Like the recipe for your Great Aunt Edie’s flaky, buttermilk biscuits, many chefs and restaurants jealously guard the secret behind their signature dishes. Consider Olive Garden’s bread sticks, Orange Julius’ famous orange milkshake, the off-menu “animal-style” burgers from In-N-Out and it wasn’t until recently that the 67-year-old chain KFC finally revealed their “secret blend of eleven herbs and spices.” Understandably, these businesses are unwilling to give up their breadwinners, and local restaurants, whether they be mom-and-pops or chef-driven eateries, are no exception.
As one of the most ubiquitous dishes found in the Deep South, fried catfish has its own secrets. Though frequently found at family fish fries or your maw-maw’s kitchen, there are plenty of spots in the Greater New Orleans Area (and across the Southern United States) that specialize in fried catfish and most safeguard their recipes with the tenacity of mama bear protecting her young.
When talking fried catfish in New Orleans, it’s nigh inevitable that Middendorf’s will be touted as the best, even though it’s almost an hour’s drive outside the city limits. Established over 80 years ago by husband and wife team Louis and Josie Middendorf, this small-town seafood spot has earned the reputation for having the original “World Famous” thin fried catfish. Though the restaurant has changed hands several times over the years, the current owners, New Orleans restaurateurs Horst and Karen Pfeifer, have stayed true and still make their catfish using Josie’s original recipe. A few years ago, the Times Picayune convinced Horst to reveal how Middendorf’s makes their signature dish, though he did leave out certain specifics like where the catfish is sourced, what seasonings are in the fish fry and how the heck did they get it so thin? The secret is chilling the catfish fillet in the freezer for 20-30 minutes before slicing, but you didn’t hear it from us!
In almost the exact opposite direction from Manchac off the I-10, the town of Des Allemands in Lafourche Parish along the edge of the bayou has Spahr’s Seafood, with a tagline touting “Where catfish is king!” Founded in 1968 by Bill Spahr, this iconic restaurant is known for their locally-sourced, wild-caught fish (right there in Des Allemands!) which is cut into smaller pieces to create their popular catfish chips, a Spahr’s original. When asked, the restaurant gladly revealed that they use a corn flour and corn meal blend with their own seasoning, though what that might be, we can only guess. Does it really matter when you’re sprinkling the chips with lemon or dredging them in tartar sauce and popping them in your mouth? You can judge for yourself at one of three locations; Des Allemands, Thibodaux and Galliano.
Much closer to New Orleans, in the suburb of Metairie you’ll discover a neighborhood, once only a small fishing village on the edge of Lake Pontchartrain named Bucktown. For more than half a century, Deanie’s Seafood has been selling and serving the local catch, from shrimp and crawfish to blue crab and Gulf oysters. Current owners Frank and Barbara Chifici also proudly serve Mississippi farm-raised catfish which is dredged in the Chifici’s “original house made, gluten-free fry mix” which includes seasonings like garlic powder and cayenne, and then fried in soybean oil. Deanie’s Seafood also has two more locations in Orleans Parish proper, one in the French Quarter and another that opened just recently on the corner of Magazine Street and Jackson Avenue.
Not far from Bucktown in the Lakeview neighborhood of New Orleans is Chap’s Chicken, a teeny little restaurant connected to a convenience store inside of an old strip mall on W. Harrison Avenue. You’re thinking “Chicken? I thought we were talking about catfish?” Owned and operated by James Harvey, Chap’s Chicken has quickly made a name for itself as having some seriously kickin’ fried chicken, so they decided to try frying catfish the same way with the same great result. Like many other restaurant owners, Harvey was unwilling to reveal his recipe or where the catfish is sourced, but he did tell us that they use a simple wash of water and milk, and a dredge which includes flour, garlic powder, onion powder and cayenne pepper. “We make it like your grandma use to make it,” says Harvey. “Simple and good.”
Since he graduated college, Metairie-born James Clesi has been a crawfish boil caterer, but just last year he opened his own restaurant in Mid-City on Bienville Street. While Clesi’s Restaurant & Catering specializes in boiled Louisiana seafood, they also offer award-winning fried catfish. The folks at Clesi’s are one of a very small number that have revealed their recipe to NOLA.com. They marinate the fillets in their own “special spicy sauce” a.k.a. Crystal Hot Sauce overnight, then dredge it in corn flour and fry it to a crispy, golden brown (3 to 4 minutes) and then sprinkle it with Creole seasoning right after it comes out of the fryer. Just imagine a catered event at your house with your guests enjoying fried catfish and boiled crawfish along with an ice cold brew … your parties will never be the same again.
Over in Central City on Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard, the folks at Cafe Reconcile are doing far more than serving lunch. They’re on a mission to better the lives of young adults in the community by offering employment, training and education in business and entrepreneurship. Ultimately, they seek to break the cycle of poverty and crime in affected New Orleans communities, creating a more hopeful and productive future for our city’s impoverished youth. Open on weekdays for lunch, Cafe Reconcile provides real-life experience and training while serving the community delicious local cuisine, from deep-fried turkey necks and boudin eggrolls to shrimp po-boys and jalapeno cornbread muffins. With absolutely no hesitation, Chef Eugene Temple agreed to share his recipe for the cafe’s fried catfish, a simple method using ice cold Louisiana catfish dipped in an egg and milk batter, dredged in two parts of their fish fry and one part flour and deep fried. “Café Reconcile’s fried catfish is especially delicious because of the love our outstanding team of interns and chefs pour into every ‘cooked to order’ catfish meal” says Chef Temple. Go give Cafe Reconcile’s version a try and don’t forget to add some crawfish sauce to go with it.
Located on the corner of Magazine and 7th, Joey K’s Restaurant & Bar is a casual, neighborhood restaurant in the Garden District that has been in business for over 40 years. This joint is regularly jumping with lots of locals and several savvy visitors seeking a comfortable place to grab ice-cold beer (served in chilled glass goblets) and enjoy everything from their skyward-stacked Eggplant Napoleon to a weekday special like chicken fried steak (Thursdays) or corned beef and cabbage (Mondays). But, served daily on their regular menu, diners can enjoy an “All U Can Eat Fried Catfish” plate for $14.95, with fish sourced locally from Guidry’s, a family-owned distributor in Breaux Bridge, Louisiana that’s been doing business since 1976. Whether you load them up with fresh lemon juice and salt or a heavy sprinkling of Crystal Hot Sauce, it’s easily one of the best fried catfish deals in town.
Just last summer Barrow’s Catfish opened on Earhart Boulevard in the space that formerly housed LA Smokehouse. As many locals know, Barrow’s is not a new name in fried catfish, as they had been the most iconic spot to score this Southern staple before the levee failures of 2005. Barrow’s Shady Inn, that was located just down the street, had been in business since 1943 and was one of the city’s longest-running black-owned restaurants. Now Barrow’s is back serving the same, fabulous fried catfish that has stood the test of time, a fact evidenced by their recent success on Food Network’s culinary competition “Family Restaurant Rival.” Owner Deirdre Barrow Johnson, her husband Kenneth and daughter Destyn killed it with fried catfish tacos created using their original recipe … which is definitely still a secret.
Though it’s the last on this list, it’s certainly not the least … nor the last place to find fried catfish in New Orleans. Founded in 1984, locally-owned and operated chain New Orleans Hamburger & Seafood Co. has become a popular spot to score crispy, thin-fried catfish without leaving the 504 area code. With eight locations around the Greater New Orleans Area, catfish lovers can score their “world famous” thin fried catfish or a thick fried fillets with hush puppies, Mardi Gras slaw and their popular garlic herb fries. Of course, the secret behind their much-gobbled fried catfish recipe still remains … well … a secret.
*Article originally published in the November 2019 issue of Where Y’at Magazine