Motoring along Interstate 30 through Saline County, it's easy to get the idea that the only thing to eat there are gas station hot dogs, chain restaurant burgers and questionable diner grub. There is, however, interesting food in Benton once you leave the freeway behind, and has been for years. It seems like just yesterday that one of this writer's favorite restaurants in the world was Benton's Dizzy's Grill, situated above a very not-so-picturesque Walmart parking lot.
While owner Darla Huie packed up and moved our still-fave to downtown Little Rock some years back, there are more good places to eat in Benton. At least two of them started small, as food trucks, which has allowed them to build a reputation and clientele before taking the big and expensive step of signing a brick-and-mortar lease.
One of those restaurants is Eat My Catfish. Now a booming storefront at 1205 Military Road, sharing space in a strip mall with a hardware store and a pawnshop, the place started out selling catfish from a trailer just up the street. While catfish joints in small towns can seem as common as mushrooms on a damp log, there's nothing common about the food at Eat My Catfish: thick, meaty catfish fillets, lemony homemade tartar sauce, hand-battered chicken tenders, perfectly seasoned shrimp, excellent sides — including a tangy cole slaw — and crawfish by the ton (according to owner Travis Hester, they're the biggest seller of live and cooked crawfish in the state, moving several thousand pounds a week). The place was packed by 5 p.m. when we visited last Friday, and the line steadily grew out the door as the night wore on.
Hester, who was born in the East End community in Saline County, started Eat My Catfish from a catering wagon on Military Road in October 2008. Fresh out of college, he had no restaurant experience. He was, however, the scion of a family of good Southern cooks, and so he took a few family recipes and bought a catering trailer.
"Catering trailers or food trucks back then had just started to come on the scene," Hester said. "There weren't that many around here at all six years ago, so it took a little bit to get a reputation where people wanted to eat out of one. But we kind of came up at the right time." The restaurant moved to its current location in January 2012.
Hester said that one of the main things that separates Eat My Catfish from other catfish joints in Central Arkansas is that all the meat on the menu — chicken, shrimp and fish — is never frozen, and cooked to order instead of being fried in batches and kept warm under heat lamps. That, Hester said, makes a big difference in terms of flavor.
"It's just like going to the Gulf and getting shrimp or going to Maine and getting lobster: It's always going to taste fresher if it's from an hour or two away," he said. "All our fish comes out of Tunica, packed on ice, twice a week, just for us. No additives. When you freeze something, it saps the moisture and the natural oils out of the middle of whatever you're freezing. When you don't freeze it, you're going to have a better, more natural flavor." Hester is rapidly spinning that thinking into a growing little empire, with a second location opened in Conway in October 2013.
Just up the street from Eat My Catfish — coincidentally, in the same spot where Travis Hester parked the Eat My Catfish trailer for two years — is another up-and-coming trailer-based restaurant — Baja Grill. Opened by owners Craig and Melissa Roe in January 2012, the tidy wagon with a flock of cafe tables scattered around in front has done booming business in recent months, serving up a take on Mexican cuisine that Craig Roe calls "Mexi-Cali."
"I don't know if there's an actual, formal definition for that word," Roe said, "but where Tex-Mex is more authentic Mexican with a Texas twist, we feel like ours is more of a California twist. We kind of take a healthier, fresher approach to the taco and the burrito, by using only fresh ingredients. We make everything 100 percent scratch in the trailer."
The Baja Grill menu (available at eatbajagrill.com) boasts nine different varieties of tacos plus burritos, "naked" burritos (burrito fixins in a bowl, without the tortilla) and quesadillas, and appetizers like queso, fresh guacamole and salsa. All the tortillas are locally made. As for meat, there's nary a crumble of ground beef in sight, but there is Cuban pork, marinated chicken, blackened mahi-mahi, honey-chipotle pork, veggies-only options, and blackened shrimp, served with goodies like tequila-lime aioli, fresh mango salsa, cabbage-jicama slaw, fresh salsa verde, sweet onions and salt-lime vinaigrette, to name only a few of the in-house ingredients.
Roe, who started in restaurants in Hot Springs when he was 13 and worked his way through high school as a cook, said that the freshness and care they take with everything shows in the loyalty of their customer base. That loyalty has them busy even in the cold and rainy months, and has kept their rating on Urbanspoon.com consistently above 95 since they opened, which Roe said is unheard of in the restaurant business.
Though al fresco dining has its charms, Roe said the uncertainty caused by Arkansas weather means that Baja Grill is soon to follow Eat My Catfish in ditching the wheels and moving into a permanent space. Though he doesn't want to announce where until the lease is signed, he said he's hoping to sign papers on a location "in the next week or so," with a mid- to late-April grand opening.
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