In 2014, a little over a year after we started Rock City Eats, we had the bright idea to do a roundup of the best vegetarian dishes in Little Rock. We started with the idea of doing vegan but found too few dishes to make a solid list. That “vegetarian-friendly” list hilariously included items like a plain waffle from a food truck, a salad from the Pantry, and a side of slaw from the Fold. It was a hard time for a vegetarian in this city, you may as well eat at home if you were practicing vegan.
The culinary scene has changed a lot since then, and we got a few better options on the vegetarian/vegan front, but it still significantly lags behind other markets. This was something that struck Lindsey and Evan Mathis when they moved to Little Rock after spending time in the culinary worlds of Denver and Portland OR and eventually led to their restaurant, Esters, in SoMa.
Previously Evan worked at Core Brewing, and he and Lindsey both worked across the country in the hospitality scene prior to that. They both saw a fit in SoMa for quality vegan food and leveraged their Core relationship to put in the initial iteration of Esters in the kitchen space.
When Core decided to close the SoMa pub Evan and Lindsey decided to take over the space and turn it into the restaurant they always wanted for Little Rock, with a healthy balance of traditional pub food mixed with solid vegan options.
“We really saw SoMa as a place that we can fit in and add to the surrounding food culture,” Evan explains. “There are already great options around here to eat vegetarian, we felt we could add some additional depth and bring in food that no one was expecting.”
The menu has a carnivore-friendly side as well as a vegan-friendly side. Many of the options are similar with a few substitutions made, and some simply work well on each. On each, you will find a solid selection of sandwiches, wings, burgers, and appetizers.
The surprising part was going through and trying both the vegan and meat-based options side by side was how often I preferred the vegan choice. It is not to say that the meat options are bad, the vegan is just outstanding. Dishes like the roast beef Au’ Jus sandwich brought a lot more flavor on the vegan option than the still-solid traditional beef variant. The black bean-based veggie burger held its own against the traditional beef.
Then there were the wings. Honestly, their vegetarian wings (called nugz) hold their own against any meat variety I’ve had. They use a house-made seitan base that gives it the density of traditional chicken but carries way more flavor than a typical chicken wing. Even as a non-vegan I will probably order these every time over the meat variety.
Also, as a non-vegan, I’ve been careful to view this through my meat-based world view. Talking to a vegan friend who frequently travels she said that she almost cried the first time she ate Esters because it was finally a place at home that is as good as what she finds in other major cities.
The cross over items are also right up there. I’d rank the fries as the best I’ve had in the city, full of flavor and a good crunch while still soft in the middle. The hushpuppies (something I never order) are possibly the best I’ve ever had. They use a heavier flour mixture that brings a totally different texture from anything you have had.
Coming from a previous pub setup, Esters maintains a fair amount of that. They are bringing in a great lineup of local craft beers outside of the original Core offerings. Aesthetic-wise they are slowly increasing the quality of the atmosphere, making it a much nicer overall space. In the back area they are converting it into an arcade featuring a number of cabinets that will continue to grow. It is a nice addition to SoMa having a pub-cade in the area.
Esters is the perfect place to indulge in your veganism, carnivore urgers, or just explore that vegan-curious side that you never knew you had.