When I accepted the project from the Arkansas Times to create an article on the best breakfasts in Arkansas, I knew I’d have some old favorites to chip in. But I wanted to do something far more comprehensive. I wasn’t about to sit there in Central Arkansas and blow smoke about the places I’d been. I challenged myself to seek out just about every good breakfast place in the state.
Thing is, I was on a deadline, a self-imposed deadline of September 10th. I wanted to get everything in before I went out of state for an assignment -- and frankly, I had no idea when the Times would use my cover story. I was in Door County, WI (where I ate what Good Morning America has dubbed the Best Breakfast in America at the White Gull Inn -- pictured to the right) when I got the project and I knew I’d be out of state for work in Memphis and Western Tennessee in the middle of it all. I also knew there would be mornings I would not be able to get up and go out… mornings where my daughter was going to sleep in or my husband wouldn’t be available to hang with her so I could go get what I needed.
And frankly, there were going to be long distance morning, too. Little Rock is very close to the geographic center of Arkansas but that still means a four hour drive to places like Bentonville or three hours to Lake Village. I started planning out trips -- some overnight that included several outlying restaurants, some close in where I could just go get the review and come home and write it up.
And then there were the multiple breakfast mornings. Those were the mornings where I tackled breakfast time and time again. It was the most effective way for me to get out and get what I needed to get done, done. It meant I had to do major pacing; I’d come home with a stack of take-out boxes in the passenger seat and a memory of yet another amazing Arkansas sunrise in my head. Even with my careful pacing, I was unable to keep all the pounds off. I gained about 20 pounds in my sampling of roughly 75 Arkansas restaurants between July and September of this year. Still trying to work them off.
So what was it like? I figured the best way to share this was to give you a narrative of what I went through. Here’s just one day of many I experienced.
Friday, September 3rd, 2010. I was up before the dawn, leaving out around six from Little Rock on my way westward. I had assignments that weekend to tackle in Fayetteville, Springdale and Rogers (you’ll hear more about these along the way) and had decided it was a prime opportunity to check out four of the breakfast restaurants recommended to me by readers of the Times and of Tie Dye Travels.
I was taken by the beauty of the morning and stopped briefly in Mayflower, where I captured shots of the sun starting to reach into the sky over Lake Conway. Photos can’t quite capture what I saw that morning, but I stood out on the shore and attempted this anyway.
Back in the car and up to Conway, where I pulled up to Bob’s Grill on Oak Street about 6:45. I initially went to the cafeteria line where one of the ladies behind the counter told me breakfast service was at the table. I found one of the backless booths along the entry line and had a seat.
I recall there being a breakfast buffet the last time I’d had the opportunity to stop in, but since that was the Friday morning of Toad Suck Daze back in 2007 I couldn’t tell you whether that had been normal or not. That was all right. I looked over the tri-folded paper menu and found the Double Hashbrown Plate With All Veggies ($3.99). Sounded like a good start. I also ordered a small orange juice, which was strangely restorative. I was still in the process of waking up.
The décor in Bob’s Grill is pretty simple -- green tablecloths, local wildlife paintings on the wall up for sale. At seven in the morning there were three groups of half-a-dozen people each, mostly guys. There was no music playing, just the steady hum of conversation and the clink of utensils against ceramic plates and spoons stirring coffee in mugs, all over the sizzle of the griddle and the sigh of the Vent-A-Hood in the back.
I could tell the regulars. The waitresses would bring them their coffee or cola without any sort of introduction, plopping beverages down and pulling out their order books.
Maybe it was the orange juice soaking into my system or the increased light coming through the windows, but the inside of the restaurant was gaining color by the moment.
In the next booth closer to the door a middle-aged woman had a seat. The waitress came right over to her and sat a mug on the table.
“Good morning, Ms. Connie,” she greeted the woman. “The usual?”
The cheery woman smiled and nodded. Others across the room called over their greetings, and she waved to each of them before settling into her crossword puzzle.
I’d been looking through the condiments on the table and heard “did you find the jelly you wanted?” beside me. I looked up to see my smiling waitress grinning at me. She slid a platter and a squeeze bottle of salsa in front of me.
“I think so. You have a good selection.”
She smiled down at me again, slid my ticket under the corner of my plate and moved on. I looked at this marvelous pile of vegetation in front of me and sighed. The shreds of hash brown were almost occluded by the pile of sautéed peppers, onions and tomatoes that were themselves coated in melted shredded cheese. The four wedges of buttered white bread toast perched on the plate. Well, time for work.
I sampled the potatoes. They were buttery and spiced well with black pepper and salt, tucked in under the complement of vegetables above. It was a very good combination, and I could have eaten my weight in it. The salsa was a nice touch, but completely unnecessary. I could take or leave it.
I had another slow bite, watching the other patrons. My waitress sauntered by, carrying a 10 inch plate that had a short stack of pancakes hanging off of it, a container of melted butter and warm syrup in her other hand. She dropped off her load at one of the group tables to murmurs of appreciation.
