Thursday, May 29, 2014

21 Doughnuts To Try in Arkansas Before You Die.

Oh, those sweet orbs of golden deliciousness... Arkansas has its fair share of great doughnut places. Kat Robinson helps sort out the best in the state.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

9 Reasons Thrillist Is Wrong About Arkansas's Chain Restaurant Choice.

A nationwide website purports the most significant chain restaurants for each state.  Kat Robinson gives nine reasons for while Thrillist is wrong about Arkansas.

Thrillist put out a United States food map in August 2013 that allegedly purported to define said states by their most prevalent food chain.  I'm guessing folks were smart enough to hide this from me, knowing the rant that would come when I discovered that this... website... chose Slim Chickens to represent Arkansas.

Of course, my answer was ARE YOU FREAKING KIDDING ME?

Now, an answer like that does nothing to progress the argument or educate the author... but a good blog about some better choices would certainly help.  So here's suggestions on Arkansas chain restaurants that could have better fit that Natural State-shaped hole.

The writer, Matt Lynch, lists notes on why he chose each restaurant for each state.  His assessment for us?  Arkansas: Slim Chickens was founded in 2003 in Fayetteville and has grown to 10 locations
That's... pretty weak.  Just because there are 10 locations... hell, Matt, have you ever BEEN to Arkansas?

I'm not dissing Slim Chickens.  Their fried mushrooms are a guilty pleasure, and they do a decent job at quick chicken.  I'm just saying that there are far better candidates for this representational map.

My suggestions:

Mexico Chiquito.  Though there are just five official locations today, the Arkansas-based Mexican restaurant chain started in 1935 with the first "Little Mexico" in North Little Rock.  Blackie Donnelly's eatery not only grew to become the name of Ark-Mex interpreted food for Arkansas, he's also credited with creating cheese dip.  The website.

Whole Hog Cafe.  A barbecue team known as the Southern Gentlemen's Culinary Society decided to open up a storefront in 2000... Ron Blasingame, Mike "Sarge" Davis and Steve Lucchi's original smoky pork bastion has now spread to 13 locations in four states.  The joint's six different proprietary sauces ensure there's a flavor for everyone.  The website.

Andy's.  Founded in 1978, the burger chain specializes in lots of Arkansas favorites, including country fried steak biscuits and breakfasts, barbecue sandwiches and catfish.  Its seven locations lie exclusively within Arkansas's borders. Website.

Colton's.  A group of restaurant veterans got together in 1996 and founded the first of these restaurants in Conway under the idea of celebrating America's West.  Today, 30 locations in five states bear the name of this well-loved steakhouse chain. Website.

TCBY.  Originally "This Can't Be Yogurt," a similarly named shop elsewhere forced a name change first to "The Country's Best Yogurt" and eventually to TCBY.  Founded in 1981 here in Arkansas, the restaurant swelled to 360 locations nationwide -- at one point, the tallest building in the state was named the TCBY tower!  Today, TCBY has partnered with Mrs. Fields for even more options.  Website.

U.S. Pizza Company.  Originating from an old clock shop in Levy back in 1972, this thin-crust pizza institution has spread to 13 Arkansas locations and still offers fresh, veggie-laden pizzas and salads.  Website.

Dixie Cafe.  Though the website claims 1980 as the origin date for this Arkansas-based chain, that only refers to the first location put in Little Rock by its parent company, The Black Eyed Pea.  In 1986, a split in management created the Dixie Cafe chain, which now operates 16 locations, mostly in Arkansas.  It also operates four Delta Cafes in Oklahoma. Website.

Pizza Pro.  Founded in Jacksonville by Scott Stevens, this economy-priced pizza chain has spread to more than 500 locations in 18 states.  I know -- I worked for one of the first stores up in Russellville!  And Scott Stevens is a pretty nice guy.  Check out the website.

Boulevard Bread Company.  Originating in Little Rock in 2000, this popular bakery now operates four locations in Central Arkansas.  Website.

