Forty miles from New Orleans sits this legendary little roadside stand that serves the state’s most famous, and most unique, catfish platter. Bring your appetite, and a few friends to help you…
“Shaved catfish is what we’re famous for,” said the waitress, a woman who made sure to give a member of our dining party the side-eye for ordering unsweetened iced tea, which as all God-fearing Southerners know is just unnatural. “You want the small or the large plate?”
Three of them wanted the small plate. But I didn’t come to Middendorf’s to go small. If I drove 45 minutes for catfish, I was getting a mountain of it, even if that meant I exploded by the meal’s end.
And that’s the small plate.
Middendorf’s, an 82 year-old institution sitting on the banks of Pass Manchac, is a breezy 40 mile drive from the city of New Orleans. It has been a happy place to generations of road-weary diners. From far and wide they come to sample this flavor, something very current and unquestionably out of the past. The family-style decor and homey feel play right into the idea of a place that never changes an already perfect recipe. But the chef/owner of the place? That’s a bit more modern.
You wouldn’t expect the owner of a catfish palace to be a European Master Chef, but there it is. Horst Pfeifer, a native of Germany, purchased the place in 2007, and made the incredibly wise decision to change almost nothing about the place. The former head honcho of Bella Luna—a French Quarter fine dining staple lost to Hurricane Katrina—Pfeifer raised more than a few eyebrows when he stepped in to take over a country kitchen.
“I would say ninety percent of my friends thought I went crazy,” Pfeifer said in an interview with the Southern Foodways Alliance. “Going from fine dining to owning a catfish house.”
Things have been going just fine since Pfeifer took over, largely because he kept all the people and machinations of the kitchen in place. If something’s been working for eight decades, do you really need to change it up?
Jenna Welch and Victoria Miller pretend to read the menus.
The menu at Middendorf’s leaves room for plenty of choices, but if you’ve come all the way out here for the first time, everyone knows what you’re getting. Thinly sliced catfish, breaded and fried in a time-honored recipe, then served with slaw, bread, hush puppies and fries. A side of tartar sauce and a side of cocktail sauce if you like things saucy. And because Victoria Miller, Jenna Welch, Chris Romaguera and I had come this far and, in two of our cases, for the first time, we all ordered the same thing.
I am not a delicate man. And when the plate was served, I got about as quiet as I ever get in any situation. There’s a rhythm you have to adopt when eating that much food. Slow down, you get full. Eat too fast, you get sick. Stay consistent, you end up polishing off an entire large plate which, in a place like this, serves as a badge of honor. I don’t want to say that I was the only one to finish his entire plate off (even though I was the only one to order the large), but I do want to imply it.
Middendorf’s is a place that has withstood not only the test of time, but tests of the economy. The area around here used to be a thriving restaurant scene, but these days, Middendorf’s is one of the last soldiers standing. Hurricanes, shifting tastes, and bad season catches have cleared out most of the others, but this place stuck, and seems locked in place for the future thanks to frequent visits from celebrity chefs (Sean Brock recently visited on an episode of Mind of a Chef) and write-ups in publications like Southern Living, who declared the catfish here to be “Quite possibly the best fried fish in the world—yes, the world.”
After dinner, dessert. And you can grab anything from Key Lime Pie to house-made Banana Rum Bread Pudding, just in case you haven’t offended the forces of temperance quite enough. When it’s all said and done, you should probably leave one member of your party as the designated driver. That is, make sure someone in the crowd orders a smaller plate of food, or at least gets part of it to go. The rest of you will likely be down for a nap.
Middendorf’s Restaurant is located at 30160 U.S. 51, an easy turn off of Interstate 55, in Akers, Louisiana. They have a website right here.