Nearly 20 years after it opened to the public, Ottenheimer Hall in the River Market has seen many different restaurants come and go from its main food court area. The hall is a cornerstone of Little Rock's revitalized downtown, boasting high vaulted ceilings and a mix between old and new architecture that symbolizes the city's desire to move into the future without losing sight of its collective past. For our money, there isn't a much better way to contemplate all that than sitting at one of the hall's wooden tables with a cup of coffee and a hodge-podge of ethnic cuisines from all around the world.
After grabbing a cup of Boulevard Bread Co.'s famous coffee from its anchor store on the east end of the hall recently, we moved into the food court area to see what we wanted to try next — and to engage in a little people watching. The Coast Cantina was the first to catch our eye, and we made our way over to sample one of its Chicago-style hot dogs ($4.52). The dog itself is a Nathan's Famous, which usually signifies a superior frankfurter. Unfortunately, the finished product from Coast Cantina was only so-so — the dog wasn't nearly warm enough, the bun was rather stale, and the tomatoes topping it were mushy and flavorless. We can forgive the winter tomatoes, but there's no reason a hot dog shouldn't actually be hot.
We had better luck from Big on Tokyo, next door to Coast Cantina. We ordered a Spicy Tuna Roll ($5.99) from the sushi menu and some gyoza ($2.99) from the hot food menu. The sushi was good, although bland, but the gyoza, which were fresh out of the fryer and piping hot, were fantastic. Big on Tokyo also impressed us with its speed — our food was made fresh in front of us and took less than five minutes to complete.
Moving down to the west end of the hall, we moved toward two items of "street food" that are among our favorites: pizza and gyros. The beef and lamb gyro ($6) served up by the Middle Eastern Cuisine and International Pantry booth was tasty, with an ample portion of shaved gyro meat resting atop a soft pita with the traditional onions, lettuce, tomato and tzatziki sauce. Our only small complaint with this sandwich was that the gyro meat had been pre-sliced and held in a pan over a steam table, something that made the texture of the meat a little soft and spongy for our taste. Still, the flavor was as good as any gyro we've had in Little Rock.
Moving on to pizza, we met the friendliest bunch of cooks that day at the Jay's Pizza booth. Two slices of pepperoni hit our plates for only $3.75, and it was just the sort of pizza we want from a food court booth: thin crispy crust, gooey cheese, and just the right amount of sauce. We were particularly fond of Jay's crust, which had a crispy, crackery texture to it without being dry. Pizza by the slice can be a tricky game to play due to freshness concerns, but we didn't see any of those issues plaguing Jay's.
Finally, for dessert, we had only one option that would do: a cannoli from Mason's Deli. These little pastries are a bit pricy ($3.99), but when you take the first bite of pastry-wrapped mascarpone cheese, you won't have a second thought about buying another (and possibly another). Several different flavors are available, as well as the ability to add chocolate chips. We recommend trying one of each.
The River Market remains a vital part of our city's landscape, and while the food served up at its main food court might not be the most gourmet in town, it serves a great purpose: It's cheap, it's served up quick, and it's the sort of food a person can eat on the go. There's also variety in Ottenheimer Hall to suit many tastes — from vegetarian Thai fare at Bangkok Thai to home cookin' at Sweet Soul Southern Cuisine to cheap and tasty Mexican food from Casa Manana Taqueria.
301 President Clinton Ave.
In addition to the food court, Ottenheimer hall also houses vendors selling local crafts, t-shirts, and other Arkansas-related memorabilia.
7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday.
All major CC, beer and wine.