Other chains that might make the claim soon?  Here's a quick list:
Big Orange (2 locations)
David's Burgers (4 locations and a food truck)
Jose's Mexican Grill (3 locations)
Marketplace Grill (4 locations)
Purple Cow (4 locations in Arkansas, 3 in Texas)
Rolando's Restaurante (3 locations)
Sweet Bay Coffee Company (5 locations in Ft. Smith & NWA)
Sim's Barbecue (3 locations)
ZaZa Salad and Pizza (2 locations)

So, did Thrillist get this wrong?  What Arkansas-based restaurant chain do you think needed to make this map?

UPDATE:  Fixed the number for Boulevard Bread locations.

UPDATE:  How in the world did I forget Larry's Pizza?  With at least 14 locations and more on the way, this 1992 Arkansas upstart is expanding at a fanatical rate.  Did you know there's one in Michigan?

Friday, May 23, 2014

Eat the Fest.

Presenting... a Nucci's corn dog!
So much to do over the course of Riverfest this year.  Don't waste time hunting down a good bite to eat -- let Kat Robinson's guide point you directly to the food you want to try.

Check back for updates throughout the event -- and follow the Gravagram or @GravWeldon on Twitter for lots of photos!
Grav is having too much fun at Riverfest 2014.

Riverfest is the official kickoff to summer here in Little Rock, as it has been since 1980.  Back then, I was six and the fun was out at Murray Park... and it was free.  Today, it's a wee bit more expensive to go, but oh all those musical acts and fun activities!

Crazy fest fare: deep fried banana
pudding fromRiverside Catering.
Of course, there's not a lot of time to savor the flavors of Riverfest.  Even from its earliest years, it's been about far more than corn dogs and Slushees.

Riverfest is the first place I ever had a proper kebab (and also the first place I ever accidentally immersed myself in nacho cheese sauce, but that's another story) and it's still a great venue for trying some outrageous cuisine.  Here's where you need to go to find all these neat, strange and probably waist-busting vittles. Just remember -- you need River Money for purchases, so hit up a kiosk and buy some bucks first.

The big areas to eat?  The largest section is right behind LaHarpe's Landing, within view of the Riverfest Amphitheater.  There's a smaller section down towards the sculpture plaza. Another food court at the Clinton Presidential Center and a fourth in the family area near Heifer International are all noted in these listings.  You'll find an event map here. 

Scroll down further to learn about Yarnell's Freeze Fest and the food trucks in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Family Free Zone at Heifer -- or click here to learn about the Amstel Light Best Burger in Arkansas Competition.

Bryant's Barbecue and Catering.  A great Arkansas food, barbecue bologna, is sold here.  Get your pig baloney 'cued or not 'cued, along with brats and barbecue nachos.

Bubba's Bacon.  Love bacon?  Bubba has it for you in ways you may never have previously imagined.  Not content with only serving a quarter pound of bacon on a stick, Bubba's is where you'll find chocolate covered bacon on a stick (think Pig Lickers) and bacon flavored popcorn.  Grav says the quarter pound of bacon on a stick is half an inch thick and pretty epic. (LaHarpe)

The Chill Factory.  With highs forecast in the upper 80s, you'll want to cool down with a refreshing drink.  This is where you'll find it -- daiquiries and slushies in a variety of flavors.  A shot of alcohol can be added for an additional price.  Don't forget your ID.  (No alcohol at the Family area booth)

Christi'Ali Cuisine.  Searching for fair-worthy foods?  Find them here.  Alongside steak wraps, chicken strips and pot stickers, you'll find fried Oreos and Butterfinger bars.  Grav even found kabobs cooking on the griddle.
Crazy fries from Christi'Ali's.

