The first snow of winter has come and gone, and though Arkansas weather is anything but consistent, we are certainly in the middle of our cold season. If you’re like me, this is the time of year where you look for your favorite comfort food dish. Forget the calorie-counting; familiarity, nostalgia and just flat out stuffing your face with your favorite meal take precedence.
Little Rock is replete with plenty of great comfort food dishes, some of which come from unexpected places. And don’t think it’s only the older restaurants serving up these classics. Restaurants only open for a year or two have shown they understand the importance of a sweetly satisfying dish. We took a look around town to find the 20 best comfort food dishes in Central Arkansas, in no particular order.
Melting Pot Cheese Dip at Heights Taco and Tamale Co. – Very few dishes define Arkansas comfort food like cheese dip, so it has to make the list. And what better cheese dip to include than the one that defeated Texas in a Washington, D.C., taste test? Very few meals at HTT are served without this cheese dip setting the table.
Yogurt Plate at Layla’s Gyros and Pizzeria – Layla’s holds a special spot in Little Rock’s food scene. There are very few places that can match its combination of quality and affordability; few plates clear the $10 mark. And though it’s not much to look at, the Yogurt Plate’s sweet, tangy broth makes it one of the better comfort food options around.
Biscuits and Gravy at The Root Café – Now this is my definition of comfort food. Rich and hearty, this southern staple certainly won’t leave you hungry. The Root’s version, with its balance of black pepper and sweet cream, is one of the better biscuit and gravy plates I’ve ever eaten.
Lasagna al Forno at The Pantry/The Pantry Crest – The Pantry is comfort food. Period. Tomas Bohm’s restaurants serve up well-loved European dishes that are made well and never leave you hungry. And if there’s one plate that will have you feeling fat and happy, it’s this perfect lasagna. After tasting the creamy béchamel and housemade sausage, it’s hard to have any complaints.
Hot Chocolate at Loblolly Creamery – As much as I love Loblolly’s ice cream flavors, I don’t think of any of them as comfort food. But this hot chocolate? This is the stuff you dream will be waiting for you as you come in from a day out in the cold. And yes, it’s rich and creamy, but it’s the balance of bittersweet flavors that truly makes this beverage stand out.
Dumplings at Three Fold Noodles and Dumpling Co. – I like the noodles better myself, but if I want to leave feeling full, it’s the dumplings at Three Fold that get the job done. Whether you go with meat or tofu, these steamed pockets of goodness are super satisfying. Oh, and if you ask nicely, they might just fry the dumplings up for you for added texture and flavor.
Chicken Crepes (Panquecas de Frango) at Café Bossa Nova – This was one of my earliest introductions to Little Rock’s food scene, and it has stuck with me for more than a decade. These chicken-stuffed crepes are extremely simple, but the best comfort food dishes are just that. One bite and you’ll understand why people have been ordering this Little Rock staple for years.
Fish and Chips at Dugan’s Pub – A class dish that predates the Civil War, fish and chips served as comfort food for our friends across the pond long before we discovered it here. Dugan’s version is crisp and hot; I’ve never had soggy batter or lukewarm fish come to the table. Add some malt vinegar and a pint of beer, and you’re set for the evening.
Bibimbap at Kemuri – One of the great things about comfort food is how it takes on different forms around the world. Bibimbap is a wonderful example; this Korean staple piles sautéed vegetables, chili pepper paste, egg and meat into one bowl that gets jumbled together before eating. Kemuri’s version is fresh and bright, proving that comfort food on the other side of the world can be just as satisfying here.
Fried Chicken at South on Main – No comfort food list would be complete without fried chicken, and in my mind, there’s no doubt that the best in town is served for Wednesday lunch at South on Main. The chicken is cooked wonderfully, and the addition of macaroni and cheese and sweet-and-spicy pepper relish elevates it to one of the best lunches in town.
Supreme Salad at U.S. Pizza Co. – More than anything, this is the dish I hear people who move out of town pine for. There’s not much to it, but U.S. Pizza’s house dressing is certainly the key ingredient that keeps people coming back for more. I’ll admit it: this is my guilty pleasure dish, one that I would probably miss if I moved away.
The Corner Poutine at At the Corner – With French fries, cheese curds and gravy, I’m honestly surprised this Canadian comfort classic isn’t more popular throughout the South. At the Corner does this plate justice; whether as a side or an app or a full-blown meal, you won’t find many versions as tasty or as memorable.
Banana Pudding at Capital Bar and Grill – Banana pudding is made all over the country, and it’s not hard to see why. It’s a filling dessert that just makes you happy. Using real vanilla beans and making its pudding from scratch, Capital Bar and Grill makes the best one in town. It’s honestly worth the trip downtown just to give this jar a taste.
Chicken Korma at Star of India – I admit, I’m not much of an expert on Indian food. But eating this tangy, earthy plate from Sami Lai, it’s hard not to imagine this is what would be served to a child with the sniffles in Northern India. It just makes you feel warm and cozy, and that’s what comfort food does best.
Chicken and Dumplings at Homer’s East – Venture out near the airport for one of Little Rock’s best southern food restaurants. The third ingredient in this chicken and dumplings might as well be black pepper, giving the plate a major kick. But at its core, it’s a well-made traditional plate that will remind you of your grandmother’s cooking.
Cat-touffee at The Oyster Bar – Again, simpler is usually better when it comes to comfort food. This one combines The Oyster Bar’s creamy shrimp etouffee with crispy catfish filets … and that’s it. And the dish works wonderfully well, even if you’ll probably be taking some leftovers home for the next day’s lunch.
Ramen Bowl at The Southern Gourmasian – This is the Little Rock dish I crave most when the cold weather sets in. The smoked pork broth is what sets this apart from any ramen I’ve tried anywhere else. One sip is enough to warm you to the core, bracing you against the worst winter has to offer.
Homemade Macaroni and Cheese at Maddie’s Place – I wouldn’t blame you if this was the first dish you thought of when you saw the headline. It’s hard to beat macaroni and cheese for comfort food, and it’s just as hard to beat the excellent interpretation at Maddie’s Place. Maddie’s gets its cheesy béchamel sauce just right and throws in a little black pepper to warm your palate. I’ve been sent out many a night to bring this one back to the house.
Gumbo at The Faded Rose – If there’s one thing The Faded Rose does well, it’s represent Louisiana cuisine without ever going overboard. There’s heat, but it’s never overwhelming. This gumbo is a great example. Loaded up with shrimp, okra and chicken in a dark roux, it’s a gumbo that brings both spice and contentment in equal amounts.
Fried Rice at kBird – Honestly, I wouldn’t blame you if you haven’t tried this dish. The whole menu at kBird is wonderful, but a recent stop for me reminded me that sometimes, the most overlooked dish is still worth seeking out. Richard Glasgow’s signature range of flavors is always present on a plate that you’ll want to come back for time and time again.