Magness Lake, in Heber Springs, is a magnet for swans
Skinny J's seems destined to become the anchor restaurant needed in its high-profile stretch of Main Street in North Little Rock's Argenta neighborhood. Cregeen's and Reno's adequately fill their niches, and Ristorante Capeo is an absolute rock star. But Skinny J's offers the variety and size — of menu and seating — to become the spot.
When we heard the restaurant was moving into the former Cornerstone Pub and Grill space, the best news was that this wasn't owner-chef James "Skinny J" Best's first rodeo. In October 2009, after culinary school, Best, a member of a Northeast Arkansas farming family, opened Skinny J's in Cash, 16 miles west of Jonesboro. Best closed his Cash restaurant a year later and opened in Jonesboro's resurgent downtown. It continues to thrive, as does the downtown Paragould location opened in 2013.
So it wasn't surprising there were no apparent hiccups when Skinny J's opened July 30 in Argenta with the same huge, 100-item (!) menu as the other two offer. A week later, every table was taken at 7 p.m. We took two seats at the bar for a glass of wine (it's a decent list) and some avocado fries ($7) — strips of avocado of varying thicknesses lightly battered and fried. Yum!
We returned for a full-fledged dinner and were even more impressed. The crawfish dip ($9) is spicy, creamy and studded with plenty of plump, tender crawfish tails. It's served with wonton wrappers rather than chips. (If we had our way, the dip would be served with sliced, toasted and buttered Boulevard Bread baguettes.)
As we pondered entrees, our waiter told us, "Steak is what Skinny J's has become known for," touting that theirs are cut in-house daily, rubbed with house seasoning and topped with house butter.
Our mouths were almost watering by the time the eight-ounce filet ($27 with two sides) arrived. And what a fine filet it was — nicely marked on the grill with a bit of crunch to the finish but medium rare as ordered. The rub is flavorful but not too spicy; it is conservatively applied, complementary rather than dominant. Riverfront Steakhouse is a couple of blocks away, and the much higher-priced Sonny Williams is just across the river, but Skinny J's has no reason to be intimidated.
The bacon mac-and-cheese is divine — gooey, served piping hot, with plenty of bacon, proving once again that bacon makes almost everything better. The green beans weren't as big of a hit — a bit al dente for our tastes, though the flecks of garlic made them slightly interesting.
We also adored the Mutt ($8), a thick slice of pan-seared bologna, topped with melted cheddar, a fried egg, mayo and plenty of shredded lettuce and tomato. The egg, disappointingly, was a non-factor — small and cooked too long. But it really didn't matter. This is one fine combination of flavors and textures. The homemade chips were perfect, evenly cooked (some places' chips have soft, greasy spots from being bunched up in the fryer). They were well salted and not at all greasy.
At 12:50 p.m. on a rainy Wednesday, 13 tables of folks were having lunch. Our friend took our challenge and ordered the Big Skinny ($14), a one-pound burger that's really two massive burgers in one. It has to be deconstructed to be gracefully consumed. The sauteed onion, mushroom and cheddar were nice additions, the limp bacon not so much. The patties weren't dry, but they could have used a hint of pink. We were proud he got down three-quarters of it.
The fries were excellent, ample like a steak fry but cut in a twist. The waiter told us the cut helps them hold up as a base for the buffalo fries and cheese fries.
Another thing besides steak that sets Skinny J's apart from pub-grub places is its selection of oysters. You can get them six ways; we chose chargrilled ($9 for a half-dozen) and loved them. The chargrill taste comes through, but the smallish oysters are still tender. Butter, seasoned salt and a dusting of parmesan stand up well to the broiling and make for an interesting, slightly spicy taste.
The Skinny J's folks have done wonders with the old Cornerstone space, a vast improvement over the old, blacked-out windows and light-starved, smoky environment. The original windows have been uncovered along with an antique advertisement painted on the brick wall between Skinny's and the stairway up to Bourbon and Boots, smartly showcasing the ghost sign through a glass hallway.
There is taxidermy aplenty on the walls, including a fat possum near the door. Also adding to the eclectic atmosphere are vintage and modern signs promoting everything from Verizon Arena concerts to beer to a Jonesboro tractor company. Pendant "Edison bulb" lights over the bar and the stacked-wood treatment behind the bar add to the casual, relaxed feel. Four TVs show sports with no volume.
Note: If you need to have a serious or low-toned romantic conversation, this is not the place. Hard surfaces bounce around the sound. But it's perfect for a casual meal or after-work get together.
Thanks to Skinny J's for bringing its winning formula and winning food from Northeast Arkansas to Argenta. A bright future seems almost guaranteed.
314 Main St.
North Little Rock
Skinny J's almost literally has something for everyone with its mind-blowingly large menu – 17 appetizers and 15 burger choices, for example – but the good news is this is the same menu that has been a hit in Jonesboro and Paragould, and the kitchen seems to have everything down pat.
11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Full bar, credit cards accepted.