A Dozen Dives: Mr. Catfish

12 places we’re drawn to in spite of ourselves. And sometimes in spite of themselves.
Day 4: Mr. Catfish
Update: Mr. Catfish has moved to 1144 Airport Blvd.
By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 04.12.12
“Mr. Catfish” is a bait-and-switch operation. You walk in expecting catfish, never suspecting that sides of gumbo and red beans and rice would steal the fish’s marquee status right out from under it. Here, the gumbo is all-in, with sharp filé spice and a dense chop of sausage, shrimp and chicken in a loose roux. Louisiana and Texas meet in a cup of red beans and rice with a cowboy’s swagger and the swampy liquor of fat kidney beans. Anywhere else, this place could make a living with just its Cajun credentials. But that would be bragging, I guess. The East Side is an adventure in that way. There’s mutton and boudin and gumbo in places that specialize in other things entirely.
Fishing nets strung from the blue and white ceiling tiles hold random tangles of wooden and stuffed fish, a reel, lures ... and a visor. The walls are red and blue, painted with musical notes and rope lettering and life preservers. It could use a good detail cleaning along the tan windowsills and sides of the 10 small wooden tables. Tartar sauce comes in blue squeeze packs. The windows and splotchy blinds don’t care if you look out or in. It’s like a miniaturized Red Lobster from a post-apocalyptic future where surviving is more important than shining.
What you’re eating: Anybody can eat catfish strips. Grip em and dip em. It takes skill to tackle a whole fried catfish ($9.45 with two sides). I’ve never seen one dressed out like this. You’re spared the head with those accusatory eyes. The spine is twisted sideways and up so the ribs make a dorsal sail. It’s more than an ornamental touch: It lifts the bones away from the fillets of meat spreading out to the sides like a stingray. The beauty of a skin-on whole fish? It gives you the same white-and-dark-meat curves of a rough-cut chicken. In its tawny armor of cornmeal, the fish looks like a deep-fried tub toy steered by the feathery ridges of the tail. The breading is impeccably crisp and clean, and it touches every bite, sometimes to the point of overkill. Pull the meat apart with your hands and it’s butter-soft, with flavor holding only distant memories of the silty bottom waters that differentiate these farm-raised catfish from the line-caught mudcats I grew up eating.
What you’re drinking: At the soda fountain, only the Dr Pepper and strawberry Fanta are working, so you’ll gravitate to sweet tea or lemonade, both sweeter than any soda. Go with lemonade, because through the sweetness, the citric acid will help mitigate the grease.
Other options: Mr. Catfish’s reputation rolls in part on fried boudin balls, ($2.99), but they weren’t ready and nobody was in a hurry to change that. If it’s fried and swims or prowls the murky bottom, it’s on the menu. Catfish, oysters, shrimp, whitefish, tilapia, redfish and ... chicken. Plates with two sides run $6.95-$12.95. Lunch plates start as low as $5.49 from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday-Friday for three catfish strips and two sides. Extra sides are $1.59 and include fries, hush puppies, collard greens, fried okra, slaw and potato salad along with gumbo and red beans.
(Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)