Whitey’s was one of our first Roadfood finds when we began traveling around the country in search of regional eats. It gave us a taste of wild-caught catfish, which made the fish-loving half of the Stern team an instant fan. Subsequent encounters with farm-raised catfish revealed that the flavor punch of genuine, bottom-feeding river cats is something special. Pond-raised are fine – mild and polite, receptive to all kinds of character-building treatments such as blackening and Cajun-spicing. But farmed fish are no comparison to the wild ones at Whitey’s, where the menu and the place have expanded dramatically and where catfish still reigns.
You name the seafood and Whitey’s probably serves it – broiled, sautéed, fried, blackened, or stuffed, filleted or on the bone. But it’s catfish, served AUCE (local fish house shorthand for All U Can Eat), that star. Unless you specify what size you want, each plateful holds one or two big ones and two or three little ones. The tiniest are so fragile that experienced diners eat even the tender rib bones, leaving nothing but vertebrae. Big ones, with a skeleton that demands respect, provide supremely easy access to meat. Simply poke the tines of a fork through the sandy cornmeal girdle just below the backbone, then pull downward. A nice mouthful slips cleanly off the ribs. Atop the patch of brittle crust on your fork is a nugget of dense meat as luxurious as prime beefsteak but with freshwater sparkle that evokes vacation campfires and balmy summer nights. We have never eaten anything so indisputably outdoorsy in a normal cloth-napkin restaurant. (In lieu of napkins, Whitey’s supplies each table with a roll of paper towels.)
Whitey’s is a community as much as it is a restaurant: boat launches, bait and tackle shop, oyster bar and beer bar, campground and RV park complete with hair-styling salon.
Do you really love catfish? Do you enjoy working for your dinner? If so, Whitey’s Fish Camp is the place to try fried catfish that has not been farm raised. These beauties are caught wild, then fried up whole (but headless and skinless), and brought to you until you tell your waitress to stop. The catfish are on the small side, so you’ll have to pick and nibble your way through them. It’s worth the effort, however, for the cornmeal crust is highly seasoned with a wicked crunch, and the meat is creamy-textured, and it’s fun discovering all the hiding places for the edible parts. Our waitress Tara asked if we prefer them large or small, informing us that many of her customers like them as small as possible, so they can be eaten bones and all. We chose to leave the bones.
With the catfish comes heavily seasoned fries, good coleslaw, and some of the best hush puppies we had in Florida – fluffy white, onion-laced, and tender-textured. Part way through our pitcher of Bud, Tara rushed out with a bag of ice to drop in the beer. Nice, thoughtful touch. All manner of other local water creatures are available to eat, including the ubiquitous (in Florida these days) alligator tail, local frogs legs, and turtle. There’s even something called soft-shell turtle (in season), and we have a hard time imagining how that would be prepared. Boned and filleted catfish are also available, in or out of sandwiches.
Whitey’s is really a fish camp, rather than a fish-camp-themed restaurant. You can purchase bait, rent a boat, and catch your own, and there’s an RV park on the grounds. The restaurant has an outdoor covered deck in back, along the water, and it’s here we recommend you dine. The area around Whitey’s is no longer a remote wilderness. You’ll pass by shopping centers and country clubs and senior housing developments on your way here. Don’t be concerned by that – Whitey’s is still a taste of old-school Florida.