By Jane and Michael Stern
Originally Published 1999 Gourmet Magazine
Can I have everyone’s attention, please!” calls a waitress. It is the height of the lunch hour at Vernon’s Kuntry Katfish. She puts her hand on the shoulder of a white-haired matriarch sitting at a large table with her children, grandchildren, and two newborn great-grandchildren. “This is Gladys,” the waitress shouts above the din. “Today is her birthday, so can you all please help me sing to her?” Throughout the restaurant, forks drop and iced-tea tumblers clink down on laminate tables as a hundred people break out in a round of “Happy Birthday.” Gladys beams with joy. She blows out the single candle on her cupcake and offers a shy wave of thanks to the friends and strangers who have serenaded her. Within two seconds of the song’s end, the room is once again filled with the racket of happy eaters.
The restaurant is crowded, as it always is at lunch, but there is a strange demographic tilt to the pack of patrons on this day, the first Saturday in November: A large majority of the people eating at Vernon’s are women, occupying tables by twos, threes, and fours. That’s because the first Saturday in November is the opening day of hunting season in Texas, and a lot of Conroe’s menfolk are out in the country stalking deer.
Vernon’s began as a convenience store for the outdoor set. Known as Vernon’s One Stop, it sold ammo, bait, tackle, and barbecue sandwiches to people heading from Houston to Lake Conroe; it also provided a refuge where anglers could commiserate with Vernon Bowers about the big bass or crappie that got away. One day in the early 1980s, Bowers and a pal were watching the traffic go by when they had a brainstorm. Wouldn’t all those campers really appreciate a nice catfish supper?
Lake Conroe, created in 1973 by the damming of the San Jacinto River, has become known as “Houston’s Playground.” Fair-weather fun includes boating, waterskiing, golf, and the biggest bass-fishing tournament in Texas. Lazy Route 105 has been widened into six fast lanes. And the restaurant Bowers and his friend conceived, just down the road from where the One Stop was, is now well established as a destination treasured not only by weekend vacationers but by hungry Aggies from Texas A&M in nearby College Station, as well as adventurous city folk who crave a true country … er, kuntry meal.
Opened as a one-room, ten-table café serving only catfish, chicken-fried steak, and hamburgers, Vernon’s Kuntry Katfish has expanded four times since opening in 1984. The dirt parking lot has been paved, and a large vestibule has been added where people can wait for a table. A thousand meals are served on a good day.
“The people know a good thing when they taste it,” says Senator Phil Gramm of Texas in answering our request for a true Lone Star State eating experience. Vernon’s Kuntry Katfish is his choice. “For the vegetables!” he exclaims, extolling the kitchen’s daily selection of such down-home delights as turnip greens, northern beans, and pickled green tomatoes. “It’s hard to get good vegetables like this anymore,” he says.
“And just look at this catfish,” adds his wife, Wendy, who, like her husband, taught economics at Texas A&M before entering public service (she was chairperson of the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission during the Reagan and Bush administrations). She pokes at a thick, sandy-surfaced piece of fried fish, prodding it just ‘hard enough with her fork to crack the fillet’s exterior and reveal glistening white meat, venting aromatic steam into the air. “Look how plump it is, look how it falls into nice, big flakes.” Vernon’s white shank fillets, cut from fish farm-raised in Mississippi, are tightly hugged by a flour-and-corn-meal crust with just enough seasoned zest to amplify their essential sweetness. The meat itself is so flavorful that even the menu’s anomalous broiled catfish, merely seasoned and without the added luxury of the mud puppy’s traditional breading and hot-oil bath, has a voluptuous richness reminiscent of prime beef.
Senator Gramm is a big fan of Vernon’s catfish—he orders the giant five-piece dinner with the battle cry “You only live once!”—but the subject of vegetables is what continues to stir his soul and inspire him to oratorical rapture during lunch. In particular, he wants to talk about butter beans. “You can’t get butter beans in many parts of America,” he says. “Most people assume the butter bean is just another kind of lima bean, but butter beans are something special; they are my favorite, cooked the way my mother cooks them, with a lot of bacon fat or salt pork. In fact, nearly everything good my mother cooks, she cooks with bacon fat. Have you ever had fried corn? It’s a lot of work for a little food—you have to scrape all the kernels off the ear with great care—but if you fry them in plenty of fat, it is a dish of glory. Health food? I don’t know if I’d call it that, but I do know that if you eat it, your joints are going to be well oiled.”
