Winter is the perfect time to explore the natural stone shelters where native Arkansans once lived
Our list of cheap eateries in Pulaski County is subjective, of course, and necessarily incomplete. We're leaving out so many worthy places — Banana Leaf, say, or the sandwiches at the Town Pump, or a dozen taquerias sprinkled throughout the city — but we feel it's a good place to start for those of us who prioritize substance over ornamentation, variety over opulence, and sheer miserliness above all else.
For more detailed (and knowledgeable) reviews on food and drink in Little Rock and around the state, check out our food blog, Eat Arkansas.
1) Mr. Chen's
3901 S. University Ave., 562-7900
While Mr. Chen's is no cheaper than the average Chinese place, its menu is miles ahead of the rest. There's still your standard kung pao and lo mein, but there's also roast duck and small steamed buns and the boiled beef in hot oil (in general, the less appetizing the item sounds, the better it is).
Everything is fresh and the portions are ample, the air gently lilted with star anise. The sauces tread the line between American expectations of what Chinese food is and that cuisine's vast reality. Afterward, visit the Asian supermarket next door to load up on Pocky, frozen dumplings and durian. (The Arkansas Times is not responsible for actual durian purchases.)
2) Taqueria Samantha
7521 Geyer Springs Road, 744-0680
It seems unfair to call out a single taco truck when Little Rock has so many options in this department, but we're going with the Samantha for two reasons. First, it came through for us years ago again and again on late nights when it would stay parked outside a Latin club on Broadway and Fourth Street after midnight. Second, we recently ordered a veggie burrito from Taqueria Samantha that's perhaps the best we've ever tasted: heaps of grilled peppers and onions, ripe avocado, luscious crema, rice and beans in perfect proportions. The truck also has all the basic taco components: asada, pastor, carnitas, lengua, etc.
The original truck has spawned two offspring — Taqueria Samanthas II and III — and the last time we checked, all three Samanthas were still perambulating around the city, which is one of the better pieces of evidence that America might be something resembling a meritocracy after all.
923 W. Seventh St., 375-8466
Like your mother or the Social Security system, Vino's is too easily taken for granted. The fact that there's a place in 2014, anyplace, where you can fill your belly with two cheese slices for four bucks is fairly remarkable. It's a straightforward, workhorse institution: pizza, calzones and lots and lots of beer, much of it brewed on the premises.
New microbreweries with slicker branding are mushrooming in the Little Rock area — Stone's Throw, Lost 40, etc. — but Vino's has nothing to prove to these upstart puppies, and let's hope its rec room sprawl stays just as unrehearsed as its always been. Give us a simple, sloppy pizza-and-beer joint. Give us a pitcher of Six Bridges Cream Ale, a large Margherita and a dank cave filled with frequently bad art, the tang of malt in the air and a dozen noisy conversations.
4) Mike's Vietnamese
5501 Asher Ave., 562-1515
There are three Vietnamese restaurants in Little Rock, and they all have their virtues, but only Mike's has a pool table and occasional karaoke. Though its menu also includes very solid Chinese fare, the Vietnamese dishes are where it's at: good pho (including the seafood variety), better spring rolls and terrific bun. Bun — a great bowl of cool veggies and vermicelli topped with lightly barbecued shrimp or meat and a light, sweet-sour sauce — is the rare meal that manages to be both hearty and refreshing, making it an especially vital option in the heat of summer.
9501 N. Rodney Parham Road, 227-7272
With any ethnic food, it's easy to fall into the habit of pigeonholing your own menu selections, and Middle Eastern is no different: You crave a gyro or a falafel sandwich, so that's what you always end up getting. Let Layla's push you out of that rut. Get the goat plate. Get the yogurt plate. Get the Mubarak plate (whether there's any connection there to the fallen Egyptian autocrat, we're not sure). Each is under $10, absolutely delicious and served in portions of obscene dimensions. For vegetarians, the falafel and baba ghannouj are good options. We've been told the pizza is equally impressive, but it'll take an act of tremendous will to break away from the yogurt plate now that we've discovered it. Layla's also has locations on Highway 10 in West Little Rock and in Conway.
6) Veggie Deli
9112 N. Rodney Parham Road, 221-9977
Housed in the back of an Asian grocery on Rodney Parham, Veggie Deli serves a lunchtime menu of South Indian fare and chaat, or street food. Everything is vegetarian and everything clocks in at six bucks or less; as its website says, it's essentially fast food, though far tastier and fresher than anything served in a burger chain. If you're like us, every item except the samosas will be unfamiliar on your first visit — chat papadi, dosa sambhar, ragda pettish — and the pictures won't be of much help.
Don't stress, though, because everything at Veggie Deli is very, very good. Pick two or three completely randomly (it's a liberating feeling), and next time pick two or three others.
7) The Box
1023 W. Seventh St., 372-8735
Surely there's got to be middle ground left in the cheeseburger universe between the automated hellscape of Wendy's et al. and the upscale prices of boutique establishments that plate their burgers with truffle fries (which are incredible, folks, don't get us wrong, but they are not cheap). Indeed, there are options out there, and one of the best is The Box. The burgers are juicy and the fries ample and flavorful; that plus a Coke (or beer) runs under $10 for lunch. The rest of the menu is fairly nonexistent — because what else do you really need?