Dry Creek Concessions.  Here's the all-American choice, where one will find cheeseburgers, chicken tenders, brats, dogs, and nachos.  Line up here for barbecue nachos (with barbecue pork on top of tortilla chips and cheese), pulled pork sandwiches and Frito chili pies. (LaHarpe)

Flossie's Funnel Cakes.  The perennial favorite, Arkansas-based funnel cake fanciers Flossie's serves up the best, freshest funnel cakes you'll find anywhere.  This is also where you can grab a traditional treat such as cotton candy, corn dogs and fresh squeeze lemonade -- and, to really beat the heat, frozen lemonade as well. (LaHarpe, Sculpture, Clinton, Family)

The Big Taste Grill is so big, Grav could not fit it in frame.
Johnsonville Big Taste Grill.  You won't be able to miss this one -- a 65 foot long giant grill equipped with hot and cold runnign water, electricity, a sound system, prep station and refrigerator.  Up to 12 grillmasters are needed to handle this monstrosity, and it can handle up to 750 brats at a time -- that's 2500 an hour!  You'll find it in front of the Clinton School of Public Service.  Oh, and brat sales go to benefit Riverfest.

Walking Taco from Kathy's Kabana.
Kathy's Kabana.  Arkansas's own Walking Taco queen, Kathy's serves up far more, including quesadillas, taco salads, burritos, nachos and fajitas.  The kids will love chocolate dipped bananas and the Philly cheesesteak is a pretty good call.  (LaHarpe)

Katie's Kickin' Chicken.  How about some chicken on a stick?  Here it is, along with corn dogs and fries.  Get yours stick-ified or in a basket.

Lemonade.  Yes, there are lemonade stands, and they are just about everywhere.  Squeeze your way by and get cooled off. (all areas)

Linda Chan's.  Looking for Asian fare?  Try chicken on a stick or egg rolls here.  You can also get bowls of shrimp fried rice or vegetable lo mein -- both good starchy sources for hitting all the activities. (LaHarpe, Sculpture, Clinton)

Nucci's.  There's nothing like a corn dog, and you'll find corn dogs the star of the show at this vendor's spot.  (LaHarpe)

The Original Corn Roast.  Like corn?  Love this vendor.  Get your hot-and-yellow treat on the cob or in a cup.  Whole pickles also sold here. (LaHarpe)

Ozark Candies and Nuts.  There's nothing quite like hot spiced or sugared nuts, and this North Little Rock enterprise has them down pat.  Choose from cinnamon roasted pecans or almonds, praline pecans and kettle corn. (LaHarpe area)

Papa John's.  Yes, you can get pizza at Riverfest -- straight from national chain pizza joint Papa John's.  Pick up a slice of cheese or pepperoni pizza pipping hot.  (LaHarpe, Bud Stage Area, Clinton)

Patty's Sugar Shack.  Got a sweet tooth?  Satiate it here.. with red velvet cake, caramel and candy apples and cotton candy.  Patty's is also your Riverfest sno-cone hookup.

Riverside Catering.  The prize for strangest anticipated Riverfest food this year goes to this local company, which in addition to serving Cajun favorites such as frog legs, fried shrimp, crawfish and crawfish etoufee, plans to offer alligator, boudin alligator, boudin cheese balls and, I kid you not, deep fried banana pudding.

RJ's Pizza.  The sign says pizza, but what you're really thinking about is a turkey leg.  After all, what's a festival without the hot, smoked leg of a large bird in your hand?  Cookie slices also available, along with -- what else -- pizza.

Santa Lucia.  Get your Greek on with plenty of classic handheld wonders such as gyros, pitas stuffed with chicken or seafood or grilled sausages, and with tasty baklava.  (LaHarpe, Sculpture)

Taste of the Caribbean.  Exactly what it says on the booth -- this vendor wants to share with you traditional favorites from Jamaica and other islands.  Be adventurous and sample curried goat, oxtail stew, or escoveitch fish.  You'll also find jerk chicken and pork, curried shrimp and chicken stew on the menu.

