By all accounts, 2016 was not the best year. Just on the food side we had some major restaurant closings (Hillcrest Artisan Meats, Heirloom, and many others), fires (Midtown Billiards and Three Sams), and seriously underappreciated talent leave the local food scene (Arturo Solis, Trevor Swedenburg, and others). Still there was plenty to celebrate about 2016, so this year we are starting the editor awards.
Disclosure, this is no elaborate reader poll, our staff did not collaborate, these are just my personal kudos for the year for the Little Rock and NWA food scenes. Some are serious, some are a (probably poor) attempt to be funny, and some will only make sense to certain people. Regardless, here we go.
Chef of the Year: Jason Paul – Heirloom in Rogers
It is a rare thing to throw a dozen chefs in the room and have them agree collectively who is the best chef other than a collective “me”. Ask anyone who knows their way around food who the best chef in the the state is and you will 9 times out of 10 hear the name Jason Paul from Heirloom come up.
Jason is special due to his unique mix of plate artistry and complex understanding of flavor balance. He is really unlike anyone in the state. Jason’s cuisine is often very plant and veggie based, but in ways you would never expect. For instance Jason served up a Carrot Hot Dog at Fayetteville Roots (see below) that was one of the most unexpectedly amazing dishes I’ve had in awhile. Heirloom is in a bit of a transition period between spaces, so you will have to unfortunately wait a few months before you can sample his food again.
Rising Star of the Year: Amanda Ivy – 1836 club in Little Rock
I first met Amanda Ivy as she was preparing to open Heights Taco and Tamale co last year. It was hard to get a good feel for someone’s talents in such a refined recipe-based kitchen. I started to see glimpses of it when she first started working with Donnie Ferneau at Good Food. It really became clearer when the two transitioned over to 1836.
What makes her special? She has an amazing talent for baking and flavor, something that never really came out until 1836 and some contract work with Skye’s Bistro and Fold/Raduno. She is passionate enough to push the boundary, creative enough to make it work, and structured enough to do it more than once very well. It is a combination that makes me believe we have not even begun to see the best of her abilities yet.
Best Secret Identity Chef: Richard Glasgow – kBird in Little Rock
Richard is this unassuming former DC lawyer turned chef. Never in a million years would you match his food to him. The quality of Thai food that comes out of kBird however is quite simply better than anything else in the state. It is like he steps into a phone booth just before walking into the restaurant and changes into a Thai cooking super hero.
The last dinner I had at kBird Richard told us jokingly that one of the first phrases he had to learn in Thai was “my wife is white too” because even during his visits to Thailand they didn’t believe that he cooked that good of Thai food himself.
Best New Restaurant: Preacher’s Son in Bentonville
Rarely do you see anything with so much hype do anything other than let you down. After two years of refinement and delays the expectations for chef Matt Cooper and the Rope Swing Group on opening the Preacher’s Son were sky high. While they just barely cracked open the door this year, somehow they managed to not only deliver, but exceed.
It is still too new of a spot to give an honest opinion on the food, but initial impressions are very good. Not just from myself but everyone who I have talked to that has eaten there. Cooper’s menu completely blew me away, I wanted to eat it all. The big hope is that the spot can continue to deliver beyond the opening month, but somehow I suspect that will not be much of a problem.
Best Keeping Your Head Down and Working: Cache in Little Rock
To say Cache had a rocky 2015 would be an understatement. The space had several controversies, leading a lot of locals to turn away from the space. It is sad really because Cache stands out as if under a huge spotlight in the River Market district. It is most visitor’s impression of Little Rock dining due to the visibility of the spot.
Know what we heard out of Cache in 2016? Almost nothing. They made a solid hire bringing in longterm food industry person Lee Ingold earlier this year and have quietly operated since. It is exactly what Cache needed, and I suspect restaurant sales support the move. They have managed to let the glitz and glam of the building do the talking, produce consistent food, and mature a bit as a restaurant. They deserve a little kudos for that way of thinking.
Surprise Hit of the Year: Skye’s Bistro in Little Rock
I get this message asking us to swing by to check out the conversion of what was a previous grab and go health food stand inside Stratton’s Market. My expectations were quite low. I figured we would discover a couple of cold cut sandwiches and broccoli and cheese soup. I was completely wrong.
Owner Skye Ward along with Stephen Burrow and some collaborations with Amanda Ivy have put together one of the most unassuming hot spots in Little Rock. The food is always top notch from the charcuterie boards to the hot fresh sandwiches. Also grab a rotisserie chicken or lamb or some of Amanda Ivy’s desserts. Bonus they cook everything in duck fat so that automatically makes them win something on this list.