8) Boulevard Bread
1920 N. Grant St., 663-5951
OK, Boulevard didn't come to mind at first when we thought cheap eats, but tune out the price of the artisan cheese sampler and focus on the sandwiches. Boulevard's well-burnished branding belies the fact that you can get lunch there for about what you'd pay at Jimmy John's or a similar chain: $7.50 for a large sandwich, chips included. Not bad for a fresh-baked baguette loaded with pancetta, caprese salad or Mediterranean-style tuna. Now we just need to convince Boulevard to stay open 'til 10 p.m. and deliver. Boulevard also has locations in the River Market, on South Main and at UAMS.
9) Brewsters 2
2725 S. Arch St., 301-7728
There are so many ways to go tragically wrong with fried catfish: too fishy, too bland, too stringy, cooked to a crisp, just plain soggy and gross. But when it's done right, it's about the best meal this cold world has to offer. Brewsters 2 does it right, and that's all that matters. An order of three sublimely fried catfish fillets, two sides and hush puppies costs $8, and the wings aren't bad either ($8 for a dozen). Beers are available for purchase — as are, delightfully, Long Island iced teas.
10) Sims Bar-B-Que
2415 S. Broadway St., 372-6868
The original Sims opened in 1937, and any barbecue joint that's stuck around since before the Nazis invaded Poland probably has something going for it. Each of the three locations delivers dizzying amounts of smoked meat on white bread, doused in a thin sauce that's hot and sweet and vinegary all at once. A rib dinner is under $10, although if you're extra hungry perhaps you should try the "sympathy tray": a full slab of ribs, a whole chicken, chopped beef or pork and three sides for $60. (Who exactly the sympathy is for is left unsaid.) Sims is also beloved for the fact that you can order a 40-ounce of Budweiser along with your sandwich, although if it's a weekday work lunch you may want to downgrade to 32 oz. just to err on the side of caution. There are two other Sims locations, one on Geyer Springs Road and one on John Barrow Road.
900 W. 35th St., North Little Rock, 771-5559
Something awful happened to us the other day. We were driving one evening in North Little Rock when we saw that Rosalinda Restaurant Hondureño had disappeared from its spot on JFK Boulevard. We ranted and cursed fortune for taking the area's only Central American eatery away, but a friend with a cooler head investigated and found it had moved to a new spot in North Little Rock near Camp Robinson Road. Whew.
We don't know enough to tell Honduran cooking from Salvadoran, but we know we love what Rosalinda offers: plantains, tamales de elote and yellow rice with beans that are far better than any rice and beans have a right to be. A couple of lunchtime pupusas — hot, plump masa tortillas filled with beans, cheese or meat and served with a lightly fermented slaw of cabbage and carrots — costs about $5. It's also open for breakfast and dinner.
12) Kitchen Express
4600 Asher Ave., 666-3500
Kitchen Express' logo features a wheeled oblong platter — like a skateboard — loaded with peas, mashed potatoes and fried chicken. One day, someone will make that dream vehicle into a reality and set it to rolling around Little Rock, but until then you'll have to content yourself with the brick-and-mortar establishment, which is home to some of the best soul food in town. A three-piece chicken dinner with two sides is $8 and a vegetable plate is $6, though all but the most lackadaisical vegetarians will have trouble with this menu. You know the drill: pork-seasoned beans and greens, catfish, pork chops, sweet tea, cornbread and a shallow tray of peach cobbler that's been heat-lamped into some new, improved metamorphic form.
205 W. Capitol Ave., 301-7900
Hanaroo is pricier than every other place on this list, but it's all relative — sushi tends to be uncheap by its nature, and bargain basement raw fish should give pause to even the most frugal among us. (A half-dozen purchases of Manager's Special-labeled Kroger rolls later, we've finally learned that life lesson.) Hanaroo is home to very good sushi for a very good price, especially at lunch, which is when you can order the tuna tataki bento box for $11. This earns you miso soup, a ginger-dressing salad, three pieces of sashimi, an eight-piece roll of your choice, steamed edamame, potato salad (for some reason, and it's incredibly good) and the tuna itself, swimming in a light, citrusy soy sauce that's almost painfully delicious.
201 E. Markham St., 374-3656
Pizza can be a divisive topic. There are partisans out there who don't care for the sort that Iriana's delivers — big, floppy, N.Y.-style slices served between two paper plates when purchased on the go. Respectfully, the doubters are fools; even if Iriana's didn't happen to be located right below our office, we'd go there on a regular basis. A slice of cheese pizza is $2.39 and makes a light meal on its own, and the veggie supreme ("Plow the Garden") is the best in town, we maintain. Iriana's offers unbeatable lunch specials — typically, a slice, a salad and a drink for $7 — and stays open late.
15) The Arkansas State Capitol Cafe
500 Woodlane St., 376-7487
No, not the Capital Bar and Grill — the Capitol, with an "o." Buried deep beneath the dome of state government there is a small, sparsely adorned basement room with green institutional walls, a soft serve machine and lots of those bottles of clear vinegar hot sauce packed with the little green peppers. We've got a soft spot for cafeterias (too many childhood trips to Luby's) and something just feels right about steam tables and saucers of yellow cake with chocolate icing. You can get a vegetable plate of creamed potatoes, navy beans and turnip greens for $5.
It's an unassuming place, wholly utilitarian. No one would ever venture to the Capitol Cafe unless they have business of some sort with state government. But then, in a sense, every resident of Arkansas does have business at the Capitol, all the time: The building and the body it houses belong to the people, meaning it's yours. So, make a trip of it one morning. Sit in on a legislative meeting on education, health care or the prison system. Snag a senator afterward and ask some questions. Stroll around the Capitol listening to the echoes in the halls and admiring the marble. Then, head down to the basement around noon, help yourself to some meatloaf and ponder the future of the state heading into the New Year.