There are a lot of places to find pizza in Little Rock... a lot of pasta places, too. But just one sticks out in my mind as a great place to find a big bowl of steaming comfort food -- that hallowed institution of roadside diners -- the overflowing bowl of chili mac.
That place is Grady's.
The pizza and sub shop has been around since 1981, and hosted its share of hungry folks wanting a good bite at a great price. Over the years, a few items have been added to the menu -- but in essence, this is still the same great mid-'80s hole-in-the-wall that's taken care of people traveling along West 12th Street.
And what's not to like? The cozy eatery is tucked back in a shopping center, with tab topped curtains on the windows and leatherette topped tables. This is a place to grab some grub. You might not want to bring your prom date here (or maybe you would -- who can tell?) but for good food at great prices, it's hard to beat.
My traveling companion and I ducked in on a Wednesday evening in July to seek out comfort food and iced tea. The hot air outside was no match for the air conditioned comfort within. We seated ourselves in one of the wooden booths along the wall and perused the menu.
There are many good items to choose from on the Italian-American inspired menu. Appetizers are limited to toast varieties and chips, but onward down the menu you'll find a wide selection of signature sandwiches, served up on your choice of homemade onion bread, French rolls, or rye. They're served with a choice of potato salad, potato chips, or cole slaw and come in half and whole sandwiches. Among the many choices are the Grady's Grinder (ham, salami, roast beef and turkey), a Vegetarian Sampler (mushrooms, black olives, green bell peppers, white onions, lettuce, tomato, and Italian dressing), a Muffeletta (ham, turkey, salami and marinated veggies with cheese) along with the obligatory Meatball and the Arkansas standard, the Reuben. All sandwiches come with tomato, lettuce, and cheese and a Kosher dill spear.
Grady's also offers a wide variety of salads, including a Baked Chicken Salad and a Taco Salad. Pizzas come in three different sizes -- 11", 14", and 16" -- and are cooked up Neapolitan style with red sauce or olive oil. Among the different varieties are Charlie's Favorite (ground beef, white onions, bell peppers, green olives, jalapenis and cheese) and the North St. Louis Special (Italian sausage, green olives, bell peppers, and white onions with cheese). In fact, this is one of the few places in the Little Rock area where you can still find green olives on the toppings menu -- along with zucchini and artichoke hearts.
But on this particular night, my traveling companion and I eschewed the franchise offerings for comforting pasta bowls. And for me, that's Chili Mac. A big bowl runs $4.75 ($6.25 with a garden salad) and comes with a slab of garlic toast. We both made our selections and were quickly brought our drinks and my salad.
The green salad here is a bit of a misnomer. While the majority of the bowl is full of the expected Romaine and Iceberg chunks, it's supplemented with red cabbage and carrot slivers and topped with a more than ample handful of mozzarella cheese. Dressing and crackers come on the side.
We also splurged and went for an appetizer of garlic and cheese toast with marinara sauce ($4.05), three planks of soft and slightly salty French roll served up with a cup of cool sauce. The marinara itself is a sweet and chunky ragu, lightly spiced. It's a good compliment to the slightly salty bread.
I hadn't even made it through my salad before our entrees arrived. My traveling companion had opted for a bowl of Spaghetti with Meat Sauce ($6.75 with garlic bread and soup or salad). The big bowl was a bit light on meat but there was a good meat to tomato ratio in the sauce. The noodles themselves were a little past al dente, chewy but not sticky, and without the inevitable pool of moisture that forms at the base of the average bowl of spaghetti.
He'd also opted for a Corned Beef sandwich (leftovers for a late-night snack being the operative idea). The sandwich ($6.50)came on a French bread po' boy roll sliced almost all the way through lengthwise but left to hold together the pile of pinkish meat and the veggies. My companion had asked that the mayo be left off, and was greeted with a hearty Dijon instead. The repast was served up with a bag of Ruffles and a big pickle spear. By not cutting all the way through the bread, the restaurant makes what could be a messy sandwich much easier to eat.
Of course, I had my fix. The Chili Mac isn't just chili on noodles. It's served on spaghetti, not macaroni (and always has been) and is a blend of chili con carne and meat sauce. The balance isn't too spicy, and it's topped with another generous handful of mozzarella cheese. There's a whole lot of pasta there, too -- enough to satisfy even the most hungry diner.
We ended up packing up a good deal of our meal to take home for later -- but I wasn't leaving without an old favorite. Grady's is one of the few restaurants around to offer fresh cannoli -- and it's cheap, too. For 99 cents, you get a delicate filled pastry that's about 6" long. These little beauties pack a punch, though. The filling is reminiscent of a tart cheesecake. They come in vanilla, strawberry, and chocolate chip. We shared a strawberry cannoli to finish off our meal.
There are a lot of other options, too. If you're not so hungry but want to try more, you can opt for a half sandwich with your choice of soup, chili, or a salad ($6.95). Another dessert you'll want to try is the Grady's Classic Lemon Ice Box Pie ($2.25 or 9.00 for a whole one), a tart and creamy confection on a graham cracker crust. And there's no meaner, leaner French bread pizza in town than the ones you'll find at Grady's ($6.25), three planks of French roll topped with your choice of two toppings, cheese, and olive oil or red sauce -- or with mushrooms, black olives, bell peppers and white onions.
You can order beer by the mug or pitcher, or a carafe of Zinfandel, Chardonnay, or Cabernet, or enjoy any of a wide variety of carbonated products. And if you're in a rush, you can pick up your order to go with one of the 20 ounce drinks you'll find in a cooler up front.
And for those of us who love nostalgia,
some of the first arcade games that came to Little Rock can still be found in the club room.
Grady's is about to add 10 more items to the menu, according to our attentive server. She also explained the significance of the "Soup of the Day" listed -- Chicken Noodle Not, a chicken and vegetable soup without noodles. But for the most part, it's still the same great dive on 12th Street after all these years.
You'll find Grady's at 6801 West 12th Street. Call ahead for pick-up orders to (501) 663-1918. They're open seven days a week starting at 11am.