Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Exploring Little Rock: A Hidden Gem in the Heart of Arkansas

I spent a lot of time in Little Rock as a kid and a teenager, but, for various completely non-reasons, I took an approximately ten-year hiatus in visiting until last week, when I returned. I’ve been doing some travel in preparation to some Exciting Next Steps work-wise (to be announced). This trip took us from Little Rock up to the far northern reaches of the Arkansas Ozarks, with stops in exotic locales like Leslie, Mountain View, Yellville, Eureka Springs, Rogers, and Bentonville. As in my other exciting travel articles, I’ll be writing about the fun stuff we got up to, plus the urban context in which it is situated. I’ve reserved the nerdy academic urbanist content for a sidebar article, which will be published soon. We begin our trip in Little Rock!

The Empress, an 1888 B&B located in the Hornicutt Mansion in the historic Quapaw Quarter of Little Rock, Arkansas. The neighborhood is one of the few remaining relatively intact sections of the city, which has been sliced and diced from urban freeway construction in the midcentury, and has suffered from rampant demolition for sites that have since become– wait for it- surface parking lots! Quapaw is nonetheless verdant, comfortable, and completely gorgeous.

Lodging in the Historic Quapaw Quarter

Our travel sponsor graciously put us up in an award-winning bed and breakfast, the Empress, that absolutely blew our minds– and blew away our expectations. Located a stone’s throw from the governor’s mansion in the historic Quapaw Quarter off south Main, the 1888 Hornibrook Mansion, as she is also known, had a storied history– mostly not as a single-family residence owing to the tragic early death of its owner not terribly long after completing it.

Our lovely hosts gave us a full tour of the house, which is chock full of bizarre curiosities ranging from taxidermied pheasants to a full library of whose books the guests are free to avail themselves. (No mummies or anything, nor suits of armor, but some great artwork!). We even got to check out the attic, where a secret room in the turret once hosted late night card games, and I nerded out about the HVAC system that had mostly been installed decades before under previous ownership before the mansion was used as accommodations. A stellar breakfast was served on the veranda and our hosts were amazing.

The spacious bedroom included mostly historic fixtures and furniture and a bed that was perfect for two weary travelers.

South Main Street (SoMa)

Little Rock’s South Main Street– branded as SoMa, no doubt by some brilliant economic development maven who apparently was unaware that there seems to be a SoMa in damn near every other city in the country at this point- is a verdant commercial strip that has seen a substantial amount of new investment in recent years. New housing? A bit of that! Not so much, perhaps– it was a bit hard to figure out the pulse of real estate development in the city. More on this toward the end of the article, because I’m trying to write about the things people actually want to read.

The ESSE Purse Museum was well worth a visit even for a non-fashionista, taking visitors through over a century of women’s styles, ranging from the completely extravagant to the quotidian. There are also a bunch of fun shops– plus, of course, ample food and coffee most days of the week. We also stopped by a farmer’s market at the Bernice Garden (10:00-14:00 in the warmer months on Sundays), which is a sort of outdoor pavilion and mini-park. It’s more crafts and prepared foods than farmery, but you can definitely get your fix!

Pizza at Raduno in Little Rock, Arkansas on South Main. Days later, I’m salivating.

Snacks On Deck: Burgerbanism in Little Rock

My Little Rock family has a puzzlingly resolute dedication to a couple of (frankly decent) restaurants located a stone’s throw from one another, including La Hacienda (⭑⭑⭑⭑⭑, real Mexican food but palatable for people who don’t particularly care about real Mexican food, 3024 Cantrell Rd. Little Rock, AR 72202) and barbecue mainstay Whole Hog Café (⭑⭑⭑⭑⭑, 2516 Cantrell Rd.). Lady A and I also dined at Raduno Brick Oven and Barroom (⭑⭑⭑⭑⭑, 1318 S Main St, Little Rock, AR 72202).

Whole Hog does a great job on both sauces and barbecue. The barbecue is a solid 3/5 or 4/5 stars, but five would be a stretch, except I thought the brisket– served pulled instead of in slab format- was quite good. The baked beans were lackluster, but I’ll forgive them this for excellent service and otherwise great barbecue. At Hacienda, we enjoyed our camaraones/tostadas/tortas, as well as the fact that we were probably the only people at Hacienda enjoying micheladas (the server seemed genuinely excited that we had ordered them).

Little Rock’s South Main Neighborhood Impresses on Cuisine

But starting out in SoMa, Raduno took the cake, no pun intended. We sat out on the streetside deck/patio and enjoyed a familiar sight of brilliantly maintained vintage cars driving up and down the strip on a warm evening. Our charming server convincing us to try the Spicy Pep Pep brick oven pizza (pomodoro, pepperoni, peppadew, jalapeno, onion, mozz, parmesan, pesto, $18), plus the arancini ($9). Our server confirmed one of the suggestions I had received of a great karaoke bar downtown that I had originally proposed visiting, but we didn’t make it that far, and ended up turning in early and were out like Sarah Huckabee Sanders in 2027.

After dinner at Raduno, we strolled down the street to Rock Town Distillery (⭑⭑⭑⭑⭑, 1201 Main St, Little Rock, AR 72202), which I can comfortably say serves some of the best and most interesting whiskey of any American distillery I’ve ever visited, covering styles ranging from cask-aged and peated whiskeys to weird grain mixes that you don’t usually see outside of places like Koval. Service was great and they have some fun swag, too, plus a full selection of liquor available for purchase (allegedly even bypassing Arkansas’ antediluvian blue laws). Sated and ready for bed after a brisk walk home, we skipped– but returned the following week to- ice cream shop Loblolly’s across the street (⭑⭑⭑⭑⭑), which serves a couple dozen varieties, both ordinary and exotic, including a wildberry poptart-inspired one with which I was particularly obsessed. We later hit up Le Pops Gourmet Ice Lollies, which was a fantastic coda to an evening hiking around the park lands around the Arkansas River.

If you’re wondering where the more critical restaurant reviews are, our culinary experience in northern Arkansas was perhaps less than illustrious (although we were prepared for this).

The earlier reference to a “travel sponsor” should not imply that any businesses featured in this article contributed financially to this article (indeed, they did not!). For more information about visiting Little Rock, the capital of Arkansas, please visit the official tourism website. Follow more travel writing from Handbuilt, or the foodie series Burgerbanism.

Nat M. Zorach

Nat M. Zorach, AICP, MBA, is a city planner and energy professional based in Detroit, where he writes about infrastructure, sustainability, tech, and more. A native of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, he attended Grinnell College in Iowa, the Kogod School of Business at American University, the POCACITO transatlantic program, the SISE program at the University of Illinois Chicago, and he is also a StartingBloc Social Innovation Fellow. He enjoys long walks through historic, disinvested Rust Belt neighborhoods at sunset. (Nat's views and opinions are his own and do not represent those of his employer).

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