If this were 1895, around the time that most of the buildings on North Little Rock’s Main Street were built, Louis France and brothers Chris and Mike Kent might have wound up facing down each other at high noon when their partnership in the popular Cornerstone Deli and Pub fell apart earlier this year.
As it is, though, the split looks more like a modern-day divorce: the Kents kept Cornerstone’s name and moved next door, while France — who’d been the chef at Cornerstone — kept the building and began transforming it into Reno’s Argenta Cafe, a laid-back Italian restaurant and bar.
What remains to be seen, of course, is whether Main Street is big enough for the both of them. The original Cornerstone did a fine business, but it had no competition on the north side of the river (Ristorante Capeo, across the street and up the block, is in another class altogether). The new Cornerstone has not yet opened.
As for Reno’s (France’s middle name), it’s been open for several weeks, and it appears France has tried to put Cornerstone behind him as much as possible. Those funky doors that used to hang over the bar have been replaced by a mural, and there’s fair amount of new dishes on the menu, although fans of the old Cornerstone’s signatures, such as the muffaletta, will be glad to see they remain. And on our visit, not long after the restaurant opened, it was clear Reno’s was trying hard to please.
There’s a vast selection of sandwiches, from Cuban pork to French dip to Italian sub to the aforementioned muffaletta, plus gyros and wraps. And there’s a less vast, but still decent, list of specialty pizzas, all made with an extra-thin “Caribbean” crust (don’t ask us — we’d never heard of it either). You also can get fried shrimp, among other entrees, and appetizers that range from crab cakes to cheese fries to hummus.
We visited on a Friday night — Saturday night had been our first choice, but, inexplicably to us, anyway, Reno’s isn’t open on Saturdays, at least for the time being, but only weekdays.
So we went on a Friday. Started out with drinks, and while the beer drinkers in our party were happy to find out they could get Guinness on tap, the two of us who wanted wine were limited to house selections only: one cabernet, one chardonnay and one merlot. If we were running things, we’d change that before we’d start opening on Saturdays.
Then again, from what we’d read about France’s plans, we were expecting — and this isn’t a criticism, just an observation — that Reno’s would be a little more restaurant-y than it was. The menus looked pretty, but this is still primarily a sandwiches-and-pizza joint, so maybe expecting more wine choices isn’t realistic.
But on to the food. We started with crab cakes ($7) and cheese fries ($6.50), both solid versions. There was plenty of real crab in the two cakes, and no shortage of cheese and bacon and seasoning on the cheese fries. No complaints there.
The next round brought two pizzas, one sandwich and a plate of stuffed fried shrimp to the table. Our margherita pizza ($7.95) came loaded with roasted garlic and basil, which we loved, but it had way too much cheese — especially for the extremely thin crust, which was crispy around the edges but just kind of disappeared into the cheese further in. We’d probably order it again, but with a special request to ease up on the mozz.
The other pizza in our party was a Sicilian ($8.95) — pepperoni, salami, sausage and onions, piled on the same super-thin crust. Again, thumbs up on the flavor, thumbs not so up on the logistics of it all. Our dining companion ordered it with extra cheese, but even so, the crust had no chance of holding up all that meat. We’d maybe advise Reno’s to take a page from the thin-crust pizza joints in St. Louis and cut their pies into small squares instead of traditional wedges.
The Cuban sandwich ($6.25), good-sized and thick with sliced roasted pork and ham, was a lot easier to handle. Our companion praised its spicy mustard sauce but said the sandwich could have used more of it.
As for the shrimp ($13.50), the member of our party who ordered them said they weren’t so much stuffed as enveloped — and, unfortunately for her, by something very similar to the crab cakes. They were good, she said, just a bit repetitious after the crab cakes.
Dessert would have been hard to pass up, even if we’d wanted to: We asked whether they made their own, and found out France’s mother bakes them. We ordered a slice of peanut butter pie and Mississippi Mud ($3.50 each). The pie was fine, but the Mud was the clear favorite at our table: rich and chocolaty, with a little marshmallow cream. Definitely a cut above your average bar food.
Reno’s Argenta Cafe
312 Main St.
North Little Rock
The gourmet pizzas are a good bet, but eat them with a fork.
11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday through Friday.
Moderate prices. Credit cards accepted. There’s a full bar, but wine choices are minimal.