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2015 Best of Arkansas editors' picks 

With a little help from some friends.

STRETCH OUT: At the redone Breckenridge. - BRIAN CHILSON
  • Brian Chilson
  • STRETCH OUT: At the redone Breckenridge.

Best seat(s) in the house

Even though I'm an absolute freak on all things related to cinema, once movie tickets started routinely topping $10 bucks a person a few years back, I had to ask myself if seeing things on the big screen was really worth it. Sure, there were the "event movies" that must be watched billboard-sized. And there was the occasional trailer that dazzled enough to lure me out to the theaters if my billfold was payday fat. But for regular week-to-week movie going, my trips to the temple of cinema had been severely curtailed. Recently, though, I've been wooed back to the theater a bit more often by the comfy chairs at Little Rock's Breckenridge Village 12, near Interstate 430 and Rodney Parham Road. Part of the Regal chain, Breckenridge has gone upscale in recent years, replacing every seat in the joint with a big ol' smushy recliner, sort of like what you might find in a high-end home theater. All feature a flip out footrest, a back and seat that will get close to vertical, and wide, padded arms. For couples, they offer pairs o' chairs with a center armrest that flips up, making a love seat (don't get any ideas you crazy kids). Though the move to First Class seating reduces the total number of seats in the theater, it doesn't seem to have increased the price of the tickets too much, and it ups the comfort level considerably. Best of all, it goes a long way toward restoring the "special" of going to the movies. In a world where movie theaters are in constant competition for the entertainment dollar, can keister comfort and making every ticket holder feel like a popcorn potentate really make a difference? Time will tell, but it's definitely working on me. — David Koon

Best free concert series

You could learn a whole lot about Arkansas music just by spending your Wednesday nights haunting the bar at South on Main, where Oxford American magazine program director Ryan Harris curates the free weekly concert series Local Live (7:30 p.m.). Ozark string bands and rappers and jazz pianists and indie rock favorites are all welcome here, making for one of the most diverse and thrillingly unpredictable lineups in the state. It doesn't hurt that it's held at what's unarguably one of city's best restaurants. Whether its packed beyond fire code for Amasa Hines or respectfully restrained for 5-string banjo virtuoso Tony Furtado, it's worth your time and attention. — Will Stephenson

Best animal spirit matchmakers

Want a pet? Of course you do. Worried you might not have enough constancy in your life to successfully parent a barrel cactus, let alone a fellow mammal? Try fostering. Central Arkansas Rescue Effort (CARE) for Animals pairs rescued dogs and cats with volunteer families while CARE searches for a permanent adoptive home. And, of course, a foster family can choose to adopt the pet, which is how I found my dog, Blanche, last summer. (I did vacillate for 10 months until I decided to make it permanent, but that's just me.) Foster an animal. It's the perfect way to test the waters to see if you've got room for a pet in your life, while also keeping a creature away from confinement and death. — Benjamin Hardy

Best new beer garden

Stone's Throw Brewing has made our year with its game-changing new beer garden, the ideal compliment to its rotating lineup of food trucks (e.g. Southern Gourmasian, Katmandu, Southern Salt) that together make it the most satisfying, shape-shifting casual dinner spot in town. I'm not a beer expert — probably couldn't tell an Amadeus from a Common Sense in a blind taste test — but Stone's Throw's craft brews are as delicious as they are inscrutably named. Also I once left without paying (one too many Bernoulli's, or whatever) and they weren't even mad when I turned up the next day. — Will Stephenson

Best oldies radio show

In recent weeks you may have found yourself aimlessly scanning the radio dial and stumbling across what seem like lost artifacts from a bygone Little Rock radio age: an ad for John Wayne's new film "The Cowboys," a clip from Spiro Agnew's stump speech in Hot Springs, a promo for Black Oak Arkansas's gig opening for Chuck Berry at the Barton Coliseum. If so, you've wandered into Barry McCorkindale's show "Tin Can Alley" on KAAY-AM 1090 (1 p.m. Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays), which features rarities and odd discoveries from the station's forgotten tape archives that McCorkindale has been digitizing and sprinkling into his set-lists, which otherwise feature '60s and '70s hits and B-sides and obscurities (a.k.a. "the hits, the not so big hits, and sometimes nothing resembling hits"). — Will Stephenson

