Wednesday, August 3, 2022

Robert St. John: Support Your Local Catfish House

We are a nation of regional dining concepts and local dishes. Chicago has deep-dish pizza parlors. New Orleans has po-boy shops. Ohio has chili parlors. Maine has lobster shacks. South Florida has crab shacks. Maryland also has crab shacks (there are a lot of shacks in regional dining). Oyster bars are scattered across the Gulf states, and barbeque concepts are spread across the South. You’ll find vinegar-based barbeque in North Carolina, sweet sauce in Georgia, spicy sauce in Tennessee, white sauce in Alabama, and almost all that sauce will be slathered on pork. In Texas beef brisket is king. Most of the best barbeque in those areas is served— again— in shacks.


Mississippi certainly has its share of good barbeque. We also have great po-boy shops in the southern part of the state, and oyster bars dotted all along the Coast. But if I were asked what defines local Mississippi cuisine— hands down— it would be catfish.


The primary and most unique regional dining concept in my home state is the goshalmighty catfish house. 


It makes sense. Catfish is a major agricultural crop in Mississippi, and we’ll eat almost anything if you dunk it in enough hot grease.


I love catfish houses. I consider myself a connoisseur of catfish houses and have a 60-year track record of dining in them. For those reading this column outside of the south, it’s hard to drive 20 miles in any direction in this state without passing at least one catfish house (and several dollar stores). All catfish houses are slightly different in their menu offerings, but there are several universal and key components that are shared among all of them. They will all offer fried catfish filets as their primary menu item. The best catfish houses will offer whole catfish as well.  


The catfish is not battered like New England-based fish— which probably originates from the British version of fish and chips— but lightly dusted in cornmeal, and sometimes with a touch of corn flour thrown in to make the crust lighter. Catfish will always be served with hushpuppies, French fries, and coleslaw. 


The slaw will almost always be on the sweeter side and— many times— served first as an appetizer. I like to eat mine with Captain’s Wafers crackers. Other restaurants will serve hushpuppies first. Again, for those column readers above the Mason-Dixon line, hushpuppies are fried balls of cornmeal (I told you we love to fry) and are basically a cornmeal fritter. 


Many catfish houses keep the menu simple and stop there. Most will offer fried shrimp and/or fried chicken. Others have extensive menu offerings, and several give away free ice cream for dessert. One thing is for certain, sweet tea will be the main beverage sold. And I’m talking about tea sweetened with so much sugar that the spoon almost stands on its own at the bottom of the glass. My rule for restaurants that offer sweet tea is that if you are in a state that has a team in the Southeastern Conference, you’ll be able to order sweet tea in a restaurant. If you are in a state that has two teams in the SEC— Tennessee, Alabama, and Mississippi— you’ll get the sweetest of sweet teas. 


I don’t like catfish cooked any other way than fried. If I want grilled or broiled fish, I’ll cook sa species out of the Gulf. Though I never fry Gulf fish. Catfish is the only fish I’ll fry.


My earliest memory of a catfish house was a place called Mixon’s just South of my hometown of Hattiesburg. My grandfather loved to celebrate his birthday there. They offered fried catfish and the usual suspects, coleslaw, French fries, but also made some of the best baked beans I have ever eaten. My grandfather took me on a father-son overnight canoe trip with several other father-son pairings, and the owner of Mixon's catfish house drove deep into the woods to our campsite and served a catfish dinner. To this day, that is the best— and most memorable— catfish meal I have ever eaten.


I once owned a catfish house. Those days operating the 589 Family Fish House were some of the most fun periods in my restaurant career. In addition to catfish filets and whole catfish, we offered thin filets (a practice first used at Middendorf’s in Manchac, Louisiana). We served everything family style, including the typical supporting cast of characters, and had excellent hushpuppies, coleslaw, pickled onions, and fries, but we also sent servers throughout the dining room with complimentary turnip greens, fried okra, baked beans, and yeast rolls. September 11, 2001, changed the dining dynamic in the area where we were located and I packed everything up, put it in storage, and vowed to re-open one day. Who knows what the future holds?


Most Mississippi catfish houses offer an all-you-can-eat catfish menu option. This is not strange to those of us who grew up down here. Though one time I took a New York photographer who was in town shooting one of my cookbooks to a catfish house and I noticed him staring bug-eyed at the menu murmuring softly to himself, “All you can eat? All you can eat?” He looked up from the menu and asked, “You mean they just keep bringing it to you? How can they do that?” 


“Buddy,” I said, “They’re not worried about a little fella like you. They’ve been here for more than 50 years. They know what they’re doing.” In addition to our restaurants, I always take our out-of-town guests to a catfish house. It’s always a true “Mississippi” experience. 


A catfish house that doesn’t serve farm-raised Mississippi catfish should be immediately eliminated from consideration. You would be surprised at the number of places selling the imported Vietnamese knockoff species, basa, and calling it catfish. Always ask your favorite fish house what they are buying.


My local go-to catfish house in Hattiesburg is Rayner’s on Highway 49 North. I’ve been eating there for at least half a century. But recently, I have been spending a lot of time just outside of Purvis, Mississippi, and have rediscovered what I believe to be the best catfish house in the state— Cuevas’ Fish House.


