The Lassis Inn hunkers alongside the interstate in a small, royal-blue building. It is the architectural equivalent of minding your own business, and it's hard to notice unless you're looking for it. But if you're traveling east on I-30 toward downtown Little Rock—from the airport, say—it might catch the corner of your eye.
What goes on there is excellent catfish. Fried catfish, to my mind, is best rated by its lack of negative qualities, at least one of which is usually found in any random sample: soggy crust, oily fish, watery fish, overcooked crust, flavorless fish, too-thick crust, and sharply tapered fillets (which leave behind those curled nubbins of fishless, over-fried cornmeal). None of these descriptions apply to the fish at the Lassis.
When Elihue Washington, Jr., took over the Lassis in 1989, it was eighty-four years old and he was thirty-nine. Though he had been eating there since the early '70s and knew the owner's family pretty well, he never dreamed he'd one day be running the place. The restaurant had been closed for months after the owner died, and the grocery chain where Washington worked for nineteen and a half years had been sold, so when he was invited to reopen the Lassis he took a chance and invested his savings in the business.
He was nervous at first. The popularity of the Lassis was well-established: I-30 had been designed in 1957 to run straight into the restaurant, and the owners, rather than rebuild elsewhere, had merely picked up the Lassis and moved it fourteen feet to the left.
Washington got rid of the ancient gas stove, with its giant cast-iron pots—too cumbersome for his cooking style, which is a methodical dance of second-to-second calibrations—and replaced them with stainless-steel deep-fat fryers. This was the first of several good ideas: Within a few months, Washington's weekly raw-fish order increased from fifty to six hundred pounds.
With one exception, every time I've taken a group of first-timers to the Lassis, at least one person has felt compelled to talk about his grandmother. And there is something grandfatherly about Washington, who insists that every fillet be trimmed of fat and fries every batch to order. He watches the darkening fish carefully, and lets each basket drain for longer than most fish fryers would have the patience to.
Along with catfish, the Lassis serves fried ribs of buffalo fish (another, larger, bottom-skulking mud-eater that, unsurprisingly, tastes like catfish—but more so), hamburgers, cheeseburgers, "lassie" dogs (which unfortunate pun must refer to a hot dog), and beer. There is always some kind of cake under a glass dome on the counter. And there are never hush puppies. Fish dinners come with coleslaw, french fries, and sliced white bread nailed to a styrofoam plate with a toothpick. While you're eating, make a mental list of all the people you know who have no idea how good a piece of catfish can be when it's cradled in a slice of Wonder Bread with mustard and a generous shake of hot sauce.
The interior of the Lassis—with a dozen narrow, pew-like booths, built by the original owner in the '40s—is overwhelmingly blue, from the walls and the furniture to the tablecloths and curtains. Blue is Washington's favorite color, and, he says, "It kind of goes along with fish."
The jukebox is stocked with r&b, blues, and soul—Curtis Mayfield, Aretha Franklin, R. Kelly, Johnnie Taylor.... It's music that demands movement, in one way or another. But above the jukebox is a small yet forceful blue-lettered sign that reads NO DANCING. It is an impossible order, and customers rock in their seats or shuffle discreetly in front of the electric box.
"Look," says Washington in explaining that rule, "if you're dining out, and this guy is all over your table, pullin' on you, 'Come on, dance, baby, come on'—the dancing and the beer, I just couldn't get it to go together."
When he leans across the table and tells me, like a child with a secret, that the Lassis used to be a hideout, I feel like I'm supposed to know exactly what he means.