Dining » Dining Review

SQZBX sings

With pie, tunes and beer.

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SQZ IN: To the pizzeria and brewery on Ouachita Avenue.
  • SQZ IN: To the pizzeria and brewery on Ouachita Avenue.

Two polka musicians walk into a bar. Or, rather, they open their own microbrewery, alongside an accordion-themed pizzeria. Next to the solar-powered radio station they co-founded. Then, they win a historic preservation award for the effort.

That's the SQZBX (short for "squeezebox") story in a nutshell. The "Brewery & Pizza Joint" in downtown Hot Springs, just off Central Avenue, is adjoined to KUHS-FM, 102.5, the only solar-powered radio station in Arkansas. Spouses Cheryl Roorda and Zac Smith are at the helm. They're the accordion-helicon duo behind the Itinerant Locals, which trotted out its polka-fied versions of "Star Wars" marches and Talking Heads hits on stages and street corners across the U.S. until pizza took priority.

We walked past the windowfront where a DJ was spinning The B-52s' "52 Girls" on KUHS, the windowfront where SQZBX's cooks were spinning dough, and into the sleek, boxy pizzeria. SQZBX's ceilings are high and covered in vintage tin tiles, and everything shines: the copper tabletops, the mini-marquee lightboxes in each booth, the SQZBX-themed glassware in the display shelf up front and the accordion skeletons that accent the dining room. Retired accordions have even been made into lighting fixtures. A piano lid divides a booth from the beverage service area and the innards of a grand piano soundboard hang on the wall, their curvatures lit in blue — both paying homage to the spot's origins as Davis Piano Repair.

Smith operates the gleaming, squeaky-clean brew equipment Wonka-style from within a corner encased in glass, behind a door that reads: "Brewery," then, below, in script: "Zac Only." Smith's a purist, and it shows; we tried the Mystic Pilsner and the Cold Killer Ale, both of which were easy-drinking ambassadors for the unadulterated, tank-to-tap style Smith employs. Cooler days and different palates might call for quirky infusions or smoky stouts, but the beer list at SQZBX is a perfect fit for the Arkansas summer that lies ahead, and the clean, simple brew style means it's unobtrusive enough to stay out of the food's way, too. Beers are served in custom glassware (cartoonishly slim, tall beer mugs) by the 1/4 liter ($4), 1/2 liter ($7), pitcher ($15), growler ($16, adding another possible stop to your list of Sunday beer purveyors in Hot Springs) or by the flight (four brews for $6). There was also a New Belgium "Glutiny" pale ale for the gluten-averse/allergic. Wine drinkers had a choice of a pinot gris, a pinot noir, a rose and a red blend from North By Northwest or Arkansas's own Wiederkehr White Muscadine wine ($4 by the glass).

We opted for the Loaded Bread Knots ($10), cigar-like lengths of dough baked with roasted garlic and parmesan until golden brown and topped with red onion, sausage, diced pepperoni and fresh basil. Along with the knots, we had a Greek salad ($6/$10), crisp mixed greens with feta, olives, herbs and a house-made Greek vinaigrette fiercely acidic enough to counter all those briny elements. The salads at SQZBX nearly steal the show from the main event; on a past trip, we'd made dinner out of the large Garden Salad ($6/$10) with the house-made balsamic vinaigrette and vowed to order it every time we walked in the door. Nevertheless, we shared a small pie, the Vegan Dream ($16 for a 13-inch pie/$24 for an 18-inch).

The Vegan Dream is a gem. Plant-based restaurant options in Hot Springs are pretty few and far between, and it's even harder to find places that serve vegan dishes thoughtfully.

BREAD KNOTS: Cheryl Roorda and Zac Smith bake all of SQZBX's bread and pizza dough in house.
  • BREAD KNOTS: Cheryl Roorda and Zac Smith bake all of SQZBX's bread and pizza dough in house.

There's a remarkable thing that happens to pizza crust when it's made by the hands of Real Live People without using a bunch of added junk or preservatives and allowed to fully ferment. SQZBX ferments its dough at a cool temperature for a long time before thrusting into a ridiculously hot oven. The dough crisps and forms irregular bubbles on its surface, pinpointing the spots where air was trapped in the whole yeasty experiment and calling attention to just how "alive" the process is. SQZBX's crust bears all those markers of the doughmaker's care of craft — along with a little Neapolitan char — and topping it with little else besides a pile of vegetables served it well. Diners can add vegan cheese to the pie for a surcharge, but it's not really necessary. The kalamata olives atop the "Vegan Dream" account for the saltiness typically afforded by mounds of mozzarella, and the whole cloves of roasted garlic nestled underneath the feathery arugula and basil are creamy enough to ditch the Daiya (or whatever vegan cheese SQZBX uses), anyway.

If, however, pizza without meat or cheese seems to you like church without music, there's plenty of mozz to be had: the Pepperoni Pie ($16/$24), the supreme-ish Wide Load ($19/$27) or the purist's pick: the cheese pizza ($14/$19) with whole milk mozzarella and "Nona Smith's marinara."

Our impressions of SQZBX? It's a fiercely devoted effort from two polka-peddling polymaths and new evidence for the depth of Hot Springs' quirky culture — and for the Spa City's status as a mecca for good beer and pizza pie.

SQZBX Brewery & Pizza Joint
236 Ouachita Ave.
Hot Springs
609-0609
sqzbx.com

Quick bite

Don't miss two decadent highlights of the SQZBX menu: the seriously rich New York Cheesecake, topped with a dollop of fruit and framed by a rich, buttery crust ($6), and the oddball but crave-worthy Pepperoni Chips ($8), jumbo slices of pepperoni baked until crisp, served alongside a cup of chunky marinara. Think pepperoni slices masquerading as Pringles.

Hours

11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

Other info

Beer, wine, credit cards accepted.

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