Only in Alma

Jul 1, 2014 | Travel

[title subtitle=”words:  Marla Cantrell
Images:  Marla Cantrell, Mark Mundorff, and courtesy Let’s Eat, Crawpappy’s Cajun Cuisine, and Warren’s Rec Room”][/title]

There’s nothing like life in a small Southern town. Neighbors know each other, you go to school at the same place your parents did, and often have the very same teachers. But there is something else about small towns that makes life wonderful. People band together, volunteering on projects like building hiking trails. They open small diners, using recipes from family and friends, and they usually have at least one place in town where musicians gather to perform.

All of this is true about Alma, Arkansas, a place with a population that’s not yet reached the 6,000 mark. And yet, you could spend an entire day doing things you can only find in Alma.

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Morning

If you don’t eat a hearty breakfast, you’re not going to be ready for the rest of your day.

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J&J Restaurant
Highway 64 & 71
479.632.4066
Open: Monday – Saturday
6 am – 2 pm

J&J Restaurant, which celebrated its twenty-ninth anniversary in April, is situated on a pie-shaped piece of land that’s called the “Y”, just behind Harps Food Store. There’s nothing fancy about the building itself, or the sign that bears its name. The restaurant is painted Airedale (the school’s mascot) green, and inside the tables are covered with ads featuring everything from insurance companies to auto repair.

What makes this place so special is the food. Everything is homemade, and it’s old fashioned country food. They stay busy all the time but their biggest day is Saturday. You know you’re in a place that gets Southern cooking when you can get your gravy with or without sausage. Or if you’re lucky, you’ll show up on a day when one of the specials is the chocolate gravy.

Besides biscuits and gravy, there are also waffles that are crisp on the outside and fluffy on the inside, something that’s both irresistible and hard to find. Most diners gravitate to the ham and eggs, and almost everyone orders the homemade biscuits. A recent daily special was a six ounce Ribeye with two eggs, hash browns or grits, toast or biscuits and gravy, all for $9.85.

If you don’t leave stuffed, you’re not trying hard enough. Just don’t show up on Sunday. They close on the Lord’s Day.

After breakfast, it’s time to burn off a few calories and get in touch with nature.

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Lake Alma Trail

The entrance to the trail is on Mountain Grove Road, just past the two big, green Alma water tanks, on the east side of the lake. You’ll see the parking lot, picnic tables, and the town’s disc golf course.

One of the best additions the town’s seen in recent years is the Lake Alma Trail, built by volunteers. It is 3.8 miles long, but can be broken up into shorter treks, such as hiking only as far as the first landmark, McWater Falls, which takes only about twenty minutes to reach.

Father along, at the 1.3 mile mark, is an old homestead set off in the woods. There’s still a wood cook stove at the site, and the remnants of an old, stone hexagon house that looks big enough for a small family of Hobbits. It’s a great place to stop for a bit – there’s a bench nearby for that purpose – and imagine what it was like to live in these woods, so long ago.

The minute you step onto the trail, the world changes. Ferns grow at the base of trees, the air smells of wildflowers, songbirds call back and forth, and foot bridges cross the creek that runs along the trail.

If you decide to walk the entire 3.8 miles, be prepared. It is a lot rockier and steeper. You’ll end up at the fishing dock.

Bonus: There’s also an eighteen-hole disc golf course near the trail, a handicap accessible paved, one-half mile trail, and a handicap accessible fishing pier.

Tip: Wear sturdy shoes for hiking, and take plenty of water.

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Noon

After a morning of hiking, fishing, and disc golf, you’re bound to be hungry. There are many options in Alma, including several fast food locations, but you’ll want to eat local. If you’re in town any day but Monday, try out Let’s Eat.

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Let’s Eat
208 Collum Lane West
479.632.6322
Open: Tuesday through Friday, 10:30 am to 7:00 pm
Saturday and Sunday, 11:00 am to 3:00 pm
Closed Monday

Owner Tara Way and three employees keep this little mom-and-pop shop hopping. It’s in a small shopping center, and seats thirty-eight. There are daily plate lunch specials like lasagna, Frito chili pie, and chicken fettuccini alfredo.

You can also order off the regular menu, which has lots of salads, sandwiches (served on the sourdough bread that’s made daily), soups, and pies. Fiesta salad, chicken berry salad, and chicken apple salad are some of the best sellers, along with the club sandwich. Tara loves to cook and she uses recipes her mom gave her, family favorites, and some from pastors’ wives who’ve shared their secrets. “I cook everything from scratch,” she says, “and I tell people my secret ingredient is love.”

