Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, January 13, 2023

Leave it to Uncle Larry’s to fry up southern comfort

The catfish plate at Uncle Larry’s is “so good it’ll smack ya,” reads the menu at the restaurant. - Photographs provided

“I need grease!” a friend begged as we made plans to meet for lunch.

I understood. Grease can be comforting and delicious, even as it does things to our bodies that might horrify us if we gave them any thought during our post-binge slumber.

For these reasons, I don’t need grease. But that doesn’t mean I don’t like it or won’t occasionally indulge a craving like my friend’s.

We ultimately made plans to satisfy our creature needs at one of Chattanooga’s premier outlets for fried foods: Uncle Larry’s.

If you just smiled and nodded, then you’re already a member of that considerable club of locals who have tasted Larry Torrence’s fried fish in the nearly 10 years since he opened his first Uncle Larry’s on MLK in 2013.

As the story goes, Torrence was the unanimously elected fish fryer at his family reunions. After his wife and other relatives encouraged him to open a restaurant, he launched his deep-fried enterprise.

Uncle Larry’s quickly became the talk of the town for its pork chops, hot dogs, fried okra, fried green tomatoes, chili, turnip greens, mac-and-cheese and homemade desserts. Torrence’s claim to fame, however, was his fried fish. Catfish, whiting and tilapia were all on the menu and kept his front door swinging.

A former boss and I stepped into Uncle Larry’s on MLK one day not long after it opened. We bowed out of our chance to experience its greasy wonders, however, when a worker emerged from the kitchen and wiped her hands on the dirtiest apron either of us had seen at a restaurant.

Chalk it up to growing pains, or the unfortunate result of a hectic day, or call us a couple of foodie snobs, but it put us off.

However, when my friend suggested we grab lunch at the newly opened Uncle Larry’s at 8701 East Brainerd Road, I was game. Tens years of hearing about how Torrence serves fish “so good it’ll smack ya” were enough. We needed grease!

What a difference a decade makes. Torrence’s fourth Uncle Larry’s in the Greater Chattanooga area is as polished and pretty a Southern eatery as I’ve seen. From fresh paint to a shiny floor to what looked like spanking new tables and chairs, it was a pleasant sight.

Best of all, the server who cheerfully welcomed me and told me to pick a table (I arrived before my friend) sported a crisp blue apron that look fresh out of the laundry.

I browsed Uncle Larry’s trifold laminated menu as I waited. This was a mere formality, however, because I knew what I was going to order: fried catfish, french fries and coleslaw.

To eat anything else would be like visiting New York City and avoiding the pizza joints.

To my surprise, nothing on the menu made my wallet pucker. Most of the plates are close to $15, while the sides, desserts and drinks are very reasonable, especially in light of how expensive dining out has become.

After arriving, my friend ordered fried catfish and coleslaw, too, but opted for white beans instead of fries. I should have done likewise, as I later learned the white beans are FAN-tastic.

Not that I lamented my meal. My plate arrived heaping with two catfish fillets that were so big, there was only a little room for my sides and none for regrets.

As the server placed my plate in front of me (at least I believed there was a plate under all that food), I faced a strategic decision. Standing at attention at every table are two tall squeeze bottles, one of which contains traditional tartar sauce and the other of which contains Uncle Larry’s proprietary Smack ‘Em Sauce, which is best described as a moderately spicy tartar sauce.

I chose to break off a piece of the fresh-out-of-the-frier catfish and eat it without any sauce. To understand my reaction, Google “Oh my god” memes. The images that appear must have been what my friend saw when she looked up after shoveling a spoonful of white beans into her mouth.

Whatever spices Torrence puts in his batter – and salt is certainly one of them – it’s pure culinary magic. It tastes like traditional fish batter but with more flavor. Meanwhile, the fillets were thin, which made each one a crunchy feast.

After I finished my first fillet, there was enough room on my plate for a little regret over how much time I let pass without allowing this food into my life. I felt like I’d visited New York City and skipped the pizza.

I wish my friend had skipped the Smack ‘Em Sauce, though. Here’s a pro tip for Uncle Larry’s newbies: Make sure you have the bottles turned the right way before you squeeze them. My companion didn’t and sent a geyser of Smack ‘Em Sauce spurting upward.

We laughed as I wiped beads of the sauce off my forehead.

Anyway, after capping the meal with some creamy homemade banana pudding, we decided we’d chosen well and agreed to return. I might go back before then because the new Uncle Larry’s is located less than 3 miles from where I’m living. I can turn left from my street and I’m there in minutes.

My easy access to Uncle Larry’s is unfortunate because the food is indeed comforting and delicious – and I don’t need grease!