Two fish joints, both alike in dignity, in fair Little Rock, where we make our scene. From ancient grudge break to new mutiny, where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
OK, OK. Enough literature. Yeah, maybe it’s a bit harsh to dust off the “Romeo and Juliet” reference when talking about dueling catfish places. But, by our way of thinking, catfish is as much about amour as anything the Bard ever wrote about two ’tweens locked in suicidal puppy-love.
We’re talking, of course, about the catfish trailers on Third Street just west of downtown Little Rock. The Fish House on the north, a little further down closer to Chester Street, Adams Catfish on the south — skirmishers in the larger war between two Conway joints of the same names. Now, Jason Adams has upped the stakes in this deep-fried cold war by opening Adams Catfish Express and Barbeque, a new, fixed location in the tiny cinderblock hut that once housed Famous Hank’s and before that Sufficient Grounds. To take the ol’ ancient grudge a little deeper, Adams tells us that he once served honorably at the Fish House, running the catering end of things, but was relieved of duty soon after a new owner came to power — thus the birth of Adams Catfish Catering.
War may be hell, but catfish is our idea of heaven. So, we decided to cross No Man’s Land under a flag of neutrality and sample grub from the Adams trailer, Adams Catfish Express, and the rolling incarnation of the Fish House to try and see what’s what.
Though none of the above are great shakes when it comes to ambiance, the winner in that category — at least on sunny days — has to be Adams Fish and Barbeque on Cross Street. With a nice wooden deck to sit on and soak up some rays while you sop up the grease, it’s a great place to kill a sunny lunch hour. We wouldn’t call it the best view in the world (not counting the comely lasses from the hair salon next door), but compared to the dashboard dining to be had at the contenders (complete with, in the case of the Fish House, the roar of a generator that powers their kitchen), it’s paradise.
As always, however, it’s about the food. Both Adams and the Fish House have sought to broaden their appeal with menu items other than catfish — this seems to be the trend at every catfish joint in the market. The Fish House offers alternative goodies like shrimp, clams and buffalo wings. But here, once again, Adams’ fixed location is the obvious choice for those finicky few who want something other than fried, fried and fried. They offer a whole lot more than catfish, including burgers ($5.99 for the cheeseburger combo), grilled chicken, four salads, tamales, and a slate of barbecue offerings — including the ribs that Companion tried on a recent visit ($6.59 for the rib plate with two sides and Texas toast). Companion reports that the ribs were OK, but too fatty and not meaty enough by half. By the same token, the tamales made at a joint in Tuckerman were good, but we both agreed that these drier types could have stood a little steeping in grease like those found at the Does Eat Place here or in Greenville, Miss. (a killer on the arteries, but oh so good going down).
Cut to the chase and tell us about the fish, you say? OK, OK. Prices for fillets at Adams (both mobile and fixed) and Fish House are comparable, but the Fish House pulls out the win when looking for cheap fish, offering up a three-piece dinner with two sides and hushpuppies for $6, saving you a buck over the Adams trailer and $1.39 over Adams on Cross Street. While the sides at all three places were good, we especially enjoyed the mustardy potato salad at Fish House (we’re just not understanding this sudden invasion of the smoky mayo-and-bacon variety, which is to be had at Adams on Cross Street, Mr. Mason’s Barbecue and a few others).
Finally, the fish: At all three places, the fillets were big and meaty, tapering off to a fine crispness. The differences were subtle, but in the end, we have to give our vote for the fish we had from Adams on Cross Street. In this fast-food world, we’re used to homogeneity. The truth of the matter, however, is that the fish from the fixed Adams location was the hands-down best — as different from those found at Adams’ trailer as they were from those dished up by the Fish House.
Though the Fish House fillets were fine, done in a heavy yellow crust that was similar to those from Adams’ trailer, we could swear that those from the Cross Street Adams were lighter somehow, covered in a near-translucent breading that tasted less heavily of cornmeal and which seemed spicier, more peppery. While this perceived difference may have been a figment of our imagination, due to the changing tides, some difference in the set of our mouth the day we sampled one over the other, or maybe even the result of a cook accidentally dropping the ash from his cigar into the mix, we swear it was there.
As this splitting of hairs should prove, both the Fish House and Adams locations serve up some tasty grub, especially in the fish ’n’ chips department. The difference between their fillets is a matter of degrees — maybe tenths of a degree — so you’re really not going to get a bad meal, even if you flip a coin. This spring, however, when we get fish-hungry, we know that sunny little patio attached to the Adams on Cross Street is going to beckon, and we can even take along those friends who’d rather have Something Else than fish. All Jason Adams can hope for is that the Fish House doesn’t rent a few more parking slots, buy some tables and a folding canopy from Home Depot, and spring a June surprise.
The Fish House
Third and State Streets
10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday through Friday.
Adams Catfish (trailer)
Third and Chester Streets
10:30 p.m. to 2 p.m. Wednesday through Friday.
Adams Catfish Express and Barbecue
215 N. Cross St.
10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday.
Cash or check only, no CC. No alcohol.