Best Little Debbie, lamb vindaloo pairing

Next time you find yourself traveling west on Interstate 40, take the second exit for Mulberry (exit 20) and eat lunch at a Phillips 66 called the Kountry Xpress. There, amidst the racks of Sno Balls and Rockstar energy drinks, you'll find a full Indian menu: Tandoori oven, naan and samosas, the whole nine yards. Of course, they've also got racks of potato logs and chicken tenders gently dehydrating beneath a two-tier heat lamp, as required by state law. I've only eaten there once, but I can say without qualification that it's the best Indian food to be found anywhere between Fort Smith and Little Rock.

I grew up near Mulberry (pop. 1,629), and for years the only decent eatery in town was the Dairy Dip, which is a rock solid burger-and-shake-and-cinder-block institution. Long live the Arkansas dairy bar, but a little Asian crosspollination is a welcome sight, too. Few things make me feel a twinge of genuine patriotism like the thought that an Indian restaurant in a Mulberry truck stop might be able to gain a toehold and survive. That remains to be seen, though, so get some Kountry Xpress while you still can. —Benjamin Hardy

Best impossible barbecue sandwich

A few weeks ago I found myself in Mabelvale for the same reason anyone ever does — a friend needed to fix his nail gun. Afterward we stopped at the barbecue restaurant Three Sams. Like many such places, the aesthetic is pure backwoods country-shack disarray, like a cabin you might see in Splash Mountain right before your log goes over the waterfall. There was even a mangy kitten on the porch that just about broke my heart. But once inside we were confronted with the scent of absolute authenticity, and the food only confirmed this impression. The menu was long and visually confusing — "Pig Plate," "Crow Dinner" "Little Sam's Favorite," "Last Squeal Rib Dinner" — but if you just ask for a barbecue sandwich they'll help you out. Mine was implausibly thick and messy, with a volcanic splay of coleslaw and pork spilling out onto the plate around it so as to obscure the lower bun. It was unstable, decadent, a little precarious. I won't tell you it was easy — I won't patronize you that way — but it was worth it. A couple of weeks later my friend's nail gun was ready to be picked up. "You shouldn't go alone," I told him. "Not for something like that." — Will Stephenson

Best avant-garde cassette

McCloud Zicmuse, the artist formerly known as Jason McCloud (a veteran of the Little Rock DIY/punk scene of the '90s), is a musician and letterpress printer who has also been known to perform children's songs (in French) and invent instruments — most recently the Iaeniaen, which he built out of a repurposed sardine can. His 2015 limited edition cassette release "The Well-Tuned Iaeniaen," is full of bold, quiet, near-esoteric experimental music in the tradition of Harry Partch (or Harry Smith), pure, visionary termite art of the highest order. — Will Stephenson

Best Little Rock reissue

This summer's double LP Chinese Girls retrospective, released by the label Drawing Room Records (formerly based in Little Rock, now Brooklyn), was one of the most exciting cultural events of the year, a thrilling reminder of the woozy greatness of the cult-favorite Little Rock post-punk duo. As David Ramsey wrote in the Times, the band had the unique ability to "unleash spaces in noise and rhythm that felt like a comforting nightmare, that felt like echoes in an artificial cave, that felt like a dance party for ghosts, that felt inexhaustible." — Will Stephenson

Best opportunity to rule a private island kingdom for a weekend

If you've got weekend access to a boat, one of the best summer camping opportunities in the state is among the islets of Lake Ouachita. A couple of friends of mine who've since left Arkansas used to have a two-day birthday party there every August; each time would be at a different island, since they're all up for grabs on a first-come basis.

