There’s a reason this place is a legend, and it’s not just the catfish
It’s not every night that I find myself driving an hour for catfish, but from all I’ve heard about the place, Murry’s catfish isn’t just catfish. With each passing mile, my stomach’s audible grumblings increase in decibel. But as I pull off Highway 70 and my headlights illuminate the parking lot, it’s almost completely empty. Like, ghost-town empty.
I park my car in a spot by the door and take a minute to get my bearings. Middle of nowhere might be a stretch, but I’m plum in the heart of Delta duck country somewhere between Carlisle and Hazen. Best I can tell, the place doesn’t even have an address, and I was basically told as much when I called to confirm the location. (“It’s just Highway 70 West,” the voice on the other end of the line had said.) But here I am, and though I haven’t actually crossed the threshold into the place, I’m looking at the empty parking lot and the nondescript facade of the building and the dark nothingness for miles in all directions, and I feel a little … underwhelmed. Especially given the history of the place.
There are a few things I know about Murry’s Restaurant already. I know it takes its name from Olden Murry, the legendary king of catfish who opened the restaurant in the mid-’60s after an injury ended his career with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. I also know this Highway 70 location is not the original. Murry’s was initially located over in nearby DeValls Bluff and housed in a railway passenger car, eventually evolving into “a rambling catacomb of interconnected coaches, trailers, and prefabricated rooms,” according to John Egerton’s book Southern Food: At Home, On the Road, in History. Egerton also refers to Olden Murry as “a Rembrandt of the kitchen,” and from what I hear, his son-in-law Stanley Young, the current proprietor, proudly upholds that legacy.
Everyone I know who’s been to Murry’s says Stanley and his wife Becky are the “nicest people in the world,” and I can see it in their eyes when they say so that they mean it. So, I have to wonder: Where is everybody tonight?
Inside, the dining room is quaint and homey. A mock antique mall is set up just past the entrance with a menagerie of items on display: old metal signs, tin cans, salt dishes, fishing lures, wooden baskets, most of them accompanied by little 25¢ signs. A big “Murray Gins” (sic) hangs high and center. Wood-paneled walls are dotted with paintings of waterfowl—ducks on the water, geese in mid-flight. A taxidermied mallard by the front door keeps watch over the cash register while a couple of stuffed geese above the mantle of the fireplace on the far wall are frozen in time with wings outstretched. They’re flanked on either side by framed photos of Stanley on various hunting trips and there is a small collection of goose bands on display as well, his trophies from those outings.
I start to feel a little more at ease as I take the place in. It’s cozy and kitschy and cute. The waitstaff is friendly. I haven’t tasted the food yet, but the aroma wafting out from the kitchen is divine.
I turn my attention to the menu, eyeing the frog legs and the stuffed deviled crab. But, really, I’m just giving the thing a cursory glance. I know what I’m here for, and that is Stanley Young’s famous catfish dinner. I opt for the half portion—three catfish fillets, hushpuppy sticks and a choice of two sides (French fries and coleslaw for me, please and thanks).
A couple more groups come in shortly after me, and Becky greets them all with a warm smile and sometimes a hug. One of the diners has even brought Becky a gift, a wooden cake stand she picked up at some sort of flea market or garage sale, I overhear her say.
“You getting ready for Christmas?” Becky asks another table as she hands them menus.
“Yeah, and we just got done with my sister’s wedding,” one of the young men replies. “Tori got married.”
Not long after, my food arrives, and I’m certain that if it tastes anything like it looks, I’ll be going home happy. I pick up one of the fillets and take a bite. It’s everything I thought it would be: piping hot and perfectly seasoned, battered and fried, just like granddaddy used to make.
Even still, I can’t shake the feeling that I’ve missed something. I mean, the food is fantastic, sure. But if I were to tell someone about tonight’s visit, I have a pretty strong suspicion I wouldn’t have that same twinkle in my eye that I saw when other people told me about Murry’s. What do they see that I don’t see?
“Is this your first time here?” Becky asks me when I’m paying my tab, since, clearly, I’m the only person that’s come in tonight with whom she’s not on a first name basis. When I tell her the reason for my visit, she beams and shows me one of their previously published accolades, the framed Garden & Gun feature that named them the best fried catfish in the South. (I spy a copy of our May 2015 issue on the Delta that contained a Murry’s cameo as well.)
“Well, come on back and meet Stanley,” she tells me, and before I know it, I’m being whisked through the kitchen doors.
“What are you doing Sunday?” Stanley asks me almost immediately after introductions are made, grinning through his salt-and-pepper goatee. (He’d been wrist-deep in a bucket of fresh fish, so we’d bumped elbows in lieu of shaking hands.)
“Uh, no plans, really,” I say, slightly taken off guard by such an unexpected question. I’m not sure what I’m getting myself into by admitting I might be available. I’ve just met the Youngs, and now I’m not only standing in the kitchen of their restaurant, sandwiched between the industrial sinks, the grill top and the deep fryer, but I can also sense an invitation coming my way.
Annnnd I’m right. Stanley invites me to be a guest at a party he’s throwing at the restaurant the following Sunday to celebrate his daughter’s appointment to the Prairie County clerkship. “I’ll cook up some catfish for you,” he says. “I’ll have any beer you like. My band’s gonna play. You gotta come!”
While we’re making plans for Sunday night, a man pokes his head in the back door of the kitchen wearing a hunter-orange trucker hat and camouflage coveralls, because of course. I don’t quite catch his exchange with Stanley, but he says something to the effect of “You wanna see what I’ve got out here?” and something else about a deer stand, and I get the impression he’s showing off a buck he’s just bagged.
