Noshing in the Natural State: The Best Things to Eat in Arkansas

Take a culinary tour through the Land of Opportunity, with stops along the way featuring Arkansas' world-class barbecue pork, creamy Possum Pie, stuffed-to-the-max tamales and more.

By: Kat Robinson

Photo By: Kat Robinson ©2016, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Photo By: Kat Robinson ©2016, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Photo By: Kat Robinson ©2016, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Photo By: Kat Robinson ©2016, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Photo By: Grav Weldon ©2016, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Photo By: Kat Robinson ©2016, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Photo By: Kat Robinson ©2016, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Photo By: Kat Robinson ©2016, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Photo By: Kat Robinson ©2016, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Photo By: Kat Robinson ©2016, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Photo By: Kat Robinson ©2016, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Photo By: Kat Robinson ©2016, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Photo By: Kat Robinson ©2016, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Photo By: Kat Robinson ©2016, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Photo By: Kat Robinson ©2016, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Photo By: Grav Weldon ©2016, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Photo By: Kat Robinson ©2016, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Photo By: Kat Robinson ©2016, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Photo By: Kat Robinson ©2016, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Photo By: Kat Robinson ©2016, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Photo By: Kat Robinson ©2016, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Photo By: Kat Robinson ©2016, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Photo By: Kat Robinson ©2016, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Photo By: Kat Robinson ©2016, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Photo By: Kat Robinson ©2016, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Photo By: Kat Robinson ©2016, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Photo By: Grav Weldon ©2016, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Photo By: Grav Weldon ©2016, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Photo By: Kat Robinson ©2016, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Photo By: Kat Robinson ©2016, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Photo By: Kat Robinson ©2016, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Dining in the Land of Opportunity

Arkansas isn't quite Southern, nor is it quite Midwestern. Tucked between such culinary heavyweights as Texas, Louisiana and Tennessee, the smallest state west of the Mississippi is a frontier of iconic foods. Its culinary contributions far outweigh its well-known favorites of cheese dip, fried pickles and chocolate gravy. With a diverse ecology that includes a healthy slice of the Mississippi Delta, the heart of the Ozarks and a wealth of rivers, lakes and streams crisscrossed by a wealth of great highways and byways, Arkansas has a lot of cuisine to explore.

Hubcap Burger

Cotham's Mercantile, an old general goods store, has sat on stilts on the edge of an oxbow for decades — but its claim as an eatery of note came after it was discovered by Senator David Pryor and his friend, then-governor Bill Clinton, back in the 1980s. Though the famed Hubcap burger is not by any reach the state's largest (that honor goes to Ed Walker's), its proprietary seasoning and large stature help make it a burger that must be tried. The restaurant's oversize onion rings are the best pairing, though fried pickles, fries or chips are also offered.

Go to: Cotham's Mercantile

Cornbread

You cannot get fresher cornbread in Arkansas than at the fourth iteration of the famed War Eagle Mill in Rogers on the War Eagle River, where organically grown corn is ground fresh and then served on the mill’s third floor at the Bean Palace Restaurant. Slightly sweet, served with butter and honey, this softer-than-average cornbread is served on the mill’s own speckleware. Pick up a bag of mix on your way out or order some on the internet. Many Arkansas restaurants, including The Hive at 21c, Farmer's Table, 28 Springs and One Eleven at the Capital, use War Eagle Mill products.

Go to: Bean Palace Restaurant

Possum Pie

Arkansas's most-definitive pie, this layered dessert includes a sandy-bottom crust (flour, butter and pecans), cream cheese, chocolate custard and whipped cream with pecan bits on top. The pie gets its name from the term "playin' possum," or pretending to be something you're not. In this case, the chocolate layer is what's hidden until the pie is sliced. Stoby's of Russellville makes the standard-bearing version known around the state; you can pick up a whole one to take home from its partner bakery, PattiCakes, in Conway.

Go to: Stoby's Restaurant

Barbecue Pork

Arkansas' only James Beard Foundation Award winner is Harold Jones, who has worked at the family's restaurant, Jones Barbecue Diner in Marianna, since 1964. The restaurant, a continuation of the former Hole In The Wall Diner once situated downtown, dates back more than a century, and the recipe for the thin vinegary sauce dates from just after the Civil War. You can have your pork in a sandwich "wi' or wi'out" slaw on white Sunbeam bread or by the pound — and that's it. 

