If restaurants were books of poetry, many would take as their example Walt Whitman, with lengthy menus overflowing with numerous choices garnished with grandiose superlatives and descriptions that run the length and breadth of every page. Jonathan Wilkins' menu at White Water Tavern is more William Carlos Williams, the obstetrician whose prescription-pad sized poems still manage to pack in a lot of emotion and clarity despite their brevity. Wilkins has managed to do what we would have considered an almost impossible task: create a menu that is, on its surface, simple bar food — and yet through simplicity and attention to craft, one that manages to transcend the idea of what a place known more for good bands and hard drinks could serve. Because even though White Water could have taken the easy way out by serving up cheap and easy food with the idea that people with a skinful of liquor wouldn't notice or care, they decided to turn the bar into a place that can — and should — legitimately be called a restaurant.
The first thing to know about the kitchen at White Water Tavern is that Wilkins is basically a one-man army, from baking the beer bread and hamburger rolls to hand-cutting fries and putting together the numerous sandwiches and specials that rotate on and off the menu. He's the sort of cook who refuses to call himself a "chef" and who passionately supports local growers and artisans without using that as a shield to hide his craft behind. A singer/songwriter who's long performed on White Water's stage, Wilkins is also a man who won't settle for anything less than a menu that rises to his high standards while still reflecting the atmosphere and history of the popular bar. And whether it's on a night when the place is so full that you can feel the floorboards shake or an afternoon where a few regulars are holding court quietly over drinks at the bar, you can be sure that the kitchen is turning out high-quality eats.
For folks just looking for some starch to balance out the PBR, the hand-cut fries (available by the half or whole pound) are the perfect solution. These fries are cooked in the classic brasserie style — blanched first in medium-hot oil and then fried in much hotter oil to finish. The result is a fry that has a nice, crisp outside that gives way to a creamy interior. Ketchup is free, but we chose to spend another seventy-five cents and get a cup of sriracha mayo to dip, and the spicy, creamy sauce was exactly the right thing for these fries. More adventurous eaters should go for the Curry Fries ($4), which Wilkins and local guitarist Nick Devlin created by dousing those crispy fries in a spicy, savory green curry sauce that we liked even more than the mayo and which were our first indication that this wasn't going to be the typical taquitos and potato-skins bar menu we were used to.
In terms of more substantial offerings, we were at first intrigued by the Double Wide (a fried bologna sandwich topped with sriracha and a fried egg) but decided to test White Water's take on the classic cheeseburger ($7.25). Made from lean, grass-fed beef from Youngblood Farms in Texarkana and topped with Rosebud's own Honeysuckle-brand jalapeno cheese, lettuce, and tomato, this burger was a beautiful sight to behold as it spilled out over the soft, house-made roll. The flavor of the beef was sharp and wild, and while leaner than most burgers, it was still moist and tender thanks to its 24-hour stay in Wilkins' secret marinade. The cheese was spicy and melted just right so that it filled every nook and cranny of the meat and dripped down the sides. In a town as serious about burgers as Little Rock, we don't say this lightly: This is a strong contender for the best burger in town.
But while you can get a burger almost anywhere, the special of the night was something we've never seen on any menu: a pair of Chicken and Waffle Tacos ($8), a decadent combination of juicy fried chicken strips and hot spiced pecans nestled in a waffle-cone taco shell created by Loblolly Creamery. To top it all off, the tacos came with a side of piping hot maple syrup and butter that we wasted no time pouring all over everything. The tacos weren't exactly easy to eat like a true taco — which our over-zealous use of the syrup had a lot to do with — but even when the whole thing fell apart on our plate it was still a wondrous mess of sweet, salty and spicy. This is the sort of dish, like the curry fries, that is unique to the Tavern, and shows the sort of creative simplicity that we admired all across the menu.
It's always impressive to see a cook take a few quality ingredients, an attention to craft, and a massive amount of dedication and create something. It's even more impressive when that something is coming from a tiny kitchen tucked away behind the bar of a place that nobody would ever expect to be serving food at all, much less food of this caliber. Jonathan Wilkins has easily won over the regulars who come to drink and party at White Water, but in our minds, he may have done far more: He may have just made White Water Tavern not just a hot spot for music but a destination for incredible food, too.
White Water Tavern
2500 W. Seventh Street
Because the kitchen uses local ingredients in season, the menu and specials at White Water change regularly. Vegan and vegetarian options are available, too.
5 p.m. to 2 a.m. Tuesday through Saturday.
Full bar, all CC.