“Don’t go nowhere now,” Stanley says to me as he steps out the back door. “I’ll be right back.”
As a former server and bartender, I’m trying to recall a scenario even remotely like the one I’m witnessing now. As a writer, I’m doing a happy dance in my mind and trying my best to commit this whole scene to memory before the images fade, because you really can’t make this stuff up. But before I can get my bearings on all of these unexpected developments, I hear Becky ask from across the kitchen, “You like bread pudding?”
Given that I’ve just devoured my weight in Stanley’s kitchen, I’m pretty sure the answer should be no, though I have to admit I’m tempted. I try to politely decline, but Becky simply won’t hear of it. “Oh, you don’t have to eat it all. I just want you to taste it,” she says, and before I can protest any further, she’s already putting some in a bowl and throwing it in the microwave for me.
Around this time, Stanley returns through the back door. “You want a cold beer?” he asks me, not missing a beat.
I’m not one to turn down a cold beer when offered. And while this development is a bit of a surprise, I probably should’ve expected something along these lines. I know Murry’s doesn’t have a license to sell liquor, but I have heard of patrons bringing in their own brown-bagged libations for years without anyone batting an eye.
Stanley comes back with a Sam Adams Oktoberfest—in his words, I look “like an Oktoberfest kind of guy”—just as Becky hands me my bread pudding, and before I know it, they’re shuffling me back into the dining room to enjoy my surprise third course.
We clink our bottles, and I ask him if he knows my wife’s grandparents, residents of nearby Stuttgart and former regulars of Murry’s before their health prevented more recent visits.
“Oh, yeah, I know Mr. Harr!” he says, excitedly. “He looooves crappie. Mr. Harr sure loves crappie. I’m not licensed to sell wild game in the restaurant, but I like to keep some on hand for my regulars and friends when they come in.” Stanley’s expression changes, and I can tell he’s got an idea.
“Do you eat wild game?” he asks, smiling.
I tell him I’ve had my share of homemade deer jerky and venison chili, and I’ve eaten duck in restaurants.
“You like duck?” he says, raising his eyebrows when I mention it. “I’m gonna make you some duck,” he continues. He gets up from the table, and the kitchen door’s swinging before I can protest. I follow him into the back where he’s already moving around the space in a flash, procuring the duck (which he killed himself) from the walk-in, slicing it up, adding a bit of seasoning, and into the pan it goes.
“How do you like your steak? Medium-rare?” he asks, and then he’s back to work. As he serves me the duck, sliced into medallions, the aroma is intoxicating. Becky adds a homemade onion ring to the plate at the last second. I take a bite of the bird. Tender, juicy, flavorful, delicious. I take the rest to-go.
As I start to leave, Becky and Stanley both give me hugs, thanking me profusely for coming. “Make sure to bring your wife next time!” Stanley says, and I promise I will, my head still spinning from this whirlwind of hospitality.
As I walk out to my car, with a full belly and a container of leftovers to boot, I start to put it all together, replaying the last half an hour in my mind. Something changed when I walked into that kitchen tonight. Elsewhere, I might be worrying that, as a journalist, I’d just received special treatment. But the more I think about it, the more I compare my experience to what else I witnessed this evening among the other customers, I start to realize the truth of the situation: I’m a regular now. And I’m simply enjoying the type of treatment decades of customers before me have received for years.
A week later, I’m once again pulling off Highway 70, and this time I’ve brought my wife, as promised. (We had to miss the party due to sickness, unfortunately.) But when we pull into the lot, I have to do a double take: There must be at least 25 cars in front of the place, most of them of the pickup truck and SUV persuasion. We circle the lot a couple of times before tacking our car onto the end of a line of vehicles, hoping we’ve left enough room for others to get by. A couple more cars pull in as we walk to the door. Murry’s is the place to be tonight, it seems.
There’s scarcely an empty table in the main dining room, and I can hear the din of jovial conversation coming from the side dining room as well. Becky and her daughters are quickly moving throughout the crowded space, taking orders and running plates. The kitchen door is perpetually swinging back and forth as piping hot entrees come out and dirty dishes go in. A large table stretches down one side of the dining room where a family of 10 or so is laughing and smiling over their dinner while bottles of Bud Light appear from a couple of ice chests under the table.
“How’s your granddad?” I hear Becky ask one of her guests.
At another table, one of the Youngs’ daughters places a gentle hand on another guest’s back as she slides a steaming baked potato loaded with fixin’s in front of him. “Yolanda took care of me with this!” he says, excitedly. “She always does.”
When Becky sees me, she rushes over to give me a hug. It’s like we’ve known each other for years.
“Y’all are busy tonight, huh?” I say, still marveling at the contrast from my last visit. But Becky just shrugs her shoulders.
“Eh, not really,” she says, and then she’s off in a flash.
Customers are still streaming through the door, and as they cross the threshold, they inevitably smile and wave at familiar faces across the room. Nobody stays seated very long—everybody is making the rounds, chatting and catching up. Every so often, someone leans into the kitchen to say hello to Stanley.
Around the time we’re digging into dessert, Santa Claus walks through the door. My wife stops chewing in surprise, mouth ajar. Me, I just shrug my shoulders and dive back into my bread pudding. Seems just about right, I think. He wishes us a merry Christmas and moves on to a table full of kiddos.
Bread pudding finished, I take another look around the dining room, overwhelmed by the warmth and camaraderie. I feel like we’re a part of something unmatched and somewhat indefinable. There’s such a sense of belonging here. A sense of welcome, of family, of home.
Before we head on back to Little Rock, my wife and I make sure to visit the kitchen to say goodbye to Stanley. But I have a strong feeling it won’t be goodbye for long.