425 W. Capitol Ave., Little Rock; (501) 227-0860
Sometimes, when, say, you’re putting together a feature on the state’s 50 best low-budget eateries, you just can’t eat out anymore. And then you forget your Tupperwared homemade sandwich and are therefore forced to pop into this Indian eatery in the lobby of downtown Little Rock’s Simmons Tower for lunch, and you have an epiphany: Some places are just so good—like, so good—that it tastes like you’re not eating out at all. And that Tupperware might just be, um, forgotten again tomorrow. And then forever.
You’re getting: The combo—“veg” or “nonveg”—so you can sample two or three (a third is just 50 cents extra) of the dishes on the day’s menu. And if that menu includes fried cauliflower or spicy chicken vindaloo, by all means.
Chang Thai and Asian Cuisine
9830 Arkansas 107, Sherwood; (501) 835-4488
There are people—you know who you are—who say, “There’s no good Thai food in Little Rock.” Those people have not been to Chang Thai. Sure, it’s in Sherwood, which, you know, isn’t technically Little Rock proper—but we’d be willing to drive miles and miles and miles for a spoonful of that panang curry. And often do.
You’re getting: An order of meing kham, for starters: ginger, toasted coconut, cashew, fried shallot, lime and tamarind-coconut sauce, all wrapped up in a grass-green betel leaf.
600 N. Tyler St., Little Rock; (501) 352-3549
It might not come as a surprise that a man with a name like “Richard Glasgow” isn’t Thai. (Nor is he Scottish.) But he spent New Year’s in Thailand. And he speaks Thai (kind of). And he hacks open the papayas he uses for his ohmygod-good papaya salad with a machete. In other words: He’s hellbent on making the dishes he cooks up in his Hillcrest kitchen as close to the real thing as possible. And it shows.
You’re getting: Green papaya salad. Tom kha gai, a creamy chicken-and-coconut soup. Pad Thai. Pork skewers. Oh, heck—just order one of everything off Glasgow’s hand-scrawled white-board menu.
Khana Indian Grill
2101 N. College Ave., Fayetteville; (479) 287-4736
It’s not so often that a “cheap eats” restaurant offers cocktails. Or craft beers. Or live-edge wood tables. Or imported punched-tin pendant lamps. But while there’s ambiance aplenty at Fayetteville’s new-ish Khana Indian Grill, it’s the food—made with seasonal, local ingredients whenever possible—that’s the real star. Light and bright, this is Indian food modernized. (And, yes, that’s a custom rickshaw parked out front, hand-painted by street artists in India.)
You’re getting: The bhel puri—a tangle of puffed rice, peanuts, cucumber, radish, chickpeas, green chilies and tamarind chutney.
Mr. Chen’s Authentic Chinese Cooking
3901 S. University Ave., Little Rock; (501) 562-7900
Word of warning: Mr. Chen is a prolific cook and offers up a (somewhat overwhelming) laundry list of Chinese dishes at his South University Avenue dining room. But while the usual suspects are all very much present—Kung Pao shrimp, lo mein, General Tso’s—it’s dishes like his Taiwanese-style braised pork, pan-fried turnip cakes and steamed buns that separate Chen’s food from the rest. Added bonus: If you’re inspired by what’s on your table, you can purchase imported ingredients in the adjoining grocery.
You’re getting: That braised pork dish, an order of the sweet-and-sour roast duck and a cache of broth-oozing steamed buns for the table.
5501 Asher Ave., Little Rock; (501) 562-1515
With palm-tree murals, a disco ball and the Biebs on repeat, it’s safe to say southwest Little Rock’s Mike’s Cafe is a bright, cheerful kind of place. Which is only fitting, given that the Vietnamese flavors coming out of its kitchen are, well, exceedingly bright and cheerful. Mint-studded spring rolls; an easy-to-love pho; rice vermicelli perked up by fish sauce, lime and chilies—this is a light take on comfort food you’ll be craving on the regular.
You’re getting: Bun thit nu’ong: luscious, lacquered pork on rice vermicelli with all the fixings. And the banh mi—at $3.50, Mike’s stellar version of the French-Vietnamese mash-up has to be one of the best values in the state. OR THE WORLD.
2214 Rogers Ave., Fort Smith; (479) 782-3227
You’ll come across it several times in this feature, that whole don’t-judge-a-book-by-its-cover thing. But seriously: Don’t. Especially if said “book” is gas-station-turned-Vietnamese-restaurant Pho Vietnam in Fort Smith. Because if you were to pass on the place based on its questionable aesthetic choices—notably, the mishmash of barnyard figurines and aquariums, or the cardboard boxes of supplies haphazardly stacked around the room—you’d be missing out on a beefy, brothy bowl of goodness well worthy of a jaunt up Interstate 40. (Word to the wise: Bring cash.)
You’re getting: The combination pho—a slurpable bowl brimming with beef tenderloin, brisket and meatballs.
219 W. Capitol Ave., Little Rock; (501) 313-5645
We, like legions of our fellow Little Rockers, cried happy tears when it was announced back in 2014 that this beloved Asian-Southern-fusion food truck was putting down brick-and-mortar roots downtown. But we were happier than most because the West Capitol Avenue location meant we’d be a mere two-block stroll from those sticky, savory buns we hold so dear. And the shrimp and grits. And that spicy-but-oh-so-delightful chicken-and-dumplings bowl.
You’re getting: Balinese chicken buns with cilantro-honey vinaigrette or one of those clever Asian spins on Southern favorites, like the “Grilled Kimcheese.”
Three Fold Noodles & Dumpling Co.
215 Center St., Little Rock; (501) 372-1739
“Minimalist.” We’re going with “minimalist.” We thought about calling this Chinese eatery’s menu “small,” but really, it’s just well-edited. Because when a restaurant’s noodles, steamed buns and dumplings—those are your three choices, topped or filled with your choice of chicken, pork or tofu—are this good, who needs options? (And just in case you do, there’s a rotating “seasonal” dish, too.)
You’re getting: Whatever’s labeled on the chalkboard as “seasonal”—on a recent visit, that meant a warming noodle soup with braised beef shank. Oh, and an order of sesame balls to go.
Thep Thai Restaurant
1525 S. School Ave., Fayetteville; (479) 443-0029
Those Kaffir lime leaves in your green curry? If it’s spring or summer, chances are they were plucked from the koi-pond-dotted garden surrounding this south Fayetteville Thai spot. But garden-fresh herbs and vegetables aren’t the only thing separating this from the other Thai options nearby: Thep also offers a lovely covered patio and a killer beer menu to boot.
You’re getting: Fresh Thai basil rolls and a bowl of tom kha gai brimming with lemongrass, lime leaves and tomatoes—in order to make the most of the owner’s green thumbs.