Only one fish swims ahead of the competition as a Southern favorite--catfish. Festivals devote themselves to it, queens vie for its name, and families make it a staple during summer meals.
Enjoyed for its golden-fried goodness, catfish claims nonfried dishes as well. Catfish pâté, catfish mousse, catfish BLT, and catfish encrusted with pecans grace menus across the South.
We've cornered fish markets from beyond the mighty Mississippi to the Mid-Atlantic in search of places that serve this favorite, fried or otherwise.
The Mississippi Delta--A Swimming Success
Nobody knows catfish like folks in The Delta. Catfish ponds and processing plants are as plentiful as the area's cotton and soybean farms. You won't find a restaurant between Memphis, Tennessee, and Vicksburg, Mississippi, that doesn't prepare this favored fish in some form.
Pull In to Peterbo's
You know the food tastes delicious at Peterbo's Family Restaurant because catfish plant workers themselves eat here for lunch. Located on U.S. 49 in Isola, Peterbo's sells catfish fingerlings and fillets on the lunch buffet ($6.95) from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday through Friday. 273A U.S. 49 West, Isola, Mississippi; (662) 962-7281.
BLTs and the Blues
Clarksdale birthed the blues--and the catfish BLT. Ground Zero Blues Club cooks to the sound of electric guitars and soul-stirring vocals. Owned by actor Morgan Freeman and lawyer Bill Luckett, the restaurant opens for lunch and serves a catfish BLT ($5.25) sure to make your mouth sing. "Catfish is a mainstay in Mississippi, and no self-respecting juke joint would ever leave it off its menu," says Morgan, whose Mississippi home includes a catfish pond.
The BLT can hook anyone. Its French roll, flavored with herb butter, holds a thick fillet of golden catfish, lettuce, tomato, lots of bacon, and a squirt of Comeback Sauce (mayonnaise, chili sauce, garlic, pepper, and grated onion). 0 Blues Alley, Clarksdale, Mississippi; (662) 621-9009.
Book It to Buck's
Make your next stop Buck's Restaurant in Greenville (off U.S. 82). Don't let the strip mall address deter you from savoring the cooking skills of owner S.B. Buck. He serves his whole cat fried to perfection ($6.75, including two sides). Come on Fridays, and get your fish alongside spaghetti spiced with Italian seasoning and hot sauce. 152 North Harvey Street, Greenville, Mississippi; (662) 334-3301.
A Royal Meal
At The Crown in Town Restaurant in Indianola, chef and owner Evelyn Roughton serves catfish every which way but in a bubbling skillet. "I wouldn't dare put this beautiful white fish in a fryer," says Evelyn sternly.
Among the best? Catfish pâté: Creamy and filled with a smoky flavor, it pairs well with crackers, bagels, and warm baked bread. Patrons dip into it as a free appetizer. Yet the Catfish Allison ($9.25) can convert even the most fry-hard fish fans with its rich Parmesan crust and divine herb butter. 112 Front Street, Indianola, Mississippi; (662) 887-4522.
OTHER CATFISH CAPITALS
The Delta isn't the only region in the South that loves catfish. Here are more of our favorites.
Little Rock, Arkansas
Almost too pretty to eat, the butterflied and fried entrée ($6.79) at The Flying Fish mirrors the colors of the summer sun. Located in the River Market, this eatery serves catfish that looks like it could soar off your plate. 511 President Clinton Avenue; (501) 375-3474.
Brennan's of Houston offers one of the most inventive catfish dishes anywhere. Developed as an appetizer for lawyers killing time between court cases, the catfish mousse, served with sweet potato waffle fries ($9), renders one delicious verdict. Spicy, smooth, and decadent, the mousse contains smoked catfish, hot sauce, cream cheese, capers, homemade Worcestershire sauce, and a hard-cooked egg. 3300 Smith Street; (713) 522-9711.
While diners at Tenpenh Restaurant love to gossip about the latest political scandal, there's one dish that's hotter than the aforementioned topic. The tasty Hong Kong-style whole catfish ($16) comes fried in rice flour and served with a garlic dipping sauce. Yum's the word. 1001 Pennsylvania Avenue; (202) 393-4500.
ONE BIG FISH FRY
Nobody knows more about the whiskered water dweller than folks at The Catfish Institute in Belzoni, Mississippi. President Roger Barlow offers advice on frying great catfish. "You want to purchase 3- to 5-ounce, skinless, boneless fillets," he says. "Cooks should fry catfish in pure vegetable or peanut oil. Lightly dust the fish with cornmeal or flour, and keep your temperature at a perfect 350° to 360°. When the fish rises to the oil's surface, it's ready."
This article is from the August 2005 issue of Southern Living. Because prices, dates, and other specifics are subject to change, please check all information to make sure it's still current before making your travel plans.