The bar menu is almost like a secret menu for many restaurants. If you rarely sit at the bar, chances are you won’t even know your favorite spot has a list of food items made especially for enjoying in the more casual setting. Some places are pretty well known for their bar menu, but most restaurants just leave it as a hidden gem that awaits their regulars who belly up for a drink and a chat with the bartender. That’s how I found out about the bar menu at So Restaurant in Hillcrest. I came in one evening for a glass of wine and a talk with legendary barman Veo Tyson, and stumbled into what is now one of my favorite bar menus in Little Rock.
“The bar menu is about a year old,” said executive chef Cody Rudd. “When I first came on, I realized we have a lot of regulars, but most of those come here to drink. I noticed that our dining room is fine dining, but for the people who live nearby, the bar almost takes on a dive bar quality. They just come here, talk to Veo, and they don’t want the fine dining menu.”
Perhaps my favorite thing about So’s bar menu is how starkly different it is compared with the dinner menu. Gone are the formalities and fine dining options; approachable, comfort food delights are the name of the game. And while a few of the bar menu items can be found on the main menu, in this context they take on a more laid-back feel. You might not, for instance, consider the Crab Mac out in the dining room while on a date, but when it’s just you, a beer and the bartender? It suddenly has a different appeal.
It’s the items that are found only on the bar menu that really set the table for this casual dining experience. In particular, the Ghost Pepper Burger can hold its own with any burger I’ve had in Little Rock. Rudd uses ground beef tenderloin for the patty and builds the burger in the classic lettuce-tomato-onion fashion. But it’s the ghost pepper jack cheese that makes this burger just sing. Warm, deep and not too spicy, the cheese combined with the excellent seasoned beef makes for an earthy, powerful bite.
“I found that ghost pepper cheese a while back,” said Rudd. “I don’t even mess with pepper jack cheese anymore. This is so much better. And we’re using Arkansas tomatoes on the burger as long as they’re available, and that makes things even better.”
For an even heartier meal, go with one of the two lasagna options. So makes all of its pasta in house, and the classic House Made Lasagna layers noodles, homemade ricotta, ground tenderloin, mozzarella, provolone and Bolognese for a delightful, familiar plate. Vegetarian diners can also enjoy lasagna at So, with a béchamel-based dish layered with pasta, squash and roasted tomatoes. It’s as rich a vegetarian plate as you will come across in Little Rock. Vegetarians also will find a meatless dish in the Fried Rice. Rudd uses light Jasmine rice from Ralston Farms and fries it with squash, onions and mushrooms grown in Arkansas. It’s topped with a fried egg and spicy Sambal chili sauce, and I could honestly see myself eating plate after plate of this one.
Here’s the best part about So’s bar menu: you can order it from anywhere in the dining room. Yes, it is designed for the regular who just wants an informal meal at the bar, but if you’re sitting at a table and just want a burger and fries, So will take care of you. And that to me is what this menu really shows off about So Restaurant. It’s a place that not only understands there are two very different kinds of diners on any given night, but it’s also a place that can effortlessly take care of both. If you’ve only seen So as a date-night destination up to now, I encourage you to give the bar, and the bar menu, a try.