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OPINION REX NELSON: Hall of famers – From Arkansas Online

Department of Arkansas Heritage - Monday, March 26, 2018

 

When the Arkansas Food Hall of Fame was formed a year ago, the founders decided not to repeat a mistake that other halls of fame often make. The temptation for a new organization is to induct large classes for several years in order to make up for lost time. After four or five induction ceremonies, these organizations sometimes discover that all the good nominees already have been honored.

There are dozens of quality restaurants across Arkansas with staying power. These places help form the fabric of the state. The selection committee (on which I serve) took 36 online nominations and narrowed the list down to 12 finalists. We then chose just three inductees for 2018: Venesian Inn at Tontitown, McClard's Bar-B-Q at Hot Springs, and Franke's Cafeteria at Little Rock. I'll offer a safe prediction: The other nine finalists will be inducted into the Arkansas Food Hall of Fame in the years to come.

When the Department of Arkansas Heritage began the Food Hall of Fame a year ago, it filled a huge void. Arkansas cuisine long had been overshadowed by Texas to the southwest, Louisiana to the south, the Mississippi Delta to the east and the food traditions of nearby Memphis and St. Louis. Finally, places that have fed thousands of Arkansans through the decades are getting their due.

To be eligible, restaurants must be owned and operated by Arkansans and not be a part of a national chain. They also must have been in business for at least 25 years. No one on the committee realized it until after the 2017 selections had been made, but the original three inductees--Jones Bar-B-Q Diner at Marianna, Lassis Inn at Little Rock, and Rhoda's Famous Hot Tamales at Lake Village--were all black-owned establishments. I was happy to see it since the African American influence on Arkansas cuisine has been enormous through the years.

There also has been a strong Italian influence on Arkansas cuisine, which makes this year's induction of Venesian Inn fitting. Tontitown was founded in 1898 by a group of Catholic Italian immigrants who were led by their priest, Pietro Bandini, on the trip from southeast Arkansas. These immigrants had worked on Sunnyside Plantation in Chicot County as tenant farmers after arriving from Italy in 1895 and 1897. Mosquitoes, disease and contract disputes led 40 families to follow Bandini to the Ozarks. The weather was better during the summer in those hills, and the land resembled the places they had left behind in Italy.

Germano Gasparotto opened Venesian Inn in 1947 and later sold it to fellow Italian Americans John and Mary Granata. The restaurant has stayed in the family, along with the original recipes. The signature dish of fried chicken with spaghetti combines the best of Arkansas and Italy. Generations of Razorback fans have come to the restaurant after University of Arkansas football and basketball games to order that combination while sitting at wooden tables installed by Gasparotto.

Down in Hot Springs, members of the national media discovered McClard's during the 1992 presidential campaign when they were writing about Bill Clinton's boyhood in the Spa City. Arkansans had known about the place for years. Alex and Alice McClard were running a motor court, gas station and diner that served barbecued goat when an overnight guest was unable to pay for his room. He offered them what he claimed to be the world's greatest barbecue sauce recipe. They had no choice but to take him up on the offer. The couple perfected the recipe through the years. A fourth

In Little Rock, meanwhile, Franke's still has two locations after once operating cafeterias across the state. C.A. Franke opened a doughnut shop downtown on Capitol Avenue in 1919. By 1922, he had built a bakery on Third Street and had a fleet of trucks to make deliveries across the city. The first Franke's Cafeteria opened downtown in 1924 near the city's major department stores. Diners who fondly recall going to Franke's with their mothers and grandmothers can still find signature dishes such as eggplant casserole and egg custard pie.

Among the other nine finalists, two are in Blytheville and serve what's known in that city as the pig sandwich. I once declared Blytheville to be the Barbecue Capital of Arkansas.

The Dixie Pig traces its roots back to Ernest Halsell's 1923 Rustic Inn. The Dixie Pig is still in the Halsell family and attracts regular customers not only from northeast Arkansas but also from surrounding states.

The nearby Kream Kastle is a drive-in where Steven Johns began selling hot dogs in 1952 when Blytheville was booming. He added a barbecue pit in 1955, and the pig sandwich has been a key part of the menu ever since.

Other finalists from northwest Arkansas are Neal's Cafe at Springdale and DeVito's at Eureka Springs. Neal's was opened by Toy and Bertha Neal in 1944. The restaurant has been in the same family for four generations, and customers still flock to its landmark pink building for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

DeVito's was opened by James DeVito in 1988. Repeat visitors to the resort town make it a tradition to return to DeVito's for Italian food and rainbow trout.

Other finalists from the western part of the state are Ed Walker's Drive In at Fort Smith, which has been around since 1946, and Feltner's Whatta-Burger at Russellville, which celebrated its 50th anniversary last year on Thanksgiving.

Other finalists from Little Rock are Bruno's Little Italy, which Vincent "Jimmy" Bruno first opened in the Levy neighborhood of North Little Rock just after World War II, and Doe's Eat Place, which George Eldridge opened in downtown Little Rock in 1988 while using the name and concept of the original Doe's in Greenville, Miss.

The other finalist is the state's oldest continuously operated restaurant, the White House Cafe at Camden. Greek immigrant Hristos Hodjopulas opened the restaurant in 1907.

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Rex Nelson is a senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Editorial on 03/25/2018

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