The Culinary District Coffee Bar in Hot Springs has been around since 2009, but maybe you've never happened upon it. Just blocks from Bathhouse Row and across the street from the Garland County Courthouse, the shop is centrally located but far enough from Central Avenue to feel a tad isolated. Or maybe you did see the black-and-white striped awning and wandered in, but were so distracted by shiny new chef toys throughout the large retail section that you failed to notice the modest lunch cafe in the front right corner.
But Culinary District, which also operates as a large retail space that serves as a cooking store, gourmet market and commercial kitchen supplier, is worth seeking out for lunch. When we visited on two separate occasions (close to the 3 p.m. cafe shut-down), the coffee bar and the adjoining store were slow, with a few customers leisurely browsing the spatulas and stockpots. Perhaps there's a bustling lunch crowd closer to noon, but we preferred the cozy quiet to savor the inexpensive comfort-food staples that are dressed up with gourmet ingredients.
During one visit, we sampled the tuna salad ($5.95 on a salad or sandwich). "Ellen's Famous" tuna, named for the District's serious foodie and menu consultant Ellen McCabe, was light — not bogged down with an overdose of mayo — and added celery for a satisfying crunch. The accompanying salad was a fresh mix of greens, slivered almonds and dried cranberries, and topped with a zesty dressing. The house-made vinaigrette is an imaginative blend made with orange juice, balsamic vinegar, Dijon mustard, honey and a few other secret ingredients.
We also polished off a large, square slab of quiche filled with soft onions, roasted red peppers, and gruyere and goat cheeses ($5.95). Though satisfying, the Phyllo crust disappeared underneath the dish's vibrant flavors, and we missed quiche's usual hearty crust.
But one bite into our next adventure, a grilled cheese sandwich ($5.95), and we were won over. Aptly named the "Ultimate Cheese Sandwich," this rich and gooey delight was indeed ultimate. First, the bread — the white slices were buttery, with a nice, crisp edge, but chewy towards the center. In another word: perfect. What took this simple comfort food to the level of "ultimate?" The middle: Aged white cheddar, French melting cheese and — wait for it — blue cheese mayo. Predictably, the pungent blue cheese dominated, but bites of cheddar were just as rave-worthy — and the reason we'll be heading back next time we're in town.
Still to try: a cranberry pecan chicken salad sandwich ($5.95), a bratwurst with sauerkraut ($4.95), a tasty-looking Greek salad ($5.95) and the soup of the day ($5.95), which comes with a side salad.
The treats aren't limited to the cafe either. Tasting samples abound in the market that sells gourmet cheeses, olive oils, pastas imported from Italy, wines and more. We picked up a gratis cup of house-made granola, packed with ingredients like rolled oats, pepitas, sesame seeds, Arkansas honey, dried apricots and more, and couldn't resist buying a bag. The fresh, gourmet ingredients are the secret to the cafe's dishes, says manager Becky Newell, and are sourced locally as often as possible.
The Culinary District opened in Hot Springs in 2009 after much work from California couple Les and Diana Surfas, the owners of the Surfas Group and a similar concept eatery in Cali. The two bought and restored the 1920 Hamp Williams Building at 500-510 Ouachita Avenue, and rent much of the 56,000 square-foot space to other tenants. The history of the building is still evident and emphasized in the store. In the left storefront window, a 1929 Pontiac rests — the car was stored in the Hamp Williams Building for over 70 years before the Surfases bought it. Local photos and stories are shared on the wall, some about the hardware store, and later a Ford dealership, that once resided in the space.
You'll want to take some time to wander through the relics, as well as the merchandise for sale. Baker's racks are filled with red tumblers emblazoned with razorbacks, tortilla warmers, cupcake papers, boot beer mugs, whisks, chef aprons and a million other things you will convince yourself your kitchen needs. In the back, you'll find the equipment for commercial kitchens: fryers, huge ranges and fridges, pizza "peels" for wood-fired ovens, nifty restaurant-style syrup jars, popcorn paraphernalia, and more and more. You may get lost, but remember that grilled cheese and find your way back to the Coffee Bar. You won't regret it.