There is lack of data for identifying optimal local therapy for the management of recurrent hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) after hepatic resection. A retrospective study was performed to compare the effectiveness of transarterial chemoembolization (TACE) plus radiofrequency ablation (RFA) with that of TACE alone for recurrent HCC. From 2007 to 2013, patients with recurrent HCC ≤ 5 cm were treated with either TACE plus RFA (n = 96) or TACE (n = 63). Inverse probability of treatment weighting was used to make allowances for imbalances in treatment assignment. The disease-free survival (DFS) and overall survival (OS) were retrospectively analyzed. The TACE group had lower pretreatment Child-Pugh class (P = 0.025) and shorter pretreatment interval of recurrence (P = 0.028). The 1-, 3-, and 5-year DFS rates for the TACE-RFA group were 55.1%, 22.5%, and 9.7%, respectively, and 41.1%, 9.9%, and 4.9%, respectively, for the TACE group. The OS rates at 1, 3, and 5 years were 82.3%, 42.7%, and 16.5%, respectively, in the TACE-RFA group, and 75.9%, 30.7%, and 11.3%, respectively, in the TACE group. Cirrhosis was significantly associated with disease progression (hazard ratio [HR] 1.53; 95% CI 1.09-2.14; P = 0.014). In patients with recurrent HCC ≤ 5 cm, TACE-RFA shows better DFS than TACE alone as a first-line local therapy.