The ruler of the universe is located on Highway 90 about 30 miles southwest of New Orleans. Spahr’s Seafood Restaurant and Lounge, “where catfish is king,” is the seat of aquatic culinary power in Des Allemands, a town declared to be the catfish capital of the universe by the Louisiana legislature in 1980. Among the smattering of advertisements for fresh seafood and airboat tours rises the signature crowned catfish of Spahr’s, perched on the banks of Bayou Des Allemands.
In 1968, Bill and Thelma Spahr opened a service station with an adjoining restaurant that catered to patrons, and thus Spahr’s Seafood Restaurant and Lounge was born. The popularity of the fried “catfish chips” quickly turned the joint into a landmark pit stop along the stretch of highway between Houma and New Orleans. Sadly, the original structure was lost to a kitchen fire in 2002, but by the time it was rebuilt in 2006, Spahr’s had expanded to open two new locations in Thibodaux and Houma.
The rebuilt flagship location retains an old-timey, country restaurant feeling with its wood finishes and simple furnishings but also feels tidy and updated, with natural light pouring in from the large windows that provide a beautiful bayou view. I arrived toward the end of the Sunday lunch rush at the beginning of a Saints game to find the entire staff wearing Saints T-shirts and jerseys. Everything smelled of lemon and fried batter; classic rock hummed through the speakers. It was a family scene, a mixed bag of age demographics, a lot of whom seemed like regulars.
My first bite of the delicious seafood gumbo was synced perfectly with the chorus of Heart’s “Crazy On You.” It was the cafe au lait-colored medium brown roux that my mom and grandma always cooked growing up in Cajun Country, and every bite was full of fragmented crabmeat and smoky andouille flavor.
The delectable crab fingers were fried in the same manner of the seafood entrees to come, a light and crispy fry job lacking the greasy residue one often finds in old-school Cajun places. I was reminded that as I grew and my palate expanded over the past 20 years, and my favorite foods changed, that crab fingers and gumbo were still easily in my top five.
The seafood platter has a seasonal soft-shell crab add-on option that I did not hesitate to order. Like the crab fingers, it was beautifully, lightly fried and came perched atop a mountain of fish, shrimp, oysters, “onion chips” and fries. The ratio of flour to cornmeal in the batter is genius. The effect is that one can eat a mountain of Spahr’s fried seafood without feeling horrible afterward. The same is true of the “catfish chips,” which are small strips of perfectly fried catfish that I consumed with a velocity and fervor shocking in a man who had already eaten so much.
Pho Ga Quang Minh
A few miles down the road from the Jean Lafitte Historical Park in Marrero, lies one of the best hidden gem Vietnamese restaurants of the West Bank, Pho Ga Quang Minh. Opened in 2010 in an unassuming strip mall, Pho Ga has become a favorite for those in the know looking for an authentic Vietnamese experience.
There were three dry erase boards of daily specials, but the only one in English was the barbecued smoked ribs, which were incredible. They were pork ribs in a traditional sweet sauce glaze and came out piping hot straight from the grill. They were meaty and juicy and completely delicious. I also got the staple pho ga dec biet, which is pho with chicken, rice noodles and fresh egg. I had been craving good pho for a while and it really hit the spot, simple and well-executed. I highly recommend this place for an authentic Vietnamese experience that feels a little less overwrought and off the beaten path than other West Bank offerings. For the Vietnamese newbies, the friendly waitstaff and supplemental English on the menu will ease your trepidation. 2651 Barataria Blvd., Marrero, (504) 347-3553.
Spahr’s is both a place to plan a pit stop if you’re traveling along the I-90 corridor and a destination restaurant if you want to experience the best catfish in the capital of the universe. You’ve had catfish – it’s time to try the king. 3682 U.S. 90, Des Allemands, (985) 758-1602.