According to lakeouachita.org, there are over 200 islands dotting Arkansas's largest lake, any one of which can be claimed for a day or a weekend merely by setting foot there. (Or even longer, perhaps, if one were so inclined. It wouldn't be a bad place to wait out the apocalypse, if you've got a big enough cooler.) I can't vouch for the exact number of islands, but I can affirm that the place is a paradise, speckled with tiny, forested pinpricks of rocky land in a vast expanse of miraculously clear water. Laying claim to an island touches some deep, dumb childhood desire — and in certain places you can easily swim from one to another, which makes you feel dangerously like a hero of Greek myth. Since my friends moved away, I unfortunately haven't been back to Lake Ouachita, due to a lack of both ambition and boats. Get in touch with me if you've got either one.

Benjamin Hardy

Best art-house Netflix deep cut

Little Rock filmmaker Mark Thiedeman made his feature film debut in 2013 with the great, moody "Last Summer," which was hailed as a "masterpiece" by Filmmaker Magazine, a "sweet surprise" by Indiewire and one of the top 10 undistributed films of 2013 by the Village Voice. The film finally got a DVD release in December and as of this year you can find it on Netflix, presumably in the Hazy Impressionistic Tone Poems by Arkansas Filmmakers category. — Will Stephenson

Best overlooked rap mixtape

You can't talk about Little Rock music in 2015 without reckoning with Lo Thraxx's "Sharkansas," one of the strongest, most compelling and consistently good local albums of the year (stream it for free at lothraxx.com). From the blaxploitation throwback funk of "Royale Wit Cheese" to the cavernous horror show of "Bodies," it's a stark, singular statement from one of Little Rock's best rappers. — Will Stephenson

TREASURE HUNT: At the Habitat ReStore. - DAVID KOON
  • David Koon
  • TREASURE HUNT: At the Habitat ReStore.

Best thrift

For those who want to go cheap in greater Little Rock, there are plenty of flea markets, thrift stores and junk stores to choose from. These days, however, I'm finding a lot of my thrifty bliss at the Habitat for Humanity ReStore — primarily the one at 6700 S. University Ave. in Little Rock, though there's another location at 2657 Pike Ave. in North Little Rock. Unlike a lot of local thriftaterias that sell only clothes, furniture and housewares, the Habitat ReStore is kind of a throwback to the thrift stores of old in that it additionally sells all kinds of less-common things, including architectural antiques, old doors and windows, ceiling fans and mis-mixed paint. Most of it goes for a little bit of nothing, and the proceeds go to the cause of helping our neighbors own a home. I'd call that a double win. Looking for ceramic tile? They've got that by the squat ton. Need a matching, flamingo pink toilet and sink from the 1950s? They had those on hand the other day at the Little Rock location, along with a porcelain rainbow of other colors. Dozens of sofas, chairs, dressers and bed frames. Pallets of bricks. A giant, plywood bin full of leather scraps from the upholstery shops at Dassault Falcon Jet. Bolts of fabric. Another big bin of vintage stair railing spindles. Area rugs, books, dishes, salvaged hinges, file cabinets and piles of kitchen cabinets. They don't have everything, but they're clearly getting there. If you're working on a home project and are tired of the Home Depot sticker shock, you might want to try there first. While ReStore's selection is catch-as-catch-can like any cheaporium, the inventory is broad, so you might find just what you're after, or what you never knew you needed. Either way, it's a cinch you'll get it for a song. — David Koon

Best local radio show

BantuNauts Raydio is a radio program on KABF-FM, 88.3, airing Saturday nights from 10 p.m. until midnight, created and hosted by Charles "DJ Prophet," DJ Kax and Bibi Mwamba Ray. They recently celebrated their first anniversary on June 7 and continue to play the hottest music from all over the world associated with young black culture, including international rap and hip hop, house music, Afro-Caribbean soul, soul Brasileiro, jazz and more. According to the show's Facebook page, BantuNauts, "BantuNauts=Bantu(people)+ Nauts(sailors)," are travelers who explore the world through music, arts and traditions." All of their radio shows are archived on their blog here and include conversations throughout the mix covering a wide range of topics from local events, international news and opinion polls. If you like listening to great music, exploring other cultures, and connecting with people from all over the world, you should be sure to tune in Saturday nights at 10 p.m. or check the archive. — Artist Ariston Jacks, with Kaya Herron

