BEST VIRAL 'NEWS' Did you see the one about the Little Rock guy who overdosed on Red Lobster biscuits after eating 400 of them? In attempting to break the record for most Cheddar Bay Biscuits in one sitting, local food writer Kevin Shalin fell to the ground convulsing after eating number 413, according to the Rock City Times. "Doctors believe the butter from the biscuits has blocked signals coming from Shalin's brain. In an early morning update hospital officials state that they have drained approximately 2 gallons of butter already and expect him to make a full recovery once the rest is clear. Shalin is expected to be released in time for his visit to Golden Corral's chocolate wonderfall later next week," the site reported. The story went viral. Semi-reputable British papers like The Daily Mirror picked it up. Folks decried Shalin's gluttony on social media. Of course, those people are morons. Like everything on Rock City Times, which bills itself as "Arkansas' 2nd most unreliable news source," "Local Man in Coma After Eating 413 Red Lobster Biscuits" was a joke. Sample headlines from the site: "Local Woman Dead After Brain Freeze from Area Ice Cream Shop" and "Miss Arkansas' Crown Stolen Following Brutal Attack on Shoes." Props to Rock City Times' founder and head writer Greg Henderson and Shalin, who's got a nice food blog himself at themightyrib.com and comments regularly on the Times Eat Arkansas, for pulling the wool over on the gullible.
BEST COMBINATION OF FASHION AND HISTORY Anita Davis, the patron of SoMa who gave Little Rock the unique Bernice Garden, has opened the Esse museum of women's handbags, a sort of What They Carried look at women's culture in the 20th century as spoken by their handbags. Any fan of fashion will love looking at these purses, artfully displayed along with the small items that would have been in them (mirrors, dance cards, lipstick, prophylactics) in a renovated building next door to The Root Cafe. This sort of iconoclastic collection adds to what Little Rock is sorely lacking in: Personality. The museum shop is terrific as well, filled with vintage bags, new creations, jewelry and more items you won't find anywhere else.
BEST LOCAL POLITICAL TV Roby Brock and Fox 16's David Goins have teamed up for a Sunday morning political talk show on Channel 4 that is worth the buzz it's getting from the Under the Dome crowd. They typically match politically polar opposites for a Q&A, wrapped with some highlights of the week's political news, livened by video clips. It's tightly focused and scripted and now and then produces a few rhetorical fireworks, not to mention the odd scrap of news. Nobody else is doing anything like it.
BEST FARMERS' MARKET TREAT Farmers' market regulars are likely familiar with Farm Girl Natural Foods, which offers up a variety of delicious beef, chicken and pork products (free-range, sustainably grown, etc.). Everything Farm Girl has is good. But let us now praise a new offering they introduced this season, the Hmong sausage, which has put a serious pep in our breakfast step. Modeled after street-vendor sausage in Southeast Asia, the tender little links are packed with ginger, red pepper and two kinds of cilantro. Subtle, complex, nice little kick. You can get as ambitious in the kitchen with them as you like, but part of what we love is that if you're feeling lazy in the morning, you can quickly pan-sear a couple of links and each bite gives you a meal's worth of flavor and texture. According to Farm Girl's website, they respect the "pigness" of their pigs, who "eat a smorgasbord of lush forages and gleanings from the woods, fresh whey from artisan cheese producer Kent Walker, and specially balanced, GMO-free grains." They're doing something right — their pork is a knockout, and their move to add some international flavor was a welcome addition for sausage fans looking for something a little different. You can find Farm Girl at the Argenta and Bernice Garden farmers' markets, and their meats appear on the menus of several of our favorite restaurants, including Hillcrest Artisan Meats, The Root Cafe, Ashley's and the Capital Bar and Grill.
BEST DOCUMENTARY A short film on an elderly Arkansas chair-maker may sound sleep inducing, but in the hands of filmmaker Joe York, it's a fascinating study of craftsmanship passed through the generations. "Bump" is the story of Dallas Bump, of Royal, a 95-year-old maker of rocking chairs who was named an Arkansas Living Treasure by the Arkansas Arts Council earlier this year. He's the fourth generation of his family to make chairs, and even at 95, he's still turning the wood that becomes the chairs' posts and rungs. The 15-minute film deftly weaves his family's story — Dallas' nephew and his nephew's wife, Leon and Donna Sutton, are carrying on the tradition; Leon, who's been making the chairs for six years, says he still has "a lot to learn" from Dallas — with process footage from the ancient, sawdust-strewn family chair shop. You can see the film at the Historic Arkansas Museum's Arkansas Made website, arkansasmade.org. (Full disclosure: Caroline Millar, wife of Times editor Lindsey Millar, works on the Arkansas Made program and is a producer on the film). Films on other state Living Treasures are in the works.
