Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Murry's Restaurant, The Holy Grail of Arkansas Delta Catfish.

The roots of this Delta classic run back through two owners and several decades. Still a cash-only operation, Murry's Restaurant remains the must-visit culinary destination of the middle Delta.



I wrote about Murry's in Classic Eateries of the Arkansas Delta, but felt it was time to include that story here on the website.  Many have asked about the restaurant's existence, but it seems only the most stalwart of food writers have taken the drive out US 70 to that spot between Carlisle and Hazen to experience this most Deltic of Delta food experiences.

See, for Little Rock food lovers, there have always been pilgrimages suggested due east by those "in the know" about such culinary matters. Whether Gene’s or Craig Brothers', Dondie’s or Uncle John’s, there’s been a line drawn in the virtual sand of the food-writing world. Cross it, visit the ancients of our era, and one begins the true path towards the equivalent of culinary street cred.


The Holy Grail of those epic quests has for decades ended near Hazen. Olden Murry’s kitchen talents have become the material of southern legend. Heralded by generations of food lovers, beloved by diners for more than half a century, the former riverboat cook’s rambling association of tied-together rail cars near DeValls Bluff was ugly, unruly and absolutely perfect. Celebrated southern food writer John Edgerton called it “a rambling catacomb of interconnected coaches, trailers and pre-fabricated rooms.” My friend Rex Nelson called it a "rabbit warren." Old-time Arkansas Gazette writer Mike Trimble declared it to be “what appears at first glance to be a minor train derailment.” I guess “a hot mess” really didn’t cover it.

Murry had been in the United States Army Corps of Engineers, and he’d been mauled by a winch. He apparently drew disability, which caused him no small number of issues years later when someone happened to figure out (probably from reading Trimble’s Gazette article) that Murry was able to get along just fine after all. That someone was a reporter who’d gone to work for the Social Security Administration in the Disability Determination Department. Said reporter filed suit. When confronted with having to pay back the government, Murry is believed to have told the government it could have the restaurant, since that was all he had. In the end, the Social Security Administration ended the payments and Murry got back to what he did best— cooking up marvelous vittles.

Born in 1921, Olden Murry managed eighty-one years on this earth. Along the way, his acolyte Stanley Young learned the secrets of perfectly battered onion rings, fried fish and quail. Stanley and his wife Becky have been running Murry’s for seemingly ever now, and in the twenty-first century, its location is on the other size of Hazen, out in a field. It’s still a pilgrimage, but a comfortable one.

Grav, Hunter and I made it our last stop on a long day of mid-Delta restaurant hunting one Saturday in March 2014. We came for the catfish, for the rumor of good bread and for bread pudding I was told was worth slapping my mama (not that she’d put up with that sort of crap from me).

Within the large room we discovered a welcoming, peaceful evening, where we could sit still instead of driving on, where my daughter and I could all but inhale an entire loaf of soft-crusted buttery bread. Knowing full well how often places known for good catfish often turn out hot, greasy messes, I didn’t allow my expectations to rise.

Mind you, we came to Murry's this visit at the end of a long and tiring weekend crossing the middle Delta searching out stories. We'd already been turned back from barbecue at William's Barbecue in West Memphis (again!), dipped chips at Pancho's, signed books and consumed Tang pie at Big John's Shake Shack, frustrated by the lack of signs of life at Uncle John's (we'd go back again later), stepped in for biscuit pudding at the Ole Sawmill Cafe and gleefully skipped past a crowd at Ho Ho Chinese Restaurant.  It was too late in the day for any of Ms. Lena's good fried pies and too much to consider Craig Brothers, and while my daughter is a good sport about such trips my photographer was... well, on the verge of being indisposed.  In fact, his absence from the table for great portions of the beginning of our meal was cause for alarm, but we made due, Hunter and I, chatting about the day's events and wondering if I'd be able to pull together this "Delta book" I'd been kicking my own butt over with the weekends remaining between that March day and deadline.  Unable to get anything done during the week thanks to a demanding day job, consternated by a series of winter storms that shut down the northern and middle Delta weekend after weekend that year, we'd been forced into our final round of photography on these 16-hour Saturdays to travel and shoot as much as we could. This was going to be our final stop of the evening.

I say inhale as far as that bread goes because it had been many hours since we'd had non-sugary sustenance.  Indeed, a dribbling of begged-for biscuit pudding had already fled past, and those special plates and cheese dip at Pancho's were long a memory.  But this bread, fluffy and salty, doused with melted butter which poured through the cuts in its crust, was at that moment the most magnificent thing I had ever put into my mouth.

Grav's continued absence was distressing, not only to me but to a waitress who wasn't certain what to bring to the table.  She was kind enough to bring a second loaf of bread, and I was kind enough not to chastise my child too much for eating so much of said bread.

My partner's return to the table signalled a moment of relief, though not a moment of hurried table service.  In fact, our waitress and the cook had held the order until we were sure Grav would be at the table to enjoy it, which was both a blessing and a curse as yet another loaf of buttery bread disappeared.  Baked potatoes appeared and were happily consumed in the interim.

My heart soared when my plate of seafood reached the table and I was treated to fluffy, almost airy, catfish fillets with paper-thin batter. This platter contained upon it not only those famed catfish pieces that had drawn so much renown, but decent sized shrimp fried up in that same light batter, tucked under a stuffed crab shell.  They were served with a couple of hush puppy sticks with a flavor reminiscent of those great extruded hush puppies from the Grady Fish Fry, and with a sweet but slightly peppery coleslaw in a bowl.

Grav and I both took our pictures, and though he's not a catfish fan he did gaze longingly at my plate. Feeling terrible for diving in, Hunter and I tore into the repast, finally answering the hunger for something besides bread and potato.  I'm a bad mom - she got none of that catfish (but the cylindrical hush puppies made up for it, I suspected).


Still, that didn’t entertain me as much as watching the platter of fried quail delivered to Grav, complete with bowl of gravy. Here was a man who had already determined his favorite quail in the state, the Boston Mountain fried quail at The Red Barn in Fort Smith (now gone), confronted with an even more succulent example of the dish than he had experienced in his hometown. Indeed, as he picked out rib bones, I could have cackled with glee.  He sucked those bones, dipped those wings in the gravy and even picked at the remaining crust on his plate once the bird was gone.

Dessert? Of course we had dessert.  We could not turn our backs on the famed bread pudding, which had been bragged upon to me over and over again.  And let me tell you, that bread pudding was every bit as good as it was rumored to be, covered in a sauce of butter and angel drippings, er, rum sauce. Hunter and I sparred with spoons over every dribbling.

So you should know, the restaurant doesn’t serve alcohol, though there was a brown-bagged something-or-another on a table nearby. Murry’s doesn’t accept credit cards, either, but that doesn’t keep it from the fame and accolades it so rightfully deserves, as we noticed from the numerous articles posted here and there around the cash register.  As I pulled my dollars out of my wallet, I took another glimpse and promised I would not wait that long to get back.

You'll find Murry's Restaurant on the south side of US Highway 70 between Carlisle and Hazen. It's open for dinner Tuesday through Saturday.  Call (870) 255-3266.  There is no website.

Murry's Restaurant Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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