Vermicelli, chicken parm and melt in your mouth scallops: Guy Choate’s top 10 meals of 2021

Blogging about every dine-out meal I eat takes a lot of work and that work goes mostly unappreciated, which is to say that no one actually reads the blog. (That’s an assumption, albeit a confident one – I haven’t checked the analytics in years.) The blog isn’t monetized in any way. An audience would be nice sometimes, but not having one clearly doesn’t discourage me from maintaining what is essentially a monthly food ranking accompanied by some personal notes to remind me what I ate. While it would be cool to have the glamorous perks that I’m sure the folks at The Mighty Rib and Rock City Eats enjoy — private tastings, comped meals, bigger portions, maybe!? — I also like not being beholden to things like advertisers and clicks and relationships with chefs and restaurant owners who will get mad at me if I call them out for trying to make a salad dressing out of ketchup. I’m not in the food blog game to make friends. I just want a quiet outlet to vent about when a restaurant served me shitty food, or when one served me exemplary food.

I’m not after an audience as much as I’m after an accurate record of my eating history. Just the same, when the Arkansas Times asked me to share my Top 10 Arkansas meals last year, I can’t tell you how validating it was to see my list in digital print on a legitimate news source’s website. And so when they asked again this year, I was beside myself. (Because deep-ish down I probably do want comped meals and larger portions and I see this publicity as a potential avenue for getting those things.)

I’m going to finish this year having eaten 360 meals out at 215 different restaurants. That’s up from 242 last year, but not as many as my all-time high of 411 in the pre-pandemic times. I consumed most of my meals outside the state of Arkansas while on work trips, but for this list, I’m looking at only non-chain meals I ate in The Natural State, which means I am selecting my top 10 from a group of 163. I recognize there are plenty of restaurants I haven’t tried this year, so if you don’t see your favorites, I don’t know what to tell you. Maybe start your own blog that no one will read.

The most unfair part of my list is that it’s so Little Rock-centric. Eighty-five percent of my Arkansas meals came from Little Rock/North Little Rock. (Maybe if some of those fancy Northwest Arkansas restaurants would lure me with comped meals and larger portions they could land on next year’s list.)

Once I narrowed my list down to the top 25 meals or so, a good portion of the restaurants on this year’s list were also on last year’s. I accept that I am a creature of habit, but I also accept that the Arkansas Times does not want to publish a list too similar to one they’ve already published, so I asked to extend the deadline in order to put myself on a last-minute food tour of the city. I needed to veer from my regular rotation.

The newly opened Camp Taco has been all the rage for the past couple of months and I didn’t make an effort to go because, as appreciative as I am for what the Yellow Rocket Concepts restaurant group brings to the Little Rock food scene, how many times are they going to rebrand the $15 taco? I suppose as many times as we’ll let them. The house was full when I went for lunch on a Monday. And since I brought up branding, let me say that if I was ranking décor/theme — I’m not — no one could compete with their early ’80s camp vibes. They nailed it. As for the food, my Mexican Ramen was good and my first exposure makes me think I’ll prefer eating bougie tacos here more than either Heights Taco & Tamale or Local Lime, but the meal didn’t force me to make any late substitutions to my top 10 list. FULL DISCLOSURE: Yellow Rocket’s pizza and salad joint (Zaza’s), which is my favorite of their concepts, finished the year as my second-most frequented restaurant — I averaged eating there once every six and a half weeks.

And on the opposite end of the decor spectrum, I went back to Mike’s Cafe this week following cries from the masses (RE: one casual acquaintance) about how the Vietnamese restaurant is underrated. It’s not terrible, but it’s also no Pho Thanh My, so we all need to stop pretending it is, no matter how proud of ourselves we are for venturing to Asher Avenue.

Other places I hit in the eleventh hour included Mr. Cajun’s Kitchen, K. Hall & Sons Produce, Capital Bar & Grill, Allsopp & Chapple, Loca Luna and Dizzy’s. One of those restaurants made it on the list, one showed me that it’s possible for someone unrelated to me to make good fried okra, one made me gain three pounds in a day, one was nearly impossible to get to because there was a mob of West Little Rock moms trying to get a picture of themselves holding Champagne flutes in front of the Christmas tree in the lobby on a work day, one nearly fired me in the summer of 2012 when I got caught eating discarded squash casserole in the dish pit, and one reminded me of why I only go to Dizzy’s once every three years and still always regret it.

I also regret not getting to Oceans at Arthur’s this year because I hear good things. Brave New is one of my favorites, but the one time I tried to go, the parking situation frustrated me and I left before ever getting out of the car. I can never remember when kBird is open. Chang Thai is all the way out in Sherweird. One of my favorite places in the state has long been the Amish Country Store outside of Dermott, but they closed this year, which is devastating and ruins any chance of getting good food between Little Rock and New Orleans. I missed SQZBX Pizza in Hot Springs this year. I missed Taj Mahal again because COVID-19 has ruined all our lives by eliminating the buffet as a viable food distribution method. I missed Doe’s and the Faded Rose for no real reason other than perhaps the fear my doctor instilled in me this year regarding my cholesterol. And I owed it to La Terraza to come back and give them a shot to make my list two years in a row, but I let them down and I am sorry. Mostly I blame having two small children who cannot be trusted to behave in restaurants while I sip rum and eat octopus, so at this point in the year, here we are with the list that we have.

Three Fold Noodles + Dumpling Co. — Noodle Bowl w/Pork, Carrot Slaw. Little Rock. Oct. 28, 2021.

