THE RULER: Grampa's fried fish.
Ah, the catfish fillet. Food of the Gods, and yet, something of a stumbling block for reviewers like Yours Truly.
See, unlike pizza, or cheese dip, or even a porterhouse steak — all of which can come at the taste buds in a hundred different ways if purchased from a hundred different places — the catfish fillet is almost impossible to screw up. The Lord saw that it was good, and then He rested. Case closed.
This is exactly what makes ranking one catfish joint over another so hard: Unless it was fried in motor oil, or tastes like mud, or comes with a ball of hair in the center like the filling in a Twinkie, there isn’t much that can go wrong with the bottom dwelling King of Rivers once he meets his maker, a knife, and hot grease, in that order.
Given all that, while Grampa’s Catfish is our fourth or fifth catfish joint to review since we’ve been here, it feels like our hundredth. Deep-fried catfish is the manna of these hills, and you really can’t escape it. Who would want to? But there’s a big difference between happily stuffing your gob with catfish and finding new things to say about it. After awhile, it makes you understand what they say about the loneliness of the long-distance runner.
Still, there has to be something new to say about Grampa’s Catfish. People seem to think so, anyway. Central Arkansas’s oldest catfish restaurant — their eatery at 1218 Mission Road in North Little Rock has been in constant operation since 1970 — Grampa’s recently opened a shiny new outlet in Southwest Little Rock, near the intersection of Stagecoach and Baseline Roads, a place that has been packed to the rafters every time we’ve driven past. On a recent Sunday, we slipped in before the Church Crowd for a bite (we got there just in time, as the place was soon full of more oldsters than an Andy Williams concert).
On opening the menu at Grampa’s, it’s the rules you see first — and the dire warnings of what will befall diners if they break them. The menu is littered with rules — many connected with the culinary minefield that is Grampa’s $10.99 all-you-can-eat catfish or chicken platters (it was enough that Companion suggested the place ought to be called “Crotchety Old Grampa’s Catfish”). Our personal favorite: “Folks sharing a single dinner will be charged $1.00 for additional slaw privileges.”
Slaw privileges? Is that one of the things forbidden to gay couples by that new amendment to the state Constitution?
While we have a hard time believing that people filching the condiments is really that big a problem, it actually was some of the best danged slaw we’ve ever eaten. Brought to the table in a large bowl, it was creamy and cold, with a tangy hint of lemon and big hunks of the stuff that makes slaw “slaw.” In this case, can see why Grampa’s might fear folks absconding through the bathroom window with their pockets full of the stuff.
From that rather persnickety menu, we tried the regular catfish fillet platter ($7.99), with six catfish fillets plus fries and cole slaw. A more heart-conscious Companion, meanwhile, tried the broiler sampler ($9.99), a mix of Cajun, blackened, and sauteed catfish fillets, all served on a bed of flavorful dirty rice (though a diner who wanted something to wrap his hands around might have tried the $13.49 whole catfish for two, while those seeking more turf and less surf can choose from a selection of 10 or so steak entrees). As a side order — from a long list that included things like scallops and stuffed crabs — we tried the skewer of eight grilled shrimp $2.99.
Everything arrived quicker than we expected, nearly sizzling from the deep fat. The fillets were big and meaty, none of the paper-thin crunchiness that is the one thing we’ve found to complain about in other people’s fish. We were suddenly glad that we didn’t spring for the nine-piece platter ($9.49), because we ended up taking a good bit of our six-piece order home in a box.
In the grand, catfish-centric scheme of Southern cuisine, the fillets were great, perfectly done, with a thick cornmeal coating. Ditto on the included hushpuppies, which were almost cakelike in their sweetness. We agreed all around that the fillets could have stood a bit more spice, but then again, that’s why God sees fit to make sure those big bottles of Louisiana hot sauce, peppers in vinegar and Tabasco are always on the table at catfish joints. Whatever you’re looking for, catfish can provide. Can I get an amen?
The real standout of the meal, however, was Companion’s baked fish platter, especially the portion done Cajun style. One bite was enough to let us know what we’ll be having the next time we brave the wrath of Grampa: a big slab of flavorful fish, sprinkled with a sweet/spicy coating that avoided the trap of most “Cajun” dishes by actually being consumable by those without a cast-iron gullet and an asbestos throat. Good stuff.
In all, we really found nothing to complain over at Grampa’s, which puts it on par with about every other catfish place in the universe. Still, with a big menu for those wanting something other than catfish, a fast and friendly wait staff and quiet, non-freewayside surroundings, it does tend to edge out most others in the pack (or should that be “school?”). We’ll be back. Just not on a Sunday.