- THE 'BLACKOUT': Highlight at bakery.
As always, the Times staff exercised editorial prerogative to issue our own list of bests to accompany readers' choices in the standard categories.
We looked for overlooked categories, but we also took the occasion to differ with readers here and there.
Best cake: It's the Boston cream cake (more familiarly known as pie) at Boulevard Bread Co. It's a slightly updated version of a slightly dowdy old treat, but we think it's comfort food at its finest — moist yellow cake, comforting and cool custard and a cap of chocolate icing of the darkest, richest Belgian ganache. It'll cost you almost $4 a slice, but it's an affordable indulgence. Also on offer among Boulevard's newish lineup of custom cakes is classic coconut; the “blackout,” a chocolate layer cake with chocolate pudding and mocha butter cream; carrot cake; chocolate fudge and yellow cake with strawberry icing.
Best authority among local judges on the Gunfight at the OK Corral: U.S. District Judge William R. Wilson Jr. He's been to Tombstone several times, read just about everything in the canon, and written on the gunfight himself for “In Camera,” a publication of the Federal Judges Association (“Shoot Out and Trial,” June 2005). He points out in the first paragraph of his article that the famous gunplay occurred not at the OK Corral itself, but at a nearby vacant lot next to Fly's Boarding House.
“I've been fascinated with it [the shoot-out] all my life,” the judge says. “The real story is more interesting than the movie version.” For those who want to read more, he recommends “And Die in the West” by Paula Mitchell Marks and “Wyatt Earp — The Life Behind the Legend” by Casey Tefertiller.
Best museum: Old State House. At last, a museum with interesting stuff, not just Indian pottery from the 17th century or paintings of people with all their eyes on one side of their head. The current main-event exhibit is “Badges, Bandits and Bars: Arkansas Law and Justice.” It's got horse thieves and hanging judges, tommy guns and Tucker Telephones, death masks of murderers and roulette wheels from long-gone Hot Springs casinos. One trip probably won't be enough. Some months before “Badges,” the Old State House featured an exhibit devoted to Arkansas's many musical stars. Johnny Cash's black outfit was there, Louis Jordan's saxophone, and much more. We'd almost forgotten about Sister Rosetta Tharp. Year-round, the Old State House contains the original state House of Representatives chamber, where Arkansas's first speaker of the House stabbed to death an obstreperous colleague, pretty much setting the tone for Arkansas debate ever since.
Best museum that no one in Central Arkansas is talking about: Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. It doesn't have walls or a roof yet, but when it does, it should be a masterpiece. Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in the facility and the art, which will include works from the 18th century to the present. Norman Rockwell may not be high art (“Rosie the Riveter” will find a home there) but James Turrell and Mark di Suvero should make up for the nostalgic stuff. Big question: When will it be complete? Maybe 2011?
Newest best view of downtown Little Rock: It's not a high-rise look over the city, but the view of Little Rock's River Market district and all the shiny buildings that have sprouted there from the new Heifer Village is fantastic. You can appreciate it along with a sandwich on Cafe@Heifer's patio or you can just walk around and enjoy it. Great landscaping there as well.
Best use of swamp coneflowers. Rows of these striking and unusually tall sunflowers (Rudbeckia maxima) are planted along the front and side of the new Heifer Village. You can't take your eyes off them. Really.
Best beer. It's the 97-cent quart Miller High Life at the Doublebee convenience store at Cantrell and Riverfront Drive. That works out to about 40 cents a 12-ounce can, or less than $10 a case (nine quarts exactly) for a perfectly acceptable brew. And they keep it so cold you have to shift it from hand to hand to prevent frost bite.
Best Cheap Thrill: Gotta be the Arkansas Alligator Farm in Hot Springs. For $6.50, you can get up close and personal with creatures that would welcome the opportunity to give you a refresher course on Darwinism and your place in the food chain. Featuring over 200 alligators of all sizes, a herd of tame whitetail deer and a well-stocked little zoo, it's one of the oldies but goodies of Arkansas tourism, ensconced in the same spot in Whittington Ave. near bathhouse row since 1902. Be sure to go at noon on Saturday and Sunday during the summer for feeding time. It's toothy fun.
Best Catfish While we don't have a category devoted to that most blessed and bewhiskered of all fish, we can make a heck of a suggestion: Georgetown One-Stop, way up in the little hamlet of Georgetown in White County. Located in an old filling station that long ago lost its pumps, what is served there is simply the greatest fried catfish ever made by a human being. The One-Stop uses only fresh, locally caught catfish. And when we say fresh, we mean it. What was happily swimming in the White River yesterday is often on your plate today. Couple that with a perfect breading and expert cooking, and you've got a culino-religious experience. Try it, and die happy.
Best high school football. That played between public high schools, avoiding the sanctimony (and recruiting) that accompanies some of the church-related private schools. Last December, before the 4A state championship game involving Shiloh Christian School at Springdale, the controversial Ronnie Floyd, pastor of the humongous First Baptist Church of Springdale, posted this message on his web site:
“This game will be the marquis [sic] game of the weekend of State Championship games. … We hope you will make a great day of football and Christmas shopping in Little Rock, coming to support our team. [Coached by Josh Floyd, son of Ronnie.] This Saturday is a great opportunity to represent our Lord on this statewide platform. … This is a great, great team we are playing … We need prayer.”
Best taco truck: It's actually a trailer, not a truck, but it's still Samantha's Taqueria No. 2 on the east side of Geyer Springs Road just a few yards north of Sims Barbecue. Either the burrito al pastor or three tacos will stuff you for a price tag in the $4 range. If you're lucky they might also be flipping some pollo al carbon on a big grill nearby.
