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Friday, July 27, 2012

From food truck to fantastic at Eat My Catfish

Posted By on Fri, Jul 27, 2012 at 1:25 PM

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It all started in an unassuming little red trailer parked on Military Road with "EatMyCatfish.com" emblazoned on a hanging banner to the side. Benton's a small town, though, and word soon got out about the food coming out of that trailer: fresh fried fish, mud bugs, chicken strips, and shrimp that folks around these parts considered as good or better than anything they'd ever eaten in a sit-down restaurant. As the buzz around Eat My Catfish grew, so did their sales, and within the last year they traded in the trailer for a more permanent location in a shopping center across the street near Sutherland's Hardware. It's not nearly as visible a location as the bright red trailer right off the road was, but it does make a nice bit of difference when the temperature's over 100 and a hankering for the fried stuff sets in.

Eat My Catfish makes no secret of what it's about: things dipped in batter and fried crisp in the numerous deep-fryers that line the wall, and they know their business well. Ordering is simple, just walk right up to the counter and take your pick from a menu that doesn't offer anything grilled as a sop to the health nuts. On our recent trip, we started off with one of our favorite delicacies, a basket of Fried Pickles ($5.00). Now fried pickles come in two varieties — limp, soggy horrors that somebody pulled out of a bag in the freezer and the freshly battered, screaming-hot from the grease kind. The pickles here were the latter, and the salty, slightly spicy fish batter that Eat My Catfish uses transformed a healthy-sized portion of regular hamburger dill chips into an appetizer that was crunchy on the outside with a soft, tart middle. Served to the side was a cup of the South's most popular condiment, ranch dressing. We greedily made our way through the entire basket and found nary a pickle that wasn't fried up to crisp perfection.

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Since every sign around us was demanding that we eat some catfish, we ordered a Three Piece Dinner ($8.00) and were rewarded with a basket of crisp breaded filets, hushpuppies, slaw, and fries. The fish was excellent, with a firm coating that was fried well but still remained moist and tender. The flavor of the catfish was nice and fresh, too, and there wasn't any of that muddy taste that can sometimes mar an otherwise decent filet. Catfish has never been our favorite fish to eat, but these filets were as good as any we've ever tasted. The fish came with a side of homemade tartar sauce that had a nice hot sauce zing to it and made a wonderful dip for the fish. The hushpuppies and slaw were nothing special, but the fries were excellent. It seems like there are a lot of places that can fry up a decent piece of fish or chicken but have no clue whatsoever how to get a potato to turn into anything other than a soggy mess. It's one of my biggest pet peeves, and flaccid fries have turned me off of more than one restaurant. These fries were pretty close to the Platonic ideal of a French fry: a slightly spiced exterior that was firm and crisp and gave way to a mealy and flavorful interior. It may sound slightly obsessive and insane on my part to go on at such length about a pile of fried potatoes, but in a state where McDonald's still routinely win's the Readers' Choice for "best fries" due to so many places serving weak, limp, apathetic spuds, it's refreshing to see a place that can make them right.

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There's also a nice selection of po' boy sandwiches on the menu, and since a good po' boy is one of our favorite things in life, we opted for the Crawfish Po' Boy($7.00). Ordering crawfish in Arkansas is an act of bravery. Most of the fried variety tastes like nothing more than fake crab dipped in fish fry and fried to a hard, burned crisp. The crawfish tails on this po' boy were like manna from a Cajun heaven, though — fat, plump tails that had a good, sweet flavor that wasn't overpowered by the light, crisp batter. There were a lot of them, too. The sandwich was made just how I like my po' boys, on a crusty piece of French bread with slaw. As an added bonus, a generous helping of that delicious spicy tartar sauce was mixed in with the slaw, bringing the whole sandwich into a nice mix of salty, sweet, and savory flavors. I've eaten po' boys at nearly every restaurant in Central Arkansas that serves them, and I've got to say that the Eat My Catfish version is probably my favorite of all that I've tried. That's sure to get some of you riled up, and I'll admit that there are some good po' boys out there: but this one was better.

After all that food, we were pretty full, but I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that Eat My Catfish also has a selection of fried chicken strips, chicken wings, shrimp, and the thing we were most upset about missing — fried pies, in apple, apricot, chocolate, coconut, or peach. It's seriously good food, and a place that nobody who loves the fried stuff should miss. Eat My Catfish is available for dine-in, carry-out, and catering, and they've expanded from their small food trailer to two locations: 1205 Military Road, Suite 7 in Benton and 1347 Albert Pike Road in Hot Springs. I wouldn't be at all surprised to see more locations popping up around the state, as the food is fresh, cheap, and apt to cause cravings after your very first time eating it.

The Hot Springs location is open 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Tue.-Sat. and the Benton store is open 11 a.m.-4 p.m., 3-9 p.m. Tue. and 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Wed.-Sat.

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