Food Event of the Year: Fayetteville Roots Festival
We increasingly take part in more and more food events every year in addition to hosting a few of our own. This year Fayetteville Roots invited us in to work with the food side of their food and music festival, and it has the makings of the best food related event of the year.
Roots has always been more heavy toward the music side, which is stellar by the way. This year they wanted to beef up the food side and they did a great job. It was extremely well organized, had a strong mix of local and regional chefs, and had good prize money. Most importantly, which is something that is oddly lacking in food festivals, it had very good interaction with the public. So many times at food festivals (looking at you Pulaski Tech Diamond Chef) you watch these chefs cook amazing dishes and you are stuck eating banquet food. This gave plenty of space for the public to have a taste of the food while still allowing competition level cooking.
Most Under Appreciated Chef: Cash Ashley – Lost Forty in Little Rock
I mean this as no disrespect to any other of their restaurants, but as far as the Yellow Rocket owned restaurants go, Lost Forty Brewing consistently is the best. A big part of that is the work done by Cash Ashley in the kitchen. Unfortunately Cash often gets lost due to the huge brewing side of things at Lost Forty, and undoubtedly never receives the respect he deserves.
Cash is an incredibly hard worker with excellent culinary abilities. He has continued to impress me since the first day I met him, especially considering the kitchen at Lost Forty is smaller than most food truck kitchens.
Best Upgrade: The Pizzeria in Little Rock
The Pizzeria started life as a mobile pizza oven and eventually moved into a cozy little space beside Terry’s Finer Foods. It was small, cramped even. My favorite memory is sitting at a seat next to the door once, clearly added in just to increase capacity, and having to get up every time someone wanted to go in and out the front door because I was in the middle of the opening. I never cared once either, the pizza is hands down the best in town and it was worth it.
Last month after a year or so of planning they opened the doors to the new pizzeria. It does not dramatically add any seats, but it adds breathing room. It still feels cozy, but not trapped in the back of a crowded elevator that may or may not get stuck between floors cozy. The pizza is exactly the same, but it somehow tastes a bit better without bumping elbows with an unknown neighbor.
Most Under Appreciated Bartender: Merrick Fagan – Trio’s in Little Rock
Trio’s went the bulk of their 30 year existence without much of a bar program to speak of. That all changed last year when Merrick Fagan joined Trio’s and quickly began reworking the cocktail program from the ground up. The latest menu is one of the most unique takes on a cocktail menu I have seen in a while, rethinking what a cocktail menu could be.
All of this, and it still seems Trio’s is a little under-appreciated in the cocktail department. It is likely the history here, but whatever the case expect the program to make some big splashes next year.
Most Exciting Announcement: Mylo Coffee Co. taking over Afterthought
The spot on the corner of Beechwood and Kavanaugh is one of Little Rock’s iconic restaurant spots. It has been sad to watch the slow death of the location over the past few years. As the final few beeps of a pulse came out of the spot we heard a wild array of people trying to position themselves to take over the place, and honestly not many of them were much of an upgrade.
The truth turned out to be that next door Mylo Coffee Co. quietly claimed the spot, and looks poised to return it to the former glory. Owner Stephanos Mylonas will do well with an expanded kitchen and menu in the restaurant space, plus Mylo Coffee Co can certainly use the extra space they will get by converting the party room into a second seating area. Plus they will do the live music side justice, Mylonas owned and operated a music venue in Bristol, UK and they have several staff members with good experience in the local music scene.
Food Industry Ambassador of the Year: Matt Bell – South on Main in Little Rock
This credit is long overdue, but there has to be something said for the way Matt Bell of South on Main is representing the state. His work with No Kid Hungry across the country should be commended. He has put a lot of time and dedication into addressing the needs of not only kids in our state, but across the country.
This is hard enough to do without running a successful restaurant, but Bell seems to balance both well. It is hard to see from inside the state just how well Bell is respected on the outside, but we hear constantly from others around the country how much they respect and admire the work Bell does. We really are lucky to have him around.
Food Scene’s Favorite Uncle: Anthony Valinoti – Delucas Pizzeria in Hot Springs
To know Anthony is to love him. He is our collective uncle Tony. He may be a little dirty at times, he may flirt with your wife a bit, but a big flour hug reminds you that he cares deeply about every single person who walks in the door.
I have never met someone with as big of a heart, a compassion for an adopted city that has not always loved him back, and as big of a laugh as uncle Tony. He is the guy your mom rolls her eyes about when you ask to go hang out with him, but she secretly loves Tony too. He is one of a kind, and a true gem for all of Arkansas.