Snacks and brews at the Superior | Rock Candy

Friday, December 6, 2013

Snacks and brews at the Superior

Posted By on Fri, Dec 6, 2013 at 3:01 PM

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Hot Springs' Bathhouse Row has always had a special place in my heart — I even got married in the Ozark Bathhouse when it was operating as the Hot Springs Museum of Contemporary Art. As a kid growing up in Arkadelphia, if my friends and I wanted to do something, it was half an hour up Highway 7 to the Spa City we went, loitering in the mall, getting coffee at the late and lamented Magee's coffeehouse, and putting mile after mile on our sneakers up and down the sidewalk in front of the historic bathhouses. I drank my first glass of (underage) plum wine at a now-defunct Vietnamese place close to the row, and I bought loads of stinky incense at the (also defunct) Golden Leaves Bookshop just off Central Avenue.

Back in those days, the row was basically abandoned. Oh, sure, the Buckstaff Baths were still open — the only one of the original bathhouses that managed to stay open since 1912, and there was the Fordyce Bathhouse that serves as a visitor center and museum, but the rest of those lovely buildings were shuttered, forlorn, and nobody really knew what was to become of them. Ideas would surface from time to time about turning them into lofts or casinos, but nothing ever seemed to come of it.

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Fast-forward to 2011, and the U.S. Department of the Interior's on-going renovation efforts on the row had finally reached the point where the park was ready to put the drive to re-purpose three of the bathhouses into high gear. One of the facilities was the Superior, which had stopped functioning as a true bathhouse in 1983. Given the upsurge in the popularity of craft beer across the state, brewer Rose Cranson and crew proposed turning the bathhouse into a brewery and distillery, a plan that would make Hot Springs the only national park to house a facility that made craft beer and spirits. The approval of this plan resulted in the Superior Bathhouse Brewery and Distillery, an attractive bar space that has become a real gem in downtown Hot Springs.

The amount of renovation that was needed to turn the century-old building into a state-of-the-art brewery and distillery was a daunting task, from installing the fermenters and other brewing equipment to putting in the tap lines and refrigeration room necessary to keep the beer fresh and good. In fact, even two years later, the brewery isn't quite ready to start pulling pints of their own brew — but that doesn't mean that the public can't enjoy the wonderful space that Cranson and team have built, because the bar is most definitely open, and they're pouring some really great beers from some of the best craft breweries in the country.

Stepping into the bar area, one is immediately struck by the tap line set-up, a large-diameter pipe that is suspended from the ceiling over a marble bar preserved from the original bathhouse counter. This feat of engineering is impressive, requiring some delicate reinforcement of the ceiling that would not only hold the 600 pound contraption, but would also maintain as much of the original architecture as possible. The seating area is a mixture of long, high tables, smaller, more intimate tables, and a line of benches that face the huge windows that line the front of the building — a wonderful idea that allows patrons to enjoy their beverages while engaging in that all-time favorite Hot Springs pastime, people watching.

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The Superior has a lot more to offer apart from the beer, though. Tucked away on one wall is a case full of delicious gelato, and the staff will be more than happy to serve it to you as a scoop or in a float made with their house-made root beer. Folks not in the mood for beer will also find drinkables to their liking — in addition to the root beer, there's a fine seltzer made from the natural water that made the Spa City so famous, as well as a large menu of coffee, hot chocolate, and espresso drinks available as well. And for those of you that might come in hungry, well, the Superior has you covered there, too.

The first time I stopped in, my eye was drawn to the bar's meat and cheese plate — which probably doesn't surprise any of you who have read my Eat Arkansas posts for any length of time. Cured Petit Jean meats are sliced thin and served up with a fine selection of Little Rock's own Kent Walker cheeses, including Kent's Bluff Top Gouda and my personal favorite, the Jerk Spice Cheddar Cheese Curds. Add in a cup of the Superior's house-made spicy beer mustard, and there's not a lot better to be had in the city.

Hungrier than that? Then take a look at the Superior Gyro, a classic sliced-and-grilled meat sandwich loaded with toppings and served up with crispy pita chips that are the perfect vessels for dipping into their house-made black-eyed pea hummus. Hearty chili, a vegetarian panini, and even a beer-braised short rib platter with mashed potatoes round out a menu that goes above and beyond typical bar fare.

Cranson took me through the entire brewery set-up, and I can assure you all that good things are going to come from her brewing skills. But even before the brewery starts serving up their own beer and spirits, the Superior is worth a trip to Hot Springs alone simply because they are trying to elevate the drinking scene in an area not known for its exotic beer selection. Events like their recent Evil Twin Brewing tap takeover have put the Superior on the map as a beer tourist destination, while the family-friendly food, gelato, and coffee-drink selections make the place a good destination for tourists and locals alike to enjoy a pleasant afternoon in classy surroundings while soaking in the historical setting. Most importantly, the staff at the Superior are a friendly and knowledgeable bunch, able to recommend a good beer to drink while in the same breath explaining the history of the place. And besides, I guarantee that you've never been in a bar that has seen more naked people in its long history than the Superior. Except maybe Midtown Billiards.

The Superior Bathhouse and Distillery is located at 329 Central Avenue in Hot Springs. There's a great parking deck just across the way on Exchange Street, so park, walk, and enjoy some of the best beer and eats in the state.

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