Magness Lake, in Heber Springs, is a magnet for swans
If fried fish isn't your thing, then Lassis Inn won't be, either. This landmark restaurant hard off Interstate 30 just south of Roosevelt Road has a laser-sharp focus on fried fish, and it's arguably the best in town. Catfish fillets, catfish steaks and bone-in buffalo fish are the three options, and folks looking for a main-course alternative needn't bother — unless maybe they're hungry for a 40-ounce, rib-sticking bottle of beer.
Lassis Inn's 13 straight-back wooden four-seat booths feature tiny tables with mustard, ketchup, Louisiana hot sauce and a roll of paper towels competing for space with platters of fish. Fish is served with a stack of white bread — the catfish fillets and buffalo coming in small, medium, large and extra-large portions; there is no medium option for the catfish steaks.
Prices range from $6 for the small catfish steaks to $20.25 for the extra-large catfish fillets. (For reference's sake, the medium catfish fillets [$11] featured five decent-sized pieces of fish.) Two smallish, tasty hushpuppies come with the fish. You can get both slaw and fries for an extra $2.50, but don't bother. Both are pedestrian at best. Same goes for the fried okra ($1.99 small; $3.99 large).
Catfish fillets are the norm at fish places, and in this day of readily available farm-raised fish, almost everybody can produce decent catfish. Lassis Inn's fillets are as good as anybody's — crisp, mild with a light, black pepper-flecked batter — but the other two fish options are what truly set this place apart. We've never had moister, more succulent, flakier catfish steaks than these. They were almost breathtakingly good.
Four people can easily try the entire menu, and we did, sharing everything. We all started with the buffalo. Elihue Washington Jr., the owner and head cook — he batters and fries all the fish when ordered, never before — came by before we ordered and warned us that we might find the buffalo a bit gamey for our tastes. But we didn't. It certainly is more strongly flavored than catfish, but what it really reminded us of was catfish back in the day when everyone couldn't get farm-raised fish and some tasted a bit "muddy." There's a single bone that runs through the buffalo, but it's not hard to avoid. Nor were the small bones in the catfish steaks.
Lemon pound cake was the sole dessert option, and we tried a piece. Washington's sister used to make it, he told us, but now his sister-in-law does. It had a nice tang, and we enjoyed the sugary icing. The cake itself was a bit dry, but we're not sure when it was made.
We liked the atmosphere at the Lassis Inn, even more after we pumped a couple of bucks into the fabulous jukebox, which exclusively features rhythm-and-blues with plenty of classics from B.B. King, Bobby Blue Bland, Aretha Franklin, Johnnie Taylor and James Brown, plus some newer stuff.
It wasn't crowded inside nor very hot outside, but the three window air conditioning units were still working hard to keep up. We split a 40-ounce Bud and got a kick out of the frozen plastic glasses that accompanied it. Twelve- and 22-ounce options are available for the slightly less thirsty.
One quirk of the Lassis Inn is its "no dancing" sign. We confirmed with our waitress that dancing isn't allowed, but we didn't ask why. But an Arkansas Times-produced video featuring Washington that our editor later pointed us to confirmed what we'd heard: that once upon a time some overly jubilant dancing types regularly took out their boogie-woogie-fueled enthusiasm on the toilets in the Lassis Inn bathrooms. And it was usually the women's bathroom that suffered the damage.