It all started when Travis Hester got fed up with life inside a cubicle in Texas and decided to head back home to be near family and friends. He broke free from life as an office drone by opening up a little red trailer on Military Road in Benton with "EatMyCatfish.com" emblazoned on the side. Benton's a small town, and word soon got out about the food that was coming out of that trailer: fresh fried fish, mud bugs, shrimp, and chicken strips — and all as good or better than anything that came from a sit-down restaurant. As the buzz around Eat My Catfish grew, so did their sales, and soon enough Hester was trading in the trailer for a more permanent brick-and-mortar location in a shopping center across the street near Sutherland's Hardware. While the new location isn't nearly as visible as the bright red trailer right on the road was, the comfortable dining room does make a nice bit of air-conditioned difference when the temperature's over 100 and a hankering for the fried stuff sets in.
Eat My Catfish makes no secret about what it does: things dipped in batter and fried crisp in the numerous deep-fryers lining 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). In our experience, fried pickles come in two varieties — limp soggy horrors that have been pulled from the depths of a bag in the freezer or freshly hand-battered and served screaming hot from the grease. The pickles here were of the latter kind, 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. A cup of the South's most popular condiment, ranch dressing, came on the side, and we greedily made our way through the entire basket without finding a single pickle that wasn't crisp perfection.
Since every sign around us was demanding that we eat some catfish, we ordered a three-piece dinner ($8), 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, without any of the muddy taste that can sometimes make this species a chore to eat. The homemade tartar sauce served to the side was quite good, with a tangy kick of hot sauce that really set it apart from the usual kind. The hushpuppies and slaw were good, if nothing special, but the fries were excellent. We've always wondered about places that seem able to fry up a decent piece of fish or chicken but serve limp, soggy fries. These fries were pretty close to our perfect idea of a French fry, though: crisp with a slightly spiced coating that gave way to a steamy, mealy middle. Garlic lovers can enjoy these fries with a heaping portion of minced and roasted garlic, and while the garlic fries ($5) weren't as good to us as the fried pickles, they're still a tasty way to start a meal.
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 decided on the crawfish po' boy ($7), understanding that ordering crawfish in Arkansas can be an act of bravery. The tails on this po' boy were like manna from a Cajun heaven, though — fat and plump with a good, sweet flavor that wasn't overpowered by the light batter. The portion was quite generous as well. The sandwich was made just how we like our po' boys, on a crusty piece of French bread with slaw and some of that spicy tartar sauce. We've tried a lot of po' boys out here in Central Arkansas, and the Eat My Catfish version might be the best we've had.
On a second visit, we found ourselves not exactly in the mood for fish and decided to try some of the chicken items on the menu. Of particular note was the Three Piece Chicken Strip Dinner ($5), which came with large white meat strips coated in a batter that was different from, but just as tasty as the fish batter. It's a massive amount of food for the money, and like all of the sauces at Eat My Catfish, the honey-mustard we ordered with the strips was fantastic. For a tangier kick with your chicken, go for the six-piece boneless chicken wings ($5), which are bite-sized pieces of the same moist chicken that have been fried up and doused in tangy buffalo sauce. It's almost too much flavor for one plate, but the spicy breading and sauce work well together both in terms of flavor and texture.
After all that food, we were pretty full, but we had to sample a couple of the fried pies we saw at the bottom of the menu. Eat My Catfish uses pies from Fly Wheel's Pies in Prescott, and the apple pie we ate had a light, flaky crust and a cinnamon apple filling that was really tasty, although we could have gone for a bit of a plumper pie. Fly Wheel's has been doing pies for a lot of years in South Arkansas, so be sure to check out this local dessert when you go by. We're always pleased when we find a place that has a simple menu that is executed with skill and passion, and Eat My Catfish certainly fits the bill. The staff is friendly, and since they're available for dine-in, carry-out or catering, there's no excuse to miss their fried-food masterpieces.
Eat My Catfish
1205 Military Road, Suite 7
11 a.m. until 4 p.m. Sunday, 3 p.m.-9 p.m. Tuesday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday.
You'll notice the words "hand-battered" appearing a lot on the menu. This isn't a lie, as your food will be made hot and fresh by hand right when you order it — there's not a single heat lamp to be seen.
Beer, credit cards accepted.
The Cuban Sandwich is the best I've ever had. Everything at E's Bistro is good...
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