Al Seraj Mediterranean Restaurant
11400 N. Rodney Parham Road, Little Rock; (501) 954-2026
Aside from belly-dancing music and the savory aroma wafting from the vertical broiler, there’s another thing the folks at Al Seraj get right: They can whip up a mighty fine shawarma sandwich. We’ll be honest: It’s a messy affair—a sauce-dripping-down-elbow, mouth-hovering-close-to-plate kind of situation. But if it’s between making a good impression on a first date or eating Al Seraj’s pita sandwiches uninhibited, we’ll always pick the latter.
You’re getting: Plan all you want, but the truth is that you’ll change your mind once you’re there. Can’t decide? Nibble on a bit of everything during the lunch buffet, offered 11 a.m. to 3 p.m for just $10.
Anthony’s Italian Restaurant
3115 Cavanaugh Road, Fort Smith; (479) 222-6808
Served in an Olive Garden atmosphere without the high school memories and pricey menus (but very much with the same guilt induced by a death-by-carb-type situation), Anthony’s portions are generous, the waiters are friendly, and the food is reliably delicious. And although it’s quite a challenge to get to—one of those I-can-see-it-but-I-can’t-reach-it situations—it’s well worth a couple of loops around the block.
You’re getting: Spaghetti smothered in rich meat sauce. Or order the special, and get $2 off a bottle of wine. (That’ll likely bump the cap above $20. But booze.)
Morina’s Italian Restaurant
2006 S. Pine St., Cabot; (501) 941-7000
Set against a brown-and-beige-hued backdrop decorated with framed Da Vinci prints and photographs of Italy’s tourist attractions, Morina’s serves the kind of no-frills Italian comfort food that we’d want on a Friday night. Sure, it’s a bit of drive from Little Rock. But that basket of glistening bread rolls ushered in upon arrival (and, to our diets’ dismay, periodically refilled)? Totally worth the pilgrimage. (If you’re looking to stay a little closer to Little Rock, there’s always Morina’s sister restaurant, Roma’s, in Jacksonville.)
You’re getting: The Diavolo, a chicken breast sautéed with garlic and shallots on a bed of spaghetti—a little spicy, a little creamy and all around delicious.
31 E. Center St., Suite 101, Fayetteville; (479) 443-3090
What this teensy cafe—like, three-tables teensy—off the Fayetteville Square lacks in size, it more than makes up for in big, fresh flavors. Owner Saleh Faur makes the kind of food that not only tasted good back in your hungover college days (think: herb-studded tabbouleh, zippy tahini sauce and plump falafel), but also still holds up years later.
You’re getting: The Petra Platter—falafel (“think Mediterranean hush puppy here,” says the menu), tabbouleh and baba ghanoush—when it’s on special. Oh, heck. Even when it’s not.
Leo’s Greek Castle
2925 Kavanaugh Blvd., Little Rock; (501) 666-7414
Dump your heat-and-eat, cardboard-scented frozen falafels, and try some authentic offerings. Because here’s the deal: They’re practically the same price at Leo’s Greek Castle—and with this Hillcrest institution’s cozy atmosphere and 75-cent PBRs, you’ll feel right at home.
You’re getting: Anything enveloped in that warm flatbread—be it falafel or generous hunks of gyro meat topped with cool, creamy tzatziki.
1517 Rebsamen Park Road, Little Rock; (501) 664-6133 | 14710 Cantrell Road, Little Rock; (501) 868-2600
It’s true: There’s a lot of good pizza in Arkansas—some of which is on our “Top Five” list above; some of which didn’t quite make the “cheap-eats” cut. So why this place? For starters, that crust—so good that Pizza Cafe offers up honey on the side so you can make the most of every last bite. And then there’s the super-fresh, chock-full-of-veggies salads—not an iota of iceberg in sight. And then there’s the clever specialty pizzas … you get the gist.
You’re getting: One of the specialty pizzas (that’s the Mediterranean and the Mexican in the photo at left) and a Freaks & Geeks salad with house vinaigrette to share.
Salt & Pepper Middle Eastern Restaurant
9700 N. Rodney Parham Road, Little Rock; (501) 246-5002
When we first popped into Salt & Pepper, casting a sidelong glance at Cupid’s Lingerie’s scantily clad mannequins next door, the foul—that fava bean dip often considered Egypt’s national dish—was a no-brainer. Also a no-brainer: scooping it up and shoveling it down with the eatery’s medium-pizza-sized, hot-to-the-touch “special” Iraqi bread (so special we had to order seconds and thirds).
You’re getting: The aforementioned dip and bread. And the chicken tikka. Oh, and lentil soup. (You’ll have no choice in the matter, nor should you. The soup is delicious, free and served in an ornate, antique-y silver bowl—very Instagram-worthy.)
Multiple locations; laylasgyro.com
There’s nothing special about the ambiance at Layla’s, but everything special about the calzones. These pizzas-with-a-roof are hearty offerings, the kind that make you consider forgoing your dinner-and-a-movie plans and just heading home to bed. But there’s always some Turkish coffee, served in an ibrik (aka cool-looking copper pot), to perk you up long enough to end the evening on a sweet note (aka Layla’s baklava).
You’re getting: The gyro calzone. Duh. Stuffed with gooey cheese and gyro meat, the piping-hot pocket of goodness is the most popular item on the menu.
Tangiers Mediterranean Food & Cafe
2800 N. College Ave., Fayetteville; (479) 301-2211
Nestled in a stucco-facaded strip mall that hardly suggests the vibrancy of Moroccan cuisine is some killer food worthy of a name like “Tangiers.” Take the chicken curry kebab gyro, for instance—a trip to the Mediterranean with a pit stop in South Asia. Or the desserts scribbled above “sold out” on the chalkboard menu, like ladyfingers and baklava prepared by the experienced hands of a Moroccan baker.
You’re getting: That chicken curry kebab or a kefta gyro with soft pita and juicy meat. And the fries … oh, the fries.
Venezia’s Pizza & Pasta
1321 E. Main St., Russellville; (479) 968-2588
A gem that’s by no means hidden, Venezia’s screams Italian with its boldly striped red, green and white roof. But you’ll quickly forget about all that when you dig into dishes that seem to transcend the tacky exterior—and perhaps even justify it. (You’ll also ignore the wide-eyed gondolier judgmentally staring from the wall mural as you wolf down two baskets of house-baked, fresh-from-the-oven rolls before the waitress even takes your order.)
You’re getting: Cannelloni stuffed with creamy ricotta, beef and spinach tucked under a blanket of melty Parmesan and a hearty eggplant Parmigiana, both served with a side salad during lunch. Yum’s the word.