BEST MEAT Hillcrest Artisan Meats gets better all the time, with a growing lineup of cured and fresh well-raised meats, but also with a selection of gourmet grocery add-ons — fancy ketchup and the world's best jerky, for example. But we'd go there for no other reason than to buy the "teres major," a lean and boneless muscle from the shoulder of beef that, in eight-ounce chunks, cooks almost instantly in a grill pan and produces slices of steak almost as tender as a tenderloin, but far more flavorable. It runs around $16 a pound or so, not cheap. But very good.
BEAT REPORTING It's the alternative weekly's duty to pick on the big guy, i.e., the daily newspaper. But we admit readily that the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette is a meaty newspaper with a big staff, far better than you'll find in most cities of comparable size. And Lord knows, if charter schools are your bag, you'll get encyclopedic coverage of THAT. The newspaper's great strength is in the beat reporters, from Capitol to courthouses to school offices, where people with experience and time are sources for lots of of-record news, an old fashioned thing that's out of fashion in some places. Our current favorite of the lot — after the scourge of UCA, Debra Hale Shelton — is Little Rock City Hall reporter Claudia Lauer. Multiple-byline days are routine for Lauer, and they are distinguished by enterprise work as she digs up fresh angles from the agendas of city boards and commissions and the occasional buffoonery of city fathers and mothers.
BEST SOUTHERN ACCENT Launched in February 2012, bourbonandboots.com is shaping up to be one of the big Little Rock Internet success stories of recent memory, featuring quirky, handmade, Pinterest-friendly goodies with a Southern accent (including, full disclosure, some very snazzy hand-painted bird pendants created by the wife of Times associate editor David Ramsey. Seriously though: buy one. We pay him squat). Founded by Arkies Matt Price and Mike Mueller, the site did $1 million in sales in the last year. Best of all, a lot of the money you spend there goes into the pocket of an artisan in the American South, not on the slow boat to China.
BEST ARKANSAS BEACH While we don't miss the hurricanes on the Gulf, we do happen to think that thoroughly landlocked Arkansas got the splintery end of the stick when it comes to beach access. If you don't have the dough or the time to drive 10 hours to the Redneck Riviera, though, there are options. Recently, we hooked back up with an old friend from childhood: the manmade sand beach on Lake DeGray at the Caddo Bend day use area. Just an hour's lovely drive from Little Rock and situated on a peninsula that juts out into the body of the lake, the long, gently-curving beach is a great place to catch some rays, and the swimming ain't half-bad either. PRO TIP: If you go, bring some shoes to wear into the water. While the beach is sand, a lot of the lake bottom is tiny bits of shale that hurt like hell on tender, citified feet.
BEST ROADTRIP TO NEW ORLEANS MYSTERY OK, technically, this is (by 10 miles or so) in Louisiana, but any Arkansan who has ever road-tripped down Hwy. 65 has likely passed by The Dock, a little Cajun seafood shack right on Lake Providence (roadside markers let you know it's coming for miles; you'll know you've arrived when you see the friendly crawfish on the big white sign). There's something eerily familiar about the decor and the layout and the tables and the smell of the place — and what you'll realize, after a minute or so, is that you're standing in a Subway. And there, lo and behold, is a Subway menu on the wall and the familiar array of Subway chips and cookies, etc. Only there's also a Dock menu, offering up fried seafood and gator tail and po boys and the like. And beer. Turns out you can order from either menu, but the wait staff will look at you funny, and all sorts of confusion will ensue, if you order from the Subway menu. So you get a po boy. And their po boys are pretty good, only there's one problem: the perfectly fried shrimp is heaped between what is undeniably Subway bread, topped with Subway fixins. And folks are getting good and drunk, and wandering out to the dock outside to take in the sun, and generally having a decidedly non-Subway time. Here's the thing. There's probably a perfectly reasonable explanation for the half-Cajun, half-Subway vibe. But when we asked a waitress, she looked at us sternly, said "we're not a Subway," and started backing away slowly. Refused to answer any follow-up questions. What kind of racket are they running in Lake Providence? Are they on guard against narcs from Subway headquarters? Don't know, never will. We've learned to keep quiet, enjoy the mudbugs and gumbo, the cypress trees and the mystery.
