Who would have thought that cheese dip would be the reason I’d finally make it to 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 it out, I said sure! I learned a long time ago- never turn down cheese.
Its not just cheese dip that makes a 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 (more on that in another post) and 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, ice creams and my chocolate lava cake, a dessert that many try to perfect and fail, was the perfect ending to a meal that we didn’t want to end.
We went to 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, Drivins & 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 have “street fair” food that includes their homemade Bratwurst and Hungarian sausages. As a mom of someone that suffers from a gluten allergy, I also liked that they have gluten free and vegetarian options on the menu.
The Wiener Schnitzel was served with iron skillet potatoes. Both cooked to just the right crispness. The appetizer of Brussel Sprouts with Roasted Garlic Aioli was also delish. But the dish that surprised me the most was the Baked Bacon Wrapped Dates. Just the right amount of sweet and savory.
Right before I went to Arkansas someone asked me if I had ever tried Chocolate Salami. Unless you’ve 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 because I had never heard of it. 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! It turned out to be one of the most delicious, unique things I ate in Little Rock.
Open for lunch and dinner. Check the website for the hours since each location is different.
The Lassis Inn
Did you know that Arkansas has a Food Hall of Fame? The Lassis Inn, named after the original owner, Molassis Watson, was inducted with the first round of inductees in 2017. A tiny blue house that sits in a residential neighborhood, the restaurant started serving lunches of cold cuts in 1905. Later on they added catfish and then ultimately, fish ribs or buffalo ribs.
If you don’t know what fish ribs are, don’t feel bad. Being from the South where fried catfish is pretty popular, I didn’t know what they were either. I spent most of the day thinking we were going to have 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 or hush puppies. If you are a catfish lover, they’ve got you covered. You can choose either filets or steaks.
Because no true Southern meal isn’t complete without dessert, there’s homemade pound cake, so save room for that and plenty of sweet tea.
It’s not just the food that makes The Lassis Inn so special. The restaurant was a safe gathering place during the Central High School desegregation crisis in the 1950’s. It was one of the only spots civil right leaders and others, like Daisy Bates, could go to discuss the problems facing the community. That connection to such an integral part of Little Rock history make The Lassis Inn a don’t miss when in Little Rock.
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 better.
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. Brunch every day (yes!) but Monday and dinner every day but 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 One Eleven. I tried 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.