Heading to Memphis, there were a lot of different food experiences we wanted to try. Unfortunately, as on most trips, we had way more places to try than we had meals. For BBQ, there was a lot of debate: Central, Paynes, Interstate, Rendezvous, BBQ Shop, Neely’s. Fried chicken lead to a similar debate. We knew what we wanted to try, and it was tough choosing one or two places to hit up. For catfish though, there was no question. We had to go to Uncle John’s.
Now, being no more knowledgeable of local geography than what i saw on a map, I had no idea that Arkansas was that close to Memphis. And while i’m not the biggest fan of checklist tourism, I do wish to visit all 50 states at some point, and this was an easy chance to knock one off. Crawfordsville AK is only roughly 30 minutes from downtown Memphis.
Uncle John’s is ostensibly an “Italian” restaurant, but they serve many Southern specialties as well. And on Friday’s, they have a catfish special that is regarded by many to be the best catfish they’ve had.
As we pulled up, everything screamed small town. There was a bench, complete with two suspicious locals who eyed us with trepidation as too many people emerged from a too small rental vehicle, quietly celebrating the end of our torturous ride. They were not impressed. I’m not sure I was that impressed either.
The exterior was a clean, nondescript building with a painting of what I can only assume is the proprietor. It was definitely a bit more modern than i was expecting.
As we enter, we are greeted with suspicious looks and cold stares. We ask for a table and are politely seated, without much more than a mumble. After a few moments, our server asks us what we are doing here. “We’re here to try the catfish! We hear it’s the best catfish around.”
Nothing warms someone up like a compliment. And the gruff exterior melted into Noni’s welcome mat. Not only is this the best catfish ever, it’s also the best spaghetti, and the best ribs, and the best bread pudding. And, as far as i can tell, the best anything i’ll ever have ever. Maybe it’s a bit hyperbolic, but i love the enthusiasm.
A peek into the kitchen shows a pretty simple operation. The menu is mostly Italian, complimented with steak, ribs, and sandwiches.
Being the hungry boys we are, we order several slabs of ribs to share, and everyone orders catfish. We get hearty nods of approval. The proprietor comes over, and starts asking questions. And talking hunting. And food. And we swap stories. Legendary Southern hospitality.
The ribs arrive – mostly dry, though they’d been basted with sauce, not just dry rubbed. They are tender and flavourful. A sweet, tangy sauce that counters the spice of the rub. They are good ribs. Not Central BBQ, but i would never complain about eating these.
Then comes the reason for the visit. Catfish. Served only on Friday’s, they come on a styrofoam plate with slaw, pickles, dipping sauce and a choice of side. Usually it’s fries. I got onion rings. They were pretty average.
The catfish is perfectly breaded in cornmeal, and fried to perfection. Crisp, light outside, with a moist, perfectly tender inside. Honestly, I didn’t imagine catfish could taste this good. It tasted so….clean. I polish off the plate in seconds. This was the best catfish i’d ever had.
As the server comes back to take our dessert order, I half jokingly suggest that the only thing I want for dessert is more catfish. She laughs, and asks if I’d like some more. I immediately beg for more – it was divine. She heads to the kitchen and comes back with another plate for me. Everyone else looks on in envy. She catches their stares, and asks if anyone else would like some more. A lot of hands hit the air.
Even though we all put back a second helping of catfish, we order a few desserts to share. We’re assured the bread pudding is legendary, and that the brownie is a favorite with the ladies, so we go with those. After all, we hadn’t been led astray yet.
The bread pudding was… legendary. Moist, custardy, but not too wet. A sweet bourbon sauce, this was butter incarnate. And it was delicious. It deserves all the acclaim it gets. I don’t even bother with the brownie, but the two guys that put it out of its misery enjoy it immensely.
So what can I say about Uncle John’s that I haven’t said already? Well, we didnt try any of the Italian food, though they guarantee us it’s excellent. The catfish was by far the best order of catfish i’ve ever had, and the bread pudding might rank up there as well. The food, all around, was solid, the hospitality, Southern. These were genuine, kind, considerate people who seemed to really enjoy the fact that a group of Canadians had made the trek to Crawfordsville to try their catfish. We just enjoyed the fact that they served great food at great prices, and treated us like we were one of their own. I have no higher praise for a restaurant than that.