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story.lead_photo.caption “Birthday cake” cupcakes on display at The Cupcake Factory in Little Rock. Birthday and wedding cake are two of their most popular flavors. - Photo by Cheree Franco

After Kanis Road leaves behind chain hotels and freshly sprung strip malls, it turns wooded and curvy, meandering west toward a fork (straight, you head out to Wildwood Park for the Arts and Chenal Elementary School). Just before that fork, there is nothing for a while, and then, sandwiched between a small auto repair shop and more trees, there is a warehouse painted in fat brown and white stripes.

Photo by Cheree Franco
Chicken Fried Chicken is in rotation among the plate lunches at The Cupcake Factory in Little Rock.

It has pink double doors and inside, at least during January and February, a pink and red tinsel tree. The walls are cream, the tablecloths are brown-and-cream dotted vinyl, and the glass display reveals rows of wedding cake, turtle and red velvet cupcakes. Welcome to The Cupcake Factory, where they may not know your name, but most likely they remember you from last time, even if last time was the first time.

The Cupcake Factory

Address: 18104 Kanis Road, Little Rock

Hours: 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday-Friday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday (bakery); 10:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Monday-Friday (lunch)

Cuisine: Desserts and specialty cakes, sandwiches, salads, Southern comfort food

Credit Cards: V, MC, AE, D

Alcoholic beverages: No

Wheelchair accessible: Yes

Carryout: Yes

(501) 821-9913

And, as if its mere existence weren't startling enough, the bakery-in-the-woods has more. Deli sandwiches! Plate lunches! Cake-pops, chocolate-dipped strawberries, coconut and lemon icebox and peanut butter pie! All of this is served speedily, in a cozy but roomy dining room, by a perpetually friendly staff, to a perpetual soundtrack of country music videos.

The menu is mostly salads and sandwiches (the chicken salad sandwich, at $7.99, seems popular), a soup of the day ($3.49 cup, $4.49 bowl) and a rotating Southern plate lunch. Some examples include stuffed bell peppers, chicken spaghetti, campfire pork chops, mac and cheese, veggie plates unfit for vegetarians (um, hello, swine?) and a kind of savory cupcake, formed from meatloaf "iced" with mashed potatoes and sprinkled with hand-cut bacon bits. Friday lunch features fried catfish and in the next month or two the Factory may begin serving Friday catfish dinners too.

A mom-and-pop shop of almost five years, The Cupcake Factory has been quietly churning out what many online commenters term "the best" cakes and cupcakes in town. (Some commenters are less than thrilled with the staff's cake-decorating skills, but largely the online public agrees that a cake is about taste buds, not artful taste.)

To avoid hyperbole, we're not going to go with "the best." But the cupcakes we sampled -- yellow cake with milk chocolate icing and "Reese's" dark chocolate cake with (Real! But somehow float-away light?) peanut butter icing -- were very, very good. The heaped-on icing was creamy and airy, balanced by the barely sweet cake. Overall, these were some harmonious confections.

The yellow cake had a buttery flavor and one member of our party detected the slightest tang of salt in the crave-worthy chocolate frosting. Another person said, "I love when icing doesn't taste like food coloring!" A fairly depressing sentiment, but she has a point.

The 21/2-inch-high, cream-cheese-frosted cinnamon roll was another crowd-pleaser, with its extra dose of spicy-sweet cinnamon and its billowy soft inner whorl.

The Cupcake Factory has been serving lunch just over a year, and it has yet to grow busy. The dining room, set for about 25, stays half-full. Some people get takeout for work colleagues or, in one woman's case, three plate lunches for her family's dinner that night.

The bakery counter is steadily busy, even during lunch, as people order cakes or pick out a dozen cupcakes ($25, or $2.50 each). But staff never seems overwhelmed, and no one acts exasperated when we arrive at 2:15 p.m. requesting a lunch that ends at 2:30 p.m.

Since The Cupcake Factory is, foremost, a bakery, you might expect thick, homemade slabs of bread (wheat, sourdough and ciabatta are offered). But the sourdough, at least, is similar to an average grocery store slice. So, you know, scale down your expectations.

Our avocado and bacon grilled cheese on sourdough ($6.99), served with an iceberg side salad (with raspberry vinaigrette dressing; only the ranch is house-made), was tasty but unremarkable -- like a simple snack you could whip up at home. The bread was toasted and the avocado paired well with the salty, crispy bacon and melted cheese, but the whole thing was thinner than expected and there's really nothing more to say here.

However, the coconut pie ($2.75 per slice, $15 for the whole shebang) that followed was a dream. The filling was a thick, smooth custard with a stronger-than-usual vanilla flavor, topped with a couple of inches of fluffy meringue and a layer of toasted coconut. The crust was flaky, salty and buttery.

On our next visit, we tried the plate lunch ($7.99 with two sides) -- on that particular day, a mysterious Southern phenomenon known as chicken-fried chicken.

Confusingly, chicken-fried chicken is not merely fried chicken. "Chicken fried" is actually the method of preparation, and it can be applied to any number of meats, but most often references are for steak. Whereas fried chicken is all about the whole chicken and generally incorporates deep-frying and some sort of bread crumb or cornflake batter, "chicken-fried" is a pan-fried pounded breast, and the batter is often a milk, flour, egg and seasoning concoction.

This chicken fried chicken was a bit reminiscent of Chick-fil-A's classic chicken sandwich patty (which according to annual sales figures, the citizens of Little Rock seem to love), but it was less "fast food" (fresher, less buttery and more authentically juicy) and smothered in a substantial milk-and-drippings gravy -- the same gravy, incidentally, that topped the mashed potatoes.

The chicken was cooked to perfection, the fried batter the right texture of chewiness. (It wasn't crispy per se, and it definitely wasn't burnt.) There was no stale "used oil" taste, and the gravy added a slight black-pepper kick. It was served with mashed potatoes (likely homemade), a roll (definitely not), and green beans (either frozen or canned but well-flavored, with bacon and perhaps brown sugar).

This time dessert was a sizable sugar cookie, with (surprise!) almond icing ($1 each, $10 per dozen). It was thinner than most bakery cookies.

There's a party room for hire, for Factory-hosted cupcake-decorating parties and, per its Facebook page, this place seems to do a booming business in "smash cakes." (You know, that new trend of small cakes baked simply for palm-planting and face-smearing, on the event of one's first birthday?)

The takeaway -- The Cupcake Factory is, generally speaking, an anomaly, but our findings were just as expected: Lunch is good but sweets are better.

Weekend on 03/10/2016

Print Headline: Have your cake, eat lunch too


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