IT’S A long way to go for lunch. Especially a workday lunch. Especially when you’ve got a smattering of perfectly acceptable luncheries within strolling distance, as we do here at the Arkansas Life HQ. Especially when you’re hungry.
And we’re hungry.
When we walk into Wunderhaus in downtown Conway, right there at the corner of Locust and Oak across from the Toad Suck Daze store, it’s nearing 1:30 p.m. and the mismatched chairs surrounding the mismatched tables are full of diners. A chalkboard tells us the special is meatballs on polenta, and the menus placed in front of us tell us we’re in for something good. Something soul-satisfying. We strategize: One of each, please, and can we go ahead and see the dessert menu? And the kid’s menu? And the wine list? We’re hungry, but we’re also curious. In fact, we haven’t been this curious about a restaurant in a quite some time.
We try to think back to the root of that curiosity. Our creative director, Emma Devine, reasons that it stems from our experiences with Wunderbus, the mobile German eatery that’s been roving Central Arkansas since 2015 and that, as she says, “was seriously the best bratwurst I’ve ever had,” she says. Our editor, Katie Bridges, mentions all the times she’s drooled over the photos on Wunderhaus’ Facebook page. Either way, we’re here now, a solid 45 minutes into our typically one-hour lunch break, and German-ish dishes with cheeky names—the Vlad Poutine, the Silk Road—are starting to fill the table. As if on autopilot, and politesse be damned, we start dipping our forks into one another’s orders.
There’s a flurry of Mmmmmmms and Ohmygoshes and You’ve got to try thises as we pass plates around the table, and then there’s silence. Soon, we’re using butter knives and pickled-okra garnishes to sop up what’s left of the beer-cheese sauce here and the slow-simmered curry over there. Plates that had been masterpieces—tidy piles of pink pickled radishes, spoonfuls of golden polenta, a tangle of lettuce so fresh we’d watched them carry it inside—have been reduced to smears.
“This is the best meal I’ve had in a long time,” senior editor Jordan Hickey says, his finger swiping the last of the bourbon caramel off our now-empty dessert plate. “And it’s lunch. In Conway.” He rolls his eyes in a way that communicates the way we’re all feeling, which is this: insanely jealous.
IT’S A long way to go for dinner, though no arms needed twisting when the subject of an evening Wunderhaus excursion was broached.
“I mean if we have to … ” Emma said.
“I mean if we have to … ” Jordan said.
We had to.
When we arrive, the sun’s going down. On the patio, strands of cafe lights glow along the underside of what gives every appearance of having been a gas station in a previous life. As was the case at lunch, almost every seat is taken. A pair of girls-night-outers wait just inside the door, and a table of nine, plates cleared, linger over glasses of white wine that are emptied only to be refilled again. We’re not surprised. Everything about this place, from the food to its atmosphere, seems as though it’s been tailored to invite such behavior—to invite long-winded, post-dinner discussions that outlast the sinking of the sun.
Scanning the dinner line-up, it’s clear that the “slow food” in the “slow food establishment” disclaimer typed at the bottom of the menu isn’t lip service—this is Eastern-European soul food that straddles the line between creative and homey, like something you’d eat at your cool steam-punk grandma’s. The meatballs—which are just the most perfect appetizer ever—confirm our hunch that this is food that takes time, and tastes like it.
As we’re finishing up, the server approaches our table and reaches for Emma’s plate.
“Do you want me to—” the server starts to say.
“Noooooooo,” Emma says through a partially full mouth. The server, a younger woman, appears somewhat startled at first, almost taking a step back, her eyes just the slightest bit widened. To anyone who hasn’t had a bite of said meatballs, Emma’s response might come as a surprise, especially seeing as the last few morsels of beef and green-garlic sauce would barely make a spoonful. But as the server’s next words suggest, this is not an uncommon response.
“I always ask and people are always like, no, no, no,” she says with a laugh.
A few minutes later, she returns to take the plate. Once she’s out of sight, Emma confesses, “I licked the spoon.”
There are several instances throughout the evening when one of us will take a bite of food, and you can see it light up the eater’s face as if they were a pinball machine. Eyes flutter, flit askance and then roll back. The sauce on the meatballs does this. The polenta does this. The panna cotta does this. It’s all about the sauces here. In a word, as Emma says, the sauce is boss.
“You don’t want your food to end,” Arshia says as she stabs a piece of spring mix from her salad, picking it apart one leaf at a time.