Best art nonprofit

Chris James is the founder and executive director of The Root Art Connection, T.R.A.C., a nonprofit whose mission is to "advocate the integration of arts in education and community to support the transformation and development of underserved communities." James is a national spoken word poet, member of the award-winning poetry slam team Foreign Tongues, a teaching artist listed on the Arkansas Art Council's roster and an Arkansas A+ fellow. James believes that poetry is not only a literary art but also a therapeutic exercise and through T.R.A.C.'s Poetry Saves Lives program he created a platform for youth to express themselves creatively through writing and performance. T.R.A.C.'s other programs and projects, The Mural Project and Starve No More, aim to support social justice, alleviate poverty and hunger, and uproot oppression.

"James works with the youth, he's involved in community engagement, he's an all around talented individual, and an inspirational young brother," Little Rock painter and printmaker Ariston Jacks said in an interview. "T.R.A.C.'s House of Art is a great place for up and coming artists to showcase their work."

The House of Art located on 108 E. Fourth St. It displays a collection of artwork from young local artists and hosts events for T.R.A.C. including workshops, poetry slams and more. — Kaya Herron

click to enlarge BRYAN MOATS
  • Bryan Moats

Best underutilized local online public services

It's too bad the word cyberstalker implies malicious intent because honestly it's a cool sounding word, like it could be something with a laser arm that Schwarzenegger might have fought in the late '80s. Sometimes though, in the course of events, certain people need to know certain things about other certain people for certain non malicious purposes if you get my drift. Few know that there's a wealth of tools available for free online in Arkansas that can help you run your own amateur investigations. We aren't stalking here necessarily, because that's bad, but we are going to snoop, like Encyclopedia Brown, or a crime noir protagonist, but not like one from a James Ellroy novel because that probably is stalking.

The Administrative Office of the Courts CourtConnect Website is a searchable database of court cases in the state. It isn't comprehensive, but if you want to put a shovel into some dirt it's a good place to start. Discover your inner Rust Cohle. Search your friends for amusement!

Who owns that creepy house down the road? The one where all the windows are blacked out and the sound of power tools can be heard intermittently from within through the night? The Pulaski County Geographic Information System might be able to tell you. It's a vast online mapping project initially created in 1988 by the City of Little Rock Public Works Department, the Municipal Water Works, and Wastewater Utility. It includes the highly entertaining Land Ownership Application, which allows you to see exactly who owns a particular parcel of land.

Say it turns out the sketchy house is owned by some sort of shadowy LLC but you want names. The Secretary of State's company search can help you discover the registered agent and sometimes the officers of the company. Take that info and run it through the first search. It's like an ourobouros of discovery! — Jeremy Brasher, inept outdoorsman, occasional musician and stereo repairman at Boulevard Bread Co.

Best potential overdue return

The claims go back to the 1890s. The White River. An aquatic behemoth. Short on specifics, long on legend. But in Newport, Arkansas, in the summer of 1937 four people signed affidavits swearing that they had seen a gigantic unidentified creature in the White River.

Bramlett Bateman, a nearby plantation owner who had witnessed the creature first hand, described it as having "the skin of an elephant, four or five feet wide by twelve feet long, with the face of a catfish . . . lolling on the surface of the water." Bramlett decided it was a threat to his crops somehow and did what any reasonable farmer would do: He hatched a plan to blow the monster to smithereens with TNT. However, the cooler heads of the local authorities prevailed, deciding that was maybe a bad idea.

As word of the creature got out, speculation began to mount and curious individuals poured into the town. Some brought cameras, some brought explosives, one brought a machine gun, basically all the same things people bring to public events today. A professor of zoology at the University of Arkansas claimed it was likely a sturgeon. A local fisherman posited that it was the hull of a submerged boat bobbing on the water. The Newport town council mustered a search party that ultimately proved inconclusive.

