One of the perks of traveling around Georgia and Alabama doing research for my Map of the Month articles is exploring places to eat. Many of the places I eat are memorable, most for the good food, some not so much. And a couple literally gave me a stomachache.
I love to cook and most food I cook at home is better than what I can get in restaurants. I never look for a steak, pork chops, Italian, or any kind of country cooking since that is what I cook at home. And my fried bass filets are good enough I won’t eat fried fish in a restaurant. But I don’t do fried seafood very well and I love fried scallops, so I seek them out.
My second choice, usually easier to find, is fried shrimp. I am seldom in a big city, so I eat in small towns and around the lake. And after driving several hours to get there, I don’t want to go too far for food the first day. After spending the next day on the water getting information, I really do not want to drive far that night.
Often, small hole-in the-wall type places turn out surprisingly good. And some of them have interesting histories and backgrounds. A few years ago, when at Logan Martin Lake near Pell City Alabama, I found “The Ark,” a little nothing looking place with a very rustic interior just off the Riverside exit on I-20.
When I walked in I was greeted by my kind of people, with accents like mine. The wood paneling was dark from years of food frying in the kitchen, and the walls were decorated with racing memorabilia. Riverside is not many miles for Talladega and many famous stock car drivers have eaten at The Ark, most loving the catfish if their autographs are any indication.
The back of the menu tells the story of “The Ark.” Back in the early 1900s most of the counties in that area were “dry” meaning you could not buy alcohol legally. This was long before the lakes were built and the Coosa River itself was the county line of the two counties there, but they considered the edge of the rive the county line. So, the river itself was not under the jurisdiction of either counties’ law enforcement.
E. O “Red” Thompson, being an enterprising young man, bought an old barge and anchored it in the river about 30 feet from the bank. He made a four-foot wide walkway to it and provided tie-ups for locals with boats to access the bar onboard.
A salvaged sign from that old bar said “Beer 15 cents” and “All the catfish and hushpuppies you can eat, 60 cents.” Apparently, many folks had “fun” there, eating catfish and drinking their favorite beverages that were illegal on the nearby bank, all during prohibition and the roaring 20s. The original Ark burned and by then laws were more liberal, so Red build a restaurant on the bank near the road. It too burned a long time ago, but the current restaurant was built across the highway. No dates were given, but I would guess sometime in the 1950s.
Catfish is the staple on the menu, but you can get everything from chicken livers to frog legs. The jumbo shrimp I got that first night were exceptional, very lightly battered and fried to perfection. The cup of gumbo started the meal just right and I loved the hushpuppies served with it.
Every time I am at Logan Martin for an article, I stay at a motel about five minutes from The Ark and have eaten there several times. Last summer the Potato Creek Bass Masters fished our July tournament there and I camped about 15 minutes away for a week, driving up two nights to splurge at The Ark.
Monday I drove over to Childersburg on Lay Lake, the next lake downstream on the Coosa River. I checked and my GPS said I was 30 miles and 45 minutes from The Ark. After the miserable three hours drive in the rain, I just could not make myself do that, so I went to “La Parrilla,” a Mexican restaurant across the street from my motel.
It was a nice surprise, with bright fresh paint, excellent service and even better food. I thought it must be new but one of my waiters said they had been there 14 years. I had my favorite, chili rellenos, and they were as good as I have eaten.After a rainy day of fishing Tuesday, I just had to drive up to The Ark Tuesday night for dinner. As expected, it was well worth the drive and the cup of gumbo and dozen big butterflied shrimp stuffed me just right.