She has a pie she created called “The Elvis” that has peanut butter, sautéed bananas, and banana pudding in it. She also came up with a strawberry chocolate pie that’s a big hit, a Nutter Butter pie, and her standards like apple and cherry.

A recent daily special was meatloaf, green beans, smashed baked potato, homemade bread and a drink, for $9.25 (tax included). Buy a meal on Friday and you get a free slice of pie. Sometimes there’s even cobbler.

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Afternoon

Wait an hour or so, and then it’s time to hit the water.

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Alma Aquatic Center
731 City Park Road, north of Collum Lane East
479.632.0700
Open: Daily (Season closes on Labor Day weekend)
12:00 pm – 6:30 pm
Admission:
$7.00
$1 for those 3 years and younger
Free for 65 years and older

Located inside the city park, this water park offers nine slides, including two thirty-foot ones, three swimming pools, and a covered wading pool. One of the biggest attractions is the Splash Bowl, which catapults you into a massive bowl that you circle three or four times, and then sends you on your way to a seven-foot pool. There is also a fifteen-foot vertical climbing wall that angles out over one of the pools.

Many visitors end up spending most of the day here, and they take advantage of the Snack Shack, where you can eat for about $4. There’s pizza, nachos, barbeque sandwiches, Frito chili pies, drinks, chips and candy.

Bonus: There are four tennis courts on the park property, which are free to use, and are equipped with lights for nighttime play. You can also book a private party at the water park, for after hours. Call for prices.

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Evening

Hungry again? Of course you are. Dry off and head to Crawpappy’s Cajun Cuisine.

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Crawpappy’s
1911 Highway 71 North
479.430.0034
Open: Wednesday through Saturday, 11:00 am to 8:30 pm

In June of 2012, Tom and Scharlet Griffin parked a food truck in front of their house and started selling Cajun food. Twenty years ago, Tom had visited Louisiana, and he fell in love with the food, music, and people. Back at home he kept wondering why somebody in his hometown wasn’t cashing in on Cajun cuisine, and as the “chief cook and bottle washer” at home he felt like he could pull it off.

It appears he was right. Their following grew so quickly, they decided to build a restaurant around the food truck, which now is a permanent fixture inside the diner, serving as the kitchen. Today, the Griffins have seating for fifty-four inside, and forty-two on the patio.

Their menu includes etoufee, gumbo, red beans and rice, po’boys, Boudin and Andouille, oysters, crawfish wraps, shrimp and crawfish boils, crab legs (starting at 4:00 pm, Thursday through Saturday), corn on the cob, crawfish cornbread, and desserts such as bread pudding.

Tom says it’s hard to say what’s the top seller. The boiled shrimp is a contender but he says they sell almost everything on the menu every day. And he’s had customers stop by from deep in Cajun country. “They say it tastes just like home,” something that makes him proud.

Bonus: Crawpappy’s has a private club license, meaning they can serve alcohol, so you can have Cajun food, a beer or a cocktail in the dry town in a dry county.

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Nightlife

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Warren’s Rec Room
1437 West Newberry Road
warrensrecroom.com
479.208.8863

Before you plan your trip to Alma, check the venue’s website to see which musicians will be playing. In July, local favorites like Crooked and Steep, Left of Center, and Shannon Wurst will be performing at Warren’s Rec Room, which seats 150 to 200. Warren and Christie Robertson officially opened in January, and offer everything from gospel to Southern rock concerts. They have food, including barbeque they are especially proud of, a bar, and are a smoke-free establishment.

Bonus: Warren’s Rec Room can be rented for private events. There is a private club license, so alcohol is available.

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Selfie Sites

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Popeye Park — In downtown Alma, just before you reach the high school, you’ll find Popeye Park on the left hand side of the street. There’s a mural depicting the history of the town, and there’s a bronze statue of Popeye in the center of a fountain. It’s a popular park and a great place for photos, and a few couples have even been married there, inside the nearby gazebo.

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Alma PAC — A few yards away is the Performing Arts Center, which is watched over by an impressive statue of an Airedale. Check the PAC’s website for upcoming shows. In the meantime, have your picture made beside this mighty, mighty Airedale.

A to Z — Most out-of-towners know Alma for the A to Z discount shopping empire, which sprawls across both sides of the highway, just north of town. Shop for furniture, sporting and hunting goods, tools, clothing (including wedding dresses), gifts, and everything in between. There’s even a diner on site, in case you get hungry. Best selfie site? Inside the sporting goods/hunting store, where there are stuffed animals galore. Open Monday through Saturday, 8 am to 6 pm. 3700 North Highway 71. 479.632.2656.

Do South Magazine

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