Saturday, August 22, 2009

Catfish Feeding Frenzy

Catfish feeding frenzy
Our intrepid taster roves far and wide to find the tastiest spots for catfish — and sides — in three counties, and shares his catches

Texans don’t need much of an excuse to chomp down on catfish.
Residents of the Lone Star State eat more of the whiskered bottom-feeders than anyone else, according to the Catfish Institute. The group was founded by farmers in Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi — the states where catfish is most commonly grown to satiate the appetites of people in Texas and across the South.
"It’s just a regional taste. I don’t know if I’d call it a delicacy, but people grew up with it and really enjoy it," said Larry Richardson, co-owner of the Flying Fish, a casual eatery with locations in west Fort Worth, Dallas, Little Rock, Ark. and other cities.
August is National Catfish Month, according to the institute, which touts the health and economic benefits of catfish farming. So as far as I’m concerned, now is a great time to search the western side of the Metroplex for the best examples of catfish cuisine.
Like many restaurateurs who offer catfish on the menu, the people at the Flying Fish don’t take themselves too seriously. They have a standing offer of a free three-fillet catfish basket to customers who donate a singing fish to the eatery’s official Billy Bass Adoption Center.
I didn’t have a Billy Bass to contribute to the wall, so instead I plunked down what I thought was a reasonable $7 to scarf down a small helping of the flaky white fish, dipped in cornmeal and deep-fried.
During the past several weeks, I went on a catfish feeding frenzy, sampling the fare at numerous restaurants.
My 14-year-old daughter came along for some of the tastings, even though she normally doesn’t eat fish or anything else that swims. She has an aversion to seafood because of an emotionally scarring experience during her elementary school years, when she tried unsuccessfully to raise betta fish as pets. It turned out that keeping bettas alive for more than two weeks at a time required more expertise than our family could offer, and the aquarium has since been retired to the attic.
(Note to other parents: If your young daughter shows an interest in pet fish, do yourself a favor and get her a puppy!)
Anyway, with my wife, daughter and 7-year-old son in tow, I hit a handful of the very best catfish places in Tarrant, Johnson and Wise counties — places with catchy names such as Catfish O’harlie’s, Tucker’s Catfish Haven and even Babe’s Chicken Dinner House.
But our first stop was the most memorable. It was at a legendary place in Arlington called Catfish Sam’s. There, my daughter reluctantly agreed to eat a half-order of catfish, and she was surprised by the clean taste.
"It was crunchy, and it didn’t smell like fish. It’s fresh," she admitted, before turning her attention to the home-style fries. My son agreed, saying he’d like to be locked in the restaurant overnight so he could make room in his stomach to eat everything.
Our experience was an example of the universal appeal of catfish, the experts say. The flavor is so mild and slightly sweet that in most cases the diner detects only a hint of pungency from the pond water in which the creature was raised. Officially certified U.S. farm-raised catfish are fed nothing but nutrient-rich grain pellets for 18-24 months until they’re big enough to harvest, creating a consistently pleasing taste that can be found at discerning restaurants across the U.S.
Eating foreign-grown or wild catfish can be a real hit-or-miss experience, despite what you may hear from Southerners who claim to have caught and eaten perfectly good catfish from the neighborhood canal all their lives. A word of warning to the less adventurous among us: If you’re fishing from a creek with an old bicycle lodged in its muddy bottom, well, it’s safe to assume your bounty won’t taste the same as the stuff from a certified freshwater farm.
And when paying good money for your food, if a restaurant host or manager can’t tell you where the catfish was raised, walk out the door before ordering.

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