Go to: Jones Bar-B-Q Diner

The Garden Sandwich

The winner of the 1979 National Sandwich Contest, The Garden just might be the state's most famous veggie sandwich. Jimmy Weisman's creationis so popular, it’s the cornerstone of the menu at his eponymous Little Rock sandwich shop, Jimmy's Serious Sandwiches, on West Markham. The Garden's flavor and substantial mouthfeel bely the fact it contains no meat at all. The recipe, which includes cheddar and provolone cheeses, sunflower seeds, spinach, mushrooms, mayo, alfalfa sprouts and more, is right by the door.

Go to: Jimmy's Serious Sandwiches

Smoked Hams and Turkeys

Cured meats have been part of Arkansas culinary tradition since before the state was a territory. At Coursey's Smoked Meats in St. Joe, the fourth and fifth generations of the Coursey family take Arkansas-produced hams from Petit Jean Meats, rub them with a special spice concoction and give them a second smoking for an unmistakable sweet and salty flavor. Smoked turkey, summer sausages and cheeses also lure fans.

Go to: Coursey's Smoked Meats

Smoked Turkey Salad Sandwich

Alden Burge became famous for his turkey-smoking skills in the 1950s in the tiny southwest Arkansas town of Lewisville, where he'd prepare the birds before football games. The two locations of his family's Burge's diners still offers smoked turkey every day in sandwiches, as whole birds and smoked breasts for the holidays, and in this unduplicatable secret-recipe turkey salad, affectionately known as "turkey crack" by regulars. The paste-like smoke-heavy concoction is made fresh every day.

Go to: Burge's Hickory Smoked Turkeys and Hams

Reuben Sandwich

Few sandwiches have caught the attention and appetite of Arkansas eaters more than this construction of corned beef on rye bread with sauerkraut and dressing, though most eschew the classic Russian dressing for either Thousand Island or mustard. The love for the sandwich can be traced back to 1904 and the opening of Oaklawn Racing Park, where corned beef was shipped in from Chicago to be served in sandwiches sold for 50 cents (a tradition carried on the first Saturday of racing season each January). The version served at The Hive Café in White Hall’s Dogwood Village offers its version thin-sliced.

Go to: The Hive

Seventh Street Salsa Platter

Those who think salsa is just a dip never met the Seventh Street Salsa Platter at Caribe. KJ Zumwalt's gorgeous celebration of life for longtime partner Clary Perez — named for the restaurant the two once shared in Eureka Springs — the platter includes a tomatillo-cilantro the color of Zumwalt's eyes and a lipstick-red salsa like Perez's favorite cosmetic. It arrives with housemade corn and flour tortilla chips.

Go to: Caribe

Eggplant Casserole

One of the state's most-coveted restaurant recipes, the dressing-like concoction of eggplant, tomatoes, breadcrumbs, herbs and spices that make up the Eggplant Casserole at Franke's Cafeteria is never better than on the long bar of the oldest cafeteria in Arkansas. While Franke’s, which opened its first location in 1919, offers other classics such as congealed salads and smothered pork chops, it’s this singular comfort food that's become part of Little Rock's familiar plate, a popular side item that’s also a good choice for a "vegetable combo" or on its own as a hearty comfort food.

Go to: Franke's Cafeteria

Fried Chicken and Spaghetti

Italian immigrants brought pasta with them to a settlement in southeast Arkansas at the end of the 19th Century. Finding the flat Delta inhospitable to grape growing and the way of life they were accustomed to, 100 families made a second pilgrimage to northwest Arkansas and started the community of Tontitown. Italian pasta and sauce paired with soul food’s fried chicken lead to fried chicken and spaghetti, a famous dish served across the region. At the Venesian Inn (opened in 1947), the pair is always served with soaked salad and trifold rolls with butter.

Go to: The Venesian Inn

Peck Salad

Little Rock's restaurant heritage links back to the great hotels of the early 20th century, including the venerable Hotel Sam Peck downtown. Peck Salad, an original dish from that hotel, is still served today at Capi Peck’s celebrated Trio's Restaurant. With shredded chicken, bacon, slivered almonds and a sweet vinaigrette over ripped romaine and leaf lettuce, the salad is part of a pantheon of iconic dishes that include Trio's Chicken Salad and an incredible dish of shrimp enchiladas.

Go to: Trio's Restaurant

Griddled Pimento Cheese Sandwich with Bacon Jam

The once-lowly pimento cheese sandwich is found throughout Arkansas, sometimes at gas stations and country stores, sometime at local delis. At The Hive, award-winning chef Matt McClure elevates the old favorite with his own marmalade-like bacon jam, creating a griddle-fried beauty of a sandwich served with fries or salad at lunch. A deconstructed version with toast is offered at dinner.

