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Dueling catfish 

Garland City fish joints battle it out.

click to enlarge ONE OF TWO: Doc's Fish and Steak House has been around for decades.
  • ONE OF TWO: Doc's Fish and Steak House has been around for decades.

Garland City, Arkansas, is small. In fact, you could drive right by it and be none the wiser. Located about 23 miles east of Texarkana on Highway 82, it's one of those towns that are at least 20 minutes from everywhere. Just over 350 people call it home, but on a Friday or Saturday night, the population of this sleepy city more than doubles. And it's all thanks to catfish.

Garland City may be tiny, but it's able, with the help of some neighboring cities, to keep two catfish restaurants in business. There's Doc's Fish and Steak House, which has been around in one form or another since the late '60s. And in 2004, West Shore Restaurant opened its doors, serving catfish fillets and steaks mere miles away from the already well-established restaurant owned by Kim “Doc” Mills.

“I guess if you lose one fish dinner to 'em you've lost it and I'm sure we have,” Mills says. “But if you just look at the numbers on a piece of paper, you couldn't tell when they opened. It's hard to imagine that that many people will support two places.”

“I hurt him for a little bit,” says Ralph West, owner of West Shore Restaurant. “Everybody told me that two fish houses in Garland was just too much, but we've been doing pretty well.”

If you've read the papers lately, you might think that Garland is better known for corruption than catfish. The city's former mayor, Yvonne Dockery, resigned as part of a plea bargain after pleading guilty to felony theft. Even though Mills doesn't consider himself a particularly political person, he decided to run for mayor and finish out Dockery's term. Mills lost in a run-off last week by nine votes.

“I'm not disappointed though,” he says. “You can't really make a living being the mayor of Garland anyway, so the restaurant will remain my top priority.”

And catfish has been a priority in his family for generations. Mills' grandmother Ramie Ham opened up Ham's Restaurant in 1969, which was co-owned at that time by West and his father. The Wests sold their half to Mills in the early '70s before opening another restaurant and Ham's thrived until it burned down in 1992.

At the time, Mills was working for Tyson Foods, but wanted to start his own business, although he “never dreamed it would be a fish restaurant.”

“I had a little ol' portable building and I just whittled and hammered and drilled holes and redid stuff in that thing until I finally made a little kitchen out of it,” Mills says. “By the time I finished it, Ham's had burned and I thought well, maybe I'll cook up a little fish plate and it just snow-balled from there.”

Mills cooked to-go orders from that little shack for a year before adding on a dining room built with scrap wood and putting in a couple of mismatched tables. From there the restaurant grew and grew, with Mills making additions to the dining room as needed. All told, the dining area has been expanded eight times, the kitchen three. Where there was once only a small cook shack now stands a sprawling maze of ramshackle rooms that seats 150 people comfortably. The walls are adorned with old neon beer signs, a 115-pound stuffed catfish, a two-headed calf and rusted farm tools so old even the most skilled harvester in Miller County wouldn't know what to do with them.

West Shore has that same rustic charm, although you can tell it was all built more recently and all at once, not just pieced together over the years. The bar is covered with Razorback memorabilia and the three dining rooms, which seat about 125 people combined, each have a theme. There's a deer room, a duck room and a fish room.

Both places serve up all-you-can-eat fillets, or whole fish, with the traditional sides. But for those who think catfish is just catfish, Mills says there is a reason people always come back to Doc's, even with new competition in town.

“We cook it with love,” he says. “I'm a stickler about the fish. It's gotta be smaller-size fillets. We serve everything else up just like Nanny used to.”

Both restaurants have experienced somewhat off-years due to the economy, but business is steady and on the rise. Both places are only open a few nights a week — Doc's serves dinner Thursday through Saturday, West Shore Wednesday through Saturday.

“With this economy it just amazes me that people come from as far off as they do to eat here,” West says. “We've got customers from Ashdown, New Boston, Murfreesboro, Hope and Texarkana. Doc's business is steady and we see new faces every week.”

-Gerard Matthews

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