Arkansas now has a Food Hall of Fame

Dressed in her Sunday best, Rhoda Adams sat in the lobby of the Ron Robinson Theater in Little Rock’s River Market District on a stormy Tuesday night, flanked by Lake Village Mayor JoAnne Bush and former state Rep. Sam Angel.

Bush and Angel had made sure that the lady commonly known as Miss Rhoda, who doesn’t get out of southeast Arkansas much these days, was in the capital city for the Arkansas Food Hall of Fame’s first induction ceremony.

The Food Hall of Fame, a project of the Department of Arkansas Heritage, was about to induct three restaurants from a list of 12 finalists, and Rhoda’s Famous Hot Tamales of Lake Village was on that list.

Arkansans nominated 59 restaurants in the inaugural year. A committee of food experts narrowed the list down to Bruno’s Little Italy of Little Rock, Craig’s Bar-B-Q of DeValls Bluff, Doe’s Eat Place of Little Rock, Feltner’s Whatta-Burger of Russellville, Franke’s Cafeteria of Little Rock, Jones Bar-B-Q Diner of Marianna, the Kream Kastle of Blytheville, the Lassis Inn of Little Rock, McClard’s Bar-B-Q of Hot Springs, Neal’s Café of Springdale, Rhoda’s and Sims Bar-B-Que of Little Rock.

Adams’ restaurant was one of the three inducted, and she made her way to the stage to receive her award from Gov. Asa Hutchinson. The other two restaurants in the inaugural class are the Lassis Inn and Jones Bar-B-Q Diner. The three establishments specialize in tamales and country-style plate lunches (which Adams serves), fried fish and barbecue — staples of the Arkansas diet, especially in the Delta.

All three restaurants happen to be owned by African-Americans, a powerful symbol of how food can bring people together in a state that too often during its history was divided along racial lines.

People come from across the Delta — not only Arkansas but also Louisiana and Mississippi — to eat with Adams. She has been serving her special blend of tamales for more than 40 years, often selling them out of the back of her car along U.S. Highway 65 in Dumas, McGehee and other southeast Arkansas cities. Private planes have been known to land in Lake Village, shuttling executives from Little Rock for lunch at Rhoda’s.

Adams, 78, was hesitant to get into the business of making tamales. She once told a reporter: “My husband’s auntie asked me about us doing it, but I never wanted to do any hot tamales. We started doing about 25 dozen a day. I kind of liked it, but I didn’t like it without a machine.”

Her husband eventually bought her a machine to craft the tamales. Adams is one of 15 children. She has almost 60 grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Adams also treats those who love her cooking like family, regaling them with stories as they eat lunch.

The famous food writer Michael Stern once noted: “Beyond tamales, the menu is a full roster of great, soulful regional specialties. For fried chicken or pigs feet, barbecue or catfish dinner, you won’t do better for miles around. Early one morning, Rhoda made us a breakfast of bacon and eggs with biscuits on the side. Even this simple meal tasted especially wonderful. Rhoda is one of those gifted cooks who makes everything she touches something special. We’ve always considered Arkansas one of America’s top seven pie states (along with Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Virginia, Texas and Maine). Rhoda’s pies are proof. She makes small individual ones. … Her sweet potato and pecan pie are world class.”

Next up, the Lassis Inn.

In a small wooden building near where Roosevelt Road passes under Interstate 30 in Little Rock, Elihue Washington Jr. cooks some of the state’s best fried fish (catfish and buffalo) at the Lassis Inn. The restaurant’s roots date back to 1905 when Joe Watson began selling sandwiches out of his house. He later added fish to the menu, and sales soared.

In 1931, Watson literally moved the building that housed his business to East 27th Street and named it the Lassis Inn. In 1957, the building had to be moved back 12 feet to allow room for the construction of what’s now Interstate 30.

Washington bought the business in 1990 and has been there almost every day since, cooking some of this state’s best buffalo ribs, catfish steaks and catfish filets. The Lassis Inn also has a fine selection of songs on its jukebox, though the sign on the wall notes that there’s “no dancing.”

Then there’s the barbecue shrine at Marianna.

Jones Bar-B-Q Diner has been a part of the Delta food culture for more than a century. The folks at the Southern Foodways Alliance believe it might be the oldest continuously operated black-owned restaurant in the South.

Current owner James Harold Jones says it started with his grandfather’s uncle. His grandfather and father continued the family tradition of slow-smoking pork over hickory, and Jones’ father moved to the current location in 1964. The methods for cooking the barbecue, preparing the slaw and mixing the sauce haven’t changed in more than a century. In 2012, the James Beard Foundation honored Jones Bar-B-Q Diner as one of its American Classics, making it the first Arkansas restaurant to earn a coveted Beard Award.

The award hangs on the wall adjacent to the counter where Jones stands to take orders.

The finely chopped pork, which is smoked just behind the small dining room, comes with a vinegar-based sauce and a mustard-based slaw. It’s served between two pieces of white bread rather than on buns.

The only change in the tiny cinderblock room since the award was presented almost five years ago is that Jones added a guestbook to record the many states from which barbecue aficionados hail. Jones only smokes so much meat each day. When it’s gone, it’s gone, and that’s often before 10 a.m. Some customers making the barbecue pilgrimage to Marianna now arrive as early as 7 a.m. to buy meat by the pound.

