Arkansas destination dining – Arkansas Times

Arkansas destination dining – Arkansas Times

  • October 11, 2020
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The Arkansas Times’ annual Road Trip issue this year follows its nose: That is, rather than relegating our guide’s dining options to a side note, we’re taking a different route. These are destinations determined by dining. Would you go to Fayetteville just to eat Texas-style barbecued brisket? Absolutely. Venture down a two-lane deep into the Ozarkian woods of Johnson County for a hamburger? Many have, to get to the Oark Cafe. Drive all the way to Lake Village for Rhoda’s tamales? Who among us has not done that? 

We know dining indoors is still not a comfortable option for many, but taking your destination dining food outdoors in the crisp fall air is a pretty damn good alternative. Better yet, take your food to a nearby campground, so you can sleep off your feasting. What? You’ve never camped? The only time you camped someone else took care of you? Road Trip has tips for those of you who’d like to experience Mother Nature but are a bit afraid of her. Eat, camp, hike, get hungry again and head out for some Company’s Comin’ pie or other delectables the Times highlights here. 

Leslie Newell Peacock
WRIGHT’S BARBECUE

FAYETTEVILLE AREA

Wright’s Barbecue
2212 Main Drive, Johnson
11 a.m.-7:30 p.m. Tue.-Sat.

Wright’s Barbecue, in an old frame house on five acres, has the feel of a long-venerated restaurant where generations of chefs have been doling out great food. Surprise: This eatery in the tiny ’burb of Johnson, squeezed in between Fayetteville and Springdale, opened in October 2017 as one of the rare (in Arkansas) purveyors of Texas-style barbecued brisket, ribs, pulled pork, chicken and sausage. Here, Jordan Wright’s tender wood-fired smoked meats prove he was born to barbecue. Wright, whose career was launched with a Big Green Egg cooker given to him by his family at Christmas several years ago, started out feeding friends and family and then got serious, bringing a food truck to the Fayetteville Farmers Market in 2016. By 2017, he was operating out of the house in Johnson, and in 2019 he bought the property. Wright and staff have been working out of a dime-sized kitchen in a house with no real air-conditioning, but now — with indoor dining pushed out by the pandemic — he’s been able to renovate the structure to make things easier on the cooks. So far, he’s added a big kitchen that can handle all his catering demands and a mechanical dishwasher, freeing up his dishwashing staff to become prep cooks. For now, Wright’s is serving from a takeout window, and it’s surprisingly fast: You drive up, get into a circle of cars and give your order from the car. By the time you reach the takeout window, your highly aromatic and mouth-watering ’cue is ready to go. Brisket is a revelation if you’ve never had it barbecued, so go for it. Highly recommended is the Texas Trinity plate, which is a holy delight of two ribs, two healthy slices of brisket, a house-made sausage (go for the version with jalapeno cheese) and two sides ($20). Plates run from $9 to $20. There are also sandwiches, entrees and meat by the pound. Weekend specials include prime rib, beef ribs and the brisket burger ($12-$33 depending on weight). There are specialty sandwiches, too, such as the warthog-pleasing Pumba, a combination of brisket, pork and sausage on a bun ($12); the Wooo Pig, pulled pork and sausage topped with slaw; and the CBR, chicken and bacon with ranch dressing ($10). You can’t get a PBR with your CBR for now, but Wright hopes to reopen the beer garden in late October and once again have live music. There’s a Wright’s in Bentonville, too, open Thursdays and Fridays at 208 NE Third St. LNP

Devil’s Den State Park
11333 W. State Hwy. 74, West Fork

If you like birdwatching, you’ll love this lush and large camping and natural area tucked in the Lee Creek Valley. Owls will hoot and screech, woodpeckers will hammer, flycatchers will confuse, and jewel-like warblers, both those on the move during migration and those nesting, will delight. During normal times (remember them?), park rangers give talks on plants and animals; it was at this very park where a child I know first learned about hognose snakes and their habit of playing dead. The hiking is excellent and you can stay in cabins, hike in to eight tent-camping spots and haul in your camper or your horse. Caves are closed to protect resident bats from white-nose syndrome, but you can feel the cool air from outside the Devil’s Icebox. Pick up trail maps from the visitor center, and don’t worry: Old Splitfoot is nowhere near. LNP

