I’VE ALWAYS thought that there was something strange about being in a restaurant before it opens for the day, about watching the napkins get folded and the cooks prepping for service. It feels voyeuristic, like you’re seeing something you shouldn’t, like there’s some bit of magic in the rhythmic clinking of knives and pans that was never meant for your ears. But still, as much as you might feel like an interloper, there’s something about seeing behind the curtain of hospitality, about seeing what gears make up our mighty restaurant machines, that is, to me at least, intoxicating.
I felt that same I shouldn’t be here, but I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else feeling a few weeks ago on a bright Monday afternoon when I caught Cesar Bordon-Avalos cutting tomatoes in Dos Rocas. He was standing at the bar, his knife pirouetting in and out of the little red fruits. Slice, slice, slice and turn, slice, slice, slice and into a bowl. Around him, the restaurant’s cavernous dining room stood chapel-like in its stillness—chairs, their legs reaching skyward, upended on tables—a monastic contrast to the raucous restaurant I’d visited just a few nights before. Then, every table had been full, servers racing between them carrying trays of tacos and margaritas. Music played overhead, and occasionally, the electric crack of a broken rack from the pool table would drown out the sound of a hundred conversations. But not this day. There was only Cesar and his knife—the steady tick-chink of the blade on the cutting board, the subtle thud of the tomatoes falling into the bowl. It seemed as though I had caught the restaurant in a very long exhale.
“Pico,” he said, when I asked him what he was making. He was working in a quiet hurry, trying to use the restaurant’s one closed weekday to get ahead of the rush he knew would come the next day. “A lot of places will close maybe at 2 p.m. or 3 p.m., but we’re open from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., so we have to prepare it all up front,” he said. Deeper in the kitchen, the rest of the crew prepped salsa and practiced pastel-making in preparation for when the restaurant opened for the week. He admitted he didn’t expect Dos Rocas’ newfound popularity. “You hope that people like what you do, but,” he said, shrugging his shoulders, “I didn’t think we’d be this busy.”
With hour-long waits and the seemingly endless sea of full tables that greeted staff members in their first few weeks of business, “busy” is an understatement. It’s not surprising, given the capital city’s love of Latin foods (the ratio of people to Mexican restaurants in Little Rock appears to be quickly approaching 1-to-1), especially not when you consider that the team behind Dos Rocas is also behind neighboring Main Street darling The Root Cafe.
Owned by husband-and-wife team Jack and Corri Sundell, The Root Cafe reigns as Little Rock’s undisputed brunch champion and focuses on sourcing their ingredients almost exclusively from local farms. The cafe delivers on the promise that “locally grown” and “farm to table” aren’t just buzzwords, but are, instead, bankable business philosophies. Cesar, a native of Paraguay, began working there as a dishwasher and, before long, was helping in the kitchen.
Cesar nodded at Jack, who’d joined us from the kitchen. “We talked for maybe three years about opening a restaurant, but I never thought it would be Latino food.” (One of their first ideas? Fried chicken.)
“We wanted it to be the kind of bar that we’d like to go to when we got off work,” Jack said, as we all took a seat in front of the dining room’s massive windows. They both loved the concept of a bar with an in-residence food truck, and it wasn’t long before they settled on the idea of presenting an “indoor taco truck” to diners.
For Jack and Cesar, along with their respective wives, who are also partners in the business, the mission of Dos Rocas quickly became to broaden the concept of what their guests might think of when it comes to Latin American food. Even the restaurant’s name, Dos Rocas, two rocks, is a subtle nod to Cesar’s two hometowns. Itá, Paraguay (“rock” in the local Guarani dialect) and Little Rock. “There’s this entire world of food and beverage … that exists that we haven’t been exposed to yet,” Jack said. And it’s true, especially so in Little Rock, where the culinary landscape seems to end at Mexico’s southern border, or more often the southern border of Texas. “A lot of people,” he added, “don’t even think of Latin American food as an ethnic food anymore.”
With that in mind, the owners made sure to include certain staples on their menu. There are the requisite guacamole and queso, both of which are delicious, along with tacos and quesadillas. But where Dos Rocas shines brightest is when it strays into the unfamiliar (to most Arkansans, at least). Pastel de mandioca, a kind of Paraguayan savory fried pie, earned its central spot on the small menu, but Cesar rolled his eyes when I asked about them. “They’re so difficult to make,” he said of the multihour, multistep process. “Before we opened, I said to Jack that no one’s going to order them because no one has ever heard of them,” Cesar said.
“And now we’re running out nightly and struggling to keep up with the demand,” Jack finished for him.
Even though making a pastel is tedious, Cesar admitted that it’s his favorite menu item to make. “They’re so sensitive,” he said. “They just fall apart.” The process involves boiling yucca roots, then sending them through a meat grinder. The resulting mashed potatolike dough is then flattened into tortillalike discs before being pressed around a savory ground-beef and pepper filling. The final product is then fried and served hot. “If one step is just a little bit off, it doesn’t work,” he said.
Their commitment to authenticity extends even to the foundation of their most popular menu items: their array of street tacos. “Almost everybody’s had a Mexican street taco,” Jack said, “but how many people have had them on scratch-made tortillas that are less than two hours old?” (Each day, the staff prepares some 400 corn tortillas for that night’s dinner service.)
That same commitment to authentically reflecting Central and South America extends to their bar as well—but there, they ran into a roadblock. They’d planned an extensive tap list and even larger canned-beer list, only to discover that in Arkansas, there were no canned beers available from Latin America outside Mexico. If something as ubiquitous as Latin American beer is nonexistent in Arkansas, it made Jack question what else we might be missing from that part of the world. “What does that say about our awareness of what it means when we say ‘Latina America’?” Jack asked. It’s something he hopes he can change in the future—both the lack of native beer and the local perception of Latin American food (to be clear, there is plenty of beer available at Dos Rocas, with 16 taps open on a given night).
“You know,” he said, “there’s some great Latin American food here in Little Rock, but none of it downtown or in the Heights or Hillcrest. You have to drive to find it. We’re just looking to change that.”