The Root Cafe
1500 Main Street, Little Rock AR 72202 (map); 501-414-0423; therootcafe.com
Cooking Method: Griddle fried
Short Order: Locally produced everything, from bun to beef to condiments, make for an especially fresh burger
Want Fries with That? Absolutely—old fashioned skillet-style, hand-cut, salted potatoes are just the thing
Price: Hamburger, $7.50; cheeseburger, $7.95 (w/side salad); + $1.75 for french fries or sweet potato fries; Mexican Coke, $2; iced tea, $1.50
The Root Cafe isn't just the latest trendy locavore restaurant in Little Rock. Its name isn't just about sustainability—it's about getting back to our roots. The decor is a mishmash of everything Arkansas in the past—postcards, pans, linens and the like. At the same time, it's progressively seeking out ways to be as local as possible.
Situated on revitalized South Main Street by its own eat-in garden, The Root Cafe is an old-timey oasis in the city. Walk in, order at the counter, and seek out your beverage—whether it's a Mexican Coke or Mountain Valley Spring Water from the cooler or some iced tea or lemonade for your Mason jar at the drink station. You pick up your utensils and linens too—mismatched silverware and old embroidered napkins that have seen a few too many days, but are quaint and wonderful.
How does a burger fit into all of this? Beautifully, since The Root Cafe's burger is built bottom up from all Arkansas products. That difference can be tasted in a noteworthy blend of flavors.
The burger starts with local, pasture-raised beef from one of a handful of small farms. The third pound hand patted beef patty is lightly seasoned with salt and pepper and cooked to order on their small griddle. It's served on a Boulevard Bread Co. bun made right across the street. The onions (served grilled on the burger) along with the baby lettuce and ripe tomatoes are locally grown, usually from North Pulaski Farms or another member of the Certified Arkansas Farmers Market. The mayonnaise and wafer-thin flat dills are made in-house. If you want cheese, you have a few choices—break up the locavore thing with some Wisconsin Swiss or choose local and go for Honeysuckle Lane cheddar.
Combine all these local ingredients and you get a burger that tastes fresh off the hoof, unadulterated by being frozen or wrapped in plastic, a little iron-y but also with a slight gamey flavor you only get from a grass-fed burger. From the strong arugula and spinach to the sweet-tart of the tomato, the burger gives off the scent of being being "new."
I ordered my burger medium-rare and it came a little more on the rare side. The meat was crusted beautifully on the top and bottom and retained pinkness at the edge and a warm redness throughout. It had been lightly seasoned with salt and pepper, just enough to bring out the flavor without being obtrusive.
The housemade mayo added a little more flavor to the burger, but not as much as the surprisingly delicate grilled onions, which were paper thin and sweet. The housemade pickles matched the burger well; the more pungent flavor of commercial dill pickles would've overwhelmed the burger. Chunky, deep red tomato slices added a tart sweetness to counter-balance the beef. The cheese was barely melted, but the sharp flavor added a different depth to the burger. However, next time I'll probably go without.
The real delight, though, was Boulevard's bun—springy, crusty, and lovingly toasted. It held together nicely without being tough. After encountering it elsewhere in town, I've determined it's a real treasure.
If you like salad, you'll love the one that comes with the burger, featuring seasonal fruit, greens from North Pulaski Farms, feta cheese from Kent Walker Artisan Cheeses, and a housemade vinaigrette. The locally made feta was especially sharp and bright.
The fries were spectacular, hand-cut, skillet-fried slightly salted fries, nicely brown and crisp outside and soft in the middle. My dining companion went back to get a second order, they were that good.
You won't find fountain drinks at The Root—there are no high fructose corn syrup-laden colas or the like around. But there are the tasty iced and hot teas, a fine selection of coffees, and even a good cider in the colder months. The one caveat to all of that: In the cooler, you can find Diet Coke.
About the author: Kat Robinson is a writer and storyteller out of Little Rock, AR who writes the Arkansas Times' Eat Arkansas blog and who explores Arkansas and the American South looking for great stories, interesting people and the next great meal—especially if it involves pie.