How to eat American
2515 Rogers Ave., Fort Smith; (479) 782-8181
With fantastic sweet-potato pancakes, classic breakfast fare (eggs any-way-you-want-them! Cheese-covered hash browns!) and a reputation for some of the best burgers around, we can see why some people never want to leave this Fort Smith staple. Good thing it’s one of the state’s few 24/7 operations.
You’re getting: The Big Mama. And maybe a fork and extra napkins. (When faced with a heap of Swiss cheese, tomatoes, sautéed and fresh onions, mushrooms and bacon on top of a half-pound patty, you’ll need ’em.)
Cotham’s Mercantile and Cotham’s in the City
5301 Arkansas 161, Scott; (501) 961-9284 | 1401 W. Third St., Little Rock; (501) 370-9177
Though the original Cotham’s Mercantile in Scott is just a year shy of its 100th birthday, it’s only been serving food for a paltry 32 years. What is the crowning achievement of three decades’ worth of country cooking? The Hubcap Burger, which features as many 1-pound, 8-inch patties as you dare to order. (It doesn’t take an etymologist to see how the beast got its name.)
You’re getting: A side of Cotham’s famous double-dipped onion rings for the table—or yourself. (This is a judgment-free list.)
250 E. Military Drive, North Little Rock; (501) 747-2193
The menu may be small—just two pages of breakfast and lunch items that include overstuffed omelets, biscuits and gravy, and a burger topped with grape jelly, jalapeños and a fried egg—but the dishes at this North Little Rock diner are as delicious as they are colossal. And about the grape jelly on that burger, trust us: You won’t regret it.
You’re getting: Don’t trust us? The Train Wreck omelet is stuffed with peppers, onions, garlic, spinach, ham and sausage. And it’s served all day.
2120 Grand Ave., Fort Smith; (479) 785-1199
You know the diner from Seinfeld? Had the seminal show been set in Fort Smith instead of NYC (long shot, we know), Jerry and the gang would have almost certainly spent their days hanging out at George’s, fighting their way through the piles of hand-cut fries that tower over every burger and sandwich at this much-adored dive.
You’re getting: Pie. And if you don’t think you can stomach dessert after one of George’s award-winning burgers and that mountain of fries, forget the burger and head straight for the sweet stuff.
25 1/2 N. Block Ave., Fayetteville; (479) 521-7585
No list of Arkansas dives would be complete without Hugo’s, which, thanks to nearly 40 years and untold generations of U of A students and faculty, probably has the biggest following of any restaurant in the state. But it’s not nostalgia that keeps ’em coming to this basement off the Fayetteville Square. It’s the mix of classic bar food and original takes on crêpes, quiche and more.
You’re getting: The Derek’s Special, because this stack of marinated chicken, Swiss, bacon and honey mustard is flawless (and not just because it’s my editor’s college favorite).
Jimmy’s Serious Sandwiches
5116 W. Markham St., Little Rock; (501) 666-3354
Forget that other Jimmy. For more than 30 years, this fast-casual sandwich shop on Markham Street in Little Rock has been serving some of the country’s best sandwiches, and Jimmy’s has the hardware to prove it. The Garden—a gloriously tasty combination of spinach pâté, sunflower seeds, Swiss, cheddar, provolone and sautéed mushrooms—won the National Sandwich Idea Contest in 1979 and has been the restaurant’s best-seller ever since. Meat-lovers need not fret, however; the menu is packed with carnivorous creations.
You’re getting: Um, The Garden? Did you not read that it’s a freakin’ national champion?
10809 Executive Center Drive, Plaza 2, Little Rock; (501) 223-2257
The first time we tried to find this fresh-ingredients-focused deli and grill, we ended up walking around a nondescript west Little Rock office building for the better part of half an hour. (Pro tip: The P in the elevator stands for plaza, not parking. Press it.) But our perseverance was rewarded with a hearty bowl of lemon-pepper pasta. It’s the deli’s modestly priced, imaginative sandwiches, however, that keep us coming back.
You’re getting: A hoagie stuffed with spicy roast beef, grilled mushrooms, jalapeños, onions, lettuce and tomatoes and done up with “special sauce.”
Terri-Lynn’s Bar-B-Q & Delicatessen
10102 Rodney Parham Road, Little Rock; (501) 227-6371
With its housemade tamales and wonderfully tangy barbecue sandwiches, this beloved west Little Rock hole in the wall could have easily scored a spot on our list of best down-home joints. But since it has deli concoctions like The Sharon—fresh smoked turkey, pepper jack cheese and coleslaw topped with mayo and horseradish mustard on an onion roll—that really put this former local grocery on the map, our reviewer tackling this section was more than happy it ended up in his queue.
You’re getting: The Sharon. But if that doesn’t sound like your thing, don’t be afraid to build your own sandwich from the restaurant’s selection of house-smoked deli meats.
The Root Cafe
1500 S. Main St., Little Rock; (501) 414-0423
Locavores, rejoice! Just because you want a juicy, drip-through-your-fingers burger doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice fresh, locally sourced ingredients at this Little Rock brunch-and-lunch icon. And vegetarians, if you’ve managed to make it this far down the list without turning the page for greener pastures, here’s your reward: The Root’s vegetarian and vegan options, such as its spicy tofu banh mi and shiitake mushroom eggs Benedict, could convert a carnivore.
You’re getting: Whatever’s on special, because seeing chef Jack Sundell’s innovative limited editions head to someone else’s table might tempt you into grand-theft brunch.
Walker’s Wings and Things
136 Silver St., Hot Springs; (501) 282-0538
Though created in the spirit of Arkansas’ historic dairy bars, this walk-up and cash-only neighborhood joint in Hot Springs opened in 2014. And while, yes, the wings are some of the best around, it’s the “things”—juicy burgers, perfectly fried catfish, succulent pork chops—that really make Walker’s shine.
You’re getting: Three pieces of fish, two wings, fries, coleslaw and hush puppies—aka The Combo Special.