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Restaurants in cities of any size offer replicas of famous cuisine from other regions, usually to the satisfaction of the uninitiated and the disdain of those who've had the real deal. Sorry, Jason's Deli — your muffaletta is tasty, but it's not in the same league as those found in any corner shop in New Orleans. Sorry, Applebee's, your Philly cheese steak is an abomination, scarcely resembling what Philadelphians adore.
It's just a fact — regional cuisine outside the region almost never cuts it (think gumbo that's more like seafood vegetable soup). That's why we aren't tempted by barbecue in New York and why we were bummed when our London friends took us to an American restaurant on King's Road for burgers.
But sometimes a culinary miracle happens. Take Rocky's Pub. Is there anywhere you're more unlikely to find a bona fide cheese steak than inside a small, nondescript storefront in a sprawling, nondescript strip mall in a huge parking lot on JFK in North Little Rock?
But walk through the door, peruse the menu, listen to the accents of the staff — then, when your food comes, marvel at the holy grail of quality-meets-quantity — and you might think you are 1,200 miles northeast.
Sandwiches anywhere along the Boston-to-Philadelphia corridor are a different breed — large to the point of gross excess, boldly flavored, cheesy, often served hot and juicy. And there's also a friendly warmth to diners/pubs/bars in the Northeast, neighborhood spots where regulars gather to eat, drink, talk sports and escape the cold. Rocky's has all this, and the vibe of the place makes the fabulous food taste even better.
We came to Rocky's for the cheese steak after friends' repeated raves. And it indeed is near perfect — beef chipped, griddled to slight crispness, liberally piled atop sauteed onions and the cheese of your choice, a layering strategy that ensures a high goo factor. This cheese steak is served with marinara, atypical, but our waiter said the owners' Italian heritage was behind this touch. We got ours on the side. The homemade marinara is light and well dosed with herbs. It's critical to many Rocky's menu items, but we'd rather not have it on a cheese steak.
A 6-inch cheese steak is $6.99 and is more than plenty for anyone, but at $11.49, the foot-long was our choice, and the second half heated up nicely for a next-day lunch.
We'd had just a bite or two of our sandwich when a waiter walked by with a gargantuan meatball sub, the entirety of the sandwich covered with a thick blanket of melted mozzarella, the meatballs looking like snow-covered hills. We knew we'd be back.
And what an amazing sandwich it is — hand-rolled meatballs on a soft hoagie roll, dusted with parmesan with the homemade sauce ladled on and mozzarella applied. The 12-inch ($12.79) weighs nearly 1.5 pounds and is perfect in its delicious simplicity.
Rocky's sandwiches are served with the best home-made potato chips we've had — thicker, crunchier and less greasy than others.
These two sandwiches would keep us coming to Rocky's, but by no means are they the only attractions. Seven wraps, six entree-size salads, five hoagies, six burgers, six grilled sandwiches, four other "hot long roll sandwiches," three "hot Kaiser rolls" and 16 (SIXTEEN!) appetizers also tempt.
And then there are the 11 Italian dinners, served only 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. As wonderful as the sandwiches are, these are clearly the stars, at least to the owners' way of thinking. They are near the front of the menu and touted with larger, italicized type. Based on the homemade lasagna ($13.49), the special billing is well deserved.
"This is the best lasagna I've ever had in my life," our dining mate proclaimed, and she's no lasagna neophyte. Again, this dish is highlighted by Rocky's homemade sauce and liberal use of cheese — in this case ricotta, mozzarella and parmesan. Add pasta and homemade meat sauce, serve a short ton of it in a large dish and you have lasagna that achieves "best" status.
Friends had also touted the fried ravioli, but we figured they were off-base. Fried ravioli is fried ravioli, right? It all goes straight from the freezer, out of the food-service sack and into the fryer, right? Not at Rocky's. Our waiter told us the owners tried the prefab variety and proclaimed it inferior. So this is homemade fried ravioli ($5.49), the most notable difference (not shockingly) the amount of gooey cheese lurking in the crisp pasta pockets. Yum.
We can also recommend the Rocky's "Petal" burger, a juicy half-pound patty, topped with a layer of battered-and-fried onion hunks ("petals"), with cheddar cheese, lettuce, tomato and A-1, a really nice touch that separates this huge burger from others.
And yes, somehow, we ordered dessert (to go). We'd spotted a huge disposable aluminum pan with whipped cream covering whatever was beneath. Our waiter called it Italian cream cake, but it's nothing like the cake that usually bears that name. This $4.99 choice was a layered dessert, sort of like trifle and sort of like tiramisu without the mocha flavor. The dreamy treat had creamy chocolate and vanilla pudding between layers of moist cake with a generous dose of chocolate chunks and an occasional piece of pineapple mixed in. The aforementioned whipped cream topping with a drizzle of chocolate syrup and a cherry finished off this divine home-made creation.
Rocky's is truly a treasure for those whose tastes and appetites align with the talents and tendencies these Philadelphians have transplanted in their comfy, friendly little spot in North Little Rock. Like us. We're so glad it's here.
6929 JFK Blvd.
North Little Rock
There are enough enticing choices on Rocky's large menu to inspire at least a dozen trips to try new things, but the "Rocky's True Philly Cheese Steak" should be the choice for every first-timer. It's the real deal.
11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. (Kitchen closes at 9 p.m.)
Credit cards accepted, full bar.