Who would have thought that cheese dip would be the reason I’d finally get to spend some time in Arkansas? Definitely not me. You see, I had no idea that Little Rock was the birth place of cheese dip. Nor did I know they had a whole festival to celebrate it. But when the the Little Rock Convention & Visitor’s Bureau asked me to come and check out the festival as part of a Savor Arkansas food tour, I said yes! I learned a long time ago- never turn down cheese.
I found out its not just cheese dip that makes Little Rock a solid culinary destination. There is fine dining, southern food, farm to table, soul food, German food and a “locally labeled” spirits and beer trail to die for (more on that in another post) and much much more. You name it, they have it. Many times the story behind the food was almost as good as the food itself…..almost. I spent several days in the littlest big city I’ve ever been to, with some new best friends, eating my way through the city. I loved it so much, I made a list of the places you should put on your Little Rock list.
Located inside Little Rock’s Capital Hotel, One Eleven is fine dining with an international flare. No doubt due to James Beard, Michelin Star, award winning Chef Joel Antunes’ experience on five continents. What he does with food, is a true work of art. Both visually and for your taste buds. Featuring a menu that changes seasonally and desserts so good you’ll want one of everything, One Eleven is that place that gets every thing right.
We appetized (is that a word?) our way through burrata, zucchini flowers stuffed with shrimp in a lobster sauce and pate served with the South’s favorite vegetable, okra. For the main course I had a roast chicken served over gnocchi that was the a softest pillow of deliciousness. And dessert? Well, I already said you’d want one of everything. Lush chocolates, rich ice creams and my perfectly dusted lava cake that I got so excited about, I forgot to take a photo before I took a bite. It was the perfect ending to a meal that we didn’t want to end.
We dined at One Eleven for dinner, but they are open for breakfast and lunch. They also have a Sunday brunch, which is on my list to try next time I’m in town.
The Root Cafe
Step into The Root and even if you aren’t from the south, you’ll instantly know what it feels like to step into a great grandmother’s southern kitchen. Fresh flowers, pillows and mismatched cloth napkins on the bright tables, create a homey, let’s get to know one another atmosphere. In fact, everything in The Root, the food, the decor and the service is part of owner Jack Sundell’s “building community through local food” concept.
Jack, a man of vision, was way ahead of his time in 2011 when he opened The Root. Farm to table wasn’t as common as it is now. Jack set out to work with small businesses and farms to make his concept a reality. Now, eight years later, they source their food from over 55 different farms and producers in Arkansas.
All that attention to detail makes for tasty, homemade food with a Southern twist. My Roots Benny was classic Eggs Benedict but with fresh greens and ham from a local source that makes you never want to eat any other kind of ham again. And any place that serves fresh squeezed oj mimosas in Ball jars is alright by me.
Stop by The Root for breakfast, lunch, dinner or my favorite, all day Sunday breakfast. Oh and did I mention they were recently on Diners, Drive ins & Dives?
If you are in Little Rock and have a hankering for Wiener Schnitzel, The Pantry is your go to spot. Owner Tomas Bohm has two locations that serve up German and Czech dishes in a cozy European atmosphere. They also serve up some “street fair” food that includes their homemade Bratwurst and Hungarian sausages. As a mom of someone that has a gluten allergy, I liked that you had that and vegetarian options on the menu.
The Wiener Schnitzel I oredered was served traditionally with perfectly crisp iron skillet potatoes. The appetizer of Brussel Sprouts with Roasted Garlic Aioli was also delicious hit. But the dish that surprised me the most was the Baked Bacon Wrapped Dates. Sweet and savory. The perfect appetizer.
It must have been serendipity because right before I went to Arkansas someone asked me if I had ever tried Chocolate Salami. Just like me, If you’ve never had it before, I realize all kinds of visions and thoughts might be running through your head. What does it look like? Is it made with meat? Believe me, I had the same thoughts. So when I looked at The Pantry’s dessert menu and saw that they had Chocolate Salami, I knew I had to try it.
A dessert originating in Italy or Portugal, but popular throughout Europe, its made with cocoa, broken biscuits or cookies, butter, eggs and a bit of port wine or rum. Not a bit of meat in sight! Served at The Pantry with vanilla ice cream, it was one of most simple, delicious but unique things I ate in, of all places, Little Rock.