The other waitress came by with mugs and a pot of coffee she delivered to a booth up from mine, only to return shaking her head. “No on the coffee, they want cokes today,” she told my waitress, shaking her head.
My waitress came back by and I asked her for a take-out box. She looked down at my plate. “You eat like a bird!” she proclaimed.
“I wish that were the case,” I conceded, but she was already gone to the kitchen for my veggie-potato receptacle. I drank the rest of my orange juice and paid at the register before heading out -- $5.50 for my breakfast and a dollar on the table.
My next stop wasn’t far off. I wanted to check out Something Brewing, the little coffee shop over on Front Street. I’d had their lunch before -- they do a really good Reuben -- and I’ve tried their syrup-flavored teas, even had a latte there before. Seemed like a no-brainer to get there and have breakfast.
The restaurant was quiet when I got there at 7:30, no one visible from the outside. Inside at the counter one guy waited, taking an order on the phone before turning to me.
I gazed longingly into the pastry case and made myself settle on a single item -- the blueberry scone ($1.75). Paired up with a traditional mocha ($2.99), I figured I could buy myself a little stomach space and get a good waking up at the same time.
The inside of the restaurant was quiet, but outside the weather was perfect, as cool as it had been on any morning since the start of summer. I found myself a spot on the deck out front and watched traffic go by.
After my usual round of photos, I had a good sip of the mocha, more chocolate-y than most and a welcome wake-up. I turned to the scone, the perfect sort of biscuit-crumbly. I think a lot of places forget that about scones -- they’re just Scottish biscuits and they should have a flakiness to them that overrides any hardness of the crust. They should be slightly moist, too.
This one was, except it had notes of texture of a good sugar cookie to it, too. It was pleasant, and I could tell how the dried blueberries had soaked up some of the butter in the batter. The butter flavor was in every bite; I didn’t feel like acquiring more butter to smother it in.
School buses were passing by, heading out to run the first of their routes for the day. I found myself relaxing, almost forgetting my morning’s mission. But the road was calling again, and I knew I only had a few more hours to sample anything else and a lot of miles to get under my tires.
See, that’s the thing about breakfast. With the exception of a few 24/7 diners and the occasional “breakfast anytime” local joint, the breakfast window is short. It opens when the first of the breakfast restaurants open (for Bob’s Grill that was around 5am) and closes when they stop serving breakfast. The average for Arkansas is 10:30 a.m., though some stop as early as 9 a.m. (65th Street Diner actually closes its doors and turns off the lights at that ime) and some as late ast 2 p.m. (Fayetteville’s Common Grounds). I had a recommendation in Clarksville to check up on. It was 7:46 a.m. To be safe, I needed to sit down for breakfast in Clarksville by ten. I was over an hour away.
So… Atkins. I had heard of a little place north of the interstate to check out, and it looked like I had time. So back on the road I went.
I fielded phone calls and watched the scenery go by -- Menifee, Plumerville, Morrilton, Blackwell. Heading west after the slow turn a mile north of Blackwell, I could see the ridge of the mountain that hovered over Atkins, hazy and bluish green under the light blue sky, the twin ribbons of interstate ahead, the tanning crops of summer’s end spread out on either side of the roadbed.
I took the exit and started looking for the place. There was a small restaurant behind the gas stations just off the road, but there was no sign of life out front. There was a sign on the door that mentioned it would be closed for Labor Day weekend. Their loss.
It was 8:20 and I had plenty of time to make it to Clarksville. I could get back on the road and stop at Fleet Diner in Pottsville or I could drive into Atkins’ small downtown and see what I could find there. The latter sounded more interesting.
I crossed Highway 64 and the railroad tracks before turning to the left and looking at all the storefronts. I noticed several cars in front of a storefront on 64 and figured if there were breakfast available it’d be there.
I was right -- and surprised, too. I’d never heard of the Atkins International Café. I lived in Russellville in the early 90s and went to and through Atkins quite a lot -- and since then had traveled through many times heading back and forth to visit my father-in-law. This place had never hit my radar.
I had a seat at a table along the west wall. There were others there, a three-top to my right, one guy at the lunch counter. The interior was very warm and eclectic -- a large painting over my shoulder, exposed brick walls, mismatched dining sets, tin stripped ceiling and a piano in the back. It was now 8:30 a.m. and though I had eaten just a quarter of Bob’s Grill’s hash browns and a third of the scone at Something Brewing I was already feeling full.
The menu seemed pretty typical for breakfast -- eggs, French toast, pancakes. I dithered over the idea of the Corned Beef and Swiss omelet but after seeing the strong Mexican influence throughout the rest of the menu I went for the Huevos Rancheros ($5.95) with iced tea. The tea was delivered with a chunk of fresh lime, a variation I appreciated (I like lime but not lemon in my iced tea and rarely use either).
The people at the three-top to my right had come in when I had but they’d called their orders in, so their platters were delivered before mine. I saw these three big platters come out and wondered if the diminutive woman at the table was going to be able to finish hers -- or whether I should expect something similarly large.
I felt something slid onto the table. A man was standing next to me, smiling down. “You from around here?”