I moved into a new office this year and now Three Fold is seven-tenths of a mile from my work. That distance is not worth getting my truck out of the parking garage for, but also the round trip is too far to walk for a quick lunch. I recently paid $200 to have my dusty bicycle repaired for the sole purpose of getting to these noodles quickly on a regular basis. I have a friend who lived in China and he claims the flavor I love so much at Three Fold is authentically Chinese and can’t be found anywhere else in Arkansas. Sounds legit. I’m a noodles person, so the noodle bowl is my go-to, but I also tried their beef stew this year and it was stupid good. I’ve never had anything bad, or even mediocre here – it’s always top-notch.

Raduno Brick Oven & Barroom — Chicken Parmesan Sandwich, salad. Little Rock. May 28, 2021.

Sandwiches have appealed less and less to me the last few years, but if I’m going to Raduno for lunch, odds are that I’m ordering the Italian Beef Sandwich. That sandwich made my list last year, but in May it let me down a little – maybe I was burnt out on it. So when I came back a couple of weeks later, I thought I might try something new. I told the server to surprise me. I’m not really a threat to order a chicken parmesan sandwich, but I’m glad I had this one – carbs be damned. Pesto and focaccia with marinara in the middle? Hoh-boy.

Cheers in Maumelle — Chopped Salmon Salad, cup of Pesto Chicken Soup. March 16, 2021.

The Chopped Salmon Salad at Cheers/Samantha’s is the best salad in the state. End of story. I’ll put it on this list every year and make no apologies. But in the interest of mixing things up, I also recommend getting a cup of soup, which never disappoints. Really, not once has it disappointed me.

 Kemuri — Sushi Rolls (Princess, Volcano, Red Dragon, Kemuri, Beverly Hills, Mango Tango) (to go). Little Rock. Dec. 21, 2021.

I don’t like sharing food – it gives me anxiety because I feel like I’m going to get shorted my fair share. (I’m working through it with my therapist.) But sushi alleviates most of that anxiety because the rolls are already cut into pieces. And so my wife and I and a friend couple ordered six rolls with the intention of dividing them up. It was a great opportunity to try some new rolls without having to fully commit to some of the riskier options. Turns out they were all good. New favorite roll: The Princess Roll – soy wrapper, Blue Crab, spicy tuna, jalapeno, cucumber, cream cheese, spicy mayo, wasabi and eel Sauce.

The Oyster Bar — 2 Oyster Poboy Halves, 2 Cups of Gumbo. The Oyster Bar. Little Rock. Jan. 8, 2021.

My favorite meal of 2020 was an all-you-can-eat private buffet at The Oyster Bar for my sister’s birthday party shortly after the restaurant’s new owners took over. For my own birthday, I returned with a book for a solo lunch – because when you’re 39 years old with two small children, a lonely lunch can be such a wonderful birthday gift to yourself. I got the soup and sandwich special. When the server came to drop off my check, we talked about it and decided we should do it all over again. Except this time, she gave me a hot tip and suggested substituting the rice in the gumbo for grits, which turned out to be an all-pro move.

Allsopp & Chapple — Scallops App (shared), Duck Two Ways. Little Rock. Dec. 17, 2021.

I remember when this place opened a few years ago and I didn’t think they’d ever make it. My wife and I came for drinks occasionally because the place was something different and it was never hard to find a seat at the bar. I think we got appetizers once, but we never had dinner. For her birthday, we decided to give it a go. Suffice it to say I’m not worried that they’re not going to make it anymore. Not only was the house full, but the scallops melted in our mouths, and while the duck breast was undercooked and chewy, the duck leg brought with it one of the best single bites of food I had all year.

Brood & Barley — Crispy Bleu Chips (shared), Scotch Deviled Egg (shared), Pork & Polenta. North Little Rock. March 3, 2021.

Let me be clear, I do not rank these meals on anything but taste, but I’d be remiss not to tell you the Pork & Polenta is one of the most delicious values in the city, even after they upped the price halfway through the year from $10 to $11. House-braised Italian pork, smoked gouda polenta, red pepper coulis and a fried egg. Those individual ingredients could work fine if you separated them out, but together they create something — while maybe not healthy — totally satisfying. The ceiling on a deviled egg is low for me, but those bleu chips are worth munching on.

Farmer’s Table Cafe — Farmer’s Hash. Fayetteville. Sept. 15, 2021.

Every time my plate shows up at the Farmer’s Table Cafe I’m disappointed with what I see — for a while they were even serving on paper plates — but I’m never disappointed with what I taste. When you are serving fresh, local ingredients, you can make up a lot of ground quickly during a meal. The flavors pop more, even in something like a bowl of potatoes. I will always seek out a meal at Farmer’s Table when I’m in Fayetteville and you should too.

Pho Thanh My — B3 Char-glazed Pork Vermicelli Bowl. Little Rock. July 26, 2021.

While they may be known for their pho, this place has a solid vermicelli game, which I got into once the weather warmed up. I ate the char-glazed pork vermicelli bowl four times between March and August and now I feel like sweetened pork holds a special place in my heart. (Namely the walls of my blood vessels.)

42 Bar & Table — Black & Blue Salad. Little Rock. May 4, 2021.

I had mixed feelings about including 42 Bar & Table on my list because I’m currently mad at them and refusing to go. My last three meals there have been grossly disappointing and on one occasion I convinced my friends to meet me there only to have one of those friends never get his meal. He left our two-hour lunch and said, “Anyone want to go grab lunch with me?” For years, this has been one of my top three restaurants in the city, and so it hurts to avoid them now. I know nothing about what’s going on in their kitchen or in the management office — I have no idea where the problem lies — but I’m going to give them a few months to get back on their horse and then I will forgive them because we have a history. In the meantime, I still appreciate the good meals I had here earlier in the year, like this one with perfectly cooked steak and a fabulous blue cheese crumble ratio.

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