Arkansas’ best fried catfish?

We live in a state blessed with restaurants that know how to fry catfish correctly.

When I lived in Washington, D.C., during the 1980s, it was difficult to find good fried catfish in a restaurant. They just didn’t know how to cook it the right way.

But Arkansas offers a bonanza of catfish dining opportunities.

To name a few: I can head to the northeast and visit the Georgetown One Stop at Georgetown (now that the water level of the White River has dropped and the community is no longer an island), partake of the buffet at Dondie’s White River Princess on the banks of the White River in Des Arc or venture to Who Dat’s in Bald Knob.

I can head to the southwest and visit The Fish Net near Arkadelphia or go down to the far southwest corner of our state and out in the woods for the perfectly fried catfish at Spruell’s Cafe at Doddridge.

Heading a bit to the south from Little Rock, I can find my way to Dorey’s at Leola, Leon’s at Pine Bluff and the Catfish Kitchen at Dumas.

In the far northern part of the state, there’s Fred’s Fish House at Mammoth Spring.

Here in Little Rock, my favorite is the Lassis Inn.

Heading west on Interstate 40, I can make the stop at The Fish House in Conway or the Catfish “N” on the banks of the Arkansas River at Dardanelle.

Heading east on Interstate 40 between Little Rock and Memphis, I can order fine fried catfish at Nick’s in Carlisle and Gene’s in Brinkley.

In between those two stops is some of the best fried catfish anywhere. Not just in Arkansas but anywhere. It’s the catfish cooked up by Stanley Young at Murry’s on U.S. Highway 70 between Hazen and Carlisle.

I began patronizing the original Murry’s in DeValls Bluff when I was a child. My grandparents lived at Des Arc, and we would often make a “road trip” from the Prairie County seat in the north to the Prairie County seat in the south in order to eat catfish at Murry’s or barbecue at Craig’s.

When I was in my 20s, there were times when I would load up the car with hungry friends for a trip to DeValls Bluff. We would eat a pork sandwich at Craig’s (medium sauce; I can’t handle the hot there) for an appetizer and then make the short drive over to Murry’s for the catfish.

I miss that rabbit warren of trailers that housed the original location, though I always had the feeling when eating there that a grease fire in the kitchen would quickly incinerate us all.

While the current location doesn’t have the ambiance of the old place, the food is as good as ever. And Becky Young is the best hostess you’ll find anywhere.

I always see someone I know at Murry’s.

On a Saturday earlier this month, I went to Memphis to watch the pros golf at the St. Jude Classic. I was accompanied by my 14-year-old son and one of his friends. Hot and hungry, we decided to stop at Murry’s on the way home.

We had just ordered when in walked Little Rock journalist and political provocateur Max Brantley and Judge Ellen Brantley along with an eclectic group of friends.

Max later would write in his Arkansas Blog: “The crowd wasn’t as big as the throng a few miles west at Nick’s in Carlisle, but I don’t know why. Boss Stanley Young has been frying catfish for 41 years, following in a half century of Olden Murry’s footsteps.”

Max included a link to John Egerton’s classic book “Southern Food.” I happen to have a copy of the book, originally published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1987, sitting on my desk.

Here’s what Egerton, with whom I was privileged to have dinner last year at Ashley’s, wrote back then: “Our catfish finale was on a side street in the little town of DeValls Bluff, where we stopped, as Mike Trimble wrote in the Arkansas Gazette, ‘at what appears at first glance to be a minor train derailment.’ Actually, it is Murry’s Cafe, a rambling catacomb of interconnected coaches, trailers and prefabricated rooms. Olden Murry has been frying fish for the faithful there for about 20 years, before which he was a riverboat cook on the Mississippi. On the wall inside the cafe is a photograph of U.S. Sen. Dale Bumpers. It is autographed to Olden Murry, ‘the best cook in Arkansas.’ With generous allowances for political overstatement, Bumpers may have been right on target.

“Here is a man with 45 years of cooking experience whose reputation is secure, not only for the catfish he prepares but for the steaks, chicken, quail, frog legs, barbecue, shrimp, oysters and veal. He makes his own meal-based and flour-based batters and breading to dredge his seafoods and meats in, and he keeps the formulas to himself. He buys catfish both from fishermen on the nearby White River and from commercial processors. He completely empties and refills his deep-fat fryers with fresh cooking oil at least twice a week — a sure sign of devotion to quality — and he cooks his fish quickly at high temperatures, the better to seal in flavor and produce a crisp, crunchy crust. ‘I go by looking at the fish and listening to the grease to tell when it’s done,’ Murry said. ‘Every batch is different, so you have to pay attention.’ No automatic timers or fixed temperature controls for him.

“There is no sign of any kind outside Murry’s Cafe, and there are none out on the highway, but it is not at all unusual for 200 or more people to show up there on any given night, many of them having driven 60 miles from Little Rock. Most of the people who work at Murry’s are members of his family, including a majority of his seven children. Murry’s is a home-folks kind of place — the same staff serving consistently fine food to mostly regular customers in plain and unpretentious surroundings. It seems to be an invincible combination.

“The day Ann and I stopped there, it was four o’clock in the afternoon, and Olden Murry was just about to open for business. A fisherman who called himself Catfish John was there with 100 pounds of dressed fresh White River catfish, and soon he and Murry consummated a deal for them. Then the veteran chef heated his fresh oil to just the right temperature, rolled some of Catfish John’s finest fillets in the secret batter and fried them for us. The plates he brought to our table were like advertising pictures — the crisp golden fish, long slivers of french fries, a mound of creamy coleslaw, a ring of fresh onion, a length of dill pickle, a pepperoncini pepper, a wedge of lemon, a smoking-hot corn cake that looked and tasted like a hushpuppy’s rich first cousin. Everthing was artistically arranged, prepared to perfection and delicious. Olden Murry, a Rembrandt of the kitchen, had just completed another masterpiece.”

A Rembrandt of the kitchen.

I like that.

I daresay Stanley Young also is a Rembrandt of the kitchen.

Egerton wrote that Olden Murry cooked far more than catfish.

So does Stanley. My son, Evan, had the frog legs on our most recent trip there and pronounced them the best he has ever had.

Max wrote on his blog how his host declared that Stanley has the best chicken fried steak in the state and some of the best steaks.

I’ve had both the steaks and the chicken fried steak at Murry’s. Yes, they’re good.

As always, we began our meal that Saturday night with an order of Stanley’s onion rings as an appetizer. Max wrote that they come out “crisp and stay crisp, with fat hunks of sweet, moist onion inside the crackly coat.”

Looking for an evening road trip now that summer has arrived?

You would be wise to head over to Murry’s one night. Stay off the interstate. Take U.S. 70 the entire way — much slower and much more relaxing — so you can enjoy the cypress trees in Hills Lake, the giant pecan trees on the Pulaski-Lonoke county line, the Anderson minnow ponds, the fields of rice and soybeans and the downtowns of Lonoke and Carlisle.

Maybe I’ll see you there.

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