BY BREAD ALONE: Boulevard is great. But there's more.
In keeping with custom, the staff of the Arkansas Times offers some of our own ideas on the Best of Arkansas. Here and there we might have a wee disagreement with readers. Elsewhere, we cover some categories and ideas not covered in the survey.
BEST CHEAP EATS: They don’t fold the $4 burrito in the traditional envelope at Alicia’s Mexicana Luncheria. It’s simply too stuffed for folding. This is a problem, because Alicia’s is a catering truck on the parking lot of Best Car Wash on Shackleford Road. There are no tables. If you must sit down to eat with a fork, your car is about the only option. But we can’t wait to get home. There’s perfectly cooked rice. Creamy frijoles. Nicely grilled chopped meats. Fresh tomato and onions. Bright green and red salsas that taste fresh from a blender. Cheese. Mexican sour cream. All this is wrapped in a huge tortilla that is grilled quickly before filling. We close our eyes and dream of Mexico when we eat it and give thanks for the wave of immigration that brought this treat to a parking lot near us.
BEST SALAD: U.S. Pizza has hordes of fans, we know. But real salad nuts know the place for rabbit food is Hardin’s River Mercantile vegetable stand in the River Market. Their salad bar, priced by the pound, on a typical day included baby greens, marinated tofu, ripe avocado, designer mushrooms, zucchini, real Parmesan cheese, seeds, nuts, vats of custom-made dressing and a host of other green, red, crunchy, munchy toppings that truly are good for you. Accompany it with a handy walkaway fruit cup, a tall plastic cup filled to overflowing with chunks of the fruits of the day, from melons to berries with citrus and other stops in between.
BEST GROCERY BAGS: The paper bags with handles at Harvest Foods are not only better than either plastic or unhandled paper for getting groceries from the supermarket into your car, they’re far superior for household use, such as carrying recyclable items to the curb.
BEST CHRISTMAS LIGHTS: Yeah, we know. It’s too hot to think about Christmas. But we’ve got to give a shout out to the good folks on the El Dorado courthouse square for their always awe-inspiring display. Hung in tasteful sprays of white, red and yellow (with none of the angels-flapping-their-wings goofiness we’ve seen in other public displays in recent years) El Do’s picture-perfect square come Christmastime looks like something out of a Norman Rockwell painting. It’s a bright and beautiful bastion of holiday charm, one made exceedingly rare these days thanks to the Wal-Martization of small town America.
BEST FUTURE “BEST”: The new pedestrian bridge, currently being built over the Arkansas River west of the city. Constructed along the crest of Murray Lock and Dam, when completed the bridge will be the second-longest pedestrian-only span in the country and will serve as the turnaround point for the Millennium Trail, a 13-mile riverside path that will eventually make a continuous loop through Little Rock and North Little Rock. A testament to our fair city’s growing commitment when it comes to providing recreational greenspace, the bridge is sure to be the ultimate spot for bikers, runners and walkers to catch both a breather and a summer sunset over Pinnacle Mountain.
BEST FESTIVAL: The Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival. Good movies, good eating and drinking in Hot Springs restaurants, and, because it’s held in October, usually good weather. And nobody dresses up in frontier costumes or has to pay to get out of a makeshift jail.
BEST PLACE TO LOOK FOR AN IVORY-BILLED WOODPECKER ON DRY LAND UNTIL SOME IDIOTS BURNED IT DOWN: An abandoned railroad bridge in the Dagmar Wildlife Management Area over the Bayou DeView was the perfect place to see the bayou slipping in and out of old tupelo gums and cypress trees, or maybe a pair of red-shouldered hawks snuggling on a snag. Painted turtles swam below us when we were there. But a month ago, somebody — probably two somebodies — set fire to the bridge from both ends, destroying it in its entirety. Where you might have taken a folding chair, a cold drink and binoculars and just let the rarest bird in the U.S. come to you is now off limits until the state rebuilds the bridge. There are other viewing areas: From Brinkley, travel south on U.S. Highway 70 for about 9 miles. You’ll see a small road on your right (north of 70); take this road and travel north for a mile. On your right will be the trail to the burned bridge. Travel 3 more miles (Dagmar Road it’s called, but signage is iffy) to Hickson Lake. There’s a second viewing area at St. Charles, in the White River National Wildlife Refuge. For maps, go to nature.org.
BEST KOOKY TOURIST ATTRACTION: We love tinkerers, dreamers and labors of love. Tiny Town, located just off Bathhouse Row in Hot Springs, is the product of all three. Started by Baton Rouge resident Frank Moshinskie, who — as a young G.I. stationed on the Aleutian Islands during World War II — took up carving to stave off boredom, it’s a bona fide city, with dozens of minute figures, buildings and homes, most of them jerry-rigged with even tinier mechanicals so the residents can swing in hammocks, hang laundry, go shopping, or stroll the boulevard. Best of all — in the grand tradition of kooky roadside attractions everywhere — it’s built of junk: tin cans, baling wire, concrete, old fruit crates, plumbing parts, weeds and scavenged washing machine motors.
Though Frank Moshinskie is gone now, the town he built lives on. Under the glow of a light bulb sun, dogs perpetually lunge at startled cats. In Old West town, two gunfighters stare each other down forever in the street, their guns flashing when you press a button on the rail. Since he went on trial for child molestation, the tiny ’80s-era figure of Michael Jackson has been exiled from the Walk of Fame (Clark Gable! Mr. T! Sonny and Cher!) to the platform overlooking Niagara Falls. “He’s thinking about jumping,” our guide told us with a grin. Below, a herd of plastic deer migrates on a vacuum cleaner belt. Overhead, a tiny silver jetliner circles on a wire.
