Dear Mr. Bourdain,
As a long-time admirer of all your irreverent and wholly entertaining escapades around the globe, I feel obliged to enlighten you on some of pleasures that await you should you decide to make Little Rock one of your future travel destinations. We are no match for the likes of New York City, Chicago, Paris, or Tokyo…but there’s a certain charm in The Natural State that we Arkansans have come to cherish, and we’d be happy to show you around town and share with you a few of our culinary delights.
I’ve taken it upon myself to plan out our adventures around town. Come hungry and you’ll definitely leave happy…
After you’ve hopped off the plane, having left that rat-race life in your very own New York City, you’re likely going to want to wind down with a few small bites and the gentle caress of an alcoholic beverage. That’s why we’re heading to Lost Forty Brewing. You can’t leave the state without witnessing the culinary craftwork of Scott McGehee and crew…and there’s no better way to do this than at one of our city’s best tap rooms. You’ll be able to slam back as many fine brewskies as you’d like (it’s cool, I’m driving)…why not go with the Bare Bones Pilsner or the popular Love Honey Bock? We’ll need to snack on their excellent grilled spent bread with assorted butters and probably a few handfuls of their black pepper sorghum soaked pecans. You’ll be tempted by their succulent housemade bratwust or snappy kielbasa with onion jam…but hold your horses, Tony…you’re going to need to save some of that stomach space.
Now you may or may not know this, but we invented this stuff called “cheese dip.” It’s basically cheese…that’s melted…and you dip stuff into it. Believe me, you’re going to want to get some. There’s plenty of establishments doing a respectable cheese dip around town, but we’re heading downtown to Dizzy’s Gypsy Bistro…a joint that’s consistently been crowned cheese dip champions of the world. Their famous dip, the “La Petite Roche Cheese Dip”, is a hot and bubbly béchamel base with three cheeses, grilled peppers, swirled with sour cream, tomato, and green tomato. It’s certainly a respectable way to dip while in Little Rock.
Our first full lunch will involve diving into a lot of local Arkansas products. You see, Little Rock is surrounded by fertile and fantastic farms, and there’s no one who puts these products to better use than the folks at The Root. Owners, Jack and Corri Sundell are about as nice as they come—the epitome of southern hospitality. Yes, we could have come for breakfast – plowing through the state’s best biscuits and gravy or a short stack of their fabulous flapjacks – but lunch will suit us just fine. I’m probably eating their incredible burger – it’s locally sourced beef and so fresh you can still hear it mooing if you listen carefully. You’re eating their tofu banh mi. I’ve watched you in Vietnam…you know your banh mi…and this one will not let you down. Sweet potato fries are also happening.
You can’t visit the South and not eat another of its most beloved products – pimento cheese. We could point you to plenty of memorable pimentos…but we’ll grab something with a bit more pizazz than your average cracker spread. Boulevard Bistro & Bar could fall on our “must-try” list for several reasons…but their take on pimento is absolutely phenomenal. They take the spicy cheese spread, bake it off in a ceramic dish, cover with bread crumbs and serve with slices of their housemade baguette. By this point you’re already asking yourself, “Why did I not come to Arkansas earlier?” It’s cool…we’re patient.
Dinner time, Tony. And there’s one establishment that deserves your attention. We’re taking a seat at the feet of Chef Matthew Bell at his restaurant, South on Main. Bell has worked tirelessly since his relatively recent opening in 2013 to give southern cooking the attention it deserves. Much like his colleagues in other southern states, whose names are always cropping up in conversations on the rise of southern cuisine – Sean Brock, John Currence, Kelly English — Matt Bell is proving that southern food can be comforting and soulful, but it can also be technically impressive, elegant, and refined. What are we eating? Whatever Bell tells us to eat. But there will probably be some version of his excellent pork trotters on our plates, maybe some fried green tomatoes with crab salad, or grilled quail. And I know you’re a self-proclaimed “egg slut.” South on Main will #PutAnEggOnIt just about any time of day. You’ll also find one of the state’s most talented bartenders here – just tell David Burnette to make you something interesting…he won’t disappoint you.
The next day, we’ll probably start light (big things planned for lunch). You’ll enjoy coffee and a pastry at one of our cities finest bakeries, Mylo Coffee Co. I know you’re not a big “sweets guy” so you can just watch me as I inhale one of their sticky, flaky kouign amann and a buttery chocolate croissant. You’ll probably enjoy any of their breakfast quiches – all filled with locally sourced produce and meats. We might also consider Mug’s Cafe in the Argenta district of North Little Rock…they do a decent brew as well.
We’re heading just a smidgen outside of the Little Rock city limits for lunch to a classic eatery that’s been serving up a legendary food for decades, a regular stop for big wigs, politicians, travelers, and celebrities of all sorts. Cotham’s Mercantile Store may look like it’s so old and unstable that it would fall over if you farted on it…but it’s been holding strong now since 1917…and it’s about time it received some Bourdain lovin’. You’re eating a hubcap burger…don’t even think about anything else. You might not finish it…but you’ll enjoy every greasy, cheese-coated bite of burger you’re able to consume.
Again, I know you don’t like sweets…but while we’re out there, I’m grabbing a slice of coconut cream pie from Charlotte’s Eats & Sweets in Keo. You can have a bite.
I’ll give you a couple options for dinner…
It’s worth stepping inside Doe’s Eat Place at some point while in Little Rock. Yeah, I know you’ve been to the original in Greenville, MS…I respect that. But our Doe’s is doing it right as well, and it’s steeped in history. Who knows how many “under the table” deals were made by Clinton and his crew during his run for president here? Doe’s unrivalled porterhouse steak practically propelled Clinton into the oval office. It deserves some “Tony time.”
But if you’re all beefed out, let’s hit up one of Little Rock’s hottest new fast-casual eateries, Three Fold Noodles and Dumplings. The menu is small, so it won’t be too difficult to decide what you’re eating. You go with the dumplings…all hand made with love by chef Lisa Zhang. I know how you feel about pork, but believe it or not, the chicken dumplings may be even better. I’ll do the noodle bowl, another great option, and we’re share some of their excellent fried taro chips.
I’d be doing you a disservice if I didn’t steer you towards some fried catfish while you are in town. And listen…I know you’ve eaten the freshest catch, from the greatest fish markets in Japan, and you may be tempted to turn your nose up at the humble bottom feeders we love so much in this state. I get it. But indulge me here, Tony…you may actually leave impressed. We’ll hit up Lassis Inn on the way out to the airport. It’s a tiny operation with a big heart, and many consider it the best fried fish in town.
So Tony, give us a chance. Little Rock has a lot more to offer than you probably ever imagined. This city will absolutely welcome you with open arms and an open kitchen…no reservations required.
*original Bourdain image from Hollywood Reporter, background image from Rock City Eats.