Essential Arkansas Dishes

 

How do you eat like an Arkansawyer? Here’s how to dine like a local.

What unique and delicious items does Arkansas bring to the table? Plenty. Whether it’s breakfast, lunch, dinner, dessert or even party time, these dishes bring a unique Natural State flavor to your fork.

Breakfast

Going back to our territorial days, Arkansas has been a haven for those who love smoked meats. Nowhere has that hung on so strong than at breakfast, where thick slices of smoked ham are a common component. Bacon, too, tends to bring folks in. Both of these breakfast staples are served up by such smokehouses as Coursey’s Smoked Meats in St. Joe. On a larger scale, statewide meat producer Petit Jean Meats provides not only smoked hams and bacon, but also sausage for the breakfast table.

Alongside bowls of one’s preferred gravy, be it cream, sausage or redeye, one will often find fat, oversized cathead biscuits — so named for their size and shape, which are almost identical to the feline creature. Such quick breads are almost always accompanied by butter, often augmented by any number of popular jams, jellies or preserves; local honey; or sorghum molasses — and even the aforementioned gravies.

Of particular note: chocolate gravy, which has its roots in several different American locales and is happily celebrated here in some home kitchens and a few home cookin’ restaurants. To determine whether you’re ready to bring it to your skillet, try a plate of biscuits and chocolate gravy at Gadwall’s Grill in North Little Rock or have a biscuit and chocolate gravy on the side at Calico County in Fort Smith.

Cinnamon rolls, considered a breakfast food all across the States, is an anytime food in Arkansas, where purveyors such as Ferguson’s Country Store and Restaurant in St. Joe and Burl’s Country Smokehouse in Royal battle it out to see who has the largest. For city dwellers, a splendid buttery, lightly iced version is available at Little Rock’s @ The Corner.

Half a smoked chicken, courtesy of Ozark’s Rivertowne BBQ

Lunch

Our love of good smoked meats continues throughout the day, especially when it comes to barbecue. Some say Arkansas has no native barbecue style — that we adopt from Memphis, Kansas City and all of Texas. Indeed, Arkansas’s main claim to barbecue fame is in the usage of chopped cabbage or coleslaw on the sandwich — a sandwich that could be on a bun or white bread, with chopped meat piled high and a crown of wet slaw atop it, sauce served on the side, the way you get it at Sims Barbecue or Terri-Lynn’s BBQ and Deli in Little Rock, Craig’s in DeValls Bluff and, of course, at Jones Barbecue Diner in Marianna and a myriad of other roadside joints you can find by following your nose.

We also love barbecued chicken — a call to our many chicken farmers across the state. Such birds come to the table rubbed with seasoning and smoked in a pit or cabinet for hours. Quarters and halves make it to the table at such places as Old Post BBQ in Russellville and Demo’s Smoke House in Jonesboro.

A tortilla chip bathed in cheese dip at Stoby’s in Conway

In the Arkansas Delta, the tamale is also popular. The cornhusk-wrapped parcels of varying spice and meat filling are best served with a bit of the richly flavored broth they’re boiled in. They’re filled with beef at Rhoda’s Famous Hot Tamales and Pies in Lake Village and chicken at Lackey’s Smoke House in Newport — unlike the pork-laden versions found across the Mississippi.

During the lengthy hot months of summer, a plate of quick bread and vegetables has long sustained us through the midday.  The “summer plate” of bounty from the garden often includes sliced Bradley County pink tomatoes, steamed cabbage, Purple Hull peas or butter beans, maybe rice with brown gravy, cantaloupe, a cold black-eyed pea salad and cornbread left over from the night before. Diners of the region have picked up the vegetable plate idea and run with it in all seasons at shops like BJ’s Market Café in North Little Rock, R.A. Pickens & Son Commissary south of Dumas and Holly’s Country Cookin’ in Conway.

Dinner

The evening meal in Arkansas can be as varied as the terrain. In Northwest Arkansas, the signature dish is fried chicken served alongside spaghetti, a callback to Italian settlers who arrived in the last years of the 19th century to make a home at Tontitown. Purveyors such as The Venesian Inn have made their name on the dish. Others celebrate fried chicken on its own, as at the AQ Chicken House and Neal’s Café, two longstanding mainstays in Springdale, with their own varied chicken interpretations. Neal’s is the sole remaining Arkansas restaurant that still cuts, pan-fries and serves the pulley — the center cut of the breast.

