The Catfish Cabin represents the old guard of catfish restaurants with a primary focus on that particular fish, basic sides of hush puppies, cole slaw, and fries. It's one of the few places that still serves whole small catfish: bones, fins, and all. It's a little trickier to eat, though it provides that delicious full fish flavor. Thirty years ago there were a lot more of these places, but they are now much less common. (I'm shedding a tear for the recently departed Olive Branch Catfish Company.) Located right around the corner from the Memphis International Airport, the restaurant provides the authentic catfish experience for airport employees and travelers alike.
Jim 'n Nick's Bar-B-Q
More often these days you'll find catfish on the menu of a fried chicken place, general Southern restaurant, or even a BBQ joint. Sometimes it's just an afterthought, the default option for someone not into pork (though catfish isn't kosher). Jim 'n Nick's Bar-B-Q serves huge, delicious fillets that are perfectly crunchy on the outside and flaky on the inside. If the first bite burns your tongue with hot oil, you're dealing with great fried catfish. If it's limp and falls apart, it's been sitting around for a while. I generally go with their slow cooked turnip greens (with ham hocks) and macaroni and cheese. The little cheese muffins are quite addictive and can easily be stolen from your dining companion's plate.
The Flying Fish represents part of the New South, a fusion of Gulf Coast and Latin-influenced recipes. You can get your fried catfish alongside tilapia tacos and fresh oysters. Grab a beer from the cooler, order a margarita, and enjoy the photos of local Memphians showing off their catches. You have the option here of fried catfish po boy sandwiches, or a side of frog legs if you're feeling adventurous. The Flying Fish also has an adoption program in which they'll take in your old Billy Bass and give it a home on the wall, plus a free basket of fried catfish.
Blue Plate Cafe
When people are standing outside in a line in 90 degree+ weather, you know you're in for a treat. The Blue Plate Cafe is famous for its breakfasts but they make mean "meat and three" lunch plates. I love their catfish fillets served with sliced tomatoes and slow cooked green beans. Be sure to pick up a jar of chow chow at the register. Made hot or sweet, chow chow is a pickled relish of cabbage, peppers, mustard, and vinegar that is a wonderful addition to the southern table.
The Blue Plate Cafe, 5469 Poplar Avenue, Memphis, TN 38119 (map); 901-761-9696
Open since 1943, the Cupboard in Midtown is best known for its wide array of side dishes, which are really the heart of southern cooking. There's a different roster of casseroles and vegetables every day, and the menu will change depending on the season and availability. Here you can pair your peppery fried catfish with the likes of okra, crowder peas, corn pudding, eggplant casserole, and much more. They've just started serving catfish steaks as well. Don't forget to finish it all off with peach cobbler.
Soul Fish Cafe
In 2006, Soul Fish brought traditional homestyle Southern food to the trendy Cooper-Young district. Catfish is served in "Cat Bites", po' boys, baskets, and even whole. It's a kid-friendly establishment popular with the families in the surrounding neighborhoods. Start off with a bowl of fried dill pickles and enjoy the generous portions of pickled green tomatoes, Cajun cabbage, and cucumber salad. If you have room for dessert they can accommodate you with homemade caramel pie.