The first three Food Hall of Fame restaurants in Arkansas — Rhoda’s Hot Tamales, Lassis Inn and Jones Bar-B-Q Diner — tell us a lot about the culture of a state that has never received the national attention it deserves when it comes to its cuisine.

I can’t imagine a better trio for the inaugural induction class. And I have no doubt that this year’s other nine finalists will be inducted in the years ahead. They also are fine representatives of who we are as Arkansans.

Bruno’s, which is now on Main Street in Little Rock, has its roots in Italy, specifically Naples. Four brothers came to this country from Naples more than a century ago. They brought their style of cooking and baking to New York and Chicago.

One of the brothers was named Giovanni. His son Vincent (better known as Jimmy) was stationed at Camp Robinson during World War II. Jimmy Bruno returned to the state after the war and opened his Little Italy Café in the Levy neighborhood of North Little Rock. Bruno was as good an entertainer as he was a chef. He would spin pizza dough and toss it high into the air to the delight of his customers. He was known to sing loudly in the kitchen. The restaurant has been in several locations through the years, but the recipes remain the same.

Doe’s, meanwhile, was the brainchild of entrepreneur George Eldridge. It opened in 1988. Eldridge, a pilot, had been flying friends for years to the original Doe’s in Greenville, Miss., for steaks and tamales. He paid the Signa family for the rights to use the Doe’s name in Little Rock.

The Little Rock Doe’s became more famous than the original in 1992. That’s because key staffers for Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign began hanging out there on a nightly basis, and the media followed, turning out stories about Lucille Robinson’s work in the kitchen. One of the many photos on the walls of the restaurant features Eldridge and Robinson at Clinton’s presidential inauguration in January 1993.

Cafeterias once were far more common in the state than they are now, and Franke’s helped pioneer the concept in 1924. C.A. Franke opened a doughnut shop on Capitol Avenue in Little Rock in 1919 and built a large bakery on Third Street three years later. His fleet of bakery trucks could be seen across the city as the drivers made home deliveries.

The cafeteria opened downtown near the city’s major department stores and became a favorite of those who worked in the stores and those who shopped downtown. Franke’s, which now has two locations in Little Rock, once had locations in other Arkansas cities. You can still get the cafeteria’s well-known eggplant casserole and egg custard pie.

The other Little Rock restaurant on the list, Sims, dates back to 1937 when Allen and Amelia Sims opened their establishment. After working at the 33rd Street location for many years, Ron Settlers took over the restaurant and expanded the concept to multiple locations. Sims has been featured on numerous television programs and in national magazines through the years.

In Russellville, Feltner’s Whatta-Burger is not to be confused with that Texas-based chain. Bob Feltner once owned the Wonder-Burger near the Arkansas Tech University campus but decided to move over to the Arkansas Avenue portion of Arkansas Highway 7 so he could take advantage of the heavier traffic. Customers have been lining up for the burgers and generous portions of fries there since Thanksgiving Day 1967. The Whatta-Burger has served several generations of Arkansas Tech students along with thousands of people making the trip to and from Fayetteville for University of Arkansas athletic events.

In Springdale, Neal’s Café has been a fixture since 1944. Housed in a distinctive pink building, it’s the place where politicians and business leaders gather for breakfast and where others go for dinners of country cooking such as pan-fried chicken and homemade pies. Neal’s is the type of place that once was common across Arkansas — a gathering spot that brings people together for lively conversations. Arkansas is worse off for the demise of such locally owned businesses. Thank goodness Neal’s is still going strong.

The Kream Kastle opened in July 1952 in the then-booming cotton center of Blytheville when Steven Johns began selling hot dogs out of a small building with only window service. One early ad for the Kream Kastle read: “Take home a sack of six for $1.”

In 1955, Johns added a barbecue pit. The drive-in restaurant is now best known for its pork barbecue sandwiches, referred to in Blytheville as “pig sandwiches.” The restaurant is operated by Johns’ daughter, Suzanne Johns Wallace, and her husband, Jeff Wallace.

The Kream Kastle ranks high on my list of favorite barbecue places in the state, as does Craig’s in DeValls Bluff. In 1947, Lawrence Craig and his brother Wes opened Craig Brothers Café in that community along the White River. Lawrence Craig had learned to cook on a boat on the Mississippi River, and word of his skill at producing fine barbecue soon had people traveling to Craig’s from as far away as Little Rock to the west and Memphis to the east.

As far as national notoriety, McClard’s just might be the most famous Arkansas restaurant of them all. Bill Clinton grew up nearby, and the national media produced a number of stories on McClard’s during Clinton’s eight years as president.

The McClard family was running a tourist court in the 1920s that also included a gas station and a small diner specializing in barbecued goat. A guest at the tourist court was unable to pay his bill but offered instead the recipe for what he claimed was the world’s best barbecue sauce. The family accepted the recipe in lieu of cash payment, made a few changes to it through the years and ended up with a restaurant where waits for seats are common even during the middle of the afternoon. A fourth generation of the McClard family is now working at the restaurant, which is sure to be a future inductee into the Arkansas Food Hall of Fame.

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