A plate of freshly fried catfish at the Pot O’ Gold Restaurant in Heber Springs.

A home meal in the Arkansas Delta may be very different — perhaps including duck in the winter, alongside the rice that has put the state on the agricultural map. In Lower Arkansas, the winter repast often contains venison, harvested in hunts in the fall and carefully preserved in waxed paper and stored in deep freezers. The sides vary, but often include cornbread, that staple that causes fierce debate between individuals of all regions: Should it be made from white or yellow corn? Should it be sweet, and if so, how sweet? War Eagle Mill produces a variety of cornmeal and mixes to satisfy all those variants.

In the summer, platefuls of fried fish are common — usually breaded in cornmeal, but sometimes in flour alone. It’s almost always catfish when consumed in a restaurant. The Shack in Jessieville and Alma’s Catfish Hole have made their name with fresh, American-raised fillets and the hush puppies that accompany them. For the fishing enthusiast, the catch under the breading may be bass, bream, crappie or even buffalo — as it’s served at Little Rock’s ancient Lassis Inn.

For metropolitan diners and those who hang on to old traditions, a surefire way to spark nostalgia comes on the line at Franke’s Cafeteria, the oldest cafeteria in Arkansas, and its selection of congealed salads, hot entrées and, of course, eggplant casserole. In dozens of old cookbooks from churches and social organizations, home cooks have shared their own versions of what has long been a family secret: how to make that famed eggplant casserole. Few have succeeded, and the Franke family isn’t sharing whether or not anyone’s close.

Dessert

Arkansas’ famed dessert, a slice of possum pie, from the Dinner Bucket in New Blaine.

It’s no secret that there’s some consternation over the name of what is the most popular pie that can be found particular to Arkansas. Indeed, there are parts of the Timberlands that insist the confection in that sandy-bottom (pecan and flour) crust is called Four Layer Delight. I have yet to see it listed the way some waitresses refer to it, “sex in a pie pan,” but there’s no doubt the Possum Pie deserves a better name — and better recognition as a state dessert. The chocolate “playin’ possum” between layers of whipped cream and cream cheese brings together a flavor that signifies Arkansas’ place in the world of sweets.

Fried pies are common too, especially at lunch. They’re the perfect take-away for country diner customers and truck drivers alike to slip in their pocket or carry with them in a small wax paper pouch to enjoy in the afternoon. A single company, Flywheel Pies, creates 2,400 of the pockets every day, which are then distributed to scores of restaurants across the state. They vary when they reach the plate or pocket. Some are fried quick and served hot; others are baked. Some come sprinkled with sugar or dolloped with whipped cream or ice cream; even iced, as they’re presented at Julie’s Sweet Shoppe in Conway. Flywheel’s pies come in 16 different flavors. Letha’s out of West Fork provides fried pies of equal renown through Northwest Arkansas.

Searcy County, in particular, has made its name with desserts by adopting an old, homemade pastry as its sweet of note. The chocolate roll — a cross between an old-fashioned chocolate fried pie and a cinnamon roll — is proudly celebrated. One can be picked up at Misty’s Shell station in Leslie or enjoyed with a double feature at the Kenda Drive-In in Marshall.

“Extry”

The flavors of Arkansas extend beyond the set meals of the day. In particular, the fried pickle has become quite a controversy. A restaurant that originally opened in 1969 in Mississippi claims to have invented it; however, there’s good documentation that the honor goes to Bernell Austin, of the long-gone Duchess Drive-In in Atkins, who offered them up 10 for a dime way back in 1963. Today, The Old South in Russellville comes closest to Austin’s original sliced planks of pickle under crust, but the only true version comes out once a year for Atkins famed Pickle Fest.

In Little Rock, in particular, cheese dip is often the mark of a restaurant’s success. The emulsion of cheese and spices was conjured by the Donnelly family back in the 1930s and brought to central Arkansas with the opening of the very first Mexico Chiquito in the early 1940s. The debate between Arkansas’ cheese dip and Texas-made queso was decisively settled in 2016, when Scott McGehee’s extraordinary Five Families Cheese Dip from Heights Taco and Tamale was declared superior in a congressional taste test.

Our flavors in Arkansas are as diverse as our regions, our merged cultures and our history. Not quite the South, not quite Midwestern and certainly not Cajun or Texan, our Arkansas cuisine comes with its own sprinkling of dishes that bring to mind this state’s signature tastes — a culinary palate of delights that should be celebrated as a unique and significant cuisine.

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