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Cock of the Walk rocks on

By Jennifer Nixon

This article was published August 20, 2015 at 1:59 a.m.

fried-catfish-filets-are-served-with-french-fries-and-a-hush-puppy-at-cock-of-the-walk

Fried catfish filets are served with French fries and a hush puppy at Cock of the Walk.

Cock of the Walk

Address: 7103 Cock of the Walk Lane, North Little Rock

Hours: 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday, 5-9 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 4-9 p.m. Friday-Saturday

Credit cards: AE, D, MC, V

Alcoholic beverages: Full bar

Wheelchair accessible: Yes

Carryout: Yes

(501) 758-7182

cockofthewalk.biz

Inside the oversize, rustic cabin-in-the-woods that is Cock of the Walk, everything is in motion, from the waiters rushing from kitchen to tables, and the many children hurrying out the door to watch the turtles in the pond, to the corn bread flying through the air.

The restaurant, which is part of a minichain with other locations in Tennessee, Florida, Mississippi and Alabama, has been an Arkansas mainstay since 1984 and it hasn't changed much over the years. It's still drawing crowds and, in fact, it welcomes them, opening for lunch and accepting reservations for large parties.

If the restaurant is hopping and people have to wait for a table, they can stroll among the flowers or by the pond, sit down at a wooden barrel to a game of checkers, or try their luck at one of the "snag a stuffed animal with a crane" games. Grown-ups can mosey over to the bar to sample one of the specialty drinks like the Maumellrita ($7.25) or Pinnacle Fruit Punch ($7.50).

Even if it's not crowded, it can still get a little noisy. With wood floors, walls and furniture, the only soft surfaces that soak up sound are the stuffed fish and animal heads on the walls.

The focus is on down-home, no-frills country simplicity and the restaurant takes its rustic theme all the way to the dinnerware: metal plates, Mason jar glasses.

The menu keeps things simple too. No fancy sauces with French names. No popular "super food" of the month. (Those who like to study menus before visiting a place should be aware that the menu on the restaurant's site is not the menu for the Arkansas location.)

There's also not much for vegetable-lovers or those looking for a well-rounded meal with all the basic food groups. Sure, there's cabbage in the coleslaw, corn in the bread and hush puppies, and there are greens ($2.95 for individual servings up to $7.95 for a full pot), but they've been smothered, fried or simmered for hours in ham/pork products, which compromises the nutritional value but increases the flavor.

Entrees comes with three appetizers: pickled onions; creamy, peppery coleslaw; and the flipping, flying corn bread.

It's a tradition and it's expected that when one eats at the Cock of the Walk, the server will bring a piping-hot cast-iron skillet of corn bread, toss the bread in the air and then catch it in the same skillet.

Well, theoretically. On a recent trip, our waiter was a little too enthusiastic on the toss and his first attempt left only three-quarters in the skillet. A second attempt hit the ceiling before the entire disc crashed to the plank floor. Oops.

It's a shame to waste any of the corn bread, which is crispy around the edges, thick, dense and crumbly but not dry, the way Southern-style corn bread should be. It's also got just a hint of a jalapeno kick to it.

Wasteful or not, the tossing can be exciting and on a busy night, diners can hear hoots and cheers from other tables as their servers either make a great catch or fail spectacularly.

The menu also offers several extra appetizer options including onion rings ($5.95), dried crawfish tails ($11.95) and fried dill pickles ($5.95).

My dinner companion and I decided to try the pickles and they ended up being the highlight of our meal. For a group, the portion is generous. For two, it's enormous -- a pile of fried dill chips filling up one of those metal dinner plates, served with tartar dipping sauce in little paper cups. My dinner companion called them the best she'd ever had. The batter was thin -- just enough to give an extra taste and crunch to the exterior -- while the pickle inside was juicy and vinegary. Unlike some juicy, fried things where the breading and the fried vegetable separate, the crust and pickle formed a fused unit.

After all that, main dishes seemed like overkill, but we managed.

There are only two real questions when it comes to dinner: Fish or fowl or shrimp? Grilled or fried? If it's still impossible to choose, there are combo options. There is a grilled chopped sirloin ($11.95) for people who crave red meat and there are a few salads, which are basically the entrees on a bed of lettuce ($10.95-$12.95) but they're afterthoughts.

The half-dozen grilled shrimp ($14.95, also available as a full dozen for $18.95), were speared on a skewer and nicely cooked. They weren't over-seasoned, which was a plus, but they weren't terribly memorable either.

My dinner partner went with the grilled chicken ($13.95) -- two seasoned breasts that she said were juicy and "had a nice grilled flavor. Cooked just right." She also reported that the leftover breast was "really good on a salad the next day."

The meal was tasty and satisfying, but not exceptional. To be fair, by the time the main dishes arrived, we were already well on the way to being as stuffed as the deer's head on the wall in the next room.

Entrees come with a large, very dense hush puppy and a choice of potatoes: baked or French fried. Baked comes with the standard toppings on the side: butter, sour cream, shredded cheese. As for the fries, they were golden and crisp outside, soft inside.

Those grilled meals are well and good, but Cock of the Walk prides itself on its fried catfish, which it calls "Arkansas's best catfish."

So, on a return visit, my catfish-loving dinner companion gave it a try. The Tender Farm-Raised Catfish Fillets dinner ($13.95) was four breaded, fried (in peanut oil) filets and while he wasn't ready to say it was the best he'd ever had, he did say it was "up there," evenly cooked and with a tasty breading that adhered nicely to the fish.

Like the fish, the fried Downriver Chicken ($12.95) with two thin breasts was evenly cooked, not terribly juicy, but not dry either and the breading was crisp, light and with a little peppery kick.

Full though we were, we decided to spring for dessert, which is a choice between fruit cobbler (apple, peach or blackberry) or a brownie ($3.95 each). Ice cream is optional at $1.75 per scoop.

The peach cobbler (sans-cream) we were served was rich and tasty, but wasn't terribly peachy. In fact, if you had told me it was apple, I wouldn't have argued. The fruit part was so gooey and sticky that it was difficult to tell where the actual fruit was.

On both visits, service was friendly and prompt. The fact that the food arrived still steaming showed it hadn't been sitting in the kitchen long at all.

Prices at the restaurant aren't low but then the portions aren't skimpy either. Most of our fellow diners left just as we did -- carrying foam to-go boxes. Of course, if all that food still isn't enough, extra helpings of everything are available for an extra fee.

Weekend on 08/20/2015

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CarpeNoctis says... August 20, 2015 at 4:58 p.m.

COTW has the worst catfish, bar none, in the Central Ark. area. We went there on a Saturday at 2 p.m., so not a busy time, and had to beg for a waiter/waitress to come to the table, the catfish was horribly under-cooked, along with the sides. A once good, reliable restaurant has gone downhill, relying on name only. Shame, but the entire party of 10 were all disappointed and we have never met there since.

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