Jul 22, 201012:00 AM
Our weekly blog on the New Orleans fine dining scene
Fried Catfish is High-Eating, Too
Thin-fried catfish, french fries, hush puppies and slaw are as good as ever an Middendorf's.
Photo courtesy of Robert Peyton
My mother’s family is from Amite, La., and when I was a child, we would regularly visit my grandparents on the weekends. They’d often meet us at Middendorf’s, which is conveniently located about halfway between New Orleans and Amite. I grew up eating fried catfish and hush puppies there, as well as shrimp, soft-shell crabs, oysters and fried chicken in the large white building at 30160 Highway 51 S. in Akers, La. My grandparents seemed to know half of the other customers in the restaurant, and we almost always ate well. I felt at home at Middendorf’s and continue to have an attachment to the place.
My history with Middendorf’s is hardly unique. The restaurant opened in 1934, and until Hurricane Ike put a 10-foot storm surge through Pass Manchac in 2008, the restaurant served thin-fried catfish fillets to generations of hungry diners. Karen and Horst Pfeifer, whose restaurant Bella Luna closed after Katrina, purchased Middendorf’s in April 2007. The Pfeifers had already put a substantial effort into renovating the original building’s kitchen and had built an expansive deck and children’s play area not long before Ike hit, and for about a week, they were in a state of shock, not sure about what to do. Karen told me that they received so many phone calls and e-mails from loyal customers that they “woke up and took action” to get the place back up and running. They initially operated out of the “new” building, which is adjacent to the original restaurant, and by September 2009, they were back in the restaurant where the traditions started. The deck and play area reopened in March of this year, and Karen tells me they’re doing great. Most recently they built a pier that allows more boats to dock and have seen their boat traffic increase since.
I remember when the Pfeifers bought the restaurant, there was some skepticism about whether the classically trained chef was appropriate for the casual eatery. I was a fan of Bella Luna, and even I was a little nervous about what Pfeifer might change. The answer was “not much.” If anything, Pfeifer brought more consistency to the kitchen, and if he made any changes to the recipes, I can’t tell.
Middendorf’s serves far more than the thinly sliced fried catfish for which it’s best-known. The turtle soup, oyster stew and three different seafood gumbos (crab, shrimp and a combination) are all excellent. In season, boiled crawfish and crabs are available, and seafood dinners on the menu include stuffed shrimp and crabs, broiled flounder and barbecued shrimp in a homemade red sauce. Frog legs come broiled or fried, and along with soft-shell crabs, stuffed crabs and thin-fried catfish, you can get them as a side order to any of the seafood dinners. Middendorf’s is definitely a seafood restaurant, but their fried chicken is surprisingly good, though it takes a little longer than the catfish. There are a few options for the kids, but if your child doesn’t like fried catfish, shrimp or chicken, I’m not sure what to tell you. They can eat the french fries, hush puppies, chicken fingers –– or a hamburger, I suppose.
The deck that the Pfeifers completed shortly before Ike hit is a great place to have a meal. It’s large enough to handle crowds, and a system of misters and fans keeps things relatively cool even in the heat of the summer. There is a long bar that runs along one side of the deck, and the sand-filled play area is a good place for the kids to work off excess energy. I’ve posted a couple of pictures on my Web site, appetites.us. It’s also a reflection of the Pfeifers’ desire to make a restaurant that was already family-friendly even more so.
Middendorf’s celebrated its 75th anniversary last year, and it’s still going strong. The obvious love that the Pfeifers have for the place has ensured that it’s as popular as ever. Go early if you don’t want to wait, particularly on the weekends. Middendorf’s is open from 10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m., Wednesday though Sunday. Call the restaurant at 985/386-6666 for more information or send them an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.