Go to: The Hive

Ribs and Fries with Tamale

A favorite of native son Bill Clinton, fifth-generation family establishment McClard's Barbecue in Hot Springs is best-known for smoky pork ribs and butts and a thin, tangy sauce. The Ribs and Fries plate consists of a half rack under a pile of potatoes — pull-apart, well smoked ribs that pair well with those handcut fries. The restaurant's famed tamales make a good addition; unlike their Arkansas Delta counterparts, these are filled with beef and pork and steamed in paper rather than corn husks.

Go to: McClard's Bar-B-Q Restaurant

Arkansas Delta Tamales

Unlike Mississippi Delta tamales, Arkansas' version comes from a soul-food-meets-Italian-family tradition. Long made by the St. Columbia family in Helena-West Helena on the Mississippi River, the popular corn husk-wrapped dish tends to hold beef or chicken at its core. Two hours south, in Lake Village, Rhoda's Famous Hot Tamales and Pies fills the soft masa cylinders with chicken fat, beef and spices. Rhoda Adams and her family still pack them two dozen to a coffee can for those who want to take them home for freezing.

Go to: Rhoda's Famous Hot Tamales

Fried Catfish and Hushpuppies

Arkansas loves catfish, and though nearby Mississippi lays claim to being the Catfish Capital of the World, you’d be hard pressed to find many places in Arkansas where catfish is not on the Friday menu. Of the state’s standouts, The Shack in Jessieville may have the best version of the dish. Fresh fillets of catfish are very lightly seasoned and battered, fried and served with French fries and coleslaw. Lemon slices, chunks of onion, hush puppies and green pickle relish are all acceptable condiments.

Go to: The Shack

Chocolate Gravy

A common breakfast sweet in rural Arkansas homes (particularly in Arkansas's Delta and Ozarks regions), chocolate gravy has worked its way onto breakfast menus across the state. A simple concoction of flour, cocoa, powdered sugar and butter, it's particularly as a Saturday morning special. The from-scratch syrupy version offered at North Little Rock mainstay Gadwall's Grill is served over a split biscuit or two, either as a side or on its own.

Go to: Gadwall's Grill

Cheese Dip

Much has been ballyhooed over Texans' recent attempts to overhaul queso, but there's no place like Central Arkansas for enjoying emulsified cheese. Pubs, Mexican restaurants, barbecue joints, pizza parlors, delis and burger palaces all compete to serve the best version. The original was created by the Donnelly family, who started their Ark-Mex restaurant empire in 1935. Today, that same original dip of cheese and spices is available at Mexico Chiquito and Chiquito Mex-To-Go restaurants in Little Rock and throughout the region.

Go to: Mexico Chiquito

Grapette

Grapette, the popular grape soda, was originally a Fook's Flavor created by entrepreneur Benjamin "Tyndle" Fooks in 1939 and produced in the southwest Arkansas town of Camden. It once rivaled big-name sodas before fading into obscurity in the 1980s. But the beverage was a favorite of Sam Walton, who wanted the recipe to reproduce it for his Walmart stores, so Grapette has been produced by Walmart since 2005. Camden's popular Woods Place, known for its catfish, celebrates the fruity sip and still offers it to customers.

Go to: Woods Place

Pizza

Arkansas has its share of singular pizzas, from the Napoli-style wood-fired wonders at ZaZa Salad + Pizza in Little Rock to the biscuit-crust pies at Rod's Pizza Cellar in Hot Springs and the Uncle Roman double-crust deep dish at Steffey's in Lavaca. But for a truly unique Detroit-style crusted, Chicago-style sauced round, there's no place in the world like Tommy's Famous A Pizzeria. Opened in 1991 by Tom Miller, the Miller family continues to run the Mountain View joint today, still serving over-cheesed pizza with no haste made.

Go to: Tommy's Famous A Pizzeria

Coconut Pie

Often hailed as the best coconut pie in the South, the thickly meringued slice at Charlotte's Eats and Sweets still brings crowds to the tiny town of Keo east of North Little Rock. Customers begin waiting for entry an hour before the doors open at 11 a.m. for lunch, and smart diners know to reserve their slice before ordering their entrée. The pies may be in high demand, but there will never be more than what Ms. Bowls can whip up on her kitchen counters or fit in her ovens each morning.

Go to: Charlotte's Eats & Sweets

Steamed Cabbage, Stewed Squash and Brown Rice with Gravy

Plates full of vegetables are common at lunchtime across Arkansas, and range from the summer pate of fresh sliced tomatoes, PurpleHull peas and cornbread in the summer to more substantial and hearty preparations in the cooler months. Lunch at Pickens Commissary (as R. A. Pickens and Son is known to Dumas locals) includes two or three sides with or without a lunch meat. Cabbage, prepared steamed or fried, is slightly sweet; stewed squash is hearty enough to be a meal in itself. And rice is almost always accompanied by brown gravy (except at breakfast, when butter and sugar are also acceptable).

