Most Arkansas restaurants have that one dish that they’re known by. It’s the dish that you crave, the one that puts the restaurant on the map. It’s the signature dish. This series tells the stories behind some of Little Rock’s most iconic plates and explores what makes them so memorable.
The signature dish: Cuban Tacos at Baja Grill
Availability: The Cuban has been a part of Baja Grill’s menu since it opened as a food truck in Benton and is the most-ordered dish on the menu today.
The story: In 2011, before Craig Roe and his then-wife Melissa opened the Baja Grill food truck, the pair spent months in the kitchen and on the road, trying and perfecting new recipes for what would eventually be their Cali-Mex restaurant. Out of those trials came the Cuban, a style incorporating smoked pork, a red cabbage slaw, chipotle mayo and avocado. Baja Grill creates these styles that the customer can then choose to make tacos, burritos, quesadillas and other creations. Baja Grill has nearly a dozen styles, but none so popular as the Cuban. What’s crazy is that the Cuban was almost struck off the menu early on.
“After the first month, I wanted to get rid of the Cuban,” said Roe with a chuckle. “It wasn’t doing all that well. But then apparently someone ordered a Cuban taco and told a hundred people about it, and just overnight it became the hottest thing on the menu. I’m really glad I didn’t cut it, because I really think the Cuban is what put us on the map.”
What makes it unique: The Cuban Taco just gets so much right, starting with its tremendous smoked pork. This pork is in several different styles on the menu for a good reason. Roe and his team smoke it unseasoned for 20 hours over hickory wood. When an order comes in, the shredded pork hits the flat top with some oil, salt and seasonings. The quick sear makes for some crispy edges on the meat and gives the dish a livelier feel.
And as good as the pork is, the slaw might be even better (true story: my father will order the slaw extra no matter what style he chooses). The red cabbage, jicama and red onion marinate for half a day in lime juice and seasonings. It’s just long enough to get the flavor into the slaw without taking away the crunch of the cabbage. Add some chipotle mayo and fresh avocado, and you’re left with a layering of flavors that will have you coming back over and over.
The price: Cuban Tacos are $4.50 each, except during happy hour from 2 p.m. until 6 p.m., when they drop to $3.50.
The verdict: The Cuban Taco is arguably the reason why Baja Grill ever made it to Little Rock in the first place. One bite will tell the story: this is an outstanding dish that sets the tone for Baja Grill’s entire menu. If you haven’t yet tried it, you are missing out on an Arkansas classic.