By Jane and Michael Stern
Originally Published 2004 Gourmet Magazine
If you love to eat, New Orleans is a tough city to leave. But the thought of Cajun country cooking sends us speeding off beyond the city limits. Whenever we set out from the Big Easy, our first stop is Middendorf’s, for thin fried catfish. New Orleans’ big-name chefs drive an hour to eat it. At least one customer at every table orders it. And if this is your first visit to Joey Lamonte’s Depression-era roadhouse out along Lake Maurepas, in Tangipahoa Parish, you must have it, too.
Josie Middendorf, grandmother of Joey’s wife, Susie, opened Middendorf’s in 1934 and created the dish that has become its trademark. “Catfish is popular and trendy now,” Lamonte says. “But back then, you didn’t want to talk about it. Trout was the premium catch. Catfish was a low, lowly food. She didn’t even call it catfish on the menu. It was the Middendorf Special.” The name has changed, but the recipe hasn’t. The house specialty looks nothing like the more familiar whole catfish or even like a standard-size catfish fillet. Breaded in cornmeal and fried, the ultrathin strips form crunchy curlicues and bows like pale gold bunting. The ribbons of white meat are startlingly moist, their catfish flavor cushioned by the envelope of crust. You eat thin catfish by hand, and once you pluck that first piece, there is no stopping until the plate is emptied.
But thinking of this well-weathered, wood-paneled eating hall as a catfish house is like calling Italy a spaghetti nation. It may be true, but there’s a lot more to the story. Early in the year, there are heaps of boiled spiced crawfish; warm weather means Manchac crabs; and while oysters are at their best in the R months, you can always have plush oyster stew and barbecued oysters on the half shell. For those of us who prefer our oysters raw, the barbecued ones are a big surprise. They have been cooked—barely—but they still burst with saline succulence and deliver the slippery bliss that makes oyster eating so stimulating.
An oyster from Middendorf’s fry kettle shatters when you bite it, and the insides spill out like saltwater manna. And although seafood is the main attraction, local experts consider Middendorf’s chicken among the best. “The Fried Chicken Club from New Orleans comes here all the time,” says Lamonte. Only in food-struck southern Louisiana would a fried chicken club seem as normal as the Rotary.
Middendorf’s sits among a ramshackle string of bait shops and crab stands off the Highway 51 access road, contradicting the economics of good location. Lamonte jokes that his lack of tablecloths and candlelight cause him to lose a few beans with the New Orleans restaurant critics (who award beans rather than stars), but he has no interest in cloning, upscaling, or expanding the winning formula beyond an annex built next door for weekend and Mardi Gras overflow crowds. “I like the bright lights and Formica,” he says. “I wouldn’t know what to do with a dirty tablecloth.”
It is difficult to eat badly in Acadiana, and in addition to Middendorf’s you’ll certainly want to visit such legendary food temples as Robin’s Restaurant, in Henderson, for crawfish every which way; Black’s Oyster Bar, in Abbeville; Boudin King, in Jennings; and, for a stunning version of gâteau sirop (spice cake made with local cane sugar), Café des Amis, in Breaux Bridge.
On our most recent pilgrimage, we discovered two new entries for our Cajun food pantheon. Brenda’s Dine In & Take Out, a homespun café in New Iberia, the Tabasco capital of the world, brought tears of joy to our eyes. “It doesn’t get better than this,” we agreed halfway through a lunch of fried chicken; fried pork chops; red beans with sausage, rice, and gravy; candied yams; and smothered cabbage. The pork chop was audibly juicy with a tenderness that had us gnawing to the bone. The chicken’s fragile crust held in juice-dripping meat. The red beans were New Iberia hot. The smothered cabbage, speckled with nuggets of garlicky sausage, brought high honor to the vegetable kingdom.
We had to ask Brenda how she cooks such magnificent food, but we weren’t surprised when she had no satisfactory answer. “It’s from my mama’s kitchen,” she said. “I cannot tell you how to do it because she never taught me to measure anything. You just add seasoning and spice until it’s right.”
If it hadn’t been for Sulphur policeman and good friend Many McNeil, we never, ever would have come across D.I.’ s Cajun Restaurant , a remote eatery set back from a two-lane highway in the middle of nothing but rice fields and crawfish ponds. When we told McNeil we were on the lookout for a true Cajun eating experience, he said D.I. ’s was it. As we walked in, the big, round trays heaped with crawfish that came from the kitchen trailing hot spiced steam through the dining room told us we’d hit Cajun pay dirt.
Daniel Isaac (“D.I.”) Fruge has been known to neighbors for his well-seasoned crawdads since the 1970s. He was a rice and soybean farmer who began harvesting the mudbugs, then boiling and serving them to friends and neighbors: $5 for all you could eat. They were served in his barn the traditional way—strewn in heaps across bare tables—with beer on the side.
D.I. and his wife, Sherry, now run a restaurant with a full menu that includes steaks, crabs, oysters, frogs’ legs, flounder, and shrimp. But vividly spiced crawfish are the star attraction. The classic way to enjoy them is boiled and piled onto the beer tray—a messy meal that rewards vigorous tail pulling and head sucking with an unending procession of the vibrant sweet-water richness that only crawdads deliver. You can have them crisp-fried into bite-size morsels with a salty crunch, and there are crawfish pie, étouffée, and bisque.
No longer a makeshift annex to Monsieur Fruge’s barn, D.I.’s is a spacious destination with multiple dining rooms and a dance floor. The Cajun music starts at seven, with an open-mic jam session on Wednesdays.