Winter is the perfect time to explore the natural stone shelters where native Arkansans once lived
Again this year, the staff of the Times adds its own two cents' worth to a slightly idiosyncratic discussion of the bests of Arkansas.
Hey, it's our paper.
BEST INSTANT LUNCH: Smoked turkey salad from Burge's, 5620 R St. in the Heights, is like the best ham salad you ever ate except you can kid yourself into thinking it's healthier because it's based on the ground smoked turkey that is a staple of this old-school restaurant. It's nothing more than turkey, mayo, boiled eggs, relish and black pepper and it's nothing less than addictive. Make a sandwich with it. Dip a chip in it. Stuff a tomato with it or just spoon it right out of the container. It's that good. Swear. It costs $10.50 a pint, but the better deal is a whole quart, $18.17.
BEST LOCAL BREWERY: This is not a knock on Vino's or Bosco's, the only other possible winners in the area, but only Diamond Bear spreads the gospel of Arkansas beer across the region by packaging and shipping its product, and only Diamond Bear serves up its stuff free of charge to whomever comes in for a complimentary brewery tour. Given at 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. Saturdays at the company's headquarters, a former car dealership at 323 Cross St., the tour is somewhat slapdash and leaves the whole brewing process a bit obscure. But you're really coming to sample DB's wares — there were four styles on tap when we went — and none disappoints.
BEST PUBLIC SPACE: Gotta be the new Peabody Park in Riverfront Park. In a town where too many of our green spaces seem to hover on the verge of being given over to trash and weeds, this place is an absolute wonderland, packed with hills to roll down; tunnels that go over and under and through; one of the best slides in the city, and that gorgeous spray-n-play fountain, which had kids of all ages voicing screams of delight on a recent, sweltering afternoon. The only problem we can foresee in this litigious age is that — while the park is decidedly not one of those round-cornered, safety-first monstrosities that rule kidspaces these days — we're betting Little Rock's battalion of personal injury attorneys has fill-in-the-blank lawsuits printed and ready for the first time some young'un takes a header off the 15-foot boulder-climbing wall. Note to the designers: Love, love, love the park; but restraint is the better part of valor, especially in a world where $5 million jury verdicts are considered small change.
BEST PLACE FOR AN OUTDOOR PARTY: Recently, we had the good fortune of attending a friendly get-together out at the Big Maumelle Pavilion in Pinnacle Mountain State Park. Backed by a wooded mountainside studded with medium-sized boulders (perfect for the kiddies to go climbing on when dinner is done), the pavilion is buried in the secluded interior of the park, down a lovely, winding road and close to the confluence of the Maumelle and Arkansas Rivers. Featuring a stone fireplace, electricity on site, a new restroom facility and a fishing dock nearby, it's a great, quiet setting for any fete, with an out-and-out lovely drive to get there.
BEST COLUMNIST: George Arnold, who heads the editorial page of the Northwest Arkansas edition of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is our perennial choice. For one thing, he's not predictable, except for a generally calm tone — none of our kneejerk liberalism or the snooty conservatism of the big paper's Little Rock editorial page (and none of its forced folksiness, either). He speaks, as Vietnam veteran, with a sober understanding about war. He defends civil liberties. He afflicts the comfortable. He runs a diverse mix of voices on the Northwest op-ed page. He's deeply rooted in Arkansas. His voice would be welcome more often in the Little Rock edition of the paper.
BEST SMOKED HAM: Shaka Smoke Lodge has been in the River Market since the River Market opened, and it's had the best smoked ham in town for the same length of time. They take a smoked Petit Jean ham, smoke it again and sell it for less than the supermarket chains sell their single-smoked ham. Really, they have the best smoked turkey in town too, but since we've honored another place's smoked turkey salad, we won't push the point. And while we're at it, there's not a much better way to spend a Saturday morning than to go to Shaka for breakfast (it's open at 7 a.m., Monday through Saturday) and then hit the Farmers Market. Order that ham on a biscuit, maybe with an egg. It's conspicuously good.