Go to: Pickens Restaurant and Commissary

Purple Cow Milkshake or Soda

The ice cream for this perennial Arkansas favorite comes from Yarnell's, the only statewide ice cream operation serving Arkansas. While Yarnell's ice creams are used in such creations as Izzy's All-American (a brownie sundae topped with vanilla or coffee ice cream) and Spark ice cream (only sold in the Spark Café attached to the Walmart Museum in Bentonville), this hand-dipped purple-permeated vanilla ice cream at Purple Cow Restaurants is a favorite with kids in both milkshakes and ice cream sodas around Little Rock, Conway and Hot Springs.

Go to: Yarnell’s Ice Cream

Roast Prime of Beef

Housed in a century-old schoolhouse in downtown Pine Bluff, Colonial Steakhouse is known for its small-farmed, site-cut well-marbled steaks, housemade dressings, Black Bottom Pie and Cotton Blossoms appetizer. But the dish that lures the most fans may be the Roast Prime of Beef — a 42-ounce cut of prime rib cooked to order and served with jus and horseradish. This dish has been the shared meal of many honeymooners and anniversary-celebrating couples, including current owners Dana and Wayne Gateley, who suggest taking home what’s not consumed and cooking it up with carrots and potatoes the next day.

Go to: Colonial Steakhouse

Fried Pickles

In 1963, Bernell "Fatman" Austin of the Duchess Drive-In first battered and deep-fried dill pickle slices and sold them for 15 cents for a basket of 15 to employees of the nearby Atkins Pickle Plant. Though both the restaurant and its proprietor are long gone, fried pickles have become an Arkansas mainstay, and the wafer-thin versions served at Sassy's Red House in Fayetteville is one of the finest. They're usually served with ranch dressing, though you can also find remoulade or ketchup, depending on the restaurant.

Go to: Sassy's Red House

Cinnamon Rolls

Cinnamon rolls come large and small in Arkansas. While Burl's Country Smokehouse in Royal makes them big as your head and Ferguson's Country Store in St. Joe smothers theirs in a cup of icing, no single Arkansas establishment has served more cinnamon rolls than Calico County in Fort Smith — to the tune of more than eight million to date. Instead of being relegated to dessert or the breakfast menu, Calico County offers hot cinnamon rolls in baskets to each customer at the beginning of their visit. The icing-free, pliant rounds are also available to take home by the dozens.

Go to: Calico County

French Dip Sandwich

Originally opened in 1947, this popular drive-in just blocks from the Oklahoma border boasts such famed staples as the Giant Cheeseburger (at five pounds of meat, the state's largest single-patty burger) and its curbside beer service (grandfathered in thanks to Fort Smith's border-city status). But it's the housemade fall-apart French Dip beef sandwich with jus that has brought customers, their children and grandchildren back again and again. It's best served with Texas toothpicks — slices of battered and deep fried onion and jalapeno strings.

Go to: Ed Walker's Drive-In & Restaurant

Chocolate Roll

Searcy County declared itself the Chocolate Roll Capital of the World a few years back. The dessert conjured and shared by generations of area homemakers has made it to the area's restaurants and gathering places, so movie buffs can get theirs at the Kenda Drive-In and travelers pick up theirs at Misty's Shell in nearby Leslie. The ladies at Ruby's Diner in Marshall have elevated the dish with a more classical presentation, heating the crusty cocoa-filled pastry before serving it with cool vanilla ice cream.

Go to: Ruby's Diner

Pot-O-Beans

Barbecue baked beans are a standard side for 'cue anywhere in Arkansas, but at Hot Springs classic Stubby's Hik'ry Pit Bar-B-Que, they're elevated to a worthy entrée all their own. These navy beans are cooked with ham chunks and lots of sauce in the bottom of the smoker — where they're also subjected to the drippings from smoking hams and briskets above. Each pot is doused with plenty more of Stubby's sweet, thick sauce before serving.

Go to: Stubby's Hik'ry Pit Bar-B-Que

Strawberry Shortcake

Each spring, when a young man's heart turns to fancy, a young epicurean's thoughts turn to fresh, tart Arkansas strawberries. No place better utilizes the fruit than the Bulldog Restaurant, a dairy diner, which serves the plump, syrupy berries over a cookie-like shortbread with whipped cream (and ice cream on request) only during months when the berries are fresh from local fields. Food lovers schedule special trips to Bald Knob for the succulent experience, sometimes hailed as the opening salvo of spring's first harvests. 

Go to: Bulldog Restaurant

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