- A WINNER: Soul Fish does fried catfish right. Green beans, black-eyed peas and hushpuppies are among 19 side dishes the restaurant offers.
It's been 10 years since college buddies Raymond Williams and Tiger Bryant opened their first Soul Fish Cafe in the hip Cooper-Young neighborhood of midtown Memphis. Business clearly has been good: Soul Fish has expanded its flagship restaurant and added two more restaurants, in east Memphis and Germantown.
A little more than a year ago, Williams announced the fourth Soul Fish would be located on Little Rock's Main Street — the owners' first foray outside Memphis and its first in a downtown area. Soul Fish opened the first week of August, becoming the northern anchor of a four-restaurant row on the west side of the 300 block of Main.
There's always reason for optimism when a proven operator opens a new location, and for the most part this Soul Fish Cafe gets things right. It occupies the old Dundee's menswear location, and the space is stunning: It's bright and open with a coastal theme that includes blue accents. A school of silver fish swims along the wall with large, lighted individual letters spelling "EATS" on the wall opposite. Soul Fish has a vintage-looking tile floor, a beam-accented ceiling and two unobtrusive, silent TVs.
There's a large sidewalk patio space with an awning and a blue illuminated swordfish sign at the entrance. One other nice, smart touch, given the block and street's history: What's left of the painted Dundee sign is still visible in the transom window.
It just feels good — and welcoming — to be at Soul Fish Cafe.
We were happy to see craft beer draft selections from Lost Forty and Stone's Throw (both just blocks away) as well as from Core (Springdale) and Wiseacre (Memphis). All are reasonably priced at $5, but the two we got weren't very cold. Drinkable, yes — frosty, no.
We split the smoked catfish dip ($7.95) and raved about its smooth, smoky (but not overly fishy) flavor and creaminess. However, tortilla chips for dipping seemed an odd choice. They weren't sturdy enough for the thick dip; crostini would hold up better.
- RESTAURANT ROW: The 300 block of Main Street is now home to four eateries.
Two of our entrees were fabulous; one was pretty good; one, not so much. Let's start with the winners: the fried catfish was superb, seasoned perfectly with enough salt and pepper. The three fillets in the regular basket ($13.75) were huge, crisp and not at all greasy. (Two fillets cost $11.75; four are $15.75.)
The catfish entree comes with hand-cut fries, slaw and hushpuppies, but our genial waiter let our friend substitute another of the 19 — NINETEEN! — side items for the slaw. She chose macaroni and cheese, and it was pure perfection, clearly from scratch. She said the fries were "nothing more than levitation for the catfish," while the "hushpuppy clouds are light and airy" and, again, not at all greasy.
We also enjoyed the half-smoked chicken ($10.25). Cooked over hickory, it was smoky, moist and had a stout, peppery finish. The accompanying mashed potatoes, while homemade, didn't hit our threshold for butter and cream.
The Memphis ($9.50) is one of nine po-boys on the large menu and seemed an apropos choice. It features thinly sliced smoked tenderloin, two slices of bacon (superfluous), slaw and a tangy barbecue sauce. The downside here was the Wonder Bread-soft hoagie bun. The accompanying white beans were cooked perfectly.
The only true loser was the blackened shrimp tacos (two for $10.75). These were baby shrimp, maybe OK for a chain steak joint salad bar, but not for high-dollar tacos. The black-eyed peas were good, but our taster said cooking them with pork meat would have greatly helped the flavor.
Everything at Soul Fish Cafe is homemade, a much-appreciated culinary commitment that makes a big difference with the desserts. We chose both pie options and one of the quartet of cakes; each was excellent. The caramel pecan pie ($3.95) is served warm and features chopped pecans vs. halves. The lemon pie ($4.75) is creamy, lemony and is served on a loose graham cracker crust. The dense chocolate cake ($4.75) had a light, creamy frosting.
Like most restaurants, the key at Soul Fish Cafe is knowing what to order. We have a better idea of that now, and we'll be back to continue to work our way through the large menu.
Soul Fish Cafe
306 Main St.
Soul Fish does fried catfish and hushpuppies just right. The fillets are huge — two should do you — and they are perfectly seasoned and crispy, with no greasy taste at all. We've never had better hushpuppies. We're not sure how they emerge from hot grease so light and airy, but we think we'll pop in soon for the appetizer basket of them ($4.95).
11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday.
Beer and wine served, credit cards accepted.