Capital Bar & Grill
The Capital Hotel, 111 W. Markham St., Little Rock AR 72201(map); 501-374-7373, capitalhotel.com
Cooking Method: Char-grilled
Short Order: A well seasoned chopped sirloin steak burger served up with local produce and housemade pickles—the best burger I've ever consumed
Want Fries with That? The Parmesan fries that come with the burger are good, but not as good as the burger
Price: $8 for burger and fries. The fried black eyed peas are complimentary.
Little Rock's Capital Hotel has reinvented itself, not just its lodging but also its two restaurants: Ashley's and the Capital Bar and Grill. Executive Chef Lee Richardson came in while the hotel was still gutted and in pieces and worked with the management to create a series of kitchens and a new way of putting together meals.
Richardson and his fellow chefs call the style "New Americana Cuisine," and you'll see many offerings on both restaurant menus featuring locally grown produce, organic meats and condiments made right in-house.
I toured the kitchens while researching the best breakfasts in Arkansas this past November. During my conversations with chef Matt McClure (one of Richardson's right hand chefs), he mentioned that the Capital Bar and Grill offers a loss leader of an $8 burger that contains $9 worth of sirloin. Of course, this piqued my interest. I had to make a return trip when it wouldn't be apparent I was working.
I knew a number of things going into Capital Bar and Grill for our lunchtime visit. I knew that the beef was Creekstone sirloin from a regional farm. I knew the produce came from Central Arkansas with the assistance of organics master Jody Hardin from Argenta Market in North Little Rock. I knew all the pickles served in the hotel were pickled right on site, and that the two restaurants made their own smoked meats—including bacon made from Berkshire pork bellies brought in from a south Missouri pig farm, cured and smoked in those kitchens. But would the combination make a good burger?
Turns out, the burgers aren't just good—they're magnificent. On delivery to the table, I was concerned that my Pimento Cheese Burger (the house Pimento Cheese is regarded as one of the state's best) was cooked far past my requested medium rare. The reddish black exterior looked charred and overdone. But I could not deny the heavenly scent that came from the plate, like a steak fresh from the grill. It was served with slices of full flavored local tomatoes, an ample slice of red onion, a purplish span of green leaf lettuce and housemade bread-and-butter pickles from cucumbers and onions. Condiments come on the side.
I was happiest, though, when I cut through the center of the burger and found it was cooked perfectly—shreds of sirloin perfectly seasoned with pepper, salt, thyme, and steak seasoning. The inside was warm, not hot, and the pimento cheese dribbled into the meat from its perch on top. It was juicy inside but firm and almost crusty on the outside. The juice from the meat didn't hit the bun until after I cut into it.
I had been concerned that the pimento cheese, excellent on its own, would be too much for the burger or that it might cancel out its goodness. I was wrong. The cheese only amplified the hearty, manly flavor of the burger. The pickles really shined here, bits of tangy sweetness that balanced against the saltiness of the patty perfectly.
The buns, I later learned, are one of the few breads not made on-site. Seems the chefs' best efforts to create a good burger bun weren't as good as the signature buns they found from a distributor. But that's okay—they're fine and strong seedless puffy white bread buns and they are a perfect steak—er, burger bun.
Cheddar, swiss or American cheese comes with the burger, and for two dollars more you can top it with the aforementioned housemade bacon. If my burger was a top sirloin, the bacon cheeseburger was a bacon-wrapped filet, the crispy and thick house-made bacon adding another layer of smoky wonder to an already masterful blend of meat and spices.
The burgers are served with Parmesan fries, which are good but pale compared to the burger. They're brown and smattered with Parmesan cheese in a pleasing way, served up with Heinz ketchup. I've had them before when they were extraordinarily crisp but on this trip they were just slightly crispy, still pleasantly soft in the center.
What should be mentioned are the complementary bar snacks, fried black eyed peas. They are lightly salted legumes, the sort of thing addictions are built on, irresistible and free. Ask for them. They'll bring you as many as you can eat.
I have eaten burgers all over the state of Arkansas and all over the American South, and I can quite honestly say I've never had a finer burger anywhere else.