In America, a good steak represents something. Perhaps it’s because it’s not eaten every day, unless you have the bankroll of a galleon and the hull to match. Steaks are celebration food, recognizing first jobs landed, big deals closed or maybe just the Fourth of July.
People say burgers are the quintessential American dish, and a fine invention at that. But as culinary sources place chopped beef entrees around 1834 and the modern sandwich incarnation around 1885, steak’s running head start as the favored cut of the New World is clear.
And even with the ups and downs of culinary fashion — right up to current trends of vegetarianism and veganism — American red-meat eaters are enjoying a surge in the popularity of their favorite protein. According to Statistica, Americans are on a 13-year bull market when it comes to beef consumption; putting away 27.6 billion pounds of it, the highest total since 2007, and the seventh straight year of consumption growth. The USDA reports Americans account for 21 percent of beef consumed globally, several billion pounds and percentage points ahead of second-place China.
Arkansas is blessed with many fine purveyors of bovine’s crowning contribution to humanity, and AMP set out to find a few of them. Seek them out for your next celebration or just a special evening out.
ALLSOPP & CHAPPLE
Like all restaurants, Allsopp & Chapple took it on the chin during the pandemic. But it’s survived, bringing back droves of diners to fresh, delicious fare in a casually elegant downtown setting. The establishment’s steaks are a big reason why, with USDA Prime beef available in three cuts – 8-ounce filet, 16-ounce New York strip and a 45-ounce tomahawk ribeye that steals the show.
There are plenty of places that will throw a slab on a plate as a gimmick, but that’s not the case here. The tomahawk gets the same gourmet treatment and expert preparation as the smaller steaks, making it as impressive to eat as it is to look at, paired with delicious sides (don’t pass on the smashed potatoes) inventive appetizers (the scallops are mandatory eating) and house-made desserts (if you can).
“We treat it the same way as our strip and our filet,” said Executive Chef Bonner Cameron. “We apply our coffee cure rub, which is what really sets our steaks apart. It’s a combination of coffee, porcini power, onion power, garlic power and sugar. We dry-age it in that rub in the walk-in, and they get a really nice, distinct flavor, a really earthy flavor, compared to a place that just puts salt and pepper on there.”
When pressed, Cameron admitted his personal favorite steak entrée is the decadent filet, if only because of the ribeye’s Jurassic proportions.
“It’s really made for a couple of people, but I’ve seen people tear it up by themselves,” said Cameron with a chuckle. “I don’t know how they do it. Maybe if I was younger, I could do all that, but not now.”
SONNY WILLIAMS’ STEAKROOM
Few establishments in town look and feel old-school steakhouse cool like this River Market institution. Sonny Williams’ was never the only game in town, nor was it the largest, cheapest or easiest to get into. But if you want a place where all the elements of food, wine and ambiance come together perfectly, Sonny’s is the place.
“We do have our own Sonny’s seasoning that is just ours,” said Amanda Gunter, general manager. “We cook all steaks on an open-flame broiler at 500 degrees. We butter the plates and use our seasoning on them. Our kitchen staff is extremely experienced, and that’s what really sets the food apart, I think.”
Dustin Ballentine, executive chef, professes no particular tricks in preparation.
“It’s all USDA choice Angus, high-quality beef,” he said. “All of our steaks are aged at least 21 days. Typically, we like to have it closer to 30 or 40, but the supply chain has been a little bit difficult for that. Other than the aging, it just takes a proprietary blend of seasoning and that fat and butter to make it so delicious. I catch all the oil and fat that comes off every steak and that goes right on top of the next steak, every time.”
Sonny Williams’ suffered during onset of the pandemic, but 2021 has seen the highest sales in three years, attesting to the fine reputation the restaurant enjoys.
“As far as steak goes, it is a celebratory thing,” Ballentine said. “I don’t think a lot of people get to go out every day and eat steak. People come in here just juicin’ at the mouth wanting that meat.”
THEO’S BAR & DINING ROOM
Fayetteville & Rogers
Todd Martin doesn’t pull any punches talking the quality of dining at either of the Theo’s locations in Northwest Arkansas he owns with his wife, Marti, particularly when it comes to the company’s signature steak.
