Every major city in the United States has something completely unique about its food scene, something that can’t be found anywhere else. These peculiarities are what give each food culture its vibrance and character. San Francisco wouldn’t be the same without sourdough bread. Santa Fe wouldn’t be as soulful without hatch green chiles. And where would Nashville be without its hot fried chicken? Little Rock also has its own, unique food experiences you just can’t get anywhere else. Here are 15 memorable culinary moments that give Little Rock its life, starting with the obvious:
No doubt this is the first thing that came to your mind when you saw the title of this piece, and it’s true: Little Rock’s most ubiquitous, well-known dish is almost certainly cheese dip. And while you can find variations of this melted American cheese appetizer around town, there are two versions that stand out in Little Rock. Dizzy’s Gypsy Bistro is almost universally praised for its thick, creamy, well-seasoned consistency. And of course, Heights Taco & Tamale Co., which famously defeated the best Texas had to offer in a Congressional competition.
Concerts at South on Main
Yes, you can catch live music at restaurants and bars pretty much anywhere. But where else can you get one of a city’s best meals, best cocktails and a full concert with professional sound and lighting? That’s pretty uniquely Little Rock. South on Main has a concert almost every week, and you should absolutely find a show you want to see and make reservations. Even better: get a seat at the bar for a great view and drinks that will make the music even more enjoyable.
Catfish at Lassis Inn
It’s not that catfish is unique to Little Rock, or even the buffalo ribs that Lassis Inn is so well known for. No, it’s walking into a black-owned restaurant that was open almost a full decade before World War I, sitting in an old church-pew booth, knocking back a cold domestic and enjoying food that has been made with love and care for more than 100 years. That, my friends, is as singular and unique as it gets.
Master Distiller Tours at Rock Town Distillery
Yes, other cities have distilleries. What other cities don’t have is a distillery open just five years that has already blown away its competition worldwide. Rock Town Distillery is Little Rock’s gem, and a tour with master distiller Phil Brandon isn’t to be missed. Getting to walk with Brandon and taste barrels still in progress is a real treat. Plus, you can try several spirits that have won international honors in the tasting room. A friend of mine who now lives in Seattle still goes on about Rock Town’s Apple Pie 100 Proof Arkansas Lightning, and what you miss most about a city when you move away says a lot about how distinct it is.
Dining at kBird
You can certainly find great Thai restaurants in many cities in the country, but perhaps none so secluded or devoted. On numerous occasions, I’ve given directions to kBird to a friend, only to have them arrive and think I misled them. But tucked away behind a pre-K school in Hillcrest is the Thai food temple of Richard Glasgow, a man who spends a month every year in Thailand perfecting his craft and finding new recipes to bring back to Arkansas. kBird is a restaurant that would succeed anywhere in the country. That it’s here in Little Rock is a true treat.
Ramen at Arkansas Heart Hospital
Hospital food is almost always mediocre (at best), so it was a delightful surprise to find traditional, well-made ramen inside Arkansas Heart Hospital. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, chef Colby Smith runs a ramen bar that wouldn’t be out of place in Portland, with house-made stocks, authentic ramen noodles and a range of fresh ingredients that varies from day to day. Great ramen in a hospital? Only in Little Rock.
The Flat Top at David’s Burgers
This one is a bit tricky, as you need to get to David’s Burgers during its peak busy time. But if the parking lot is slammed full, opening the doors to the restaurant releases one of the best aromatic experiences you can have in the food world. David’s grinds all its beef fresh on a daily basis, and when the flat top is completely full of burger patties sizzling and searing, the smell is truly breathtaking. I’ve experienced this at least half a dozen times, and its something I remember constantly.
Sami at Star of India
Most Indian food lovers will agree that Star of India does it at least as well as any restaurant in town. But it’s not the food itself that makes Star so unique. Owner Sami Lal charms you as soon as you step foot inside his restaurant and remembers your name (and order) the next time you come back, whether that’s the next day or the next year. Sami is special, somebody who would make you want to return even if the food wasn’t as excellent as it is. He is why Star of India is an experience you can’t get anywhere else.
Lunch at The Southern Gourmasian
Fusion restaurants can be found everywhere, but it’s rare that you find one with as clear a vision and precise an execution as The Southern Gourmasian. The menu is robust, but it’s the dishes that owner Justin Patterson served on the food truck that just can’t be found anywhere else. The Spicy Chicken and Dumplings, with extruded rice dumplings and a sweet heat that takes you to the very edge of your senses, is just one standout. Whether it’s steamed buns with barbecue pork or shrimp served with miso grits, the balance of Deep South and Far East is one you can only find here.
The Root Café
The only time I’ve ever found a restaurant that came close to The Root’s local food mission and eclectic taste was at a small place in Vancouver. When you have to leave the country to find your closest comparison, you have a truly unique business. The Root’s dogged dedication to locally sourcing ingredients and its flair for wistfully chic design make it a dining experience that would be hard to find outside Little Rock.
Spiced Pecans at The Capital Hotel
The Capital Hotel by itself is one of Little Rock’s best amenities, with luxurious rooms, amazing service and a price that seems unreasonably cheap. And yet with all those perks, I wouldn’t blame you for only remembering the dangerously addictive bag of spiced pecans the hotel gives its guests. Sweet, spicy, and perfectly crispy, these little jewels will disappear on you before you realize it. This is one of those food experiences you simply must have for yourself.
Anniversary Celebration at The Pantry
Every year at The Pantry, owner Tomas Bohm gets out the largest pan in his collection, starts a low fire and cooks a mess of beautiful paella. The smell off this pan is intoxicating. Best of all, Bohm gives it out free to guests (this is a party, after all). The atmosphere, aroma and wonderfully executed paella is a festive combination that is one of the most memorable food experiences Little Rock has to offer.
Eating at Forty Two
Regardless of your personal opinion about him, few presidents have enjoyed lasting popularity like Bill Clinton. Little Rock is fortunate to be home to his presidential library, which contains one of the city’s best lunch destinations. Forty Two’s dining room is its own museum gallery of Clinton photographs and memoirs, and its patio is one of the best you will find anywhere. Whether you’re a Clinton fan or just an American history enthusiast, you won’t find a dining experience anywhere like it.
Grabbing Lunch at K. Hall
There’s just something about K. Hall and Sons. The perpetually busy grocery store is more than a place to buy fresh produce. It’s a cultural hub, a place to catch up with friends and hear the neighborhood gossip. It’s also a fine place to grab lunch, and whether you go with a classic burger or a cheesesteak sandwich, you’re guaranteed a Little Rock experience that will stick with you for a long time.
Smoked Turkey Salad at Burge’s
Yeah, yeah, I know Burge’s isn’t just in Little Rock (the original location is in Lewisville), but when an entire neighborhood knows your signature product as “turkey crack,” your identity is set in stone. The Heights wouldn’t be the same without Burge’s and its addiction-inducing turkey salad. The smoky, salty flavor is one that will make the eyes roll back in your head. This is one of those places that you should take guests from out of town. They’ll be talking about it for years.
What else makes Little Rock’s food scene unique? Make sure to post your comments on our Facebook post.