Rhett Brinkley
OARK GENERAL STORE

OZARKS

Oark General Store
117 Johnson County Road, Oark 241

When driving up state Hwy. 103 north toward the foothills of the Boston Mountains, you really want to take in the lush picturesque views of the Ozark National Forest, but it’s imperative that you keep your eyes on the road. Hairpin turns almost slow you to a stop at times. “These turns are nothing,” you might say with bravado, especially if you’re a total sham like me — an ambitious but extremely low-skill camper who forgot the tent poles on his last camping trip five years ago. Thirty seconds later you might yell, “Oh my gosh, these turns!” with a high-pitched voice crack. Soon the road levels out, and you’re driving right up to the oldest running general store in the state. Thought to have opened in 1890, Oark General Store is a must-stop for hungry travelers and explorers wanting to hike the Ozark trails or float the Mulberry River. If it weren’t for the Oark Cafe sign in front of the single gas pump, one might mistake Oark General Store for an old house with a lot of stickers in the windows. Originally opened to meet the essential needs of the rural mountain community, over the last 30 years or so Oark General Store’s been more of a restaurant than a store. Especially now. Because of the pandemic, the store’s closed but is serving food and a few items outdoors. Brian Eisele and his wife, Reagan, who have owned the store since 2012, say some members of the staff and some of their immediate family have medical conditions, so limiting the foot traffic in the store seemed like the best choice. A table in front of the store is stocked with the store’s drink offerings, jams, T-shirts and sunglasses. They put a window in front so customers can order from outside, and they used state and federal relief money to build an adjacent pavilion. 

Rhett Brinkley
AT OARK STORE: The burger and fries.

“I was basically like, ‘I’ve got one shot at building this. I’m adding to this 130-year-old legacy. I’ve got to do it right,’ ” Brian Eisele said. The pavilion is inviting, with tables that seat four to six, each with their own hanging fan. A smooth concrete pad and several hanging plants make the pavilion a great spot to sit and have an Oark Burger and a slice of pie á la mode. The burger and hand-cut fries are exactly what you would expect from a 130-year-old general store — and that’s a good thing. On my recent trip, I got back in my car and went into a panic when I realized I had no cell service at all. Then my stress washed away when I remembered that I really am good at this. I calmly reached into the console for my trusty, completely illegible handwritten directions. RB

Wolf Pen Recreation Area
Forest Service Road 1003L, Oark  

From Oark Cafe, take state Hwy. 215 west and drive alongside the Mulberry River for about seven miles to reach Wolf Pen Recreation Area. Look for the sign. I wrote the directions down wrong and drove 30 minutes down the road before I’d realized I made a mistake. Don’t do that. There are six primitive camp spots (no drinking water and vault toilets) within a stone’s throw of the Mulberry. The river is a stunning blue-green. After I made an Instagram post of the beautiful turquoise water, several people contacted me to inquire about my coordinates. I didn’t even respond. RB

Byrd’s Adventure Center
7037 Cass Oark Road, Ozark 

Get back on 215 west and keep driving along the Mulberry. A small prop plane might fly right over your head, but don’t be alarmed. Soon you’ll see several small planes parked in a field not too far from the road. You’ve reached Byrd’s Adventure Center, which offers tent and RV camping along with ATV trails, mud pits and canoe, kayak and raft rentals right along the river. There’s a grass runway for single-engine planes and a smaller runway for powered parachutes and trikes. RB

Redding Recreation Area
21424 State Hwy. 23, Ozark

If you’re looking for a nice but primitive spot, drive west a few more miles down 215 west and set up camp at the Redding Recreation Area. It’s less primitive than Wolf Pen with flush toilets and showers, and it’s also right along the banks of the Mulberry. Swim in the Mulberry or hike the moderate Spy Rock loop trail. Reservations are not required; there’s a fee of $15 a night. RB

