Driving south on Nolensville Road, when you hit the stretch of asphalt where the stately new Nolensville Town Hall is preparing to open its doors on the left side of the road, you just might be too distracted to notice the changes on the right. There's still the automotive shop and a friendly roadhouse with a big front porch that's serving a country-style roster of home cooking on red-checked tablecloths. Nothing's changed, right?
Not so fast there, traveler. (You're not speeding in front of Town Hall again, are you?) Things have changed a lot. That rustic cabin restaurant with the front porch and the screen door might look a lot like Martin's BBQ Joint, the beloved whole-hog eatery that put sleepy Nolensville on the Food Network's radar. But Martin's moved down the street a year-and-a-half ago, about a year before the Town Hall groundbreaking. Since then, the rough-hewn restaurant has belonged to Uncle Bud's.
But hold your horses. (What's your hurry?) It's not the same Uncle Bud's Catfish that Buddy Rogers opened in Franklin three decades ago and expanded to a regional brand. That business traded hands several times and ultimately disappeared in 2005.
Today, the Uncle's name lives on, thanks to entrepreneurs Craig Dever and Jay Smith, who registered the expired trademark and resurrected the brand. After an unsuccessful attempt to relaunch the all-you-can-eat concept in Tullahoma in 2006, the duo recalibrated. Taking into consideration the changing economy and shifting dining appetites and budgets, Dever and Smith came back with Uncle Bud's Catfish Shack, a comparatively bare-bones restaurant concept, which they debuted in the Nolensville Road location in 2010. Since that time, Smith and Dever (whose father was an owner of the chain until 1995) opened stores in Donelson and Franklin, which launched in January and July, respectively. They plan to open four more stores by the end of 2012.
True to tradition, Uncle Bud's Catfish Shack majors in deep-fried fish and chicken, with trimmings such as French fries, white beans and hush puppies. Unlike its full-service predecessor, the Shack delivers these Southern-style delicacies in a fast-casual setting. Following the tide of restaurants that have drifted away from full table service toward a self-service hybrid, the Shack puts the customer to work. Order at the counter, pour your own soda, then sit back and wait. Soon enough, your catfish will land on your table.
It's one thing to put a businesslike finger on an evolving industry, but it's quite another to do that while maintaining tradition. The new generation of Uncle Bud's seems to be doing both. In our experiences — from small-town Saturday night in Nolensville to Southern Sunday supper in Franklin — the new incarnation of the fondly remembered brand (once a readers-poll staple in the Scene's annual "Best of Nashville" issue) blends the convenience of fast-casual dining with the comfort of Southern country cooking, bookended by $2 longnecks for adults and free ice cream for children.
Early on a recent Saturday in Nolensville, the shack was shaking with kids, who amused themselves with improvised games of "I spy," seeking out kitschy fishing paraphernalia, frog sculptures and pithy placards adorning the walls. ("Unruly children will be used as bait," one cautioned; another read, "Calling fishing a hobby is like calling brain surgery a job.") Dinner trays overflowed with an array of surf and turf in a symphony of earth tones: golden-fried shrimp, bronzed corn dogs, russet chicken gumbo, blond chicken tenders. ("I spy something green" would have been a nearly impossible challenge at our table, had it not been for sparse flecks of pickle in the tartar sauce or pale shreds of cabbage in the slaw.)
The Bayou Platter offered a broad assortment of Bud's booty and was large enough for a group to share. Like a meaty, deep-fried version of a candy sampler, the generous basket cradled a panoply of proteins — clam strips, frog legs, catfish fillets and gator — uniformly cloaked in bronzed breading. To quote one diner at our table, yes, it all sort of tasted like chicken — that is, until you compared it to Uncle Bud's Southern-fried bird. A highlight of our meal, the four-piece basket of light and dark pieces emerged from the kitchen still sizzling, with glassy skin that crackled away to reveal succulent meat. Furthermore, the chicken-finger basket exceeded expectations, with three plump strips of breast meat swaddled in blond batter and cooked in clean oil.
New to the Uncle Bud's repertoire, the fried oyster po'boy bulged with plump cornmeal-coated oysters, whose sweet-and-briny liquor infused a crusty baguette from local Charpier's Bakery.
We followed the advice a regular diner in the queue and ordered the whole catfish plate instead of fillets. True to the recommendation, the sand-textured silver skin gave way to exceptionally sweet and moist fish. Meanwhile, the presentation — on a bed of fries in a tight plastic basket — made for some awkward table manners as we tried clumsily to extract the skeleton with a plastic fork and knife.
While we so often dismiss hush puppies as a restaurant's attempt to fill diners up with cheaper ingredients, Uncle Bud's hush puppies distinguished themselves from low-cost ballast. Like sweet cake flecked with caramelized onions and pocketed in copper-colored crust, the hush puppies were closer kin to beignets than to the gummy fried cornmeal that so often rounds out a seafood basket.
Headline items were by and large well prepared, but a few dishes should be relegated to Davy Jones' locker, mostly because of sodium overload. Drunken chicken — a gumbo-like wintry stew over rice — was overwhelmed by salt, as were the delicate but over-seasoned curlicues of fried Calabash shrimp.
Perhaps the most glaring shortfall was under the menu heading "Uncle Bud's Famous House Salads." As diners attempt to find light options on menus, Uncle Bud's could easily accommodate healthy leanings by offering its signature fish, seafood and chicken on an appetizing bed of fluffy fresh greens. Instead, we got a dire pile of limp iceberg, garnished by withered rings of cold white onion. An appetizing healthy option would go a long way toward expanding the appeal of Uncle Bud's, which has already demonstrated a nimble response to a changing restaurant landscape.
Uncle Bud's Catfish Shack is open 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily with extended weekend hours through September. Catering is available.