Locally sourced and garden fresh.
Written by J. L. James
Photography by Jeremy Rodgers
Located in the perfect spot for fisherman, water skiers and campers enjoying all that Lake Degray has to offer is Little Penguin Tacos owned by Jonathan Gonzales. Gonzales epitomizes the High Country lifestyle as an avid outdoorsmen. He enjoys kayaking, rock climbing, mountain biking and more importantly a love for serving up local cuisine.
He has set up shop at 139 Valley St. in Arkadelphia, Ark with his Little Penguin Taco truck, and he is on a mission to serve up tasty tacos by using only local ingredients from his food truck. “My goal,” Gonzales said, “is to get where we use all natural and local ingredients only in the kitchen. We’re just not quite there yet.”
This spring, Gonzales broke ground on his most inventive path to making his dreams a reality. At his Arkadelphia home that he shares with his wife, Claya Gonzales and their daughter Eva, he created a garden; and by mid-summer it should fulfill most of Little Penguin’s produce needs. Claya’s mother, Lori Calley, is the engineer behind the 50 foot by 20 foot tomato and pepper yielding plot. “She has been my gardening mentor,” Gonzales said. By growing vegetables in a private garden, Gonzales has taken upon himself the task to control the quality of the ingredients he serves his customers.
Currently, Little Penguin buys its beef from J.V. Farms in Bismarck, Ark. Tortilleria Brenda, Little Penguin’s tortilla supplier, produces tortillas on site in their store in Little Rock. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) ensure that commercial farms use proper pesticides, and that commercial produce is safe for consumption; but, the simple fact is that pesticides are used. “With my own garden,” Gonzales said, “I’ll know exactly what I’m feeding people.”
Little Penguin began as a breakfast taco joint and eventually expanded its menu to include lunch items after seeing the potential for success. A native of Gurdon, Ark., Gonzales and his wife are both Henderson State alumni. It was while attending Henderson as a broke, innovative college student that Gonzales developed the skills and concept that laid the foundation of Little Penguin. My parents would want to make room in their freezer,” Gonzales said. “So they would give us food, mostly meat. My roommates and I discovered we could make a lot of tacos, especially breakfast tacos, for about the same amount of money as everyone else was paying to order pizza.”
The name of the taco truck was borne of the same time and environment. “It was a basement apartment with no windows,” Gonzales said. “So everything we did was in the dark and cold.” They nicknamed their apartment the “penguin den.”
Gonzales said he chose the food truck business to bring a little more “college town” to the college town of Arkadelphia. His motivation is in enriching the Ouachita Mountain region. “It’s always been home,” Gonzales said. “I could’ve gone in to a number of different businesses, but I did this out of the desire to make the place a little better; to bring stuff I wanted to see when I was in college.”
Gonzales chose a place to park the taco truck in Arkadelphia, but was initially kept out of the city limits due to an oddly phrased ordinance forbidding transient businesses. Anita Wiley, Arkadelphia’s building department manager, explained the ordinance was not intended to exclude food trucks, but at Planning Commission meetings, Gonzales was surprised that a few competitors in the restaurant industry opposed his setting up shop in the city. After months of meetings, Arkadelphia finally rewrote the ordinance, and Gonzales expects to be serving tacos on Pine Street in Arkadelphia by this fall.
Little Penguin employee Peyton Thomas is also an outdoor enthusiast who has an inclination towards fly fishing. He said Little Penguin is part of a movement that is enriching the Arkadelphia-Caddo Valley area. “With Iron Mountain developing like it is there’s a lot more to do here,” Thomas said. “And seeing these ordinances go away so Arkadelphia can grow. It’s exciting.”
This October Gonzales and his friend Brian Debusk are hosting Arktoberfest, a craft beer festival in downtown Arkadelphia that will feature only Arkansas brewed beer. Gonzales said he’s doing this for the same reasons he opened Little Penguin – “to help make the area a little better, a little more progressive.” For information on Arktoberfest, interested parties can email Gonzales at Jonathan@arktoberfest.com.
For information on Little Penguin, hungry people can visit Littlepenguin.com, or physically visit 139 Valley St. in Arkadelphia between the hours of 7 a.m. and 2 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday – it’ll be worth your time to fill up on fresh, delicious and wholesome food. Through the food he serves, Gonzales encourages a healthy, active lifestyle and an appreciation of natural products. “My love of nature, I hope, can be found in the food we serve,” he said. “For a person to properly enjoy their life, they need to be fueled with proper nutrients. That can only be done with food grown and prepared without additives, hormones or steroids.” He doesn’t compromise on this principle. “I’m sure I could serve a fried Twinkie and have a line out to the highway,” Gonzales said. “But that’s not what I do because it’s not what I eat. The things I eat, what I think people should eat, that’s what I serve.