In Newport in mid-June 1971, 40 years after the last rash of sightings, an anonymous witness described a serpentlike creature "six feet across, as long as three pickup trucks" that was wrinkled all over with peeling skin. Singer Jimmy Driftwood, who lived in Timbo in the late '50s, had his own theory that the creature migrated up from the Sargasso Sea every 40 years to lay an egg. Sightings continued through the year.

In 1973 state Sen. Robert Harvey of Swifton introduced a bill designating a section of the White River as an official White River Monster Refuge. The bill made it "unlawful to kill, molest, trample or harm the White River Monster while in its native refuge." The bill was adopted by voice vote.

Taking into account the 40-year cycle of the White River Monster, its return seems to be a bit late. Perhaps its schedule was impacted by industrial and commercial contamination on the river. Maybe it's shy. Maybe it moved onto greener, or less green, waters as the case may be. Maybe this will be the year. — Jeremy Brasher

Best worst social media

Nexstar Broadcasting, which owns KARK 4 News and KLRT Fox 16, has an aggressive position when it comes to social media: post everything online, and ask viewers to share their opinions. While complaining about the showcase of worst impulses that is internet commenting is nothing new, the KARK and KLRT slush is a special kind of cesspool, where you can see your friends, family and neighbors offering their hot takes and acting a fool. Big news stories get comments from screeching moralists, would-be vigilantes and vicious name-callers. Trivial news stories get comments from screeching moralists, would-be vigilantes and vicious name-callers. This isn't just the viewer, either. In January of this year, TV host Drew Carey tweeted at the stations "@KARK4News @FOX16News @GregDeeWeather Quit Photoshopping fake tweets from me to promote yourselves, motherfuckers," in response to the station using Photoshopped fake tweets from Carey to promote themselves, motherfuckers. It's not all completely miserable, however. In June of this year, a viewer left a message on KARK's Facebook page, criticizing NBC's nearly 60-year-old logo. "Your changing your station logo with the colors of the gays is a disgrace," wrote a viewer named Don. "Just stay out of it... Your integrity is ruined... ABC KATV is my choice in the future for all Little Rock station viewing... Shame on you!" This story is a good chuckle, but also a reminder that all of this social media interaction ends the same way — making all of us look bad. — Matthew Rowe

Best view of the Arkansas River from a boat

The view of the Arkansas upriver to the palisades from the Arkansas Boathouse Club docks is magic from a scull. At sunset, it's even better. — Louise Palermo, curator of education at the Arkansas Arts Center

Best courthouse

The Calhoun County Courthouse is a magnificent building, and given that it's in what has historically been one of the least populous places in Arkansas, a remarkable expression of civic pride. — Mark Christ, author and Department of Arkansas Heritage community outreach director

Best garden you can visit with a dog

Garvan Gardens in Hot Springs allows visitors to bring their dogs — there is even a charming pet fountain. I've walked a rustic nature trail there with my dog that took over an hour and a half. The garden also has different exhibits: Right now, for example, there is an exhibit of giant topiary creatures — Big Foot, a sea serpent, a Fairy Gourdmother playhouse, marching mushrooms, a flaming phoenix. There is a coy pond and potted Ming trees in a small outdoor space. There is a wildflower field, waterfalls in strategic places, a "singing brook" that goes down a rocky path to another area of the garden and a large, rocky construction with stone bridges and caves called "The Children's Garden." There is also a terrific gift shop. I find it to be a restful and beautiful place, and I am always amazed by the people I know who have not been there yet. (Admission is $15 for adults, $5 for children 6-12 and $5 for dogs.) — Andrea Herrmann, professor, University of Arkansas at Little Rock

