Driving 100 miles for catfish when fuel is creeping up to $4 per gallon might not sound like such a great idea.
What if it's all-you-can-eat?
Great hush puppies?
How about hand-cut, made-to-order onion rings?
At the Catfish Hotel at the edge of Shiloh National Military Park, you can get all three. And for the next couple of weekends, you can take part in sesquicentennial events at the park and have a meal, too.
In 1862, Union troops made camp along the Tennessee River to prepare for an advance on Corinth, Miss., that would cripple the Memphis and
Charleston Railroad. With nearly 50,000 men, the camps stretched for a couple of miles, and one was built around a shack on the banks of the river owned by the Hagy family; soldiers stayed in the shack.
Years later, Norvin Hagy used the spot for fish fries. Guests would end up staying the night, and the humble dwelling on a beautiful site became known as the Catfish Hotel. In 1938, he held an event for his friend, Tennessee Gov. Gordon Browning, who liked the food so much he encouraged Hagy to go into business.
And so the Hagy family came to own the catfish restaurant on the banks of the Tennessee River, and it's still in the family today.
We'll talk about the catfish, but not until the onion rings are out of the way.
Finding hand-cut French fries is easy enough to do, but it's still a pleasure and definitely a consideration when deciding where to get a burger. But onion rings cut fresh, battered and fried to order -- well, that's rare.
At the Catfish Hotel, the onion rings are an appetizer, and for $8.95 you get plenty for the table.
It's a plate bound to please most onion ring lovers. They're cut on the thin side, but thick enough to be substantial -- these are not onion "straws," they're not "tobacco" onions, nor are they thick, heavy rings.
Each ring is one layer of onion, dipped in a light batter and fried until most of them are crisp. A few are limp, but that's the way some people prefer them, just as some like their fries crisp and others prefer them softer.
I'm for the crisp rings, and I ate from the top of the mountain. They were light, the flavor of the onion came through, and while they needed to be lightly salted, they were served piping hot, so the salt adhered.
While ribs are available as an appetizer (!), we opted instead for the Southern spinach dip served with hush puppies or homemade chips. The dip bore no resemblance to a typical spinach dip. It's made with cheese, a bit of jalapeño pepper and a smidge of spinach. It's very much like a Ro-tel dip, but here's the deal: This appetizer is really about the hush puppies and the chips.
We expected potato chips, but got cut and fried flour tortillas. They were delicious, and I recommend getting a mix with your dip as the hush puppies were also great.
Most hush puppies are useless sides on a plate, just cheap filler. I've tasted so many bad ones over the years that I'm generally not a fan. What's to like about a tough ball of fried dough with no flavor?
But now and again, I come across good hush puppies, and it's always an "aha' moment: So this is what all the fuss is about.
One thing that makes the Catfish Hotel hush puppies so good is that they're small, roughly the size of a 25-cent ball of chewing gum; there's a high ratio of crunch to soft center. Like everything we tried at the restaurant, they're served hot and fresh. Don't order the appetizer just for the hush puppies, though, because you'll get plenty with your meal.
The most important decision you need to make is whether you want your catfish whole -- and all you can eat -- or whether you want catfish fillets. There are other items on the menu, such as the ribs, a burger, steaks, even a seafood platter with all kinds of fried items, but it's the catfish you want.
It's good stuff, and I say go with the whole fish. If you're the only person who orders it at your table, you'll get three fish to start, and you can ask for more if you want it. At a nearby table, everyone ordered whole fish and a big plate of it was brought to the table and replenished as it got low.
The meat is white, flaky and mild. The crust is crisp with a hint of pepper. The fish -- again -- is hot and fresh.
One of the reasons I prefer the whole fish (though I'll take most anything on the bone rather than off it when given a choice) is that I love to eat the catfish tails, the super crunchy treat that should never be left behind. Try it. You'll like it.
The coleslaw is a specialty of the house, and it's both good and different from most versions, with finely chopped cabbage, onion and dill pickle. A sweet and thick French-style dressing comes on the side, and you mix your own slaw at the table. Tartar sauce, made in-house, is also nice.
Save room for dessert. The lemon rub pie is the house specialty, and it's a fine pie, somewhat between a lemon bar and a chess pie. But the German chocolate pie was excellent.
Don't expect a pie with coconut like a German chocolate cake (which was named for the brand, not for the country; perhaps the provenance of the pie is the same). It's a dense, fudgy chocolate pie with nuts and a generous whipped cream topping. It's a nice end to a nice meal, and when you're done, you'll want to sit a spell on the porch, in an Adirondack chair carved like a catfish, and watch the river go by.
-- Jennifer Biggs: (901) 529-5223
The Catfish Hotel
Address: 1140 Hagy Lane, Shiloh, Tenn.
Telephone: (731) 689-3327.
Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Reviewer's choices: Whole catfish ($12.95 all you can eat); catfish fillets ($13.95 for two large fillets); onion rings ($8.95); German chocolate pie ($5.25).
Poor: Zero stars
Good: One star
Very Good: Two stars
Excellent: Three stars
Extraordinary: Four stars