You’ve got to hold your mouth just right to enjoy Tiny Town, especially in this age of computer-generated, interactive, Internet-compatible, intercontinental entertainment. In short, it’s about as low tech as you can imagine — a whittler’s Eden, built with no money and questionable skill, but imagination to spare. That is, come to think of it, what manages to put a big ol’ smile on our face every time we visit. Tiny Town, 374 Whittington Ave., Hot Springs, (501) 624-4742.
BEST LIGHT BULBS: When it comes to hardware, our favorites will always be the friendly owners and operators of Kraftco, a neighborhood store that survives by being willing to patiently find and explain the proper installation of even a 10-cent screw, plus outfit you with sturdy goods such as cast-iron cookware, crank ice cream freezers, sleds, wagons and old-fashioned charcoal cookers. But sometimes, you gotta go to Home Depot. You need the funky little light bulbs that go in designer lamps. Heavy-duty outdoor floodlights. Low-watt indoor flood lights. Vanity light bulbs of every wattage and circumference. Nobody stocks them like the big orange giant and you can generally score some good case prices on some of the most popular sizes.
BEST THING TO HAPPEN IN LR IN 30 YEARS: To one food-obsessed editor, it’s the continued success and growth of Boulevard Bread Co., which makes us happy every Saturday, when we stock the freezer with bread. Owner Scott McGehee does more than bake. The best dinner bargain in town is whatever he’s offering for the nightly special, served fresh and hot in the restaurant just before 7 Monday through Saturday, with a little bread and salad and maybe a glass of wine or draft Spaten alongside. The quality is as good as any of the city’s fanciest eateries, at the take-home price. The other exciting development is a growing selection of organic produce. It’s pricey, but knocked-out good, from the best Arkansas strawberries EVER this year to heirloom tomatoes in every shape and color for which we gladly pay $2.50 a pound while the season lasts. Bread, imported cheese, fresh tomatoes and a bottle of select olive oil and you have food for the gods.
BEST REPORTER: As the old saying goes, the customer is always right — but in this case, we’ve got to take issue. Though the always-insightful John Brummett pulled out a win in the Newspaper Columnist category this year, our personal favorite in print happens to be the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reporter Amy Schlesing, who spent a year in Iraq with the 39th Infantry Brigade. Bug-bit, shot at, sand-stormed, mortared and once — we hear — nearly sold to an Iraqi sheik for a herd of goats, Schlesing continued to turn in the kind of fresh, interesting and touching reporting that really brought the trials and travails of our men in uniform back to the homefront. Though pen-and-paper journalism has taken a real beating in recent years, young reporters like her give us hope that good old print has miles to go before it sleeps. We honored her last year, too, but after a year in the desert, a repeat mention seems merited.
BEST GAS PRICES: Sure, a whole dime’s difference in the price of a gallon of gas may only work out to a buck or two more for a fill-up, but we can’t help obsessing over it anyway — even more so once the per-gallon cost passed that magic $2 mark a few months back. So it’s the Broadway exit off I-30 in North Little Rock we hie to when the empty light comes on. The Shamrock station on the east side and the Exxon on the west are generally at least 10 cents cheaper than anywhere else in town — even the station just one exit farther north — and are an easy hop from downtown Little Rock.
BEST MEAT COUNTER: We quit buying those $3 pre-packaged filet steaks at Kroger after reading the fine print about the “flavor-enhancing solution” they’re shot up with. But the unbelievably cheap filets at Hogg’s Meat Market on Camp Robinson Road in Levy are the real thing. They’ve got a case stocked with all kinds of fresh beef and pork cuts — which they wrap in old-school white butcher’s paper, not Styrofoam and plastic wrap — and they also carry Petit Jean hams and sausages, boxes of hamburger patties, smoked cheeses, pie slices, and fantastic stuffed mushrooms. Plus, you don’t even have to change parking lots to pick up a bottle of wine at the liquor store next door.
BEST AIRPORT: Not that there is any competition in this category, but as frequent travelers, we decided that Little Rock National Airport deserves some praise. First of all, it’s close to downtown. We can leave our Markham Street offices and be there in less than 10 minutes. We always find a parking place, and even if it is miles from the terminal, we never have to wait long for a parking shuttle to get us to the front door. Plus in the past year the airport has made many functional and aesthetic improvements and added non-stop flights to a variety of cities, like New York and Denver. We’re pretty lucky to have such a good, convenient airport. Now if we could only make it Little Rock International Airport . . . .
BEST HOT DOG: It’s at Ray Winder Field. When Arkansas-based Petit Jean Meats signed on last year to provide the dogs, we immediately noticed the difference. Spiced and smoked just right, these dogs beat the ones we’ve had at any other ballpark. Washing one down with a cold beer on a hot summer night while watching the Travs play on the old historic field is about as good as it gets.
BEST RESTAURANT BEER (AND WINE) PRICES: There may be honky-tonks around still selling Bud at $1.25 a can like the ol’ pool hall in Pine Bluff where we used to hang out, but when you combine it with what some of us think is the best pizza around, the best priced beer is found at Iriana’s on Markham in downtown Little Rock. Bud and Miller Lite drafts are $1.39, and a bottle of Michelob is $1.99. The classy imports (Becks, Corona, Dos Equis, Bass) are $2.59. For those seeking the grape instead, a glass of red or white wine is $2.49. Sounds like we’ve gone back in time, a couple of decades at least.