held at a cold temp, too. The result is so cold it almost hurts. Draft Mich is even smoother and mellower than the canned or bottled versions, an instant balm on a hot summer day.
Used to be, a lunch spot here or there offered a smoothie among its drinks. The best smoothie, we thought, was available at the long-gone lunch spot in the old YMCA building on Broadway. Now, the landscape is beginning to be covered by independent smoothie shops, both big and small. Smoothies are geared more toward the health conscious folks - it's sort of the anti-milk shake with its yogurt and natural fruit and honey or some other natural sweetener tossed in. There are lots of individual choices and flavors, too, so the smoothie never gets old. The one we love is at Planet Smoothie (there are three little shacks serving up drinks around Little Rock), the Georgia-based chain that claims to produce the best smoothie in the world. We think they do, and at 32 ounces and 600 calories and a few more protein grams than carbs (Atkins dieters have to love that), the Merlin's Mix Planet Life strawberry-banana smoothie (about $5) is a must have, especially during summer.
BEST PICNIC SPOT:
Before the warm weather is gone, take the spouse, the kids, maybe the direct and in-law relations and a picnic basket and iced-down cooler and enjoy the picnic area of Gulpha Gorge in Hot Springs National Park, right along U.S. Highway 70-Spur that connects main highways 70 and 7. The natural canopy shades you nicely and keeps you about 15 degrees cooler than anywhere else. There are plenty of picnic tables so that it won't seen overcrowded. It's just a short distance from Magic Springs, where the kids can work themselves into total fatigue for the drive home.
BEST (NON-COVER) BAND:
If we said anyone but Fayetteville's Grandpa's Goodtime Fandango, at least this year, we'd be crazy: GGF was this year's winner of the Arkansas Times Musicians Showcase in February for best original music band in the state. The quartet blends funk, reggae, rock and jazz into a very danceable, likeable sound. They got to show it off recently in an impressive set at Riverfest, and the good thing is they like to travel to Central Arkansas regularly.
BEST BASEBALL AND TRAIN WATCHING:
The Little Rock Junior Deputy's Bill Dickey complex off Cantrell Road near Cajun's Wharf nightly offers the best spot for baseball/train lovers. You can watch exciting baseball games with children from age 4 up to 15 (you've got to check out a 4-year-old game when 10 kids all attempt to field a hit on the Astroturf that rolls to the fence), and nightly there is always a train going back and forth in Riverdale to remind you that Little Rock still has some small-town charm.
BEST AFFORDABLE HOUSING:
Park Hill. North Little Rock's answer to Hillcrest has 75 percent of the charm and prices to match, with lower property taxes to boot. You won't find a better bargain if it's porch swings and big ol' trees you're looking for. Trust us, we've looked. Oh yeah, and there's a lake just down the hill, too. We'd only change the unfortunate oddity of its being a dry neighborhood.
BEST NEW PARK:
Paws Park for dogs in Little Rock's riverside Murray Park, three fenced and cottonwood-shaded acres equipped with benches, picnic tables, a water trough and mutt mitts to keep things tidy. Here dogs of every variety gambol and race and jump through hula hoops and catch frisbees and generally do what dogs ought to do. The stream of visitors is steady, but not crowded (not yet at least) and dog owners as well as dogs socialize, trading ideas about their dogs' ancestry, funny stories, compliments, etc.
The dog-watching is superb - from low-slung shepherds born of dachshunds to high-born and sleek Great Danes and thousand-dollar coon dogs. Still looking for a feist, though.
The return of Riverdale 10, the first movie theater in the central city since the closure of The Heights and a little art theater operated next to a restaurant at Club Road and Van Buren. The popular spot shut down for a month, requiring interstate travel for old town residents. Best thing to do before going to a movie at the Riverdale 10: Barbecue dinner at the Whole Hog Café next door.
BEST PLACE TO GET AWAY FROM IT ALL, EXCEPT ELK:
The Boxley Valley, which to our way of thinking is the most beautiful place in Arkansas. Hikes to outstanding Ozarks vistas - quite literally standing out, like Hawksbill Crag - and unspoiled tucked away secrets, like the Lost Valley; old buildings here and there along a beautiful winding road; those bellowing elk, which can be spied in the fields around Ponca. No place like it in fall. It's a place to hike, eat, see all the stars and spend time by the fire.