Kat Robinson, the Little Rock writer who has done more than anyone I know to advance Arkansas' food culture, is out with two new books--101 Things to Eat in Arkansas Before You Die and 102 More Things to Eat in Arkansas Before You Die. I can't flip through these books without first becoming hungry and then wistful when thinking about the locally owned restaurants we've lost during the past decade.
I serve with Robinson on the selection committee of the Arkansas Food Hall of Fame. There's a category called "Gone But Not Forgotten" in which we pick a restaurant we miss. We've lost memorable dining spots ranging from Mike's in Lake Village and Mrs. Jones in Pine Bluff to Coy's, Mrs. Miller's and Molly's in Hot Springs. This year's nominees include places such as Browning's at Little Rock, Joda's at Nashville, Mary Maestri's at Tontitown, Habib's at Helena, Uncle John's at Crawfordsville and Shadden's Barbecue near Marvell.
When the results of the 2020 census are released, we'll discover that about 50 Arkansas counties will have lost population since 2010. That will mean that more historic restaurants, especially in the Delta of east Arkansas and the pine woods of south Arkansas, will close as the population shifts to northwest Arkansas, the Little Rock metro area and the Jonesboro metro area. We need to support these independently owned restaurants while we still can. What Robinson does is shine a light on classics across the state, making culinary road trips easy to plan.
Her first book from the History Press in 2012 was Arkansas Pie: A Delicious Slice of the Natural State. That book led to an Emmy-nominated documentary from the Arkansas Educational Television Network that can still be seen on AETN from time to time. Two more books from the History Press followed: Classic Eateries of the Ozarks and Arkansas River Valley in 2013 and Classic Eateries of the Arkansas Delta in 2014.
In 2018, the prolific Robinson churned out two books for the Tonti Press--Another Slice of Arkansas Pie: A Guide to the Best Restaurants, Bakeries, Truck Stops and Food Trucks for Delectable Bites in the Natural State, along with Arkansas Food: The A to Z of Eating in the Natural State.
In her two most recent books, Robinson divides Arkansas into six parts--northwest, north central, upper Delta, lower Delta, southwest and central. Each chapter has information on dishes that I find myself craving from restaurants that I'll drive out of my way to visit.
For example, the northwest gives us the AQ Chicken House at Springdale, Ed Walker's Drive In at Fort Smith, Herman's Ribhouse at Fayetteville, the Low Gap Cafe near Jasper, the Monte Ne Inn at Monte Ne near Rogers, Neal's Cafe at Springdale, the Oark General Store at Oark, the Venesian Inn at Tontitown, and Taliano's at Fort Smith. Dishes I still need to try in this area include the Mount Chilimanjaro (an open-faced chili cheeseburger) at Benson's Grill in Fort Smith and the one-pound BLT at the Kopper Kettle Smokehouse in Van Buren.
Among the restaurants featured in the north-central portion of the state are the Bulldog at Bald Knob, Carol's Lakeview Restaurant at Cherokee Village, Coursey's Smoked Meats near St. Joe, PJ's Rainbow Cafe at Mountain View, and the Red Apple Inn at Heber Springs. Items I still need to try include the chocolate roll at the Kenda Drive-In in Marshall (which is actually the oldest continually operating drive-in theater in the state, having opened in 1966) and the beans and cornbread at Shorty's Restaurant in the Providence community near Judsonia.
Arkansas classics that Robinson visited in the upper Delta include the Dixie Pig at Blytheville, Dondie's White River Princess at Des Arc, Tacker's Shake Shack at Marion, the Tamale Factory at Gregory, and the Wilson Cafe at Wilson. Foods I must sample in the region are the old-fashioned chocolate fried pies at Batten's Bakery in Paragould and the German chocolate cake doughnuts at Howard's Do-Nuts in West Memphis.
In the lower Delta, personal favorites that Robinson writes about include the Colonial Steak House at Pine Bluff, Craig Brothers Bar-B-Q Cafe at DeValls Bluff, Jones Bar-B-Q Diner at Marianna, Murry's near Hazen, Rhoda's Famous Hot Tamales & Pies at Lake Village, the Pickens Restaurant & Store at Pickens, and Taylor's Steakhouse near Dumas. Dishes I still must try in the region include the brisket-stuffed baked potato at Hoots in McGehee and the rib tips at Kibb's in Stuttgart and Pine Bluff.
Robinson writes about such southwest Arkansas favorites as the 4-Dice Restaurant at Fordyce, the original Burge's at Lewisville, the Cattleman's Steak House at Texarkana, Keeney's Food Market at Malvern, McClard's Bar-B-Q at Hot Springs, Ray's at Monticello, the Skyline Cafe at Mena, and the Smokin' Bull at Emerson. I must try the smoked meats and cheeses at Burl's Country Smokehouse near Royal, the chocolate malt at the Dairyette at Mount Ida, and the Randy Dandy (a hoagie roll filled with smoked ham and turkey, Swiss and mozzarella cheeses, and your choice of dressings) at Herb's Creamland in Ashdown.
Central Arkansas classics that Robinson writes about include Charlotte's Eats & Sweets at Keo, the David Family Kitchen at Little Rock, the Lassis Inn at Little Rock, Lindsey's Hospitality House at North Little Rock, and Stoby's at Conway and Russellville. I've yet to try the oxtails at David Family Kitchen on Broadway in Little Rock or the doughnuts at Mark's Do-Nuts on Camp Robinson Road in North Little Rock. I plan to remedy that situation soon.
Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.
Editorial on 01/11/2020