The Tea Box.  My favorite beverage comes from this place.  Cold iced tea, both sweetened and unsweetened, available for your drinking pleasure. (Sculpture)

W&M Concessions.  How about piping hot mozzarella cheese sticks?  Pick up yours along with nachos and corn dogs at this vendor's booth.  (LaHarpe, Sculpture)
A root beer float with Yarnell's ice cream.

Yarnell's Ice Cream.
Look here, look there, Yarnell's is everywhere at Riverfest.  The (should be) official cold dessert of the festival, Yarnell's is out in force with dip stations.  (Sculpture, LaHarpe, Clinton)

Speaking of Yarnell's, the Arkansas ice cream maker's sponsoring FreezeFest -- a series of ice cream eating contests at the KidZone Stage.  Times are 1:10, 4:15 and 7:15 on Saturday and 2:45, 4:45 and 6:45 on Sunday.  Want to sign up?  Click here -- and be prepared for an ice cream headache of epic proportions.

And in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Family Free Zone at Heifer International, you can sample some of our best local food trucks.  Check out:

Southern Gourmasian
David's Burgers
Waffle Wagon

Cheto's Authentic Mexican
Black Hound BBQ
Food Commander
Fat Buoy's

For these vendors, take your real dollars instead of River Money.

There's a lot of food to savor at Riverfest 2014.  For more information, click here -- and be sure to check back for updates.  Also, follow the Gravagram -- Grav Weldon's Instagram and Twitter accounts -- for more great food, activity and concert photography.


Spin the wheel of barbecue at Sweet Baby Ray's near the
Clinton Presidential Center for a chance to take home free
barbecue sauce and seasoning!

Like pig skins?  Pork rinds are the rage and they can be found at this
booth almost underneath the I-30 river bridge.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Bigger, Better, Best: Burger Battle at Riverfest.

Planning to head out for Arkansas’s largest music festival? There’s more to enjoy this year, including a head-to-head challenge between some of the state’s best burger makers. Kat Robinson shares the skinny on the Amstel Light Best Burger in Arkansas Competition.

The winning burgers on the grill.
UPDATE:  The winner of this year's contest is Little Rock's Big Orange.  Utilizing an entirely Arkansas-sourced burger, the burger maker managed to pull out a win against some stiff competition.  Congratulations!

A cross section of Big Orange's winning entry, plus
pickled carrot.
I have often told individuals and audiences… I don’t know everything about Arkansas food yet. I can’t quite claim to have tried every pie, every breakfast, every sandwich in the state. But when it comes to burgers, I believe I’m the closest thing anyone has to an expert. My claims are substantial; I wrote about burgers at least once a week over a couple year span on Eat Arkansas: The Blog for Food Lovers with the Arkansas Times, I was the southern burger correspondent for Serious Eats and I managed to knock out this piece on the 50 best burgers I tried just in the year 2011. Fat, smashed, grilled, charbroiled, baked (yes, baked!), buttered, slathered in mustard, slapped between grilled cheese sandwiches or even deep fried, there are few burgers I’ve met that I haven’t liked and enjoyed and shared with you.

Johnny Burger from Johnny B's.
This is part of the reason I’m excited about Riverfest. This year, Amstel Light is offering up a Best Burger in Arkansas competition on Saturday, May 24th on the grounds of Heifer International. It’s in the Arkansas Democrat Gazette Family Free Zone – which is outside the armband area of the festival – and admission and tasting is just $5.

Arkansas Burger from The Hive at 21c.
Now, you may be wondering why I’m so concerned about this. Has to do with the title being offered. See, the Arkansas Democrat Gazette is poised to name the winner of this competition as having “Arkansas’s Best Burger.” I might have something to say about that.

The Humburger at Hamburger Station.
See, I’ve been everywhere in the state looking for good burgers, and some of the best just aren’t on this list. Such as Matt McClure’s Arkansas Burger from The Hive at 21c. Matt’s amazing blend of briskety beef, pimento cheese, homemade pickles and sweet pepper relish on a housemade bun could be the best gourmet burger in the state – and it’s completely unheralded, thanks to all the other amazing things this James Beard-award nominated chef is delivering at his museum-housed restaurant.

