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Though Arkansans love chain restaurants, the food landscape in this state is full of surprises and delights, if you're willing to search. A fruitful hunting ground for those looking for remnants of real Arkansas turns out to be Pine Bluff, the city that time mostly forgot. Though industry may have largely left Pine Bluff behind, the place is positively studded with old-line joints, full to the rafters with character and good cooking.
One of this reviewer's new favorites is Arnold's Catfish Place, a spot that has been open on South Blake Street in Pine Bluff since the Nixon administration. There, they serve up some of the best catfish and home cooking in the state, buffet style, all you can eat ($13 per person, includes drink and dessert).
While I've been burned enough times by greasy, thrown-together buffets to know that "all you can eat" and "what you would want to eat" are usually at odds, Arnold's proves to be the rare exception to the rule that if a business owner is willing to sell you a potentially infinite amount of anything for one price, nine times out of 10 he should probably be the one paying you.
Arnold's is a gem. The place is humble but steeped in Delta ambiance — a whitewashed cinderblock pillbox with paneled walls and vinyl tablecloths. The only thing that could improve the place, by my way of thinking, is a cold 40-ounce and a jukebox with a playlist that leans heavy on the oeuvre of Howlin' Wolf or Bobby "Blue" Bland.
Arnold's was half-full when we visited on a recent Saturday afternoon, mostly locals tucking into mounded plates of fish. Though we were initially skeptical when we laid eyes on the steam table, we shouldn't have worried. The lineup consisted of carefully prepared soul food staples: meaty ribs, barbecued chicken, corn, meatloaf, turnip greens, sweet tea, fries, mashed potatoes, gravy and meaty catfish steaks. After we'd come back with our haul, a waitress came around with a basket of pillowy yeast rolls, still warm from the oven, that were better than the last hundred yards home.
Everything we sampled was good to excellent, with the exception of the somewhat dry hush puppies. The meatloaf, in particular, was great: firm, tasty and accompanied well by hearty tomato gravy. The greens were flavorful enough to make me pause and say a little prayer of thanks for good cooks.
The undercard aside, the sign outside says catfish, so that was clearly the main event. A longtime lover of deep-fried bottom feeder at many of the best greasy spoons in the state, I found the fish at Arnold's to be very fine indeed: inch-thick slabs, fried up perfect in a flour/cornmeal breading. We saw a few fillets mixed in, so all is not lost if you have kids along or are scared of swallowing a bone. But the bulk of what was served were catfish steaks, as God intended. The kiss of death for catfish is frying in oil that's not hot enough to force out the steam and keep the grease from penetrating and soaking the crust and delicate flesh. Whoever cooked the catfish we had clearly knew what he or she was doing: the fish was moist inside and crispy outside, with little of the greasy slickness that can ruin an otherwise fine piece of meat. The chef was also smart enough to serve the catfish in smaller batches to keep things from lingering too long on the steam table, another common reason why catfish at buffet restaurants tends to suck.
For dessert, there were several choices: slices of pie, wedges of homemade chocolate cake and a mysterious pan of cling-wrapped stuff, topped with an oven-browned meringue, that turned out to be an amazing bread pudding. It was so nice that I instantly forced my groaning companions to sample, shoving my plate in front of their faces like a proper caveman. So good.
Life, friends, is too short for bad food. Though it's a bit of a haul from Little Rock, Pine Bluff is clearly a place every foodie in Arkansas needs to visit after some careful Internet sleuthing for the restaurants that have been there awhile. If you go, and you love catfish, save room for Arnold's. It's a real treasure.
Arnold's Catfish Place
2122 S. Blake St.
Even if you're not into fish, try the also-rans on Arnold's buffet. You could make a good meal out of the chicken or the meatloaf, particularly when paired with the plentiful sides and excellent yeast rolls.
11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
All major credit cards accepted, no alcohol served.