Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Catfish Hole - The quintessential Arkansas catfish house

603 Spriggs
North Little Rock, Arkansas

Can you really use the word, "quintessential," in the same sentence with "The Catfish Hole"? That was my first hurdle in writing this note. Let me also offer a quick disclaimer in the interest of the "full disclosure" that is de rigueur these days: I love good fried catfish. I don't care if the place consists of cobbled-together house trailers (the old Murray's in Devall's Bluff) or rusty 55-gallon drums, if they have great catfish I'm OK with that. In fact, there seems to be an odd inverse relationship between the physical appearance of the place and the quality of the catfish (or barbecue) served. The Catfish Hole in North Little Rock fits this theory nicely.

And, really, what's not to like about a place whose floor was ripped from some old school gymnasium and then reassembled with pieces of the original basketball court tape still attached, but now disorganized and visible as little archaeological remnants under tables and chairs? Or, one with an ancient owner/cashier whose synapses are slowing visibly -- rendering paying for your meal a long and separate part of the adventure? But, let's get to the food.

The fried catfish at The Catfish Hole is good. Mildly-seasoned, the batter allows the nutty, clean flavor of the farm-raised catfish to come through. In comparison, the batter at Grandpa's Catfish House (a direct competitor one street south of The Catfish Hole on Osage Street before they moved to their new location) is spicier and uses much more garlic powder. For years, The Catfish Hole/Grandpa's issue divided many families in the area. Much like other polarizing topics (Democrats or Republicans, and the generations-earlier Beatles versus Stones debates), the two catfish houses had their very vocal advocates and detractors. You couldn't straddle the fence, let's say.

On this particular night, we chose to go to The Catfish Hole, where a large serving of fillets (about $12) comes with french fried potatoes (hand-cut, not frozen), excellent hushpuppies (onion-y and not a bit sweet -- one of the real failings of Grandpa's), and a tart, vinegary coleslaw. OK, you may want to pop a Lipitor tab or two after eating all this fried stuff, but, in moderation, you'll be fine. Tea, soft drinks and beer are also available. The beer is served in cheap plastic mugs with unusually high bottoms, so my guess is that they hold about eight to nine ounces -- a transparent device to increase profits, and one of my few complaints (along with the reconstituted lemon juice packets on the table instead of real lemon slices) about the place.

Service was slow. But it was a busy night during Lent, and our waitress commented that the increased business had, as a result, made it her favorite holiday. HE really does work in strange and mysterious ways!

And, speaking of the diners, this is about as pure an Arkansas cultural experience as you can get. In one of the more massive understatements I've ever written, I'll simply note that catfish eaters are not a fancy bunch. But it makes them (and me) happy to be eating one of their favorite foods, and it shows -- in their faces and waistlines. For example, during the fifteen-minute wait in line to pay for our meal, I noticed a very round man in front of me wearing a "Texas Athletic Department" t-shirt, Texas ball-cap and sweatpants. I joked with him that he looked like a speed-position guy to me. He chuckled in a good-natured way and said, "Only if I see a pork chop or a piece of chicken." It's that kind of place and atmosphere.

The Catfish Hole is located one street south of the North Little Rock airport off of Remount Road, which is, in turn, off of Camp Robinson Road. I didn't check the hours of operation, but I'm guessing that it's closed Sundays and Mondays. If you like fried catfish, you may want to try it.


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