“We don’t do a lot of things to try and ‘chef’ it up,” he said. “The beef itself is the star of this play. It’s an exceptional cut, and there’s not really anything you can do to dress it up beyond what it is — a tender filet you can literally cut with a fork.”
Filets are hardly a best-kept secret, as Martin said the dish sells “hand over fist.” And that’s saying something, serving a clientele full of Arkansas transplants and business people entertaining clients from around the world.
“The challenge is fun,” he said. “I’ve had the opportunity to experience exceptional restaurants all across the country — New York, Washington, the West Coast. I go in and I compare something we prepare to something someone else prepares. If I can say, ‘Wow! Ours is better,’ that’s a pretty good day.”
Theo’s culinary skill shines throughout the menu, and Martin is quick to point out the restaurant is not a steakhouse, per se. But he’ll go toe-to-toe with anyone claiming a better filet than his grass-fed, USDA Prime black angus cut, aged 30 days.
“I have to tell you right now, and I will probably p— off a lot of people on this, but I would put our filet against any filet I’ve eaten anywhere in the country,” he said. “There is not a doubt in my mind; I have yet to find one that will match it.”
BUENOS AIRES GRILL
Follow the aroma of grilling meats to the far eastern edge of Little Rock’s River Market District, and you’ll find the Bruzatori family, Argentinian immigrants and owners of Buenos Aires Grill, home to some of the best steaks in Central Arkansas.
“Because of our heritage, we are different than any American steakhouse,” said Flo Bruzatori-Miller, general manager. “We’re always looking for the best meat that’s available. In Argentina, the beef is so great you really don’t have to do much to alter its flavor. Our approach is always, if you have good quality meat, all you really need to do is let that speak for itself.”
In addition to the strip and ribeye, Buenos Aires Grill offers cuts that are less familiar to many Americans such as flank and skirt steak.
“We wanted to have cuts that are traditional to our cuisine and our heritage, and the skirt and the flank are the typical cuts you would find at a grill house back home,” Bruzatori-Miller said. “However, we also have to compromise because we are not in Argentina, we are in the United States. So, we have steaks that are popular and familiar with our customers.”
Bruzatori-Miller said having so many family members directly involved — in addition to herself, her twin brother, little sister and parents all pitch in — underscores a cultural emphasis on hospitality. Diners are treated less like customers than honored guests in the Bruzatori home, and the food reflects that.
“The other aspect of this that I don’t know if people ever think about, is having passion for what you do,” she said. “That really shows in your food.”
RED OAK STEAKHOUSE
It’s been just over a year since Red Oak opened to great fanfare inside Saracen Casino Resort, but the high-end restaurant has made the most of its short tenure. Almost immediately recognized as the state’s best steakhouse, management has its sights set even higher.
“I love that we’re voted the best steakhouse in Arkansas, but we’re the best restaurant in Arkansas,” said Todd Gold, food and beverage director. “There’s no doubt about it, from all four corners of this state, through Northwest Arkansas down to the south. We just put our flag in the ground and said, ‘We’re here.’”
Normally a new spot takes a little breaking in before it achieves such accolades and brand loyalty, but Red Oak is proving the exception. The restaurant has every reason to look or taste like old Vegas, being located steps off the casino floor, but the vibe is contemporary, and each dish shows genuine artistry.
Red Oak is one of just a handful of American steakhouses to serve wagyu and A5 Kobe beef along with its USDA Prime beef and bison selections. And, there are also some exciting new menu options coming in 2022.
“We’re not going to take off a bunch of things but just enhance it,” Chef Joe Coleman said. “We’ll be taking a little bit more risk with the menu, maybe some items that people don’t recognize, such as beef cheek. I want to play around a little bit more with some foie gras. It’s very important to me that people are like, ‘Wow! They’ve got amazing steaks. They have the Kobe, but you have to try X, Y and Z.’”
PETIT & KEET/CYPRESS SOCIAL
These two well-known spots, owned all or in part by legendary Arkansas restaurateurs Jim Keet and family, couldn’t be more different. Petit & Keet, the elder of the two, lends a contemporary flair to the surroundings and an eclectic touch to the fare. Cypress Social takes familiar Southern cuisine and elevates it with special twists all its own.
