I’ve now been covering Little Rock’s food scene for a little more than two years, and I’ve lived in the Little Rock area for more than a decade. Yet still, I haven’t come close to tasting everything this city has to offer. Really, unless you go out to eat every single day and keep mixing up your lunch destinations, it’s not exactly feasible to eat at every restaurant in the area. That’s fine, but I’ve always known that I’m missing out on some good restaurants just because I haven’t taken the time to visit them. That’s why I spent this past month exploring my own #FebruaryFirsts over on the Little Rock Foodcast’s social media pages.
My original goal for February was to only eat out at places I’d never visited before, but that turned out to be unrealistic. Believe it or not, having a five-year-old child means you don’t always get to go eat where you want. So instead, I made a conscious decision to make first-time visits whenever possible and explore what I’ve been missing (you might be surprised at a few of these). Here are some of the best meals I had during #FebruaryFirsts, in no particular order:
Chicken and Waffles at The Original Ceci’s Chicken and Waffles
The entire point of this project was to find something new and exciting, and Ceci’s delivered in a big way. Only open since November, it’s likely you haven’t even seen this small North Little Rock soul food restaurant. Do yourself a favor and get acquainted with it, ASAP (just look at that picture at the top). The foundation of this gem is an airy waffle with a perfect, buttery crisp that redefines what it means to “melt in your mouth.” Ceci’s uses naked chicken wings instead of tenders, which puzzled me at first. I got over it quickly, though, after introducing the wings to Ceci’s signature hot sauce. I can confidently say I’ve never had hot sauce this good before, bringing just the right amount of heat while keeping a silky smooth finish. The hot sauce’s marriage with the sweet waffle was incredible. This is simply a special dish. Now that March is here, I’m dying to get back to Ceci’s very soon.
Moo Goo Gai Pan at Fantastic China
That’s right. I, a self-proclaimed Little Rock foodie, had never visited this essential Chinese restaurant in the Heights. I have no excuse. Please don’t take my foodie card from me.
Usually, I find moo goo gai pan to be the most bland, boring dish that a traditional Chinese-American restaurant serves. Fantastic China completely changed my mind on this one, and it all comes down to the seasoning. The salt in the sauce and the chicken is wonderfully measured, bringing to life the lighter, sweeter flavors that really make the dish shine. I’m not sure how they cook the chicken to make the small bites that juicy, but it speaks to the expert level of attention and care of Fantastic China’s owners and cooks. You can bet my next visit to Fantastic China won’t be delayed nearly as long as my first.
Righteous Indignation by Leap of Faith Brewing Company
I spent some time with Leap of Faith’s gypsy brewmaster Joe Mains for a feature story last month, but at the time I had yet to try any of his beers. That’s no longer a problem. Flyway Brewing agreed to put Mains’ Righteous Indignation on tap this past weekend, and I can see why. This beautiful Belgian abbey comes in just above 5 percent ABV, but still manages to bring a ton of flavor. Easily drinkable, this brew brings to mind tropical fruit flavors, like banana and papaya, while keeping it all balanced with a light dose of hops. The fruit notes are all a trick; there’s no juice or produce anywhere to be found. Mains manages to coax these flavors out of the yeast itself, which is no small feat. Mains is still working on getting his own brewery, and with a solid flagship like this, I can’t wait to try the rest of what he has to offer.
Chicago Ribeye at Arthur’s Prime Steakhouse
Yet another Little Rock classic that I somehow managed to miss until now, Arthur’s just oozes the class and refinement you’d expect from a major steakhouse. On Valentine’s Day, my wife and I splurged to finally visit this popular restaurant. Yes, it was expensive. And yes, it was worth it. Arthur’s dry-ages its USDA prime steaks for weeks, concentrating the beef flavor until it tastes more like steak than you had thought possible. Of course, you have to get the seasoning right on a steak to bring out those flavors, and Arthur’s nails it here with a salty crust that I found just right. Arthur’s is a special occasion restaurant, one that you probably couldn’t visit every day. But when that special time comes, it is one of the best options you could pick to celebrate something (or someone) important.
Heights Bucket at Lulu’s Crab Boil
Another relatively new restaurant to Little Rock, Lulu’s is just about the only place I’ve found here that serves up a classic boil. And while Lulu’s doesn’t just dump a bucket of seafood onto a newspaper-lined table, the effect is still intact. This massive meal for two (or more) features snow crab legs, mussels, clams, shrimp, crawfish, corn, potatoes and sausage, all cooked together with your choices of spices. And while I wished for a little more heat, the seafood still tasted sweet and fresh. In particular, the massive mussels came close to that “just plucked from the sea” experience, while the snow crab was generous in size and flavor. Every now and then, the urge for fresh seafood hits, and I’m glad Lulu’s is there to satisfy the occasional craving.
That’s just a sample of the excellent food I discovered for the first time in February. And there’s still a lot more left to find. I still haven’t eaten at reputable places like The Restaurant at Terry’s Finer Foods, Ocean’s, Sonny Williams, Gadwall’s Grill or Heritage Grille Steak and Fin. I’m sure I’ll still have enough restaurants I haven’t visited to do this again next year. But if #FebruaryFirsts taught me anything, it’s that trying out new restaurants in Central Arkansas can be a rewarding experience. I hope you’ll get a chance to enjoy something new soon.