I noticed he’d slid a menu onto the table. “My father-in-law’s in Dardanelle, so we come down here some.”
“Take this with you. You might want to come back,” he told me, smiled again and went back to the kitchen. I realized he saw me photographing the menu. Busted.
My waitress was there moments later with the plate. I was immediately struck by the bright reddish orange salsa -- so orange, in fact, there was no way it’d come from a jar. It was housemade, somewhat astringent and packed with onions and bell peppers. It was the consistency of a very chunky spaghetti sauce and similar in color, but the flavor was Spanish with hints of cilantro.
The salsa had been poured over the two eggs, which were over easy and which ran like crazy when poked with a fork. They’d been separated from the fluffy yellow rice and the beans with a tortilla. The rice was typical, but the beans were wet and somehow they were irresistible. I stopped myself a few spoonfuls in, realizing just how full the beans would make me, silently griping at myself because they were beautifully seasoned.
I needed to try the full experience, so I pulled one of the very hot tortillas out of an aluminum foil pocket and placed a bit of every ingredient inside. This was perfect, hearty and almost too much to bear. I needed to hit that Clarksville restaurant. I knew I did. So I called for another take-out box and packed my breakfast to go.
Another dollar on the table, $7.74 at the register and a knowing grin from the guy who’d brought me the menu. He knew I wasn’t just another passer-by. He had no idea I was on a breakfast quest.
Fleet Diner didn’t appear to be open when I pulled through Pottsville on Highway 64. I briefly stopped, updated my Facebook page with the week daily lunch suggestion and checked my email, then rolled back onto I-40 to head on up.
I stopped in Russellville and gassed up the van. I wasn’t worried about Russellville -- I’d already found three great breakfasts there (one of which, Paradise Donuts, sadly closed this past month due to non-payment of sales taxes). Up through London and Lamar, and I saw Clarksville in my sights.
I took a right at the end of the ramp, headed back to Highway 64 and turned right again. I went down quite a ways, not seeing anything except a taqueria and wondering if this place existed. Right on the edge of town, I saw it and pulled in. It was 9:45 a.m. and I was hoping breakfast was still the menu of choice.
This was Momma’s Kitchen, a neat little white building packed with little booths and tables and a counter all in one room, shades of beige and wood paneling striped with the sunlight coming through the blinds.
I don’t think I’ve ever been so grateful as to see the words “small plates” on a breakfast menu. I was already starting to hurt just a bit from all the food and the idea of eating anything large was just not comprehensible to me.
I went for the very simple, ordering one egg, grits and a pancake for $3.29. As I blearily realized I needed another eye-opener, I caught a sign a-glance. It read “In order to be old and wise, you must first be young and stupid.” Oh, how true. That little sign by the register should have been a warning for me. Four breakfasts in the course of three hours was probably too much, even at the limitations I’d put on consuming those breakfasts on myself. The clock over the register said 9:50. There would be no more breakfast acquisitions this particular morning. I checked my phone for messages and realized it was once again attempting to go dead on me. Stupid phone (I replaced it the next week -- it was a refurbished model that was pretty faulty).
I tried to focus on what was happening across the restaurant on the grill. The girl working the grill managed an expert flip of a pancake; I found myself hoping that wasn’t mine -- it was very large and I figured I’d be unable to conquer it.
I was listening kinda off-hand to the conversations around me, not really consuming the words but feeling the patter around me. That is, until the plates were slid in front of me. I took out the camera and started to shoot, not thinking about any sort of conversation.
“So who do you write for?” my waitress asked me. I realized she’d sat down at the booth next to mine and was watching me. So were the other four people in the booth. Busted again.
I told her I wrote a blog and shared all the things I ate on it, and this seemed to satisfy her. I hoped my exhaustion wasn’t showing. I also hoped my stomach was going to accept this meager offering.
I had nothing to worry about. Perhaps I was misjudging myself, I don’t know, but one bite of that crispy-edged pancake and I realized I was really hungry. I’d been teasing my belly all along, just taking a few bites here and there and then hitting the road. I’d already spent more than $20 on breakfasts that morning and hadn’t really eaten one. Weird.
The pancake was white and fluffy but not very thick, somehow achieving a crispiness all along its edge. The over-hard egg and grits were okay, but it was the pancake I found at the end of my fork over and over again. I finished it off unabashedly. It was very tasty and I was glad I’d finally found some place in Clarksville to stop at that wasn’t some chain operation.
As I sat there gathering the last bit of strength I’d need to make it to Fort Smith to meet my photographer for our next shoot, I doodled away on my notepad. I wrote the words “Eat Arkansas for Breakfast - Kat Robinson spends a summer rising early and traveling far to discover Arkansas’ best 50 breakfasts.” I counted out on my fingers every place I could remember. The breakfast I’d just consumed was number 57. I was going to have to do some culling -- and I hadn’t even hit northwest Arkansas yet. Dear heavens.
That was four. Over the course of that weekend I ended up eating breakfast 12 times -- and barbecue twice. This job has its hazards, that’s for darn sure.