BEST PLACE TO CATCH UP WITH WOMEN FRIENDS Rosalia's Bakery on a Saturday morning is packed with friendly groups of women who are recovering from early morning walks, talking politics or just catching up on life while enjoying the Brazilian goodies, strong coffee and what the bakery calls "Harvest" tea, iced black tea sweetened with oranges and other fruits (addictive). What makes this place so attractive to noshing and plotting? The comfortable corner with plush chairs and a sofa? The nearness of lovely pastries and the deliciousness of breakfast empanadas? The wonder of yucca puffs? The bandying about of unabashedly liberal political ideas? The proximity of a great park? The neighborhood vibe? The cute puppies you see there? All of that, of course. Guys allowed, by the way.
BEST BROWNIE While people do love their pie and cobbler and cake for dessert, our go-to guilty pleasure in the sweets department is the brownie at Whole Hog Cafe in Riverdale. Often an inch thick and three inches square, moist and fudgy to the point of sticking to your fingers, the Whole Hog brownie is indescribably good, and the perfect, instantly regrettable meal ender after a downing a big ol' barbecue sammich (we figure if you're going to blow your diet, you may as well go all the way). They've clearly got a little Satan in them, or at least — our group of loyal Whole Hog devotees has decided — a smidgen of the yummy pork renderings ladled out of the smokers in the kitchen. Whatever the case, they're hog wild good.
BEST NEW AND PRE-SPUN RECORD STORES We've beaten this drum loudly and often, and we're going to keep on pounding as long as these places are around. Little Rock is very fortunate to have two great record stores — Arkansas Record & CD Exchange in Levy and Been Around Records on South University. Don't take these places for granted, vinyl hounds. There are many much larger metro areas in the country that don't have anything that's even close to as good as either of these places. The Record Exchange, as it's known to regulars, has a staggering amount of vinyl, ranging from dollar-bins scores to brand new records to the most coveted collectibles in nearly any genre you could imagine. And all of it has been organized and curated by owner Bill Eginton with the utmost attention to detail — the sort that comes along with passionate-bordering-on-obsessive loving care. And then there's all the other stuff: CDs, cassettes, 8-tracks, 4-tracks, all manner of musical memorabilia and a truly impressive selection of vintage toys, with a special focus on Star Wars and toy trucks and trains. It's a wonderland, the type of very special place of which there really aren't too many left, unfortunately. What Been Around might lack in organizational zeal, it more than makes up for with pure, crate-digging pleasure. You never know what you'll find, but you're nearly guaranteed to find something you can't live without.
BEST SOULFUL STEAK For some of us here at the Times, there is a hunger that arises every so often (OK, it actually happens pretty regularly) that can only be satisfied by one thing: Chicken-fried steak. For some of us, it would be a last meal: A crispy battered cube steak, smothered in gravy, with a side of green beans and mashed potatoes and a tall glass of iced tea. So when we get a bad one, it goes beyond mere disappointment and into some taking-it-personal anger territory. Just a few weeks ago, up in Fayetteville, we ordered what purported to be chicken-fried steak, but which was in fact just a hamburger patty that was battered and deep-fried. This practice is actually alarmingly widespread. And make no mistake: it is nothing less than an abomination. Don't get us wrong: We ate the thing. But we weren't real happy about it. However, there is a place in Little Rock that has never, ever failed when it comes to chicken-fried steak, and that place is Sweet Soul, located in Ottenheimer Hall in the River Market. They serve up a true tenderized cube steak, each one hand-breaded and cooked to order, hot and fresh, smothered with delicious gravy and served with any number of side dishes, all of which are excellent. And their catfish, burgers and pies are all top-notch as well. So don't sleep on Sweet Soul; this place serves some of the best food in the state.