Edible Culture of Arkansas

How great food can shape a place

By Case Dighero

The narrative of place is designed, devised by a myriad descriptors that reveal authentic insights into not only its inhabitants, but also the day to day practices, happenings, and rituals that ultimately reveal that story.  Edible culture exposes truth about people, space, and time because it echoes not just sustenance paradigms, but also artisanship and community in its purest form.  In my own hometown, there was a recent social media thread that lead a dozen or so of my classmates down a delicious, nostalgic rabbit hole regarding a certain hamburger, dairy joint that has been closed for almost 40 years; and all of us contributing to that digital reminiscence had personal, heartfelt stories about our childhood in that place, during that time, with those people.  It’s precisely those surprising, arbitrary recollections that force us to not only reflect, but to also consider, contemplate what’s happening today, and to understand the importance of the memories that are being made now by the next generation tomorrow.       

The natural state is chock full of great stories that revolve around food history, but perhaps most exciting is the cultural springboard it serves for up and coming communities, chefs, cooks, restaurateurs, and consumers.  Nostalgia is important, but properly using that history to evolve a place in order to better serve the people is nothing short of critical.

It’s a ritual for families all over the state to stop in Lake Village en route to vacations in Louisiana and Florida for Rhoda’s Famous Hot Tamales (714 Saint Mary Street); a small shack with hand painted signs, a rickety entrance, and some of the best travel grub on the planet.  Iconic owner Rhoda Adams has been tying up small bundles of delta tamales for over 30 years, but it’s her flat top burgers and homemade pies that make Rhoda’s Famous a triple threat for hungry travelers and locals alike. Adams maintains her real gift is making pies, and although her half and half offerings of coconut with pecan, chocolate, or sweet potato (my favorite), it’s the dozen delta tamales served in a metal coffee can that have earned Rhoda a spot in the Arkansas Food Hall of Fame.             

Juxtaposed on the opposite side of the state from Lake Village is the shinier, newer Bentonville, donning a badge of contemporary cuisine steeped in southern history.  One of the most authentic, exciting food stories of this region comes from the Rios family, boasting a successful family farm in Rogers, {Bentonville’s blue collar, grittier younger brother – but that’s a whole other story) that serves patrons at the farmers’ market, a thriving food truck off of the Bentonville square, and a brand new brick and mortar Ye-Yo’s Mexican Grill (801 SE 8th Street) located at the 8th Street Market cultural hub.

Rafael Rios, a second generation military veteran and savvy business man, has carved out an important name for himself and family as an important part of the community, steeped in endearing, clean, authentic produce, tacos, and goodwill.  The garden is gorgeous, ran primarily by Rios’ father, but almost every member of the family has a hand in the business, whether it be at the farm, at the food truck, or somewhere at the 8th Street Market location; a prime example of nouveau memories being designed for today’s edible culture.

The Mexican-American population has also played an integral part in the cultural evolution of Springdale, Arkansas; initially attracted to the area in previous decades by big chicken factory work, the hard working community has assimilated beautifully into every part of the city, including civically, culturally.  Team Springdale founder, Amber Perrodin, saw an opportunity to cross pollinate community sectors through creating, promoting the Springdale Taco tour, a social media vehicle for introducing the non-Latin population to the delicious, authentic taquerias peppered throughout the city. Tacos are quickly becoming a favorite food for the region, state, and country; and for good reason, boasting a quick, cheap, authentic experience that is attractive to a wide socio, economic swath of the population.

Texas and Louisiana are famous for housing incredible gas station cuisine, and Arkansas is no exception, offering a slew of roadside filling station eateries that criss-cross just about every major thorough fare, including Kountry Xpress (1107 Georgia Ridge Drive) located in Mulberry just off of I-40 at exit 20.  Sure, Indian fare is expected, evident in more diverse cities like Fayetteville and Little Rock, but there is something altogether astonishing considering a Mulberry convenient store as one of the prime destinations for authentic food that doesn’t focus on catfish, barbeque, or fried chicken.  But Kountry Xpress is a delicious, unexpected culinary outlier for all traveling to get lost on or off the eaten path of Arkansas.

Fort Smith is a complex city with diverse inhabitants that include a thriving Vietnamese population who sought refuge at Fort Chafee after the fall of Saigon in 1975.  Subsequently, the Vietnamese, Muong refugees throughout the region found a permanent place for themselves via strong work ethics, practices in several trades that include farming and restaurant work.  Fort Smith is now home to several Pho restaurants, including Pho Hoang (2111 Grand Avenue) offering exceptional made to order dine-in or take-out food that is as authentic as the people preparing it.  Who would have ever thought that an Arkansas city famous for a “hanging judge” would ultimately become a safe, welcoming sanctuary for Vietnamese refugees making the best pho in the country?

Finally, multi-generational fans still flock to the Venetian Inn (582 West Henri de Tonti Boulevard) restaurant located in the Italian-American community of Tontitown, Arkansas; a dutiful experience that includes weepy, over-dressed green salad, ultra-sweet Post Table Wine, and the iconic Fried Chicken and Spaghetti combination plate that might seem a bit pedestrian for some of today’s more discriminating diners.  Still, one can’t help but contemplate how the Venetian Inn’s early attempt to force an unholy amalgamation between traditional southern fare and Italian pasta was undoubtedly met with trepidation and whispers of edible heresy so many generations before.  And isn’t the Natural State lucky to be the benefactor of just such cultural, edible dissent?  Please, don’t answer with your mouth full…