BUDWEISER SILO

Giant Budweiser Can
21163-21399 State Hwy. 22, Lavaca

After packing up camp at the Mulberry, drive 40 minutes out of the way to Belle Point Ranch in Lavaca to see a 50-foot silo painted like a Budweiser can. (You can type “Giant Budweiser Can” in Maps on your phone and find it.) When the late David McMahon, an Anheuser-Busch wholesaler, bought the farm in the ’70s, he thought the silo resembled a 16-ounce can of Budweiser. He hired local sign maker Earl Harris to paint the silo. Harris painted the whole thing by hand on scaffolding that he built himself. “My dad, of course, being in the beer business his whole life, we’ve been wholesalers since 1946,” McMahon’s daughter, Susan McMahon Taylor, said. “He said he looked at that — even though we were sitting there in the middle of the dry part of Sebastian County — and he said, ‘It just looked like a Budweiser can to me.’ ” It’s a landmark for locals. Taylor told me a girl had it tattooed on her. She also described taking shelter during a scary storm when her daughters were little and hearing the local KISR-FM, 93.7, reporter Fred Baker Jr. say something to the effect of “It looks like the tornado is heading right for the Budweiser can.” RB

Rhett Brinkley
CLIFF HOUSE INN

Cliff House Inn
State Hwy. 7, 6 miles south of Jasper

The Scenic 7 Byway that ascends into the Ozarks is a fall drive worth taking even if you have no destination in mind. But there’s lots to do along the way and when you arrive in Jasper. 

There are several vista overlooks, and once you get closer to Jasper you can stop for lunch at the Cliff House Inn, which overlooks the deep valleys of the Arkansas Grand Canyon. There’s a small gift shop that serves as the restaurant’s lobby. The dining room offers one of the state’s best restaurant views, if not the best. If you’re not ready for dine-in, get a slice of Company’s Comin’ Pie to go. According to Cliff House Inn’s website, Company’s Comin’ Pie is the state pie of Arkansas, although I cannot find anything to back that claim. The crust is made up of egg whites, pecans, cream of tartar and saltine crackers. The top is a creamy crushed pineapple concoction. RB

Low Gap Cafe
State Hwy. 74, Jasper 

Low Gap Cafe is a rustic spot that looks like it could’ve served as a good setting for a brawl scene in the movie “Road House.” Chef and owner Nick Bottini trained at the Culinary Institute of America in New York; among his claims to fame are that he once catered Liberace’s birthday party. After opening restaurants in California and Harrison, Bottini was the chef at the Horseshoe Canyon Ranch in Jasper. He opened Low Gap in 2011. Judging from its appearance, one might assume the restaurant would be a burger joint, but it has pastas, pan-seared duck, seafood and prime rib. It also has burgers, lunch baskets and a delicious BLT. There’s also an adjacent covered patio where Low Gap hosts live music on weekends. RB

Ozark Cafe
107 E. Court St., Jasper 

Ozark Cafe in Jasper has been around for over 100 years. Stop in for breakfast and try the chocolate gravy with biscuits or the blueberry pancakes. Widely known for its Excaliburger, a half-pound burger served between two grilled cheese sandwiches (once featured on the Travel Channel’s “Man vs. Food”). Proceed with caution. RB

Twin Falls
Camp Orr Road, Harrison  

I didn’t make this hike because it was raining. I know, a camping expert/daredevil like myself would never let a little rain stop me. However, I don’t have four-wheel drive and it’s strongly recommended if you’re going to drive to the Twin Falls trailhead. Sure, getting stuck might be good for the camper in me, but I had a deadline. It’s a short level hike from the camp to Twin Falls, which after heavy rain is actually three waterfalls. Directions there are tricky. From Jasper take state Hwy.  74 west to Kyle’s Landing/Camp Orr Road and turn right at the sign that points to Camp Orr. Follow Camp Orr for about a mile and a half. Look for the Twin Falls sign at the bottom of a hill. RB

Ponca Covered Bridge Cabin
5412 State Hwy. 43, Ponca

The historic covered bridge in Ponca hovers above Adds Creek. It’s right off state Hwy. 43, and if you’re not looking for it, you’re liable to miss it. A less experienced camper might’ve driven farther than 30 minutes down the road before realizing they’d missed it. The cabin was built by Terry and Linda Clark. Since the mid-1800s, there have been four generations of Clarks in the Ponca area. Terry is known for his stories about the area’s past, so if you want to learn about Ponca, this might be the place to stay. The cabin is available for $199 a night on Airbnb, and the Clarks are Superhosts. RB

Steel Creek Campground
Buffalo River Trail, Jasper

This nice grassy camping area is situated along the Buffalo River under Roark Bluff. There are 26 walk-in campsites. It’s $20 a night, first-come/first-served and has water and flush toilets. RB

Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism
HAW CREEK FALLS

Haw Creek Falls Recreation Area
Hagarville 

Not much of an address for this remote location. To get there from Jasper, take state Hwy. 7 south to Hwy. 123 south. Drive over a couple of old bridges on your way to this cool, primitive campground that’s located on a mountain stream. The camp is adjacent to the falls and surrounded by forest. There are nine camping sites and they’re $10 a day. This spot floods, so make other plans if there’s been a lot of rain. I drove through a pretty substantial puddle to get into the campgrounds. Even though I couldn’t see anyone around, I could hear what could only be described as people cheering for me in the distance. There’s no drinking water available and it has vault restrooms. Hike about 30 minutes to Pam’s Grotto waterfall or to the nearby Pack Rat Falls. RB

MISSISSIPPI RIVER DELTA/CROWLEY’S RIDGE

Kathryn’s on Moon Lake
5770 Moon Lake Road, Lula., Miss.
5 p.m.-10 p.m. Fri.-Sun. (call 662-337-0022 to confirm hours or to make reservations). 

Known for fantastic onion rings, first-class steaks and an origin story that dates back 80 years, this quaint little roadhouse sits just across the road from Moon Lake, an oxbow just north of Clarksdale whose name and history have been dropped into Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire” and ‘The Glass Menagerie.” Kathryn and Frank Rossi, immigrants from Italy and Ireland, opened up the spot in 1939 in what was then a bustling tourist spot, and operated it until the 1970s. In 2010, a singer-songwriter named John Mohead talked his wife into buying and resurrecting the place, which had been shuttered for two years after a series of unsuccessful ownerships. Mohead mans the kitchen now, which churns out gulf shrimp ($21) and crawfish penne ($17) and succotash ($4) from gas burners in the back, much of which is prepared the same way it was in 1939. The Rossis, general manager/co-owner Natalie McCollum told us, “came straight off the boat, and they lived in what’s now the backroom. We actually still have customers who knew Kathryn and Frank when they were little, and now their kids are coming here, too. So we definitely have a huge following from here.” The floors are rickety, the ceilings are low, the decor is eclectic and charming, and the clientele is both unhurried and fiercely devoted, sipping whatever they BYOB’ed from the lake house rental or beyond. If dining in a cozy indoor cafe doesn’t feel responsible to you right now, McCollum, Mohead and crew have been perfecting their carryout game during the pandemic. SS

Greenlight Dispensary
2000 Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, Helena-West Helena
10 a.m.-8 p.m. Mon.-Sat. 

First things first: A trip to Greenlight means you are very close to Mississippi, where medical marijuana is decriminalized but not legal. Should you plan to continue your venture to Kathryn’s (above), you’ll want to purchase your MMJ once you’re back in Arkansas. With dispensaries in five states, Greenlight offers edibles, CBD products and, of course, medical marijuana from Arkansas cultivators. There’s an ATM onsite, and they deliver. SS 

Mississippi River State Park
2955 State Hwy. 44, Marianna

Arkansas’s newest state park (est. 2009) is a treasure, and looks radically different from what you likely call to mind when you think of Delta terrain. Here, the pine trees of St. Francis National Forest tower over Bear Creek Lake and wild turkeys scuttle among the few sunbeams that manage to penetrate the lush overstory. Nearly every campsite, at both the primitive Lone Pine campground and the water/electricity-equipped Beech Point campground, has a lakeside view, as do the picturesque hillside picnic spots at Beaver Point. SS

Jones Bar-B-Q Diner
219 W. Louisiana St., Marianna
7 a.m.-1 p.m. Mon. Sat. 

If curbside takeout is the new normal, call James Jones an early adopter. Somewhere around 1910, his grandfather Walter Jones started selling takeaway pork barbecue from a block pit, and the family business has since become a James Beard Award-winning Arkansas legend — the first such title for an Arkansas restaurant, and the awards ceremony marking James’ first time on an airplane. Now, that medal is perched unceremoniously above a yellowing paper menu at an ordering window in a weather-worn cinder block building just off the main drag in the Delta town. Pork sandwiches and pork by the pound draw connoisseurs and locals alike, and in droves; Jones is often sold out of the day’s meat by 10:30 a.m. (Plan accordingly.) The shoulder spends about 10 or 12 hours in a tin-lidded coal pit, gets shredded and is moved in small batches to a crockpot, where it’s drenched in a thin vinegar sauce, sweet but not cloying. Sandwiches are $3.50, served on Wonder bread with slaw, and for a few dollars, James will sell you a pint of the sauce, scarlet red and swishing around in an upcycled water bottle. The sauce’s secret is something James tells no one; he said in a video for the James Beard Foundation that giving it up would mean Walter would return from the grave to seek retribution. SS

Crowley’s Ridge Parkway/Great River Road National Scenic Byways
Between Marianna and Helena-West Helena 

Between the Mississippi River State Park in Marianna (Lee County) and the Arkansas/Mississippi state border stretch two of the most billboard-bereft roads in the region, lined with pine trees and river bottoms with old-growth cypress. The Great River Road, which stretches from Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico, runs through this part of Arkansas, and travelers who don’t mind getting their car covered in dust will be rewarded with views of the bayous at Porter Lake and Storm Creek Lake. Meanwhile, the paved Crowley’s Ridge Parkway through the St. Francis National Forest is a cyclist’s dream, and a scenic drive for motorists who don’t mind slowing down to 25 mph to traverse it. Either road is accessible from the rear of Mississippi River State Park; follow the signage to Helena-West Helena. SS

Stephanie Smittle
POSTMASTERS GRILL: Duck tenders and risotto balls.

SOUTH ARKANSAS

Postmasters Grill
133 W. Washington St., Camden
5-9 p.m. Tue.-Sat. 

Surely there’s some overlap in the Venn diagram of “architecture nerds” and “Arkansas foodies,” right? If you’re in both categories, this one’s a must. Built in 1895 for a then-sizable budget of $39,014, Camden’s stately red post office housed a U.S. Land Management office on its second floor and, on the ground floor, serviced the town’s busy port on the Ouachita River, handling correspondence for a growing lumber industry and for the export of thousands of bales of cotton each year. At its dedication, the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program notes, it was called “the finest building between Texarkana and Little Rock,” and with good reason: The landmark boasts 16-foot ceilings, two “eyebrow” dormers on the rooftop and stained ornamental wood finishes everywhere you look. The post office closed in 1962 but continued to quarter the land grant office. It was saved from demolition in the 1970s and listed on the National Register of Historic Places in May 1977. Then, in 2010, it was purchased by Camden native Emily Jordan-Robertson and her husband, Greg Robertson, who facilitated the building’s meticulous 18-month restoration at a cost of $1.65 million. Now, the building’s trademark copper-sheathed oriel window announces the entryway to the diners’ waiting area, and the post office boxes that once catalogued federal mail now catalog Postmasters’ extensive selection of bottled wines. The flooring is gorgeous — marble up front, maple in the sunny dining room — and a stairway leads down to the basement floor “Coal Room,” where you’ll find a full bar and beer from Flyway Brewing, Lost Forty Brewing, Ozark Beer Co., Superior Bathhouse Brewery and others. It’s hard to find a miss on the menu, too. Postmasters makes its own potato chips and loads them up with Arkansas cheese dip and Petit Jean bacon ($6), and it fries up pickle spears and slices from Atkins Pickle Co. (Pope County). It serves pillowy portobello risotto balls ($8) with Stuttgart rice from Producers Mill, and smokes its ribeyes ($36), the serving generous enough to leave leftovers for two diners to have steak and eggs the next morning. Even better news: Postmasters is situated well for service during a COVID-stricken era, with a spacious patio and, judging by the preparation and packaging of our to-go order, a staff that seems to take great care with its takeout offerings. SS

Stephanie Smittle
HOO-HOO MUSEUM

Hoo-Hoo International Museum
207 Main St., Gurdon 

Here you are, just rolling through sleepy Gurdon, when you drive by a mural reading “HEALTH HAPPINESS LONG LIFE,” flanked by two cartoonish black cats. Then, a streetside banner with similar verbiage. Turns out, seven guys from the lumber industry got bored while waiting for a train after attending a meeting of the Arkansas Yellow Pine Manufacturer’s Association in 1892 or so, and concocted a service industry organization called the Concatenated Order of the Hoo-Hoo. Fueled by disenchantment with the stodginess of their fraternal counterparts, the organization’s origin story states, they waged a “war on conventionality”; Hoo-Hoo presidents were to bear the Lewis Carroll-inspired title “Snark of the Universe,” and there would be “no lodge rooms with forced attendance; no marching in the streets in protest; no ‘bothering’ anybody; no uniforms or flashy regalia. There would be one single aim: to foster the health, happiness, and long life of its members.” Now, a museum dedicated to Hoo-Hoo history sits on Gurdon’s Main Street in a log cabin built by the WPA in the 1930s. Hoo-Hoo’s Executive Secretary Beth Thomas holds business hours at the museum Mon.-Thu., but those may vary until the public health crisis subsides; call her at 870-353-4997 before you stop in. SS

LITTLE GRAND CANYON

Little Grand Canyon
219 Ouachita County Road 332, Chidester 

If they ever shoot a balsa wood car version of “Thelma and Louise,” here’s the movie set for that last roaring scene. Just below the spillway from White Oak Lake lies a basin of elaborately stratified earth, capped with pine trees and riven with water-worn gullies. Unlike its similarly nicknamed counterpart in the Ozarks, the formations here aren’t mountains, but scaled-down, dune-like cliffs of stone and alluvial silt lining a pool of water that, depending on what time of year you go, ranges from blue-green to a ruddy brown. Finding it can be tricky, though. From Bluff City, take state Hwy. 24 east toward Chidester. After about four miles, you’ll see signs for the White Oak Lake Public Fishing area. (This is not the entrance to the White Oak Lake State Park marina and visitor center, which are  on the westernmost point of the lake.) Follow those signs down Ouachita County Road 332 to the large paved parking lot at the fishing area, then drive the long, narrow path across the levee and along a dirt road path until you reach a rocky hillside clearing where you can park. Head down the hill westward on foot and follow the spillway bed until you reach the “little canyons.” May your internet signal be as strong as your desire to Instagram their miniature beauty. SS

White Oak Lake State Park
563 State Hwy. 87, Bluff City
8 a.m.-5 p.m. daily

There’s a reason a good three-quarters of the inventory in White Oak Lake State Park’s visitor center is fishing tackle. And why a great egret lurked hungrily in the bog near the park’s entrance upon our arrival. And likely why, upon pulling into the visitor center parking lot, we found the bed of a ranger’s utility vehicle stacked with empty boxes of live crickets. The 725-acre state park draws RV travelers from all over for its blue, channel and flathead catfish; largemouth bass; and several species of sunfish. There’s a large marina area with boats available to rent, and bicycle rental for those who want to try out the Fern Hollow Trail, a multiuse 9.8-mile loop. Walk-in tent camping is limited to four sites. Some may find them a little close together, but they are situated in a shady stretch convenient to the trailhead for three of the park’s four trails. SS

Juanita’s Candy Kitchen
47 Stephenwood Drive, Arkadelphia
8:30 a.m.-5 p.m. weekdays, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Sat. 

The closest thing Clark County has to a Willy Wonka factory is located just off the interstate — appropriately, perhaps, behind a Walmart. In 1974, the matriarch of Juanita’s Candy Kitchen, referred to only as “Ms. Juanita,” began selling nut brittles from a building behind her house, then around the state in her car, and eventually, as a full-time business that her sons now operate. She died in 2001, but the factory shop still bears her portrait. Our favorites: the cashew brittle and a sweet little square of the house-made cinnamon roll fudge. SS

Kream Kastle
15922 U.S. Hwy. 70, Lonsdale
10 a.m.-7 p.m. Wed.-Mon. 

About halfway between Interstate 30 and the tiny town of Lonsdale (Garland County) is Kream Kastle, a dairy bar that serves up patty melts, shakes and unceremonious nostalgia. The prices are as vintage as the sign that lists them, the burgers are reliably greasy and delicious, and the curbside window means you can safely place your order, pay for it and pick it up without ever venturing indoors. SS

SQZBX

HOT SPRINGS

SQZBX Brewery & Pizza Joint
236 Ouachita Ave., Hot Springs
11 a.m.-8 p.m. Sun.-Thu., 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Fri.-Sat.

Cheryl Roorda and Zac Smith were once known to most Central Arkansans as a duo of polka musicians, a helicon-accordion combo that held sway on the tiny stage at Hot Springs’ Steinhaus Keller turning the likes of Talking Heads’ “Stay Up Late” into beer barrel dance magic. Now, the pair are at the helm of a mini-entertainment empire on Hot Springs’ Ouachita Avenue that includes the rejuvenated Starlite Club; the solar-powered, volunteer-run radio station KUHS-FM, 102.5; and SQZBX, a pizzeria and brewery devoted to tank-to-tap beers brewed by Smith in the purist German Reinheitsgebot style. Highlights include The Vegan Dream pizza ($9-$26), crisp salads with house-made Greek and Caesar dressings, the Loaded Garlic Knots ($10), all served in the lovingly restored dining room, which was once a piano shop. These days, SQZBX has devoted its efforts to delivery and curbside service, so you can grab a growler to take home or a pie to carry down to Central Avenue for a Spa City picnic. SS

Gulpha Gorge Campground
305 Gorge Road, Hot Springs National Park, Hot Springs

Creekside camping with a shady tree canopy in the middle of a National Park, with close proximity to thermal hot springs and some of the best biking trails in the state? Yes, please. Gulpha Gorge has 40 sites, all equipped with full hookups for water and electricity and, in addition to its own 1.2-mile out-and-back trail, is minutes away from Hot Springs’ 1.9-mile West Mountain Trail, its 13-mile Sunset Trail and the 15-plus-mile network of biking trails at Northwoods Trails. SS

DELUCA’S

DeLuca’s Pizzeria
831 Central Ave., Hot Springs
11:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Thu., 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Fri.-Sat., noon-8 p.m. Sun.

Anthony Valinoti’s take on New York-style pie is worth a 50-mile drive in and of itself. As a child, Valinoti would visit Di Fara Pizza in Brooklyn and watch pizza legend Dom De Marco make pies. When Valinoti decided to open a pizzeria, he traveled to Naples to learn the craft. The result is one of the best hand-tossed offerings Arkansas has to offer. The word on the street is that the DeLuca’s Burger rivals the state’s best as well. I drove there in a severe storm recently and should’ve pulled over. I watched as a street sign in the distance was blown from its post and drifted its way into my girlfriend’s car, smashing her headlight cover and then hitting the back bumper, causing it to detach and hang off. The clouds cleared as we pulled into DeLuca’s, dragging a section of the back bumper behind us. The pizza didn’t fix our car troubles, but it did lift our spirits. RB

Red Light Roastery
1003 Park Ave., Hot Springs
8 a.m.-2 p.m. Wed.-Sun. 

The best coffee in Hot Springs is, luckily, served in a place perfectly situated for the sort of outdoor dining the pandemic has made us all prioritize. The restored 1881 bungalow in Hot Springs’ vibrant (and underrated) Park Avenue district is gifted with loads of porchside and deckside picnic tables. The beans here are sourced on a rolling and seasonal basis, so keep in mind that whatever you adore about your cuppa is, like all great food, an ephemeral delight, and may not be on the bean menu the next time you drop in. Keep your eyes peeled especially for Red Light’s tiramisu, made with locally sourced Ouachita Chocolate, and for the assortment of maps Red Light keeps on hand for planning caffeine-fueled adventuring in the area. Plus, the folks that run the place, Adam and Briana Moore, have made a habit of fostering the community in which it’s situated; anything you put in the tip jar will go to a different local nonprofit each month. SS

Courtesy Wild Sweet William’s
WILD SWEET WILLIAM’S: The Searcy bakery’s kolaches and other sweet treats are worth a drive.

SEARCY

Wild Sweet William’s Bakery
304B S. Main St., Searcy
7 a.m.-noon Wed.-Sun.

