Desperately Seeking Catfish 

Soul Fish -- filling a niche in Cooper-Young.

food feature By

When Raymond Williams and Tiger Bryant were planning Soul Fish, their new restaurant in Cooper-Young, they noticed a conspicuous absence among the otherwise diverse offerings from the neighborhood's establishments: Southern-style catfish.

"We're not in here wearing straw hats and overalls, but we're big fans of Southern food," Bryant says. "We both grew up in the South, and when you find yourself driving somewhere like Olive Branch Catfish Company to find something that should be pervasive in this area ... that's what steered us that way."

Williams and Bryant opened Soul Fish's doors on March 11th, but the idea was a long time coming. Both have been in the restaurant business for a while: Williams has corporate experience and Bryant has owned the Young Avenue Deli for eight years. They knew they would eventually go into business together.

Soul Fish serves traditional meat-and-vegetables dishes. The most expensive dishes top out at $9, with most of them in the $5 to $6 range. That's by design.

"There are enough high-end places in this area, with the Tsunamis and Dishes and all that," Williams says. "We wanted to fill a different niche."

While Soul Fish does have a variety of sandwiches, Bryant is quick to point out that it is different from the fare at the Young Avenue Deli. Soul Fish has more of a Southern flavor, with smoked chicken, catfish, and fresh vegetables.

Most of the food is hand-prepared. The vegetables are fresh-cut, with the potatoes hand-mashed and salads tossed every day.

"The cooks get here in the morning, and the vegetables are started," Bryant says. "Whatever is decided, we set up and cook that day. We don't cook stuff up tonight, put it in the refrigerator, and then reheat it."

They also limit the number of vegetables they offer each day, but they always have cole slaw and mashed potatoes on the menu, plus a handful of mostly seasonal vegetables.

"There is no way you can have 10 or 20 vegetables and do it right," Williams says. "So we do three a day, maybe four, but that's it."

When it comes to the meats, Bryant likes Soul Fish's chicken, which is roasted and hickory-smoked on the bone. Of course, he's also partial to the catfish.

"As many brands and types of catfish that we've tried over the past several months, I'm still not tired of it," Bryant says.

Williams recommends the Memphis po'boy: smoked pork tenderloin, barbecue sauce, bacon, and cole slaw served on bread made in New Orleans.

"I guess it's our version of a barbecue sandwich but with pork tenderloin, which makes a big difference," he says.

Soul Fish's menu is about five or six items short of what Williams and Bryant initially came up with.

"We purposely narrowed it for the opening," Williams explains. "We wanted to do it right."

"If you have 40 items on the menu, that's fantastic," Bryant says. "But if you can't do those 40 items impeccably and someone tries an item on an off day, you may not have a second chance to try to please them again."

Soul Fish has a 1950s diner look with a few modern twists. The owners say they were going for a clean, uncluttered look for the 2,000-square-foot space. There is a mixture of tables, booths, and bar seats in the 60-seat restaurant. There are fishing lures beneath the lunch counter's laminate.

The most eye-catching feature of Soul Fish is the sculpture on the front of the restaurant, which is backlit with light-blue neon. It's a collaboration between Memphis metalworker Jerry Carter and Bryant's wife, Glennys, who is a designer.

"It looks fantastic at night," Bryant says. "When they first put it up there, we were sitting out front with a six-pack just looking at it. We thought it was the neatest thing in the world."

Early business has been strong, with to-go orders accounting for more business than Williams and Bryant anticipated. They look to do deliveries down the line. And if things go well in the first year, Soul Fish could expand to other locations.

"It's a concept we can package," Bryant says. "Restaurants with multiple locations around town have an idea that transfers well. Over the next couple years, we hope to have another one or two stores."

While Soul Fish brings something different to the Cooper-Young neighborhood, it shouldn't be hard for it to fit in.

"It seems like 90 percent of the people we know on this earth have come to eat here so far," Williams says. "We both live and work in this area. Our kids go to school in this area. So it's important that, for the long haul, this is someplace we can be proud of."

Soul Fish is open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday.

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