They are open for lunch and dinner. Check their website for the hours since each location is different.
The Lassis Inn
Did you know that Arkansas has a Food Hall of Fame? I sure didn’t. At least not until I visited The Lassis Inn. Named after the original owner, Molassis Watson, the restaurant was inducted with the first round of inductees in 2017. A tiny, unassuming, blue house that sits in a residential neighborhood, the restaurant started out serving lunches of cold cuts to workers in 1905. Later on they added catfish and ultimately, fish ribs or buffalo ribs.
Being from the South where fried fish and catfish are pretty popular, I still didn’t know anything about fish ribs. I honestly spent most of the day thinking we were going to eat wings or ribs for lunch.
Fish ribs or buffalo ribs, are from the Buffalo fish, a freshwater fish, with white flaky meat similar to a catfish. Fried crispy in a corn meal batter, they have a thin sliver of bone that can easily be pulled out. The Lassis Inn serves them with your choice of other typical Southern sides- fried okra, slaw and hush puppies. If you, they’ve got you’d rather stick to catfish, they’ve got you covered there too. You can choose either catfish filets or catfish steaks.
And because no true Southern meal is complete without dessert, there’s fresh homemade pound cake and and plenty of sweet tea.
The food isn’t the only thing that makes The Lassis Inn so special. The restaurant was a safe haven during the Central High School desegregation crisis in the 1950’s. It was one of the only places that civil rights leaders and others, like Daisy Bates, could go to discuss the problems taking place in the community. That connection to such an important part of Little Rock history makes The Lassis Inn (along with other civil rights landmarks) a don’t miss place when you visit Little Rock.
They are open Tuesday-Saturday for lunch and early dinner.
Not only did I have the pleasure of eating my favorite Sunday Brunch of Eggs Benedict and mimosas at Red Door, a Little Rock institution, but I had the privilege to do so with the award winning owner/chef Mark Abernathy himself and a side of cheese dip. I don’t think brunch can get much more special.
One of the smartest and funniest people I’ve ever met, his story telling could keep you entertained for hours. A successful restaurateur, Chef Abernathy has no formal culinary training. Born and raised in Arkansas, with a banking and finance degree, he was kind of at the right place at the right time when he was hired to work with the company that owned TGIFridays in the 70’s. He spent a lot of time in Texas and later, upon moving to San Antonio, fell in love with the area and the food.
After some years and a lot of restaurant openings later, Abernathy returned home to Arkansas and created one of Little Rock’s most successful and most famous Mexican restaurants. Juanita’s is closed now but while I was in town, I heard several Little Rockers refer to it fondly. Apparently the food, the unique addition of live music and some of the bands that played there are gone but never to be forgotten.
A few of the recipes live on as well. The Red Door cheese dip is a carry over from Juanita’s. It consists of four types of cheese, including, surprise- Asiago. Unfortunately Chef Abernathy didn’t enter the cheese dip festival this year. I’m sure if he had his cheese dip would have been a sure fire winner.
Focusing on fresh and locally sourced food, Red Door serves modern southern cuisine. I’m talking cat head biscuits and gravy y’all, in a homey, comfortable atmosphere featuring a patio and a bar area.
They serve brunch every day (high five!) except Monday and dinner every day except Sunday.
World Cheese Dip Festival
So we’ve come full circle for the reason I went to Arkansas to begin with- cheese dip. You may be wondering how that worked out. At the festival, held outside, near the beautiful Little Rock Riverfront, there were 29 booths serving up who knows how many gallons of cheese dip. Over 80k tortilla chips were cut, fried and bagged for the occasion and double the amount of people than the previous year.
Since the festival is also open to amateurs, I’m not going to lie, there were a few misses. Some tried to get too fancy. Some seemed to think that hot peppers were the way to go. All in all, there were more hits than misses and I had a great time consuming way too much cheese.
Interestingly one of the winners was the Capital Grill, located in the the Capital Hotel and across from the One Eleven restaurant. I sampled their version and it was really, really good. Just the right ratio of cheese to liquid and heat. I’m not quite sure it was Red Door good but I think I’ll need another visit just to make sure.
The World Cheese Dip Competition is usually held every October in downtown Little Rock. Check their website for more details and dates.
This was a trip hosted by the Little Rock CVB but all opinions on food and cheese dip are definitely my own.