Or the humble Humburger, the mustard-and-onion combined greasebomb served up over the ages at the venerable yet tiny Hamburger Station along the railroad tracks in downtown Paragould.

The Herb Burger at Herb's
Creamland in Ashdown.
Or the deliciously spiced and served burger at the Old Tyme Burger Shop down in Texarkana… the classic smashy at Johnny B’s in El Dorado… the oversized monstrosity at JJ’s Café in Lake Village.

The Barnbuster at The Back Forty.
Could there be one that reaches the flame-broiled pinnacle of the sesame-seed studded Barnburner offered at The Back Forty in Mountain Home? Or one that comes close to the classic revived and shared at Feltner Brothers in Fayetteville? Could one even touch on the magnificence of Ed Walker’s famous Giant Cheeseburger, that five pounds of well-seasoned meat served family-style on a housemade bun with all those condiments on the side?

The Hubcap Burger at Cotham's Mercantile.
Could any entrant come close to the legendary Hubcap Burger so proudly presented to diners at Cotham’s Mercantile in Scott?

So many burgers -- hundreds of worthy possibilities all over The Natural State -- is it any wonder that there's been no definitive crown placed upon the brow of a master burgerslinger in Arkansas?

I could go on for days about magnificent morsels of beef on bread, with or without cheese, tied together with a range of condiments and vegetation… but I believe the better service to you is to share who’s participating in this challenge. Those valiant competitors:

The Maytag Blue Cheese Burger at Big Orange.
Big Orange. Yes, the quickly spreading Yellow Rockets Concept burger joint is putting its reputation up against others. I’m hoping for a Maytag Blue Burger from the place; I love the Maytag Blue cheese and the sweet pepper jelly, the butter leaf lettuce… dang, I am now hungry. Considering the dozen or so varieties available, who knows what will come from this famed eatery.

Café 42. You know, I’ve never had the burger at this restaurant that sits below the Clinton Presidential Library. I always have a sandwich or soup or the blue cheese cheesecake. So I’ll be excited to see what comes out of this pretty little place.

A cheeseburger at David's Burgers.
David’s Burgers. I’ve been glad to see the chain expand from the original CJ’s Butcher Boy Burgers. Okay, I know, I know – that’s family, not a franchise! But the idea is the same. A competitor coming into the fray who specializes in JUST hamburgers and fries may have a great edge over other entrants. My suggestion: pick up a few extra napkins and grab your burger tight. It might get a little messy.

EJ’s Eats and Drinks. This late competitor is a Little Rock standard, and I expect great things. Those third-of-a-pound ovoids smashed on the grill with that split top bun are so good, you can’t ever really find a table right off the bat at lunchtime. If EJ’s manages to sneak in some of its housemade barbecue spiced potato chips to the judges, they’ll take the prize.

Heifer Café. Wait, Heifer International has a café? Of course they do. Café@Heifer is a splendid River Market secret, with Grab & Go lunches and pastries and a decent delicious lunch selection that includes pizza, salads, sandwiches and a couple of burgers. The dark horse in this competition, it could be what puts the eatery on the map. I’m eager to see how they do.

Stratton’s Market. Let’s be honest – this is really Dugan’s Pub competing under the name of their attached grocery. And that’s awesome. Dugan’s has been making pretty dang good burgers since before they were Dugan’s. What? Oh, yeah, before Dugan’s those burgers were coming out of Markham Street Pub. How about one of those savory-saucy-soak the bun burgers?

There may be more competitors to come… and that’d be great. Sure, there’s a $500 on the line – but it’s that title that has me intrigued. Grill on, guys.

If you want to check this competition out, it’ll be held between 2:30 and 4:30 over there at the Arkansas Democrat Gazette Family Free Zone. Come hungry. Oh, and check out this site for all this information you’ll need to optimize your Riverfest experience.

And to see more photos of burgers, click here.

Photos from the competition: