Eat Arkansas presents the first in our "How to eat well" series. Here, we highlight opportunities to procure a decent meal in some of the most unlikely places. Got any suggestions or requests for future articles? We'd love to hear from you, simply drop us a line in the comments section.
The University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences is one of the major drawing forces to the Little Rock area for medical personnel and students from all over the nation. In addition to the main hospital and numerous outpatient clinics, UAMS also includes five colleges and graduate school programs and is a major center for education in the training of young professionals. Physicians, nurses, pharmacists, administrators, and numerous other ancillary staff make up quite a sizable workforce, all part of the UAMS family. The medical center, which also includes such institutes as the Stephens Spine and Neurosciences Institute and the Jones Eye Institute, is also a tertiary care and specialty referral center for patients from the entire state of Arkansas and many surrounding areas. Essentially, if you live anywhere near Little Rock, there is a good chance that at some time in your life, you will find yourself at UAMS.
If you find yourself hanging out around UAMS, whether by choice or otherwise, you are bound to get hungry at some point and quite often, straying too far from the hospital is not an option. You may feel totally comfortable zipping over to nearby Hillcrest’s Café Bossa Nova with your IV still hanging, but your doctor may feel differently. So, the question remains: where does one find a decent meal in the hospital? Allow me to be of some assistance.
There are a number of dining options for those confined to the university hospital. The basement level cafeteria is a popular option for both employees and non-employees. There is a decent salad bar, where diners are able to construct their own salads from around two dozen or so ingredients…nothing particularly exciting, but everything tastes fairly fresh and ingredients are changed out regularly. Otherwise, the cafeteria runs a rotating list of generally uneventful and not-always-appetizing specials including overcooked, hockey-puck-like hamburgers, nacho bar, and numerous other greasy, fried items in various forms. Honestly, I mostly avoid these options…as do most cardiologists on staff here. The cafeteria is open throughout the day, but shuts down after dinner hours around 7:30 pm.
From Monday to Friday, hungry visitors can grab a bite from Doc Java
...the small cafe adjacent to the north entrance of UAMS hospital. The fare is generally decent, a bit pricier than the cafeteria but a little better quality as well. One of the more interesting sandwich combinations you'll find here is "The Hawg." This is a toasted ciabatta roll stuffed with ham and bacon, and Swiss cheese...the kicker is the addition of apple sauce, which adds a nice sweet touch to the mixture. But if you are eating at Doc Java, I'd recommend the chicken and black bean quesadilla. It's nothing fancy but it's substantial and flavorful. The diced chicken is accompanied by mounds of Jack cheese and yellow corn. I'd prefer a fresher, non-canned corn, but it's not a total deal-breaker. Doc Java runs Mon-Fri from 7 am to 4 pm.
One of the more reliable dining options, and a favorite among the housestaff, is the Lobby Café
on the 1st floor adjacent to the main entrance of the hospital. It is the only dining option operational 24 hours a day, and it’s where I’ve personally procured the largest percentage of my meals when in the hospital. Now I’m not promising Michelin quality gastronomy, but there are actually some fairly respectable meals to be had here. A large percentage of the menu is dedicated to sandwiches. Many diners take the build-your-own sandwich approach, which is not a terrible idea, but if you’d like to take some of the work out of ordering, or perhaps your doc’s got you all doped up on Fentanyl and you aren’t exactly thinking clearly, you may just want to go with one of the pre-conceived sandwich options. Of these, I’d suggest going with the turkey-artichoke. Here, a nicely toasted ciabatta roll gets halved and stuffed with turkey, raw red onion, and tomato. Lastly, a spread of creamy artichoke dip gets slathered across one half of the bread. It’s surprisingly flavorsome, not overly rich, and almost good enough to make you forget you are eating in a hospital…almost. Makes me wonder why artichoke dip doesn’t make an appearance in more sandwiches.
One of the more popular options at the Lobby Café is the pizza. These are pre-fabricated, refrigerated pizzas that they toss in the oven when ordered. It’s not exactly top-notch ingredients, but I’ve certainly had worse pizza at independent pizza operations charging twice the price. The crust is cracker thin and generally served hot and crispy. When I’m feeling particularly indulgent, I’ll get their version of ‘meat lovers’ with pepperoni, ham, and sausage. Its quality deteriorates with time, having a half life of about 10 minutes, but if you can scarf it quickly, it’s entirely palatable. But perhaps my favorite item at the Lobby Café is off their breakfast menu: the croissant sandwich. They take a buttery, flaky croissant and stuff it with a heaping spoonful of scrambled eggs and top it with a slice of melted cheddar. You chose a protein to finish it off…I generally go with bacon, which is served surprisingly crispy and warm.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t express my love for Lobby Café’s cookies. Before I first sampled these wonderful treats, I would have never expected to find such fine baked goods in the hospital setting. Nearly every flavor of cookie is excellent but the two that keep me coming back for more are the "Royale" and the lemon with white chocolate. The "Royale" is a mix of chocolate chips, shredded coconut, and macadamia nuts. The coconut adds a wonderful chewy element to the cookie, giving it a nice depth of flavor and texture. The only issue I've had with the sweets case at the Lobby Cafe is their lack of consistency. Occasionally, the cookies can be overcooked and dry. There is no guarantee as to how long those things have been sitting in the display case, but given the rewarding results to be found when the cookies are on point, it's worth a little risk now and then. If I ever feel particularly self-destructive or self-pitying, I'll find an abandoned corner of the hospital, armed with five cookies, a carton of milk, and three bags of Mrs. Vicki's jalapeno kettle chips and bury my sorrows in sugar and fat. Not exactly doctor's orders, but it helps.
Most people want to spend as little time in the hospital as possible. I mean, running through hallways in a gown that leaves little to the imagination is only entertaining for so long. But UAMS houses some truly world-class housestaff and you'd be hard pressed to find better medical care in all of Arkansas. So next time you find yourself within its walls, you can rest assured that a respectable meal is not completely out of the question.