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story.lead_photo.caption Specialties at Donuts & Deli include a maple bacon doughnut (left) and iced CroNut. - Photo by Eric E. Harrison

For some inexplicable reason, since the Sterling Department Store went away many years ago, along with its first-floor Koehler's Bakery outlet, downtown Little Rock just hasn't been able to sustain a doughnut place.

Outlets of Shipley's and Spudnuts are among the operations that have left only crumbs of memory behind. (We exempt from the list the estimable Community Bakery, which has been vending doughnuts for decades, because doughnuts are not and never have been its mainstay.)

And especially considering the volume of potential customers, while the number has been inching up in recent years, the downtown area has also historically had a surprising lack of good breakfast options.

Now enter Donuts & Deli, where they're knocking out daily batches of gourmet doughnuts and other enticing baked goods, as well as high-end breakfasts and deli lunches. They've taken over the shotgun space in the 300 block of Main Street that most recently housed Bruno's Deli, the all-too-short-lived lunch outlet of Bruno's Little Italy. (Bruno's, a legendary presence for, with a couple of breaks, 70 years, has gone back to what it does best: pasta, pizza and Italian near-perfection for dinner. But we digress.)

Note that we don't yet have a downtown doughnut place in the mold of a Shipley's or a Krispy Kreme that mass-produces doughnuts for the masses. That will come, perhaps, with the opening in the next couple of months of the 24/7 Hurts Donuts a few blocks away at Main and Markham.

Gallery: Donuts & Deli

This not a shop where you stop in and pick up an affordable dozen or two for your office or Sunday School. At two bucks a dunker, and $3 or more for a deluxe dunker, you will stop and pick up two, maybe three.

Donuts & Deli pays particular tribute in its theme and decor to first responders and firefighters in particular. The logo resembles that of a fire department. Many of the employees are former, or possibly even current, firefighters. On the walls of the long, narrow corridor from the narrow dining area to the restroom you'll pass first-responder photos, present and particularly past, and pieces of (retired) firefighting gear.

Order at a front counter flanked by refrigerated cases of cakes and other baked goods on the left, and doughnuts, CroNuts, cupcakes and other single-order goodies on the right. Watch the folks grill, compile and assemble your order in the open kitchen behind. Seating is at tables with burnished aluminum tops and an along-the-wall bar/shelf.

Breakfast and lunch pricing across the menu looked high at first and second glances, but the portion size of everything is huge enough to maybe justify it.

As with any doughnuts, the fresher you get these, the better, but these, perhaps, more than most. We made the mistake of trying a couple late in the lunch hour one weekday -- nothing out of the gourmet section, just one glazed and one chocolate iced. At several hours old they they had started to lose flavor and had dried out just enough to make them, if not unappetizing, at least not really worth the three-block walk from our offices. The people who work there apparently recognize that and knocked down the price; we paid, not $2, but just $1.25 apiece.

Donuts & Deli

Address: 308 S. Main St., Little Rock

Hours: 7 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, 8:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m. Saturday, 9 a.m.-1:30 p.m. Sunday

Cuisine: Soups, sandwiches, doughnuts, baked goods, breakfast specialties

Credit cards: V, MC, D, AE

Alcoholic beverages: No

Wheelchair accessible: Yes

Carryout: Yes

(501) 626-8083

donutslr.com, facebook.com/donutslr.

But the doughnuts we caught just after 9 a.m., well within the morning freshness window, were fairly light in texture and wholly delightful -- a maple bacon, one of the $3 specialties, featured four good-size bacon pieces affixed into a white, not-too-sweet icing atop a springy doughnut between 5 and 6 inches in diameter. And we enjoyed our $3.25 iced CroNut, made from a silky croissant dough. Varieties vary daily. They usually also offer a pile of crispy, fried Donut Rounds ($1.50) for those who feel the average doughnut holes just aren't hefty enough.

Not all of the items Donuts & Deli serves for breakfast or its just-instituted-last-weekend Saturday and Sunday Fire House Brunch are spicy -- for example, the 1st Responder's Special ($11.50), is two eggs cooked to your specs, plus meat (bacon, house-made sausage, turkey or ham, either made or smoked on the premises), hash browns, biscuits and gravy.

But at least two are three-alarmers: the Firefighter Skillet ($10.50, which we didn't get to try) includes spicy jalapenos, smoked sausage, smoked hash browns, egg and queso, and the thrilling Breakfast Burrito ($9, which we did) is an orange-y thin-grilled tortilla wrapping sausage, potatoes, scrambled egg, cheese and the house jalapeno-centered jardiniere peppers, plus a small cup of pinkish queso with suspended red peppers. It was was too huge to consume at one sitting.

So, almost, was the On the Run Sandwich ($5.95), an egg prepared (for the first time in our experience under such a circumstance, to our order) plus cheese (Swiss worked well) and choice of meat (a huge chunk of well-spiced sausage; other options include bacon, turkey or ham) on choice of bread (we picked croissant, which was a good choice, over biscuit, white toast and wheat toast). We indeed got ours on the run, but we just couldn't encompass it as a pick-it-up-and-eat-it sandwich, so we waited until we reached a solid surface and attacked it with a knife and fork.

House coffee is a decent $1.50 per large, refillable paper cup. All service-ware is paper or plastic.

For lunch, we tried a couple of "fire" sandwiches that we'd happily order again:

• The Chicago Steamer ($10.75), thin-sliced beef, onion, pepper, cheese (we picked provolone) and the house jardiniere pepper blend on a hoagie roll.

• The Famous Reuben ($11.25), thick, grilled-crisp slices of house-made corned beef with Swiss cheese, Russian dressing (not Thousand Island, hooray!) and sauerkraut piled on two thick slices of house-baked marble rye.

Sandwiches come with house-made chips ($2.50 a la carte) -- ranch or barbecue, and on at least one occasion, plain. Time it just right and they'll fry the chips when you order the sandwich.

If you want dessert but don't want a doughnut, there are plenty of alternatives. We spotted brownies in the display case on two different occasions; there's usually more than one type of cupcake or macaron (including the one we regretfully passed on the other day that was made with stout). We even encountered and devoured with pleasure a whole-wheat cannoli ($3).

Service in the early going has been a little spotty -- the friendly and helpful guys behind the counter who make the food also ring up the food and package it, and on one occasion they let us out the door without our $2.50 bottled soft drink. On the next visit, while making our Reuben and making good on the missing drink, they forgot the chips.

Photo by Eric E. Harrison
A few doughnuts, muffins and bread loaves remain at lunch from Donuts & Deli’s morning’s bake.
Photo by Eric E. Harrison
A pepper relish tops the Chicago Steamer sandwich, which comes with house-made chips, at Donuts & Deli.
Photo by Eric E. Harrison
Don’t want a doughnut for dessert at Donuts & Deli? A wholewheat cannoli is a tasty substitute.
Photo by Eric E. Harrison
Donuts & Deli’s Famous Reuben sandwich comes on housebaked marble rye.
Photo by Eric E. Harrison
The Breakfast Burrito at Donuts & Deli is too big to finish at one sitting.

Weekend on 11/15/2018

Print Headline: RESTAURANT REVIEW: Donuts & Deli fills hole in downtown Little Rock

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Comments

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  • bulbo
    November 17, 2018 at 7:26 p.m.

    Minor point: when Sterlings closed (late 90s), the bakery oultlet was, and had been for several yearl, Community Bakery.

  • bulbo
    November 17, 2018 at 7:34 p.m.

    Minor point: when Sterlings closed , the bakery oultlet had been for several years (The 90s anyway) Community Bakery.

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