Lisa Ford, who owns Wild Sweet William’s Bakery with her husband, Bill, grew up in Missouri helping her mother in the kitchen, often making dozens of loaves of bread to give away to friends. “Quantity never scared us,” Ford said. When she got the opportunity as a teenager to travel to Europe as part of a high school program, she paid her way by selling baked goods in the lobby of a local bank. Years later, in search of a summer project to tackle with her daughters that would help teach them about commerce and community, Ford and her kids started selling baked goods they made together at the Searcy Farmers Market in 2015. “If we baked it, they would eat it,” Ford said of the reception. Opening a brick-and-mortar bakery the following year was a natural evolution. You can taste Ford’s background in Wild Sweet William’s scones, kolaches, cinnamon rolls, cookies and other treats. They’re the most delicious, elegant version of church bake sale fare, massive and moist and buttery. The scones and kolaches — a Czech pastry similar to a Danish that Ford, who has Czech roots, grew up eating — come in around a dozen flavors with savory options for each. The salted caramel pecan twist and cinnamon roll are as good as any decadent breakfast pastry in the state. We like picking up a loaf of the round country white every time my family stops in. (There are vegan, keto and gluten-free options, too.) Amid the pandemic, the small bakery will let a few masked customers in to look at the selection, but it also has a walk-up window and will do curbside by request. Wild Sweet William’s closes when it sells out. Friday through Sunday that can happen as early as 10 a.m. To ensure that you get what you want, Ford strongly encourages that customers call 501-593-5655, email [email protected] or order online at wildsweetwilliams.com the night before. LM

Whilma’s Filipino Restaurant
701 E. Race St.
11 a.m.-7 p.m. Tue.-Sat.

In 2004, in search of more opportunity for their children, Whilma and Jimmy Frogoso immigrated from the Phillipines to the U.S., eventually settling in Searcy. A few years later, Whilma opened Whilma’s Filipino Restaurant in a small strip mall next to the Guns Plus pawn shop and near Harding University. The college community, especially, embraced the small restaurant and Whilma’s lumpia (tiny fried spring rolls filled with pork or veggies), adobo and pancit (noodle stir fry). Then the restaurant got a big boost in 2019 when Searcy won the “Small Business Revolution” Main Street competition that landed it $500,000 in consulting and marketing help and a Hulu reality show. Whilma’s was one of six businesses chosen to get a makeover. You can find the episode on YouTube by searching “Whilma’s Filipino Restaurant.” It’s very charming. Amid COVID-19, the restaurant has only been doing takeout orders, but once life returns to normal, we’re eager to book a Kamayan dinner. It’s a traditional, Filipino family-style feast that you book 24 hours ahead of time. LM

Riverside Park
160 Riverside Park Road
Searcy

If you need a scenic spot to enjoy your pastries and pancit, you could do a lot worse than this 100-acre park on the edge of Searcy, overlooking the Little Red River. There are bluffs and crevasses and cave-like formations to explore. And there’s a lightly trafficked, mile-long, out-and-back trail to meander along. It may be an even better destination in the future: The city is trying to secure an adjacent 50 acres, and leaders have talked about building more trails and cleaning up a lake in the park for fishing. LM

RHODA ADAMS: Holding a plate of her famous tamales.

LAKE VILLAGE

Rhoda’s Famous Hot Tamales
714 St. Mary’s St., Lake Village
8 a.m.-5 p.m. Tue.-Sat. (but definitely call in advance, 870-265-3108)

Rhoda Adams, an inaugural Arkansas Food Hall of Fame inductee, is justifiably famous for her Delta-style hot tamales, filled with chicken fat, beef and secret spices. She’ll sell them in a coffee can frozen if you wanna take them home to heat and eat later. And get a burger or fried chicken or whatever other soul food she has to offer. But whatever you do, you must buy pie. I’ve yet to find a better slice of pie than where the sweet potato and pecan portions meet in one of her half-and-halfs. Generally, the first pies are out of the oven by 9 or 9:30 a.m. On weekdays, there’s sweet potato and pecan and mini and combo versions of each. On the weekend, she also cooks coconut and chocolate pies. Regular travelers to New Orleans or the Redneck Riviera know that Rhoda’s is an essential stop, but the pie is worth a trip to far southeastern Arkansas no matter how out of the way that is for you. Be warned: Rhoda’s has operating hours that aren’t easily divined, especially on weekends. Lately, she’s been taking off every other weekend. So call ahead and bring cash. That’s all that’s accepted. LM

Lake Chicot State Park
2542 State Hwy. 257, Lake Village

Separated from the main channel of the Mississippi River centuries ago, 20-mile long Lake Chicot is the country’s largest oxbow lake. If you’re short on time, at least stop at the Lake Village Welcome Center along U.S. Hwy. 65 and spend a minute counting turtles from the center’s deck that overlooks the lake. But if you’re up for more of an adventure, Lake Village State Park has 14 cabins available for rent, dozens of camping spots and primo crappie, bass and bream fishing. LM