On the Road

The food of the Ozarks is defined by its history and landscape

By: The Local Palate

Northern Exposure

A range of plateaus that cascade down from Missouri into Northern Arkansas, the Ozarks are treasured for their wide-open spaces, trout-laden lakes and streams, and endless mountain biking trails. But they also conceal a storied culinary history.

While the “cuisine” of Arkansas might not be fully defined, it’s been marked by the many cultural groups who have either crossed through or made their home in the Ozarks. Italians who settled in Tontitown crafted the uniquely Arkansas dish, fried chicken and spaghetti, a combo of long, handmade noodles topped with crisped chicken and heaping spoonfuls of marinara sauce (reminiscent of chicken parmesan). It’s been served at the Venesian Inn since 1947. A Swiss family, the Wiederkehrs, landed in a corner of Franklin County and have kept up the Wiederkehr Winery and Weinkeller Restaurant, where you’ll find a Swiss onion soup, schnitzel, and beef stroganoff. Meanwhile, one of the state’s calling cards, cheese dip, can be traced back to Little Rock restaurateur Blackie Donnelly and his wife, who started serving it at Mexico Chiquito in the mid- to late-1930s. Arkansas cheese dip, versus, say, queso, doesn’t firm up but remains dippable and gets flavored with peppers, garlic, tomatoes, and spices like cumin and chili powder. Though recipes vary, cheese dip is served everywhere in Arkansas—in bars, pizza joints, and even from drive-thru windows.

International influence aside, it’s a region rich in mountain ingredients. Native Arkansan chef Matt McClure, the executive chef of the Hive inside Bentonville’s 21c Museum Hotel puts a refined touch on Arkansas cuisine with dishes like crispy pork belly and creamed corn with Calabrian chile hot sauce and chicken over maque choux with fried zucchini and salsa verde. At Preacher’s Son, Neal Gray pays homage to both the farmers and ranchers of Northwest Arkansas. Preacher’s Son is, unsurprisingly, housed in a restored church where you’ll find dishes like braised pork with greens and apple-bacon chutney. And, also in Bentonville, Tusk & Trotter chef-owner Rob Nelson dishes up approachable Ozark fare done up right,  while the bar leans heavily on freshly infused liquors for its complex and layered cocktails.

Further down in Little Rock, chef Rob Newton has returned to his home state to take the helm of the newly reopened Capital Hotel. A local who left early, traveled the world, and spent time cooking in New York and Nashville, Newton brings a global perspective to Arkansas cuisine, playing with traditions like chocolate gravy and black walnuts. He recommends getting up close to the bounty of the region to his north by dropping a line in at one of the area’s many fishing retreats, like Gaston’s in Lakeview, where you can cast all day, then enjoy smoked trout poppers at night.

Back in Bentonville, along with good food, you’ll find world-class art and stunning architecture at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. The concrete, copper, and glass structure, designed by international architect Moshe Safdie is nestled in a ravine among the Ozarks, making it a particularly stunning vista come autumn. And nearby, next to Bentonville’s commercial airport is Thaden Field, a mixed-use space that is at once a flight school, all-day cafe, and base for custom aerobatic airplane company Game Composites. The cafe, Louise is named for Bentonville native and aviation powerhouse Iris Louise McPhetridge Thaden. Load up on breakfast staple hippie hash—a combination of potatoes and sautéed veggies topped with feta and two eggs—while taking in the action on the landing strips, and views of the Ozarks beyond.

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