When I think of Arkansas food, catfish always comes to mind. From downtown Little Rock to the far reaches of Paragould and Texarkana, I can just about guarantee you there’s a restaurant selling catfish within 15 miles no matter where you are in this state. Of course, catfish is relatively easy to farm and pretty simple to cook in its most basic form, which leads to it showing up on the majority of menus in the state. But it’s a lot harder to find really good catfish, with lightly sweet meat that flakes off to the touch while staying slightly firm and juicy.
Eat My Catfish serves really good catfish (and this is coming from someone who rarely enjoys it). The Benton-based food truck-turned-restaurant has been attracting a bit of a cult following for eight years, and after opening a Conway location in 2013, owner Travis Hester set his sights on Little Rock, finding a home in the Breckenridge Shopping Center in the space formerly held by Barbara Graves Intimate Apparel. Today is Eat My Catfish’s Little Rock grand opening, so we sneaked in a day early to get a glimpse of what you can expect.
The restaurant itself is deceptively large, with 140 chairs spread out across three distinct dining room areas. Hester and his team opted for a modern/rural feel to the place, with dark wood on tables, painted concrete flooring and murals dedicated to the business’s history. Plenty of fishing themed artwork and décor is spread through the building. Also of note is a public handwashing sink in the middle of the restaurant for diners who get their fingers messing on some peel-and-eat shrimp or crab legs.
But before getting to that part of the menu, we have to talk about the catfish. This is truly expert-level preparation here. Hester’s team prepares the fish simply enough with a quick deep fry and some nuanced seasoning, but its his insistence on the freshest fish possible that really makes the difference.
“I would say 95 percent of restaurants that serve catfish serve frozen catfish,” says Hester. “And of those 5 percent, how many of those are actually doing it right? We bring in fresh catfish twice a week, packed on ice, it doesn’t have any hormones or additives or anything like that. We’re keeping it fresh, we don’t let it sit on our shelves. We know what day number it came in on. So it’s the rotation of that fresh product that really does it.”
Hester says he will turn catfish away if it’s muddy or otherwise not good quality. I will be the first to say that his efforts show. This is truly good catfish. If you’re used to eating the frozen stuff, you owe it to yourself to give this fish a shot.
Of course, the menu isn’t limited to catfish. I’ve already mentioned the peel-and-eat shrimp, which I found enjoyable. The shrimp tastes almost as fresh as the catfish, and the punchy spices help brighten the flavor noticeably. The crab legs are cooked with the same seasoning, and while it doesn’t penetrate the crab as much as it does the shrimp, the slight spice plays well with the succulent snow crabmeat. Eat My Catfish will also be selling crawfish (both live in bulk and cooked) when they are in season, which is usually from the end of the winter until early July.
The restaurant is licensed to sell beer and will be getting a few local craft brews into the fridge, particularly Lost Forty and Diamond Bear. Hester says he is also interested in some Northwest Arkansas beers like Core and Ozark Brewing. Eat My Catfish will be open seven days a week, from 11 a.m. until 9 p.m. every day except Sunday, when it is open from 11 a.m. until 2 p.m. The restaurant also offers plenty of catering options, with the ability to serve up to 2,000 people. Catering delivery is free for orders of 15 people or more (make sure to call in advance). Really though, you should go check it out in person, starting with today’s grand opening. For a fish you can find anywhere, catfish rarely gets a better fried treatment than it does at Eat My Catfish.