BEST SNAKE HANDLER: The Little Rock Zoo's Randal Berry, the guy who had to take care of those poisonous snakes mysteriously shipped into Little Rock last year, has this year made a couple of informational videos about Cammie, the zoo's 20-foot python. The first video showed the snake — given to the zoo by pole vaulter Jeff Hartwick of Jonesboro, a breeder — being unloaded from a car by four men. “Come on, girl,” Berry told the snake. He then filmed the snake eating a thawed rabbit. He was recently filmed by a television crew about the poisonous-snakes-in-a-box mystery for a future episode on “The Most Extreme” on Animal Planet. He does naked mole rats, too; just enter his name on youtube.com to see his shows.
BEST SOUL CLASSIC: The same as it ever was: Al Green reigns supreme. Though to be honest, while Forrest City's most famous son has always been the king of soul in our book, he hadn't made a really quality album since the mid-'70s. Blame poor production choices. Because as his latest record, “Lay It Down,” proves, he's still got it and then some. Even at 62, he's working in what must be a vocal range unique to himself, full of coos, moans, shrieks and even a yelp here and there. Plus, he's singing over arrangements that approach Willie Mitchell's '70s greatness. Buy it! It'll serve as a balm to problems, a soundtrack for any party or, you know, a mood setter. Like Al says, “Lay it down, let it go, fall in love.”
BEST MUSIC FESTIVAL: The blockbuster summer music festival has become a tradition over the past decade. But every October, after the excitement of the hot months cools down, Arkansas hosts a quieter affair along the banks of the Mississippi in Helena. The Arkansas Blues and Heritage Festival offers the music of the mega festivals without all the hassle — entry is free, and there are no nightmare stories of $5 bottled water. And our version has something the big boys can't touch: Helena itself. Whereas the summer festivals are often held in a huge open field, Arkansas Blues and Heritage sets up stages on the streets of the Phillips County seat. The town, with its broken-down warehouses and boarded-up storefronts, is a surreal setting for a weekend of the blues. Numerous street performers add an air of spontaneity to the program. See it for yourself at this year's festival, Oct. 9-11.
BEST JERKY: Every once in a while, we devolve into a carnivore who craves food that demands full-scale teeth tearing, something that'll make full and aggressive use of our incisors, something that'll make us say “argh!” while eating. But usually, there are only Slim Jims. Now, thanks to the good folks at Ratchford Farms in Marshall, Ark., we're living the high life with genuine elk jerky, which is heartier and less gamey than the deer jerky — heretofore our king of jerkys — hunting friends have given us in the past. A little moist and firm enough to make you feel like you're accomplishing something, but not so together that you'll lose a tooth eating it, Ratchford's jerky has become our go-to summer snack. We got ours through the Arkansas Sustainability Network, but you can order it or various other buffalo and elk summer sausages and snacks, via ratchfordexoticmeats.com.
BEST MUSEUM: Maybe some people like to go to a museum to look at a weird painting and pretend they know what it is, but manly men of all ages prefer the recognizable and the violent. Give us the MacArthur Museum of Arkansas Military History. It's in the old Little Rock Arsenal building, which was erected in 1840 and became the birthplace of Douglas MacArthur in 1880. The museum has a MacArthur exhibit, of course, but it's not just about him, nor even just about Arkansas warriors, though there's a separate exhibit on the state's Medal of Honor winners (who included MacArthur, incidentally). The museum has guns and swords and medals and uniforms from many countries and many wars. What man could look at the shiny, spiked, 1889 Prussian Guards helmet without thinking, “That belongs on my head”? Nobody we want to know.
BEST PANCAKE MIX: It's a bit harder to find than Bisquick, but the stuff from War Eagle Mills is worth the hunt. Not too sweet, with a deeper flavor than you'll find in a grocery-store mix (plus whole grains, so it's healthier too) and it comes in an honest-to-God cloth flour sack. It comes in buckwheat and pecan-cinnamon varieties too. Bonus: It's made right here in Arkansas.
BEST VACANT LOT: The former site of University Mall. Whatever eventually rises in its place — and put us in the please-let-a-Target-be-involved camp — can't help but be an improvement.
BEST NEW ANIMAL: New to the Little Rock Zoo anyway. She's a recently arrived female black rhinocerous called Naivasha, and described by the daily press as “3,000 pounds of flirty fun.” Zoo officials hope she'll mate with the zoo's only other black rhino, a 13-year-old male. Black rhinos are very rare, a zoo spokesman said. There are fewer than 3,000 in the whole world, and fewer than 70 in North America.