Apparently we’re not the only ones who feel this way, as the kitchen’s closed and yet no one’s budging. Stars are out, and a cool breeze blows. As we sit back in our chairs, all contented smiles and drowsy eyes, the table of nine readies itself to leave.
IT’S A long way to go for a glass of rosé, but we’ve got to get to the bottom of this. Food this special—food that we wax poetic about for days after the plates have been cleared, food that tastes like a splurge and yet still feels like home—can only come from special people. And we need to meet those people.
There are actually four of those people: Jacqueline Smith and her brother, Auguste Forrester, and their respective spouses, Jason Smith and Kacy Forrester. The foursome is so close that they had baby girls—and this wasn’t “planned”—within 27 hours of each other. Those girls, now 3 years old and as close as sisters, are the reason Wunderhaus exists, we’ll soon learn.
The lunch rush is over when we settle in for a chat with Jacqueline and Jason. Sunlight pours in through the factory windows behind the bar, and the dining room’s aglow. “Do you like pink?” Jacqueline asks, gathering a few stemmed glasses. We do, we say, and Jason procures a bottle of Austrian rosé.
Between sips, Jacqueline and Jason tell us the story of how we came to be sitting at this table—their old dining room table, BTW—as only married couples can do. They’d daydreamed about it for a while, starting a business they all could share. Jacqueline and Jason had both worked in the food-and-wine industry—Jacqueline at Natchez and The Root Cafe, Jason at Ferneau and as a wholesale wine seller—and had been longing to create a space that would allow them to support local farmers and to celebrate their German and Northern European heritages. The two babies-on-the-way provided the motivation the couple’s needed to make a move. Shortly after the girls were born, Wunderbus was born, with Jacqueline and Auguste at the helm.
But Wunderbus was never the end goal. It was a great start, sure—people loved it (we were among them). But the truck was hot and had two burners and no storage. It had a manual transmission and drove like a tank. And it couldn’t support two families. But Jacqueline had her eye on a place that might be able to: a place in downtown Conway that had been a service station with a little burger joint inside. She could see past the garishly bright industrial lights; she could see past the painted-on flames that circled the exterior. And as was the case so often in Wunderhaus’ early days, it all just kinda fell into place. In 2017, it was theirs. They opened their doors last September.
It’s the space itself that can tell you the story of what’s happened since then. We kick back in our seats and listen as Jacqueline and Jason tell us about the authentic German beer steins a patron donated—“he wouldn’t take anything in return!”—and about the German plaque a lady brought by with instructions to “put it right there.” (Jason translates it for us: Bless this home and all who come and go.) Jacqueline points out the chairs that used to be in Kacy and Auguste’s dining room, the vintage emerald-green sofa she got for a song at a local thrift store that “was just a sign that this was meant to be.” It’s a hodgepodge of family and friends and community, all supporting each other. Making the most of what they have. Creating a place that lives. Which was the point.
The other point? Supporting local farms, and making food they’d be proud to serve their own families. Listening to Jacqueline talk about where their ingredients come from is almost like listening to gospel. The chicken we had on the salad? That came from Rabbit Ridge farms in Bee Branch, and it’s higher in protein and lower in fat than industrialized chickens and tastes almost nutty and she feels good that she knows how it was treated. The lettuce in that salad? That came from Calvert Enterprises in nearby Greenbrier, and Jacqueline enjoys hearing about how that farmer’s crops are doing, because if his herbs are bolting then hers likely will, too.
“Our goal as a restaurant and as a business is to make people feel like not only did they have food that was whole and not adulterated by fillers and preservatives and a bunch of … stuff,” says Jacqueline, “but that was made with love and thoughtfully prepared and artfully plated, and in a setting that makes you feel like you’re not just in a restaurant, but you’re somewhere that’s your place. You know?”
Yes. We know.
“Oh goodness,” she says, dabbing her eyes, sensing herself getting emotional. “I’m going to blame it on the wine … “
Our glasses are empty and it’s time to head out—there’s no dinner service tonight, but the kitchen’s still abuzz. There’s bratwurst to stew, steak to brine, curry paste to make, because tomorrow, this dining room will be full again. People will drive in from Russellville, Hendrix folks will stop by after exams, regulars will swing by to see what’s on special. Heck, we might make the haul ourselves.
It’s a long way to go, but it’ll be worth it.