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story.lead_photo.caption The French Dip sandwich comes au jus with a side of apple slices at Mugs Cafe in North Little Rock’s downtown Argenta district. - Photo by Arkansas Democrat-Gazette / ERIC E. HARRISON

Coffee shops and Argenta ought to go together like eggs and bacon, soup and salad and ships and shores.

Mugs Cafe

A tour of the food and ambience of Mugs Cafe, 515 Main Street in Argenta. (By Eric E. Harrison)
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And, after a few false starts, the artsy district of downtown North Little Rock now manages to support two distinctly different coffee shops.

The Joint, in the 300 block of Main Street, bills itself as “theater and coffeehouse.” As that suggests, its focus is on coffee in the daytime and entertainment in the evenings, including music and improvisatory and sketch comedy shows. It has no real kitchen; its grab-and-go food offerings consist of salads and sandwiches and pastries, and it has an alcoholic beverage license (serving “a variety of craft beers on tap, premium bottled beers, a choice selection of wines and champagne [and] specialty cocktails,” according to its website).

And there’s its younger competitor, Mugs Cafe, in the 500 block, next door to Argenta Market. The cafe, which closes at 6 p.m., doesn’t go in so much for entertainment, although there’s a stage and setup for small-scale bands, mostly for the ecumenical church that meets in the space on Sundays. But it has a substantial kitchen, serving full-scale breakfasts (all day, too), large-scale sandwiches, salads and soups.

And Mugs Cafe provided us with some fine feeding. The menu, on a board above the front counter (and also available online), is broader than it is deep - for example, you’ve got a choice of only two cheeses, smoked Gouda and pepper Jack, on your breakfast, burger or sandwich.

But everything is made to order, and looks and tastes fresh. (We can testify, for example, that the fresh-squeezed orange juice, $2.50, is fresh squeezed: We watched the barrista squeeze it.)

Due to a bad attack of chronic morning sloth, we only got to enjoy one breakfast item for breakfast: fried egg, bacon and smoked Gouda on an everything bagel ($4). The edges of the fried egg and the ends of the bacon strips exceeded the diameter of the pretty large bagel, which comes from a food service, but it was adequate to the needs of the sandwich. (“Everything” means pretty much everything bagels come topped with, including onion, garlic and sesame and poppy seeds.)

Other breakfast options on our list to try: the Build Your Own 3-Egg Omelet ($5), with choice of ham, bacon, or sausage; tomato, spinach, red onion or mushrooms; and smoked Gouda or pepper Jack. And the French Toast sprinkled with confectioners’ sugar and served with pure maple syrup ($4).

Though we didn’t try it that way, the availability of lox on the Smoked Salmon Club Sandwich with avocado, lettuce, tomato and a lemon-dill mayonnaise ($10) indicates that the kitchen would probably put it on an everything bagel if you begged nicely. As it was, there was plenty of it on the sandwich, inside two slices of thick multigrain bread, and the lemon-dill mayo gave it a nice accent.

With the special board consistently flogging the French Dip sandwich, we gave in and tried one - slow-roasted tenderloin with grilled red onions, smoked Gouda and horseradish dill, served au jus with a side of yellow-skinned apple slices ($10). It’s a hefty sandwich, not on a hoagie roll, as we’d expected, but on something close to a Kaiser bun.The jus wasn’t just a condiment - it really changed the sandwich’s flavor palette for the better.

The three soups du jour ($4 cup, and by a cup we mean a large piece of porcelain with a small handle on one side; $7 bowl) we tried at Mugs Cafe were uniformly excellent: A rich mushroom bisque, an even richer red pepper and crab bisque and their chili, which was thin but tasty, and which we ordered with a grilled smoked Gouda sandwich on Texas toast ($4).

The chili was nicely spiced for us, but anybody who wanted it hotter would be at a disadvantage: There isn’t a bottle of hot sauce of any brand or description on the premises.

The cafe offers the usual range of lattes, cappuccinos, Americanos and fresh brewed coffee; the orange juice we mentioned; and a selection of “legacy” sodas (brands that you may recognize from your childhood if you’re older than 40, and which you may have thought had long since gone extinct). No wine or beer.

Order at the counter from the barrista/cashier; food comes out of the partly open kitchen via a separate service window. You’re pretty much expected to bus your own table when you’re done.

The decor is clean and inviting. Seating is at tables made from rough-hewn, dark wood planks, mostly for four or more. The bandstand is about halfway back in the storefront with a matching conversation pit and gather area. Beyond that is a table full of table games for folks who aren’t playing, via the cafe’s free WiFi (you’ll need to ask for the password), on their electronic gadgets. On one recent visit, there wasn’t a customer in the place who didn’t have a laptop, a tablet or at least a smartphone in use.

Mugs Cafe

Address: 515 Main St., North Little Rock Hours: 7 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday-Saturday Cuisine: Breakfast items, sandwiches, soups, salads, wraps Credit cards: V, MC, D Alcoholic beverages: No Reservations: No Wheelchair accessible: Yes Carryout: Yes (501) 379-9101

Weekend, Pages 32 on 11/21/2013

Print Headline: Mugs offers fine food, conviviality

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