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OPINION | REX NELSON: Ten for the road

by Rex Nelson | March 27, 2021 at 8:57 a.m.

Many restaurants have taken a beating financially during the pandemic. Never has it been more important to support independently owned businesses that provide a sense of community across Arkansas. One of the goals of the Arkansas Food Hall of Fame, which was established in September 2016, is to shine a light on such places.

The Hall of Fame inducts three restaurants each year. To be eligible for induction, a restaurant must be Arkansas owned and operated, not part of a chain, and at least 25 years old. This year's inductees are Feltner's Whatta-Burger at Russellville, Star of India in Little Rock, and the Monte Ne Inn near Rogers.

I wrote about those inductees last Saturday. There were 10 other finalists, and all of them deserve attention. I think each of these restaurants eventually will be inducted. As more Arkansans wander back into restaurants after getting vaccines, add these places to your list for road trips:

• The AQ Chicken House at Springdale has been serving customers since 1947. The "A" stands for Arkansas, and the "Q" stands for quality. Roy Ritter was among the first people to build large chicken houses in northwest Arkansas. He had his own processing plant and decided to also open a restaurant to serve travelers and locals alike. AQ once had locations across the state, but the original is the lone survivor. This is the third time in five years that AQ has been a finalist.

• The Colonial Steak House in downtown Pine Bluff is in a building that was constructed in 1912 to house an elementary school. In 1974, Mildred Compton opened the Colonial. She later sold the business to Scott Mouser and Rick Borgman, who moved it to its current location. The restaurant is now owned by Dana Gately, who spent a quarter of a century waiting tables there. Even with the population decline in Pine Bluff in recent years, the business has continued to thrive.

• The Dairy King at Portia has the look of a classic 1950s-era drive-in. My friends in northeast Arkansas claim it has the best milkshakes in the state. There are also burgers, fried catfish, fresh-cut fries, onion rings and much more in this Delta town on U.S. 412 that once hosted the state's best-known Fourth of July celebration. That tradition has ended, but the tradition of visiting the Dairy King lives on.

• The Dixie Pig at Blytheville is also worthy of a pilgrimage to northeast Arkansas. Years ago, I proclaimed Blytheville to be the Barbecue Capital of Arkansas due to the number of good places to get pork barbecue. Ernest Halsell opened the Rustic Inn in a log cabin in 1923 when cotton was king in Mississippi County and began selling what's still known as the pig sandwich. The Dixie Pig is a direct descendant of the Rustic Inn. The barbecue pit there was long manned by Ernest's son Buddy and is now overseen by Buddy's son Bob.

• Also in Blytheville is the Kream Kastle, which has been a finalist in all five years of the Hall of Fame's existence. Steven Johns, the son of first-generation Lebanese and Syrian immigrants, opened the restaurant in 1952 to sell hot dogs. He added a barbecue pit in 1955, and the Kream Kastle's version of the pig sandwich was born. Steven's daughter Suzanne and husband Jeff Wallace have run the Kream Kastle since 1986.

• Herman's Ribhouse at Fayetteville opened in 1964 at the site of what had been the Royal Oaks Tavern. Herman Tuck opened it on New Year's Day to serve ribs, barbecue chicken, steaks and sandwiches. It has long been a favorite of visiting college coaches, players, sportscasters, politicians and musicians. Tuck retired in 1990. Longtime employees Nick and Carrie Wright took over in 2013 and carry on the tradition at this college-town icon.

• K. Hall & Sons Produce is on Wright Avenue near Little Rock Central High School. It's part of a Black-owned business that began as a produce shop in 1973 when Knox Hall bought a former gas station to sell vegetables grown in the Wrightsville area. A restaurant serving burgers, fried chicken, pork chops, fresh vegetables and sweet potato pies developed through the years to complement the company's food distribution business.

• Neal's Cafe at Springdale, which is just down the road from AQ, was opened by Toy and Bertha Neal in 1944. The restaurant has remained in the Neal family for four generations. Neal's is one of those places where the locals gather for breakfast and talk politics. It's also good for lunch and dinner, with everything from chicken-fried steaks to chicken and dumplings. This is the fourth time in five years that Neal's has been a finalist.

• The Ohio Club, which sits just across Central Avenue from Bathhouse Row in downtown Hot Springs, began life as a bar in 1905. It was founded by John "Coffee" Williams and nephew Sam Watt. The mobsters who frequented Hot Springs in the early 1900s were known to stop at the Ohio Club. So were baseball players such as Babe Ruth, who would drop in while in Arkansas for spring training. In addition to its food and drinks, the Ohio Club features live music on weekends. A landslide recently damaged the kitchen, but owners Mike and Dona Pettey promise to come back strong.

• Well-known chef Capi Peck has owned and operated Trio's in Little Rock for the past 34 years. Her grandparents once owned the Sam Peck Hotel in downtown Little Rock. Its dining room is considered by many historians to have been the state's first venue for fine dining. Capi Peck grew up surrounded by well-prepared food and has added her own twists through the decades.


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.

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