Take the Bait
Catfish Sam’s smacks of style so down-home you wonder if its namesake offerings were caught by noodling — you know, that hillbilly tradition in which ballsy rural “fishermen” plunge their arms into murky depths to retrieve 40-pounders by the mouth.
You’d be wrong, though. Catfish Sam’s purchases its catfish from out-of-state fish farms.
Still, the restaurant has a noodling vibe about it, which is definitely not a knock on the food, service, or atmosphere. This dive-done-right –– low-lit but clean, with neon beer signs and comfortably worn booths –– exudes nonchalance and culinary quirk. The cooking here would fit right at home at a Baptist church fish fry. That aw-shucks familiarity has earned this family-run standalone its reputation as an Arlington institution –– well, that and its 60-year presence on West Division Street. In restaurant years, that makes this place downright ancient.
If you haven’t yet eaten here, know this: You will not leave hungry. Immediately after seating me on a busy recent evening, my waitress scurried back and forth from the kitchen ferrying a smorgasbord of pre-meal starters, all complimentary with a menu order. Each table gets a platter of pickled green tomatoes, chopped onions, coleslaw, and sliced pickles and okra. Next to that is a medium-sized bowl of black beans and a basket full of hush puppy sticks. The puppies tend to disappear lickety-split.
Be sure to douse everything in the in-house hot sauce. Or save yourself the trouble and just chug this yummy elixir right from the bottle. This one-of-a-kind gooey brown concoction packs a robust kick without setting off too many fire alarms. Each of my puppies took at least one or two — or three or four — dips in this stuff.
Servers kept the baskets coming, despite the full-on dinner slam that particular night. On the receiving end of this cavalcade of food, the gut starts to bust before you can say “fried pickles,” one of only two available appetizers. (The other is peel-and-eat boiled shrimp.) These bad boys were downright delectable –– salty and crispy and not the least bit greasy.
Here’s the thing: Don’t come here looking for variety. Catfish Sam’s offers only a few dishes, and most of them include catfish, whether whole or in two- to five-fillet portions. Most options are fried.
I ordered a full fried fish and, just out of curiosity, a plate of shrimp diablo, which, considering its whopping $18 price tag, I expected to absolutely stun. Therein lay the meal’s most glaring drawback: That plate of about nine larger-than-average shrimp — butterfly-cut, doused in a rich, creamy sauce, and plopped on a bed of rice — turned out to be criminally overpriced. The shrimp were plump and just chewy enough but lacked the sea-saltiness that comes with freshness. The light-brown rice was thoroughly cooked and soft but didn’t add much flavor, and the accompanying baked potato was tender and generously buttered. Regardless, there’s no reason all of this should cost anything more than, say, about $12, at this restaurant or any other not named Del Frisco’s or Saint Emilion.
But no matter: The catfish plate more than compensated for the pocket-picking shrimp. You’d be hard-pressed to stretch $11 further than an entire deep-fried catfish flanked by your choice of either a baked potato or fries (which turned out to be average). The fish itself was breaded and fried so perfectly I ditched the utensils and dug in with my fingers, pulling white meat directly from the bones. With all the succulent, gently salty meat gone, I resorted to nibbling on the skeletal remains.
For dessert, Catfish Sam’s offers a handful of icebox pies. The lime pie, with its graham cracker crust and whipped-cream topping, proved to be just sweet and light enough to find some room in an already bloated stomach.
Last week’s Eats story (“Smokin’ Woodshed”) gave incorrect information about reservations at the Woodshed Smokehouse. Chef/owner Tim Love said the restaurant accepts reservations only for dinner (inside and outside). However, seating at the community table in the bar and at the picnic tables outside is first-come, first-served. Fort Worth Weekly regrets the error.
2735 W Division St, Arlington. 817-275-9631. Closed Sun, 11am-8pm Mon-Thu, 11am-9pm Fri, 4pm-9pm Sat. All major credit cards accepted.
Fried pickles $5
Whole catfish plate (small order) $12
Shrimp diablo $18
Lime icebox pie $3.25