In fact, if you didn’t know better, you’d see no hint of these fraternal twins in each other, save for two things — both insist on the highest quality of food and experience for their guests, and both anchor a creative and varied menu with a fine steak.
“In Arkansas, it’s such a meat-and-potatoes state,” said Alan Napier, Petit & Keet general manager. “I think that’s a benchmark that people set a long time ago for restaurants to have great steak. Chefs pride themselves on it, in fact. If everybody’s doing it, how do I make mine better?”
As with many of the best steaks, simplicity is often the secret weapon. Napier said the quality of the meat and the skill of the chef are far more important than any dress-up when it comes to the restaurant’s cuts.
“We finish ours with some compound butter that goes on top of all of our steaks,” he said. “That’s the best way to finish the steak. It’s not an overpowering sauce that takes away from the meat; it adds flavor while still getting the flavor of the beef.”
Cypress Social Executive Chef Aaron Fowler said, “My approach depends on the cut of the meat. We have a six-ounce filet that literally just gets salt and pepper. It’s relatively untouched by any seasoning; it’s just the quality of the meat that really shines through.
“On the other spectrum, we have a 16-ounce ribeye that gets salt, pepper, and then we smother it in a chipotle butter to finish. The ribeye is a high-quality meat too, but that chipotle butter brings a different level of savoriness, spice and a little bit of sweetness too.”
When asked to describe its enduring appeal, Fowler said steak has retained its popularity for its hearty flavor and versatility, as dressed up or dressed down as you want it. He said he often runs steak as a weekly special and is never disappointed in people’s enthusiasm for the classic night-out entrée.
“Steak is totally a blank canvas,” he said. “You can do so many things with a good steak. A ribeye is my favorite cut of meat, so I was excited to bring the tomahawk in recently. It was really well-received; we did about 140 tomahawks in a week, which blew my mind. I’ve tried to do a couple pasta dishes, and I don’t think that’s who we are. But bring out a 40-ounce tomahawk, and we’ll sell a ton of them.”
Great steakhouses by region
Arkansas is a meat-and-potatoes state, so it stands to reason that the Natural State is filled with many places to get great meat. What follows is by no means a comprehensive list — not even close — but is a list of some of those more well-known places across the state where a great steak can be had, off the beaten path and right on it.
Whether they offer valet service or a gravel parking lot, these establishments offer a fine cut of meat.
Delta……….Colonial Steak House……….Pine Bluff
Delta……….Red Oak Steakhouse……….Pine Bluff
Delta……….The Village Steakhouse……….Star City
Delta……….Wright’s Ranch House……….White Hall
LR/NLR……….Arthur’s Prime Steakhouse……….Little Rock
LR/NLR……….Cache Restaurant……….Little Rock
LR/NLR……….Capers………. Little Rock
LR/NLR……….Doe’s Eat Place……….Little Rock
LR/NLR……….Riverfront Steakhouse……….North Little Rock
LR/NLR……….Allsop & Chapple……….Little Rock
LR/NLR……….Sonny Williams’ Steakroom……….Little Rock
LR/NLR……….Table 28……….Little Rock
LR/NLR……….Faded Rose……….Little Rock
Northeast……….Best Dam Steakhouse……….Batesville
Northeast……….Don’s Steakhouse……….Walnut Ridge
Northeast……….501 Steakhouse………. Jonesboro
NWA……….Callahan’s Steak House……….Siloam Springs
NWA……….Ruth’s Chris Steak House……….Rogers
NWA……….Gaskins Cabin Steakhouse……….Eureka Springs
NWA……….River Grille Bentonville
NWA……….The Boardwalk Bistro……….Jasper
NWA……….Tusk & Trotter……….Bentonville
River Valley……….Brangus Steakhouse……….Russellville
River Valley……….Mike’s Place……….Conway
River Valley……….The Rialto……….Fort Smith
River Valley……….21 West End……….Fort Smith
Southwest……….Banderas Steakhouse……….El Dorado
Southwest……….Cattleman’s Steak House Texarkana
Southwest……….Chopping Block Steakhouse……….Mena