Although butter beans and fried corn are not part of the regular rotation at Vernon’s Kuntry Katfish, the daily vegetable menu includes one pork-besotted legume every weekday. We have the Friday special, black-eyed peas, which are tender and starchy and generously threaded with bite-size ribbons of “streak o’ lean.” Among the other notably opulent side dishes are drifts of mashed potatoes smothered with gravy, broccoli or cauliflower nestled in bright-yellow cheese, and nuggets of okra encased in a deep-fried crust.
A majority of customers have catfish at the center of their plates, but there is also a large minority of chicken-fried-steak aficionados. Chicken-fried steak can be tough and ornery, but Vernon’s crisp-crusted slab of breaded and fried beef is easy to slice and a joy to savor, gilded with a spill of peppery gravy.
All lunches are accompanied by a choice of yeast-raised biscuits, warm corn-bread squares, or hush puppies. The hush puppies are especially tasty; each little sphere has a firm, dark crust surrounding cakey cornmeal laced with bits of sweet onion and hot jalapeno pepper. They are accompanied by a small dish of pickled green tomatoes. The puckery smack of these tender chunks of tomato makes them good companions for almost any fried food; Vernon’s sells them by the pint and quart.
The appeal of Vernon’s Kuntry Katfish transcends food. Although it is several miles west of Conroe’s business district, the inexpensive, easygoing restaurant has become a community gathering place. It has the flavor of an old-fashioned fish-camp dining room where friends and neighbors congregate at big tables under spinning overhead fans to shoot the breeze or to celebrate a special occasion. Here is where church groups and school clubs gather, where the senior citizens’ Friendship Center holds its annual fish-fry fundraiser, and where Thanksgiving and Christmas turkeys by the score are cooked and given away to local charities.
To dine at Vernon’s is to be part of the life of a Texas country town. In the vestibule, where hungry customers greet neighbors, read the newspaper, or chat while waiting for a table, you find photographs of Conroe Tigers football players, each strapping teenage boy wearing shoulder pads that look bigger than his head. On the pale-green walls in the dining room are romantic hunting prints issued by Ducks Unlimited, of which Vernon is a big supporter, as well as a photograph of a broncobuster in batwing chaps taken the final year of the Cowboy Convict Rodeo, which used to be held at nearby Huntsville Prison. “That was one heck of a good rodeo,” Senator Gramm remembers, “because those boys with 15 or 20 years to serve simply weren’t afraid of getting hurt. So they gave it their all, and you saw some real grit in the arena.” The rodeo was shut down when lawyers threatened to sue the state for putting the prisoners in danger.
The people are one of the great joys of coming to Vernon’ s Kuntry Katfish. Every day at noon you find a bonanza of Texas individuals: a bull necked young man in a swoop-brimmed black Stetson and Roper boots who looks like a professional steer wrestler; a rickety old farmhand wearing his cleanest one-piece coveralls, accompanied by his wife in a flowered dress that looks as if it came straight out of the Sears catalog circa 1956; a tableful of buoyant high school athletes in their lavishly ornamented letter sweaters; an octogenarian college prof in a turtleneck and black beret reading a book of sonnets as he dines; a serious young backwoodsy couple in matching camouflage fatigues feeding jalapeno hush puppies and catfish to their three babies, all of them under two years old.
The one person we never see during our visit is proprietor Vernon Bowers. We timed our trip to his restaurant so that it would coincide with the arrival of our Texas tipster, Senator Gramm, who had come to town to attend a momentous Aggies-Sooners football game in College Station. But not even the epic pigskin rivalry or the visit of a United States senator is enough to keep Bowers in town. His wife, Mary, tells us that “Daddy” and his hunting pals are already deep in the Texas countryside near a town named Hunt. And along with them they have all the fixin’s for venison chili.
Vernon’s Kuntry Katfish