This small south Arkansas city was once one of the top oil producers in the nation.
While our annual Best Restaurants coverage is all about your choices, Dear Reader, we also know that — like us — you’re a rather Little Rock-centric bunch. When you’re out away from the Capital City you usually end up with a McBurger in your hand instead of the great, downhome chow we all know lurks on the two-laners of Arkansas. Frustrating, to be sure.
With that in mind, every year we like to throw a future favorite into our “Best Restaurants” coverage, a safari-style destination into the hinterlands.
As you know, we’re suckers for catfish fillets, so this year, our in-the-sticks pick is the incomparable Woods Place in Camden. Homey, local, friendly to a fault and — best of all — home to some of the best deep-fried mudkitty in the state, Woods is just the kind of joint where we could hang out until the cops showed and asked us to vacate the premises.
A true institution in South Arkansas, Woods Place has been in the same location for 22 years. If you don’t get there a little before noon on weekdays, prepare to wait. The place fills up with locals quickly, and they tend to linger. Owner James Woods said the restaurant serves about 5,000 pounds of catfish a week. The secret, he said, is that they still use fresh catfish, where most restaurants have gone to frozen (the fillets, in case you were wondering, are superb: big, meaty slabs in a crunchy breading with a hint of lemon, served with slices of red onion, homemade yeast rolls, and a sweet-n-vinegary coleslaw that might be the best I’ve ever tasted — $8.25 for a half order, $10.25 for the wheel-you-out-on-a-gurney whole order).
Though Woods Place could obviously branch out into other locations, Woods said the one store keeps it fun, not to mention easier to keep an eye on. With his catering business — four full-service catfish trailers, all booked and on the road most weekends out of the year — Woods said he’s got all he wants right now.
“The good thing about Camden is that we’re kind of centrally located,” Woods said. “I can get to Hot Springs, I can get to Little Rock, and I can get to Shreveport. I’m kind of in the middle of where I do most of my catering.”
That doesn’t mean, however, that he doesn’t do some long-distance work. Very long distance. For the past three summers, Woods has pulled a catering trailer to upstate New York, where he and his staff have cooked for up to 3,000 homesick and fish-hungry International Paper employees. You just can’t get good fried catfish there, they tell him.
“It’s kind of amazing,” he said. “When we pull into that little town of Ticonderoga, on a billboard it says ‘Countdown to Catfish.’ They get up on a ladder every day and pull the numbers down — ‘200 days, 199 days.’ ”
With two sons soon to graduate from high school (both of them work in the family business), Woods says he might be ready to hang up his apron and turn it over to the younger generation in a few years. For now, however, he’s happy to keep dishing up some the state’s best catfish.
“Times fly, I tell you,” he said with a chuckle. “I was young when I started.”
1137 Washington Street,
Hours: 7 a.m. – 9 p.m. 7 days a week