After some three years in the works, Jack and Corri Bristow Sundell's Root Cafe is finally open. It was worth the wait.
While not everything The Root serves is from Arkansas (those frosty bottles of Mexican Coke aren't, of course), the majority of the menu is made almost entirely from locally sourced ingredients. The bread is baked across the street at the inestimable Boulevard Bread Co. and the cheeses, meats, fruits and veggies come from more than 30 farms and orchards from across the state.
That's a lot of suppliers, but The Root's menu isn't as big as that might make you think. That's fine, though, because there's a good deal of variety among the burgers, bratwursts, sandwiches, soups and salads available, and everything we tried on two visits was great.
First off was one of the most buzzed-about of The Root's offerings: the Spicy Banh Mi ($7), inspired by the legendary No. 82 from Pho Vietnam in Fort Smith. If any sandwich in this great state of ours could honestly be said to have a cult following, it would be the No. 82. After eating approximately one million of Pho Vietnam's vegetarian sandwiches over the last 14 years, it's a bit odd to eat one from another restaurant: They're different, but they're not.
The Root's version is served on a slice of Boulevard baguette, which makes it a bit chewier than the No. 82's softer bread. But that's not a bad thing at all, because just like with people, it's what's inside that counts. In this case that would be the tofu, jalapenos, cilantro (if you're into that sort of thing), mayonnaise, crunchy pickled carrots and Sriracha and hoisin sauce, and the way all those flavors come together into something that tastes unique and delicious. In that regard, The Root's version is right on.
On the Times' first visit, The Root had run out of both ham and corned beef, which was sort of a bummer, but such are the perils of serving only locally produced meats. When you run out, you can't just call Sysco or Ben E. Keith and go pick up some more before the lunch rush is over.
The hamburger ($7.50) was really good. The meat was tasty, dense and heavily seasoned. It was cooked well, but still very juicy and in the same way that eggs from the local farm just taste better, the local ground beef tasted, well, fresher. The house-made mayo was excellent.
All the sandwiches are served with a small side salad of spring mix from Arkansas Natural Produce (Hot Spring County). The greens are topped with house dressing and seasonal fruits and veggies, in this case sauteed squash and blueberries. For $1.75, you can substitute regular or sweet potato fries. You can't go wrong either way, and in fact, it's advisable to just order a side of fries for $3.50.
On our next visit, Root was still out of ham, but the house-corned beef was available, and the Reuben ($8) was served on Boulevard rye with spicy mustard and homemade sauerkraut. It was pound-the-table-top delicious. The beef was tender, almost the consistency of tender barbecued brisket. The homemade sauerkraut was crunchy and perfect. This isn't one of those piled-high Reubens that sweaty hedgehog-looking dudes on the Food Network rave about. In fact, if there had been more beef on the sandwich, it would have been fine. But that didn't really matter, as good as it tasted.
The toasted curry chicken salad sandwich ($7.25) was also fantastic, with a healthy heaping of bright-yellow curried chicken served on a toasted bun. Curry can sometimes overwhelm other flavors, but the ratio was just right with this sandwich.
The only downside to The Root is that the dining area is small and fills up really quickly (so get there early). There are only a few tables, along with some bar-style seating along the outside wall. That said, the overall feel inside is really pleasant, despite the limited space. Outside there are several more tables, most of them in the shade. Those will be choice spots on perfect spring and fall days, for sure. But on those truly cold days in winter, The Root might be taking a lot more to-go orders.
The cafe's name could be interpreted in a couple of ways. As a noun, it suggests the building of sustainable communities and the cultivation of solid connections with neighbors, friends and family. As a verb, the name represents how many people feel about the place. Whether through fundraisers, donations, goodwill or just patronage, a lot of folks have been rooting for The Root, and at this point, it looks like their support has paid off.