Best Sunday grocery shopping: Heights residents are fiercely divided about the relative merits of the 'hood's two carriage-trade groceries — Terry's and Hestand's. Both feature custom butchers, prepared food and local produce. Both still offer charge accounts. But Hestand's, which is a little more of a conventional market than the fancier-than-ever Terry's (with new owners), has the distinct advantage of opening on Sunday. Crowds are small, service is friendly and no blue law prevents you from stocking up on smoked turkey salad or “fire crackers,” a stack of conventional saltine crackers doctored with oil, seasoning and plenty of red pepper flakes, a perfect cocktail snack.
Best university. We're admitted homers about UALR. After years of trying, the campus has begun to resemble a college. It may not be Princeton-style university gothic, but the unity of building projects, fencing and landscaping has begun to produce a recognizable identity. There's a premier program cranking out graduates for high-paying, high-tech jobs; a fine art department; great opera, even, and, if sport is your thing, a cozy on-campus venue for Division I basketball (drinks included). They're trying to lift the surrounding neighborhood and Chancellor Joel Anderson's quiet dependability is a welcome contrast to some of the drama other campuses have experienced. We'd be remiss, however, if we didn't also cite the rejuvenating spirit of the leadership of Dr. Walter Kimbrough at Philander Smith College and Fitz Hill at Arkansas Baptist College.
Best take on an egg roll. We don't know how they came up with it but the Down South egg rolls from Copper Grill are more delectable than any Asian creation and tastier than frozen “southwestern” egg rolls you'll find at most chains. Instead of stringy cabbage, these rolls are filled with chicken, spicy ham, spinach, onions and bell peppers and that's not even the best part. There's plenty of spicy mustard sauce and a fruity-but-tart peach chutney to dip into. It's a seemingly weird combination but trust us, it's great.
Best cured meats. Our passion for the Capital Hotel Bar is no secret. There's no better food, particularly for the price, anywhere downtown. A month and a half ago, the bar rolled out a new menu, with several new entrees and daily specials, and much to our delight, a smoked and cured meat section. They range from the familiar, tweaked (country pate, smoked foie gras, duck prosciutto) to more unusual fare (blackstrap leg of lamb, saucisson sec). Sous chef Travis McConnell oversees all the in-house curing and blogs about his efforts on the Capital Bar blog (find it via capitalhotel.com). From it, we know, for instance, that the lamb starts as a Petit Jean lamb ham and is cured with dark rum, brown sugar and blackstrap molasses (the heartiest and darkest molasses), cold smoked for 10 hours and then hung to cure for around eight weeks. That all that labor then ends up thin-sliced on our plate with grilled baguette slices, house made pickles and thick whole grain mustard for just $5 is a minor miracle, and yet another reason to eat your way through the bar's menu. In that spirit, sample all five for $20.
Best radio shows not on the radio. Listen, we still love the radio (especially local noncommercial stations like KABF and KUAR), but not all the time. Waiting for that one special show doesn't exactly jibe with our schedule. Nor do the FCC's puritanical regulations or program director's restrictions usually square with our tastes. In that spirit, here are two shows with Arkansas connections that're just a mouse click away. Recorded in Fayetteville, “The Best Cuts of Music” (thebestcutsofmusic.blogspot.com) takes a groove-oriented, mixed genre approach. You'll hear the likes of Dr. Buzzard's Original Savannah Band, Tom Zé, Derrick May and Crystal Castles. Hosts Robe Flax and Sam Houser enter each installment with a theme or an adventure — time travel, a Russian vacation, the fair — that usually has little to do with the music, but allows them to riff, hilariously. They need a cartoon show. “Tony Tost's America” (tonytostsamerica.blogspot.com) comes from Tony Tost, a Walt Whitman Award-winning poet and former Arkansan, who's writing a book about Johnny Cash while in grad school at Duke. His approach is a sort of postmodern take on Greil Marcus' “old, weird America.” Which is to say, his purview is Americana — blues, country, folk, jazz — that takes a sharp left turn from the norm. You'll hear the likes of Slim Galliard, jazz king of gibberish, clucking, profanely, like a rooster or gospel singer Sister Wynona Carr offering a pastiche of “Dragnet” for Jesus. If that wasn't enough, occasionally, in a measured radio voice, Tost offers epigrams that tie everything together. Tune in.
Best Kris Allen career move. “They kind of have some stipulations on what they're supposed to do with these songs and so they have to write the words a certain way and it's supposed to have this nice feeling. To have your first single be something that you weren't a part of writing, it's a little bit weird, but you can't complain.” That's what Kris Allen had to say, soon after becoming “American Idol,” about “No Boundaries,” the so-called “coronation song” on “Idol” that he was obligated to record as his debut single. Of course, what he was really saying is, charged with writing an inspirational ballad, the “Idol” songwriters pooped out tripe they tried to pass off as filet mignon, and woe is me, contractually speaking, if I complain. The song continues to haunt us on the radio, but mercifully, after audiences received the song unenthusiastically in the early dates on the Idols Live! Tour, “No Boundaries” “climb mountains” and “weather hurricanes” no more. As we saw last Saturday (see review this issue), it's been replaced by the infinitely better “All These Things I've Done,” by the Killers. Now, if Kris can keep “No Boundaries” off his debut album, fit in several triumphant anthems like “All These Things” and stay out of the John Mayer/Jason Mraz ghetto of inoffensive pop, he'll be on his way.