Monday, October 31, 2011

The Cadron Creek Catfish House - A new favorite

Highway 65 North
Bee Branch, Arkansas (about 50 minutes from Little Rock)

Can you wax rhapsodic about a catfish house, or even use "rhapsodic" in the same sentence as "catfish house"? Especially a "restaurant" in which the diners, one guesses, haven't really felt the need to remove their camo caps since birth. And, the interior decor would charitably be described as "mid-modern warehouse." Yes, it's that kind of place.

For years, I had driven by the CCCH on my way to someplace else. And, just about every time I passed it, I thought to myself, "Hmmm, THAT looks interesting." I wish I had given in to the impulse earlier. I've been there two or three times now, and each time I've had an enjoyable meal of excellent catfish and been waited on by friendly country folks. It's about as "Arkansas" as it gets, in a good way.

The CCCH is only open Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings from 4 p.m. until 9 p.m. There's no beer because it's in a dry county, and you can't bring your own with you. The ladies that cook the food get there at 7 a.m. each day, and then proceed to make everything from scratch.

Yep, you read that correctly. No frozen french fries or onion rings. No Sam's Club slaw. No canned baked beans. No pre-packaged BBQ ribs. They make everything there, and it tastes that way.

As Lewis Carroll might say, let's begin at the beginning. The CCCH is an all-you-can-eat buffet. Adults eat for $12, and those above age 62 eat for a dollar less. Soft drinks and tea are extra. My companion and I ate for roughly $27 before tip. Not great, but not bad, either. Because it IS an all-you-can-eat buffet, the size of the crowd is literally substantial. But, discussing obesity in the context of a catfish restaurant review seems to me to be poor form and humorless, particularly since I recall filling my plate up at least twice before putting down my fork. Finito, no mas!

Second, the food is good. This is a catfish place not haute cuisine, so those wanting creme brulée instead of banana pudding for dessert should look elsewhere. The food that they have, though, is uniformly tasty and fresh. I noticed a constant turnover of the items on the buffet, so they don't sit around getting soggy or overcooked. They have fresh salad fixings, cole slaw (in the KFC-vein — a bit sweet for me, but my companion liked it), fried okra, green tomato relish, and a lot of other stuff like that. All good. You'll have to excuse my lack of detail here, because I kept craning my neck (in a polite and gentlemanly fashion, of course) looking for the catfish. And, that nice elderly lady next to me inexplicably lost her balance as I gently brushed past her to the fillets. Sad.

They have fried frog legs, too. Tender and lightly battered, with no "fishy" pond taste. Delightful. The catfish comes in both fillets and center-cuts, and is uniformly excellent with a nice, mild, nutty catfish flavor and a perfectly fried crust. In a more perfect world, I might ask for a bit more spice in the batter (along the lines of Grandpa's with more pepper and garlic), but that really would be nit-picking. It's great just the way it is. On my second visit to the catfish section of the buffet, I asked one of the women where they get their fish. "Itta Bena, Mississippi," she replied. And, I thought once again, "Thank God for Mississippi."

Along with the very, very good catfish, the CCCH also has similarly wonderful hushpuppies in both plain and jalapeno varieties. I tried both (and why not?), and each was delicious. Not sweet or tart, either, but as the Baby Bear said, "Just right." I'll simply say that these Bee Branch women know how to make and cook hushpuppies, and leave it at that.

The service, as you might imagine, is folksy and nice. Drinks are refilled regularly without asking, and the women (I didn't see a single man in the kitchen or working the room) working there seem to genuinely want you to enjoy your meal. How old-fashioned! What are they thinking?? No surly waiters. No obvious greed. No "increasing value for shareholders"? I hardly knew what to make of the place — until I started eating, of course.

Now, a cautionary note: if you decide to stop in at the Cadron Creek Catfish House in Bee Branch and you make the trip from Little Rock, you will go through two well-known and notorious speed traps: Greenbrier, Arkansas, and Damascus, Arkansas. OBEY the speed limits in those two towns. In Greenbrier (just north of Conway), the speed limit drops from a posted 55 mph to 40 mph in town. And, in Damascus, it drops to 45 mph. Just do it. And, as you idle through those places, just be glad you don't live there and think about the tasty catfish waiting for you a few short miles ahead.

The Cadron Creek Catfish House has become a new favorite of mine. It's a long way to drive for a simple meal, but the drive itself can be a pleasant time to talk and look at the farm scenery. And, if you happen to be passing that way on a Thursday, Friday or Saturday night and are feeling hungry, pinch yourself at your good fortune.

Unless, of course, you're craving creme brulée.