In the Local Palate‘s 2023 Restaurants Issue, our state-by-state guide highlights the new restaurants that have emerged since 2022. Here, Arkansas writer, Erica Sweeney, highlights new restaurants in Little Rock and beyond.
Growing up in Honduras, Luis Vasquez loved watching his mom in the kitchen, but he never actually did any cooking. That changed when he moved to Little Rock, Arkansas, and started making homemade tortillas for his roommates—an experience that helped him realize that his calling was in the restaurant business.
“I really enjoyed how people reacted to authentic, fresh food,” Vasquez says. “Everybody loves a fresh tortilla.” In 2019, he opened El Sur Street Food Co., a food truck serving tacos, pupusas, arepas, and baleadas, which the restaurant’s menu describes as “like a burrito but better.” The food truck was a hit, regularly attracting long lines and an enthusiastic following.
“I just wanted to do Honduran food,” which was lacking from restaurants in Little Rock, Vasquez says. “When we opened, most people called it a taco truck. We called it El Sur, ‘the South’ in Spanish, to have some Latin American food that people are familiar with, but then introduce them to Honduran food.”
After three years of running the food truck, Vasquez and his husband, Darren Strayhorn, opened a brick-and-mortar space in July 2022 in downtown Little Rock’s South Main Street neighborhood, near some of the food truck’s regular stops. They went from a cramped kitchen to a full-sized restaurant and added 16 employees.
El Sur also expanded its lineup of Honduran cuisine, adding dishes like pollo chuco (which Vasquez calls “fried chicken nachos”), almuerzo del dia (a dish of rice, beans, cheese, and chicken, beef, or other protein), and sopa de pollo, a traditional chicken soup that’s available during the winter. From the food truck to the restaurant, Vasquez says El Sur has emphasized quality, scratch-made food, and a dedication to customer service, and that’s what keeps bringing people back. “The community is really awesome in Little Rock,” he says. “They’re happy to get outside the box and try a little bit of different food.”
Can’t Miss At El Sur
This popular drink features classic ingredients, including triple sec made just down the street at Rock Town Distillery, and a Tajín rim.
Almuerzo Del Dia
One of El Sur’s top sellers, this traditional dish features beans, rice, Honduran cheese, cilantro, pico de gallo, avocado, and a choice of pollo asado, carnitas, birria, cauliflower chorizo, or nopales. It’s served with fresh corn tortillas.
This dish is piled high with Honduran-style fried chicken, plantain chips, spicy pickled vegetables, red sauce, and aderezo, a creamy dressing resembling ranch.
El Sur’s crispy, golden cornmeal flatbreads come stuffed with cheese, chicharron, or both.
Get the Recipe: Catrachas (Honduran Bean Tostadas)
3 New Restaurants in Arkansas
The latest concept from well-known Arkansas chef Matt Cooper, Conifer features a 100-percent gluten-free menu that changes “seasonally and even hyperseasonally.” That’s possible thanks to relationships with local farmers and producers. This winter, for example, the menu featured slow-braised pork shanks with blue corn grits and apple chutney and mushroom arancini with cranberry.
Rōber Cocktails+ Culiary | Benton
Newly opened by restaurateurs Heather Baber-Roe and Craig Roe, Rōber is located in downtown Benton and offers up-scale American fare, like a bacon flight, charcuterie bar, and salmon served on a whiskey-soaked cedar plank. Diners can enjoy the cocktail lounge and terrace while sipping classic and signature cocktails and wine, bourbon, and whiskey flights.
This family business, run by Mauricio Vargas Jr. and his parents and sister, originally opened as a food truck in 2010. The downtown Little Rock dine-in restaurant opened in November 2022 and serves nearly a dozen different tamale flavors, like chicken mole, marinated pork, and shrimp. Tacos, nachos, and burritos are available, too.
Restaurants in Little Rock and Beyond Worth Watching
Blackberry Market | North Little Rock
Opened in December 2022, this multitasking eatery offers coffee, fresh baked goods, pastries, breakfast and lunch for those dining in, and dinners to go—with lots of vegan and vegetarian options.
Knight Fire Craft BBQ | Searcy
Smoking meat started out as a hobby for owner Matthew Knight. In 2018, he opened a food truck and now has a brick-and-mortar space. His focus is “old school, real wood-fired Arkansas barbecue.” Think pulled pork, brisket, turkey, and sausage with sides including slaw, Mexican street corn, and hand-cut fries.
Located in the basement of a historic building in downtown Bentonville, near the Walmart Museum, this speakeasy and restaurant offers “fun, fancy, and down-to-earth flavors.” The menu by chef Arturo Solis, a Miami native, is made up of shareable plates like steak tartare and octopus, with a slate of inventive cocktails.
Coffee Corner | Maumelle, Little Rock
This casual cafe serves “real Italian coffee” and sweet and savory homemade croissants. Owners Yuliia Kornytska, a native of Ukraine, and Bruno Muskaj, who’s from Albania, planned to open a cafe in Europe, but they ended up in Arkansas instead. The pair opened a second location in downtown Little Rock in December.
Created by Arkansas restaurateur Scott McGehee, Camp Taco is a retro-inspired Tex-Mex joint with a small-batch brewery located just around the corner from the popular Lost Forty Brewing, which McGehee also owns. You’ll find classic ground beef tacos, salads, Mexican ramen, and homemade boozy paletas. Beers made in-house and at Lost Forty are on tap.
- by Erin Byers Murray
- by TLP's Partners
- by Hannah Lee Leidy
- by Erin Byers Murray
- by Hannah Lee Leidy