Best training wheels training ground

The parking lot of Pulaski Heights Elementary School. The Little Rock School District actually holds title to the property, but the neighborhood surrounding the school thinks of the playground and adjacent parking lot as its own. The playground is where you take your toddlers to swing, squeal down the slides and climb on the monkey bars when your own house and yard have become boring. Then when the time comes, the nice, flat parking lot is where you go to teach your kids how to ride a bike. When it's time for the training wheels to come off, you can run along behind holding on to the seat, yelling, "So straight! Go straight!" until that moment when they get it right and sail off without you. My sons are in their teens now and more concerned with four-wheeled vehicles, but on any given weekend, you can still see parents showing their kids how it's done. It always makes me smile whenever I see them. Time marches on, but some rites of passage stay the same. — Melissa Whitfield, communications director, Department of Arkansas Heritage

Best place to eat surrounded by history

One of my favorite things is lunch at the Williams Tavern Restaurant at Historic Washington State Park. Down-home cooking with wonderful vegetables, rolls and cornbread and cobblers, in an 1832 tavern relocated to the park. Yum! A great place to eat whether during a day visit to the ever-more interesting state park, where the Bowie knife was first forged, or as a stop for lunch on a road trip down Interstate 30 from Little Rock to Louisiana or Texas. Delia Prather

Best place to find history not found anywhere else

Having grown up in a small town in Arkansas, I was shocked to learn as an adult visiting Mosaic Templars Cultural Center for the first time about the massacre of hundreds of blacks in Elaine, Arkansas, in 1919, not mentioned in my early Arkansas history lessons. MTCC is a museum of Arkansas's African American history and culture in downtown Little Rock. A favorite exhibit is "A City within a City," where storefronts depict the once flourishing West Ninth Street business district in downtown Little Rock that was home to barbershops, restaurants, hotels, undertakers and jewelers, venues where jazz greats like Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong and Miles Davis performed, until urban renewal and I-630 disrupted the neighborhoods. Thanks to that history, Create Little Rock and StudioMAIN have selected historic Ninth Street for a Pop Up in the Rock West Ninth, coming up Oct. 24. —Becky Falkowski, director of public relations, Downtown Little Rock Partnership

Best place to listen to the quiet

Tucked away on a back wooded lot behind St. Margaret's Episcopal Church in West Little Rock is a space designed solely for quiet contemplation. The Arkansas House of Prayer was created to be available to anyone, from all faiths, seeking solace, prayer or a brief respite from the pressures of the day. Whether it's simply sitting in a chair or staring out at the trees, sitting in a rocking chair in the courtyard listening to running water, or reading in the small book alcove inside, it's worth the drive. Sign up for a fob and have access to the building any time you feel the call to recharge. There's only one rule...no talking allowed. — Becky Falkowski

Best place to fly fish

Between the tail waters of the Norfork Dam and the White River in northern Arkansas. — Dr. Sam Cook, Batesville

Best voice for water quality in North Arkansas

While the Friends of the North Fork and White Rivers are working hard, too, the Buffalo Watershed Alliance is dealing with a single issue that is acute. They are effectively changing people's awareness of the watershed. — Dr. Sam Cook

Best fish and stream artist

Native Arkansan Duane Hada shows his artwork at his gallery, Hada Gallery, in Mountain Home on the square. He is also a fly-fishing guide for the White, Buffalo and Crooked Creek. — Dr. Sam Cook

Best supper

The Gillett Coon Supper. No finer example of Americana on display than 1,000 people gathering in an old school gymnasium to support the local school system, steeped in some 70 years of tradition. — Gabe Holmstrom, director of the Downtown Little Rock Partnership

 

Best early winter morning

The opening day of duck season. Doesn't matter where you are, but if you are a duck hunter then the anticipation is finally over. You have all your gear with you, your buddies are with you, and you are ready to bring home the birds. Sometimes it happens, sometimes it doesn't. That's the glory of it. — Gabe Holmstrom

 

Best way to sweat to the music

Catching a great show at the White Water Tavern on a hot summer night. Being packed into an old building, where people have packed in for years on certain nights, listening and dancing to live music with the sweat pouring out, is an experience everyone should have. — Gabe Holmstrom

 

Best detour traveling east

Through DeValls Bluff. After stuffing yourself on Craigs BBQ, you go across the street to the Pie Shop and get a piece of Mary's homemade pie that melts in your mouth. — Gabe Holmstrom

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