FISHY DECOR: Fish tank at Catfish City West.
In Arkansas, every town has its “thing.” Hope has watermelons and a machine to clone overly-ambitious politicians. Bentonville has billionaire hillbillies. Pine Bluff has the constant threat of annihilation from a cloud of VX nerve gas.
While Little Rock has a lot going on, we’re beginning to notice the rise of our very own Thing; something that’s going to be as synonymous with our fair city in the future as mullets and camera-shy motel swingers were in the past.
We’re talking, of course, about catfish joints.
For a city our size, we seem to have a whole lot of catfish joints. I’m estimating one for every nine adults. Years from now, when scientists look back at maps documenting the slow extinction of the noble Muddus catfishus, Little Rock is sure to have a bright red epicenter of shame over it, like a dollop of sweet, sweet cocktail sauce.
The newest catfish joint to arrive on the crowded scene turns out to be a expanded version of an old favorite: the venerable Catfish City. We thought Catfish City was down for the count when its lone University Avenue location burned flat a few years back. But not only did they rebuild to better than new — offering not just fillets, but barbecue as well — now a fresh sister to the original has popped up way out west, at 14800 Cantrell Road (or Highway 10), just west of Taylor Loop Road. With an even bigger menu, a drive-through, and a building that’s something of a treat for the eyes, the newest Catfish City is sure to be a hit in character-deprived West Little Rock.
The first thing you notice when you walk into CC West is the fish tanks. They’re everywhere — in the foyer, running down the center of the restaurant — but the coolest one is in an archway close to the dining room. On second thought, “in the archway” might not be the best word. It might be better to say: “is the archway.” The tank wraps right over your head, allowing fish to swim up and over you in a way that says, “Take that, lung-sucker!” As a recent companion pointed out, there’s something a little cruel about giving fish a front row seat to people eating fish, but hey — at least these swimmers don’t have a future on the plate.
On our first visit, we had to give Catfish City’s barbecue a shot. In Arkansas, people don’t tolerate imperfection in three things: our preachers, our fillets, and our ’cue, not necessarily in that order. The idea that CC West was claiming expertise at two of those three seemed reckless at least. To see if they could walk the walk, we tried what the menu said was their “signature sandwich”: the large pulled pork ($5.45), with a side of beans and potato salad ($1.65 each).
I thought the sandwich I was delivered was a bit on the small side, especially for the price. While the beans and potato salad were both good, the sandwich was less than spectacular. Wrapped in wax paper, overly moist and about as thin as George W.’s knowledge of the black hole theory, I have the sneaking suspicion the sandwich had been made ahead of time and steam-trayed within an inch of its life.
All that, and their sauce was a little funky, too: dark, molasses-y, with enough ground black pepper to make me take a swig of tea and swish it around. Like many barbecue places in town, it seems Catfish City needs to take a pointer from reigning king Whole Hog and offer a selection of sauces on every table. It’s harder to completely strike out that way. Just when I thought it was as bad as it could get, along came the check: $11.54, before tip. Ouch.
So, the barbecue was a disappointment, but I’ve had Catfish City’s fish, and I can vouch. It’s OK, which is — when you get right down to it — pretty much the best thing you can say about any catfish fillet, except, of course, for those fillets you got from that clapboard dive in Mississippi or Missouri or Crittenden County a couple years back, the place with all the Percy Sledge songs on the juke box.
Forget it, friend. You’ll never get fillets that good again.
On a second trip to CCW, I took a companion. From the menu, I tried the large catch ($11.95: “For larger appetites”) while Companion tried the catfish and shrimp dinner ($12.95). Both came with slaw, fries, hush puppies, and — maybe the best thing on the plate — a side of old-fashioned pickled tomatoes.
The shrimp were big and meaty, a bit darkly fried for my taste, but otherwise fine. The catfish? Yep, you guessed it: OK. Tasty enough. Not too spicy, not too greasy, not too thin, with exactly the cornmeal coating you would expect. Still, that puts Catfish City pretty much neck and neck with every other catfish place in Little Rock.
Better than OK was the service, which was quick and friendly to a fault. Not OK — as with our first visit — was the check: more than $31 for a two-person lunch (though we did go for the plates that needed sideboards). Still, with scads of disposable income out that way and the big-name chain gang yet to invade the far reaches of the West Little Rock, Catfish City might be just what you’re looking for, OK? OK.
CATFISH CITY & BBQ
14800 Cantrell Road
Unless you’re training for a weightlifting meet, you might want to try the “medium” or “small catch” when it comes to the catfish dinners. The large has enough fish to feed a regiment.
10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 10:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Closed Sunday.
Moderate to expensive (for catfish restaurants) prices. All credit cards accepted. Full bar.