I am a lifelong foodie, though not in the snobby gourmet sense. I just love to eat, especially when the food is tasty, and I’m not picky about where it is served.
A recent week in Arkansas offered a study in contrasts. It began with a delicious dinner of hot chicken salad, sides, and lemon ice-box pie with new friends from Second Baptist of Little Rock.
We liked the hot chicken salad so well that, two days later, we bought a few groceries and Susan made one in the aging condo we had rented in Hot Springs Village.
After church on Sunday, Good Faith Media board member Kevin Heifner and his wife Angie treated us to lunch at Arthur’s, an upscale steakhouse. We enjoyed it enough to return later in the week for a wedding anniversary dinner.
The waiter was attentive, the subtle music was nice, and the steak and sea bass were delectable. They treated us with a dark chocolate crème brûlée on a plate personalized with chocolate frosting, and that was even better.
The tab was commensurate with the atmosphere, but some occasions call for something special.
That doesn’t mean, however, that less pricey places are necessarily less special.
While tramping along a wooded path in Hot Springs Village, we walked behind an unassuming Mexican restaurant in a small shopping area. Their freshly made chips and salsa – complementary with lunch at “El Jimador” – was the best I can remember eating. Twice we hiked over for inexpensive but delicious meals at lunch, then had enough leftovers to take back for dinner.
Finding unexpected culinary gems is always a treat. On a tip from Kevin, we checked out a gas station near the foot of Pinnacle Mountain, just northwest of Little Rock. After hiking Rattlesnake Ridge and before tackling the rocky Pinnacle, we sat at one of two rickety tables at one end of the station and feasted on a hot Reuben sandwich and scratch-made fish tacos that were first class.
A couple of high-end restaurant chefs got tired of the big city rat race and settled in Arkansas, where they started a food cart called “America’s Street Food.” They’ve expanded to the gas station, with plans to open in more out-of-the-way sites.
Talking with Robert as he worked in the open kitchen was nearly as enjoyable as eating the food. They make their own corned beef, sauerkraut, and dressing for the Reuben, as well as elements of other dishes.
I felt like Guy Fieri on “Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives.”
We really hit my sweet spot, though, after a good walk through the beautifully landscaped Garvan Gardens south of Hot Springs. On the way back we passed a red, white, and blue storefront emblazoned with “Bubba’s Catfish and Seafood.”
How could I resist?
Four stools lined a narrow bar just to the left of the order window. We sat there in a driving rainstorm as I chowed down on fried catfish while Susan enjoyed a boiled shrimp plate.
There were no leftovers beyond a few fries I was too full to finish.
A comfortable home, a posh restaurant, a Mexican eatery, a filling station, and an outdoor counter by a busy highway may appear to have little in common, but I relished the food and completely enjoyed the experience at all of them.
It reminded me that spiritual food also comes in a variety of forms and settings. Majestic buildings with beautiful stained glass and a formal liturgy can be inspiring, but so can worship featuring praise music in a gym or scattered voices singing old hymns in country churches.
It’s not the atmosphere that matters. It’s the heart that goes into it, whether it feeds the belly or the soul.
Professor of Old Testament at Campbell University Divinity School in Buies Creek, North Carolina, and the Contributing Editor and Curriculum Writer at Good Faith Media.