I've lived in Arkansas my entire life, and I can't really think of any other place I'd rather be. But while I love my state, there's a huge problem we face here every single day that I feel I must address: we're landlocked, and that's a tragedy for a seafood lover like myself. I'm the sort of person who plans vacations around what kind of food is available, and any time I can make it to one of the coasts, I'm in a heaven populated by shellfish, mollusks, and pretty much anything that swims and has gills. All is not lost around here for a person like me, though, because for nearly 37 years the Little Rock Oyster Bar has been serving up the good stuff, and it's as fresh and tasty as you can find in any ocean town.
For the uninitiated, the raw oyster on the half shell is one of those foods that causes folks to shy away, and I admit that they aren't pretty. I can only imagine the looks that the first caveman who ever pried open one of the black, misshapen shells and slurped down the gray, slimy meat inside must have gotten from all the other hunter-gatherers. I guarantee one thing about that caveman, though: he was in such a state of bliss at the taste that he didn't even notice. Oysters are like that. An order of a dozen of these beauties at the Oyster Bar varies with the market price ($9.95 on our last visit), and they're served with a few packages of saltines on a no-frills plastic tray reminiscent of something you might see in a high school cafeteria. But don't let the mundane presentation bother you — these oysters are fresh, cold, and have a light, sweet, briny flavor that's like taking a bite out of a summer day on the beach. I'm honestly not sure how the folks who run the place manage to serve up oysters with this level of freshness so far from any body of salt water, but give credit where credit is due: they're on top of things. Pay a visit to the condiment bar if you need a bit of spice — lemon, horseradish, cocktail sauce, and raw onions are all available in a serve-yourself capacity. And as a perfect accompaniment to those cold, firm oysters, get a pitcher of what I guarantee is the coldest beer in Little Rock, beer so cold that even domestic light beer tastes like the refreshing nectar of the gods.
Those fantastic oysters aren't all the Oyster bar has to offer, of course. Folks shy about raw food will find solace in the boiled shrimp, snow crab legs, and fried asparagus that make up a very impressive appetizer menu. For a quick lunch, any of the po' boy sandwiches are great (especially the fried oyster, naturally) — and while I've been told by numerous people that the Oyster Bar's habit of dressing their po' boys with cole slaw and mustard is a sin bordering on total blasphemy, I'm a huge fan. There's something about salty breaded fish, clams, or oysters and the tangy crunch of slaw that just goes together perfectly for me.
If you're in the mood for something classic like fried catfish, the Oyster Bar has you covered. These fish filets are large, with a nice, mild taste and a firm consistency that makes it a pleasure to eat. And since the limp hand-cut fries are a bit of a disappointment, my recommendation is to forgo them altogether and order the Cat-touffee, a catfish filet served atop a bowl of rich, thick shrimp etouffee. It's an inspired combination that makes for a tasty and filling meal.
My favorite thing about the Oyster Bar is that it's one of those places that just feels like a community institution as soon as you walk in the door. And while its location in the heart of Stift Station might make it seem like a place more suited to dive-bar lovers, the restaurant's appeal is far wider than that — it's truly a family-friendly place that still has enough hipster cred (and a well-appointed jukebox to prove it) to make it a great spot for just about anybody. The food is fantastic, and reasonably priced, and the service ranks among some of the best in town. The Little Rock Oyster Bar is located at 3003 W. Markham (right where Kavanaugh joins Markham) and they're open 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Mon.-Thu., 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Fri., noon-10 p.m. Sat.