The restaurant business is a tough one, especially in downtown Little Rock. Competition is fierce, parking can be a hassle, and despite the growing crowds that come to the area in the evenings, Fourth and Center, where Alexis Jones' upscale Southern eatery Natchez was once located, just isn't where most people in the city head at supper time. While we lamented losing Natchez, a restaurant that really seemed to be coming into its own during its last year, we were excited to see that a new restaurant, Arbela Middle Eastern Grill, had opened up in the Tower Building.
Arbela seems to know the needs of the neighborhood, opening only for a long lunch during weekdays. On our first visit, employees who toil in the Tower Building flooded in, hungry for an inexpensive lunch. It's a business model that we think will work well for Arbela, because cheap and quick are always good selling points for a downtown eatery. But of course the real question is: Does it taste good? And the answer is an emphatic yes.
It was a cold and rainy afternoon when we stopped into Arbela, where orders are taken at the counter. We needed to warm up, so we started with a bowl of lentil soup ($2.99). We were pleased with the hearty, rich flavor and portion size. This soup would make a fine lunch in and of itself, but as a nice, filling starter, it was unbeatable.
We followed up with a Gyro Combo ($5.99 for the sandwich plus $2.99 for hummus, a salad and a drink), and were pleased with the quality of the food. The gyro meat was done just how we like it: shaved from a rotating column of seasoned beef and lamb, and then crisped nicely on the stovetop to give everything a great texture. The meat is piled high on soft, warm pita bread, and the onions, lettuce, tomato and homemade tzatziki sauce were all fresh and added a light balance to the savory meat. If you're a fan of gyros (and we certainly are), the version at Arbela is sure to please.
What made us even happier were the sides. A small serving of hummus was silky smooth and had a rich, tangy flavor that was perfectly complemented by a splash of olive oil. There are several places in town that make hummus we adore, and we're happy to say Arbela can compete with any of them. The fresh side salad stood out: Fresh greens and large chunks of ripe tomato form the base of the dish, with diced cucumber, black olives, red onion and feta cheese all coming together to turn this small salad into something far more substantial than we expected. All this, plus a soda, was under $10 — a hard-to-beat deal.
Salads are also available in larger portions and can be topped with gyro meat, falafel or grilled chicken. We weren't able to try the chicken on our first visit, but we hung around long enough to watch it being cooked. We can't wait to get back to try it. We also saw several of the large salads being made, and were once again impressed with the freshness of the vegetables and the portion size.
On a return trip, we decided to try a vegetarian option and went for the falafel sandwich. This sandwich comes on a thinner flatbread than the gyro, a bit of variety that impressed us. The falafel itself was amazing. Moist and tender in the middle, delightfully crunchy on the outside, these well-seasoned chickpea patties were as good as any we've ever tasted. We've eaten so many dry, flavorless falafels over the years — enough that we're always scared to order them. But Arbela does them right, serving them hot and fresh.
Sometimes we eat at restaurants that are doing innovative things, and we love to highlight those places. But there's something to be said for a restaurant that can do a limited menu of classics and do it well. There's nothing out of the ordinary at Arbela Middle Eastern Grill, but for fans of gyros, chicken shawarma or falafel, you'll find a lot to be happy about. We were impressed with the speed and efficiency of the kitchen, which was running on all cylinders despite being only two weeks in business. Everyone was friendly and willing to answer questions about the menu, and the brightly lit restaurant space was a welcome change from Natchez' darker, moodier atmosphere. This suite in the Tower Building is the perfect spot for a lunch joint, and we've scored a good one with Arbela.
Arbela Middle Eastern Grill
323 Center St., Suite 130
In a hurry for lunch? After a hitch in getting the phone connected, Arbela is ready to go for all your take-out needs.
10 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays.
All major credit cards, no alcohol.