While we at Rock City Eats tend to focus on the food scene here in Central Arkansas, we’ve discovered plenty of great eats all around the state, too. Arkansas’ highways, byways and small towns are ripe with numerous excellent restaurants, dairy bars, drive-ins and bakeries of all sorts. In this regular feature, we explore some of these places and encourage you to pull over and sample some of the greatest food from “Around Arkansas.” Next up, a classic Arkansas dairy bar with perhaps the most unique burger in the state … Dairy Dream in Mountainburg.
From Little Rock, take I-40 West to I-49 North outside of Alma. Take exit 29 and go east on 282 before taking a left on Arkansas Highway 71 North. Dairy Dream is located about a mile and a half on your right.
Dairy Dream’s story is textbook Americana. The dairy bar started in 1954 when Robert Willroth opened a small drive-in restaurant selling ice cream, shakes, sundaes and hot dogs. However, Dairy Dream today is best known for its Mountainburger (more on that later). The family wasn’t able to tell me when it was added to the menu. Robert Willroth passed it down to his children, and his son Jerry kept it going until 2012, when he sold it to Ronnie Stout. The Stout family still runs it, closing only for the winter and cooler spring months (Dairy Dream is open from late April until October, depending on the weather).
I’ve been dying to write about the Mountainburger ever since I first tasted it a year and a half ago. Somewhat small in size, this burger is unique in that meat is loose, like a Sloppy Joe but with no sauce to speak of. Instead, the lightly seasoned meat gets adorned with pickles, onions and mustard, plus cheese upon request. That makes it a type of tavern sandwich, popularized in Iowa and other parts of the Midwest back in the 1930s. Rich, messy and instantly memorable, the Mountainburger is simply one-of-a-kind. A hungry person can easily eat two of them in a sitting, but truly die-hard fans of Dairy Dream order them by the dozen and freeze them for later.
Dairy Dream also sells a standard hamburger, as well as a chili cheese dog that will satisfy any cravings you have for a 20-napkin greasy lunch. And don’t skip out on dessert. This is a dairy bar, after all, and Dairy Dream has spent more than half a century getting its shakes and malts just right. My chocolate malt was simply perfect, thick enough to be satisfying without choking off my straw in the process. By the way, if you visit Dairy Dream on a nice day, be sure to take your food to the back yard. The patio space with picnic tables and carefully tended flowers is a mini oasis for your travel and an appropriate venue for enjoying your meal before you hit the road again.
Prices are even more reasonable than you might expect, with the Mountainburger running $2.75 ($3 with cheese) and no entrée clearing $3.50. Malts, shakes and sundaes are all under $3 as well. It’s nice to see a menu board just as devoted to the past as the rest of the restaurant. One word about the prices, though: Dairy Dream is a cash-only business. So while it won’t cost you a lot, you’ll still have to run by the ATM first.
Razorback football is coming up in just a couple of weeks, giving you the perfect chance to stop by this vintage piece of Arkansas culinary history. Places like this are what truly make our state unique. It’s a celebration of the past that still manages to remain relevant and delicious today. When I was there, the Stout family said business can be hard to come by since most drivers take I-49 right past them. That’s a shame. For those driving by, you don’t know what you’re missing. Get off the interstate and make it to Dairy Dream this fall.
1600 Hwy 71 N in Mountainburg
Drive: A little more than two hours from Little Rock
Hours: Tuesday through Sunday 11 a.m. until 9 p.m. during the warm months (closed Mondays)
Correction: An earlier version of this story did not include the sale of Dairy Dream to Ronnie Stout.