Our Best Bites of 2016

In 2016, Little Rock eateries continued to crank out top-notch dishes; however, many of these plates came from unexpected places. When we got through putting together our list of the 20 best plates of 2016, we found several came from bars or breweries, three came from special dinner events, and one came from a hospital, of all places. In fact, the only dish that made more than one list was found at a brewery barely open for a full year! There is great food to be found in all corners of Central Arkansas, and now more than ever, going hunting for quality dishes in surprising locations can be immensely rewarding. In no particular order, here are our top 20 bites for 2016:

Marinated Tofu Sliders at Flyway Brewing: Over the past year, we’ve seen Flyway Brewing introduce a food menu that just keeps getting better and better. From pretzels to the introduction of sliders and nachos, everything is game in terms of quality, but the marinated tofu sliders will always have my heart. (Becca Bona)

Fried Papaya Salad at kBird: In Arkansas we have a strange fascination with taking perfectly good food and frying it, usually it does not work out. The fried papaya salad from kBird breaks that mode. It uses their traditional papaya salad and gives it a nice crispy finish. Somehow it makes it even better than the original, which is saying a lot. (Greg Henderson)

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Smoked Pork Belly at South on Main: It’s so small and almost delicate looking, but this perfectly smoked belly packs mountains of flavor onto your fork. Rich, fatty and satisfying, it’s another expert dish that shows why South on Main continues to garner rave reviews year after year. (Steve Shuler)

Avocado Torta at The Fold: For the most part, I like to keep a plant-based diet and that can make eating out a bit trickier. While The Fold has a few options for veg-heads, the fried avocado sandwich is my go-to. It’s hearty, creative and creamily delicious. (BB)

Beer Braised Beef Cheeks at Table 28: Chef Scott Rains cooks up some of the best food around, these beer braised beef cheeks were the best I had from him this year. They are tender and full of flavor. (GH)

The Crispy Don at Deluca’s Pizzeria Napoletano: The pizza in the state (or beyond, depending on whom you ask) managed to somehow make improvements in 2016. Anthony Valinoti dialed in his crust to perfection, and this new pie, with luscious meatballs and Parmesan crisps that snap to the bite, showed off the work of a man who is making food at a ridiculously elite level. (SS)

The Dutchman Burrito at At The Corner: At The Corner brings a new meaning to the genre of diner – and the diner’s seasonal menus this past year have reflected that. Although it’s hard to choose only one dish, their brunch has truly been my go-to for at least six months. The Dutchman Burrito – filled with sausage, eggs and hash browns – graced their menu earlier this year, and was a definite highlight of 2016 for me. (BB)

Chicken Sushirrito at Kemuri: Kemuri has always had a way of bringing trendy foods from the west coast to Little Rock. Sushirritos are no exception, the chicken one is the best I have had outside of San Francisco so far. (GH)

Crawfish-Tasso Arancini at Maddie’s Place: Truly great food evokes an emotional reaction, whether it’s a laugh or a sigh or a widening of the eyes. This dish just left me speechless. The texture is as close to perfection I can envision, and the imaginative flavor combination and pinpoint execution left no doubt: this dish is a masterpiece. (SS)

Duck à L’orange at Forty Two’s Around The World Dinner: If you haven’t had a chance to get out to one of these, you definitely should. Chef Gilbert Alaquinez and his team go all out, and the delectable Duck à L’orange was classically prepared and packed with full flavor – nothing short of a bite of heaven. (BB)

Pork Belly Ramen at Arkansas Heart Hospital: When I first heard there was some amazing ramen being served at the Heart Hospital cafeteria, I was a bit skeptical. Chef Coby Smith has put in a ton of time and research to perfect his ramen, and it is fantastic. (GH)

Poutine at Table 28: French fries, smoked pork belly, macaroni and cheese, collard greens … you really can’t go wrong with ingredients like that. But in Chef Rains’ hands, this poutine goes from a mishmash of great ingredients to an intricate layering of flavors that celebrate both the Canadian and Southern food cultures it brings together. (SS)

Pulled Pork Hash at Four Quarter Bar: Music, excellent craft beer, a full bar, and late night dining – Four Quarter Bar has been an excellent addition to Argenta, and they really have it all. The Pulled Pork Hash has quickly become a favorite of mine and not just because it can help soak up excessive alcohol – but it’s also smoked in-house and complemented with crispy fried potatoes and topped with cheesy goodness. (BB)

Pelua Arepas at La Terraza Rum & Lounge: These seem simple, but it is quite honestly my favorite lunch dish in the city. Arepas are sandwiches made from corn meal, this one is stuffed with braised shredded beef and manchego cheese, and served with a side of plantains and black beans. (GH)

Chicken and Waffles at Ceci’s Chicken and Waffles: If you were a friend of mine in February, you almost certainly heard me talking about this one. I’m not sure I’ve ever had a better waffle. I’m completely sure I’ve never had better hot sauce than the one Ceci’s keeps at every table. (SS)

Naked Burrito at Baja Grill: Baja Grill, while always a crowd favorite, flew slightly under the radar earlier this year when owner Craig Roe updated the menu. You can now get any filling a myriad of ways, and the Mushroom and Goat Cheese Naked Burrito is fresh, filling and expertly prepared. (BB)

Roasted Gulf Oyster with Horseradish, Parmesan, and Oyster Bread Pudding by Kelly English at the No Kid Hungry Dinner: Some dish from the No Kid Hungry dinner manages to make it on this list every year; it is the pinnacle of culinary experimentation in Little Rock each year. This year, it was Kelly English’s dish that stole the show at the event for me. (GH)

Pulled Pork Pretzel at Flyway Brewing: I’m telling you, some of the best food in Central Arkansas can be found at our excellent breweries. This monstrosity piled up pulled pork, baked bean salsa and coleslaw with Jess McMullen’s Carolina-inspired BBQ sauce for a plate that blew my palate away. If pulled pork is on the menu at Flyway, order it, no matter how it comes. (SS)

Grilled Pork Belly and Waffle at Ciao Baci: Chef Jeffrey Owen will tell you that breakfast for dinner is one of his favorite things to eat, let alone make, and I’m so glad. The juicy pork belly paired with a savory cornbread waffle was everything you could want in terms of comfort food with an elegant, elevated quality attached. The blueberry compote truly made the dish stand out – and I’d eat three at once if I could. (BB)

Brisket Beignets at Rick’s Beignets with Ken Dempsey: When our favorite (now closed) beignet food truck teamed up with our favorite BBQ, it seemed like a match made in heaven. Ken’s brisket is the best around and worked perfectly with a non-sweet beignet. (GH)

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Our Best Bites of 2016