To my taste, Cuevas is king of the hill when it comes to Mississippi catfish houses. They are located on the main drag in Purvis and just up the hill from what the locals call “Dollar Holler” a grouping of all three Dollar stores— Dollar General, Family Dollar, and Dollar Tree— next door to each other. Cuevas is big and busy. There’s a reason they’re busy— they’re good, and they’re good on all fronts, food quality and service. I went twice in the same week last week. The fish is fresh farm-raised Simmons catfish and is fried perfectly. The hushpuppies are even better. They also have excellent fried onion rings, and the most efficient service I have ever experienced in a catfish house.


They stay very busy, but our dining experiences— from the greeting we received at the front door, to the extremely friendly, fast, and efficient service at the table, to the quality if the food— have been stellar. Seriously, my visits to Cuevas have been the best overall experiences I’ve ever had at a catfish house, and I’ve been to hundreds (including my own).


Kudos to former elementary-school-principal-turned-restaurateur, Jackie Cuevas. In a state with hundreds of catfish houses, she’s at the top, in my opinion. Jackie Cuevas runs a tight ship, and everyone who works there seems to enjoy the environment. They will see me again, often.



Daddy B’s Hushpuppies


1 cup                                       White Corn Meal

1 ½                                          Medium white onion, grated

½                                             Green Bell Pepper, small dice

1 Heaping Tablespoon            Salt

2 teaspoons                             Black Pepper

1 cup                                       All-Purpose Martha White Flour

2 Tablespoons                         Baking Powder

2                                              Eggs

1/3 cup                                    Warm Water



The night before preparation, in a mixing bowl, add corn meal, onion, bell pepper, salt, and pepper and mix well. Place in the refrigerator overnight.


To Prepare:

Heat oil in a cast iron skillet, Dutch oven, or deep fryer to 350 degrees.


Remove the bowl of cornmeal-onion mix from the refrigerator. Allow to sit at room temperature for 15 minutes. Add flour, baking powder, eggs, and water. Stir gently and let sit 3-5 minutes. 


Using a spoon or scoop (about the size, or slightly smaller than a golf ball), drop batter into hot oil. Cook, turning once, until golden brown.


Drain on paper towels. 


Yield: 30 hushpuppies (recipe can be doubled or tripled for large groups)




Anonymous said...

All deep fried cr*p, served with mayo drenched cole slaw on the side. Aren’t we Mississippians already fat enough? Well, afterwards you can support your local cardiologist…

Anonymous said...

There is a good one i just ate at in Quittman, MS called Bubba's. Good seafood and great catfish. Was camping at Clarkco state park. Good service too

Stuff About ZeroBear PolyBear said...

Everyone has their favorite. The only complaint I can come up with when we go to Jerry's Igloo on H-49 below Florence is the length of the waiting line. Occassionally I will also complain that I ate much-too-much for my dinner.

Anonymous said...

10:34, as Yogi Berra said, "no one goes there; it's too busy."

Joseph said...

Oh piss off, 10:09. I have always and will always love fried catfish, and won't let pinch-faced scolds such as yourself in any way ruin that enjoyment.
Perhaps a plate of fried fish will lighten your mood?

I will second RSJ's recommendation of Rayner's (it's a go-to on Friday for lunch), although I will note that Purvis has dueling fish joints, and I don't think you can go wrong with either Cuevas' or LT's. Someone mentioned Bubba's in my native Clarke County, but as far as I'm concerned, there is no better fish joint in the world than Enterprise's Long's Fish Camp. Just remember to bring cash.

Anonymous said...

The fish at Cock of the walk is great. I agree with the author about only wanting fried but my wife talked me into getting grilled a few years ago and I am hooked on their grilled. I can also eat several helpings of the pickled onions. I am unaware of any fish houses in south MS with pickled onions. anyone?

Anonymous said...

catfish is trash fish

Anonymous said...

Not from or a fan of Starkville, but The Little Dooey - a barbeque place - may have the best catfish in MS. Just sayin'.

Anonymous said...

11:31...from they don't.

Anonymous said...

Larry’s catfish in Itta Bena is the best fried whole catfish in the state I think. Problem is that the sides and other options aren’t up to snuff.

Anonymous said...

Don't catfish. Go with talapia. Google it. You won't.

Anonymous said...

The catfish and fried shrimp platter at The Igloo is fabulous. Their tartar sauce and puppies are excellent and those two are the mark of a great catfish joint. Ever wonder why none of them serve beer? I've also wondered why black folk don't tip. That, according to numerous wait staff.

Turnip greens and cornbread with catfish are blasphemous. And so is spaghetti.

Anonymous said...

That new restaurant at The Refuge Sheraton (Rebecca's, I think?) has a pretty impressive fried seafood platter. Not cheap mind you, and gas station catfish suits me fine...but still.

It was good.

Anonymous said...

Beat it @2:29

Krusatyr said...

Raus's Grocery in Gulf Shores sells the fattest Tilapia, about $4.50 for two big filets, that I found exceptionally fresh, succulent and flakey when I spiced, breaded and sautéed myself.

Anonymous said...

Our classic fish houses are too numerous to name.
But just a few of my fond memories:

The old Cindy's in Rankin County.
The original 1970s Penn's (a few miles outside of Canton).
The 1980s Taylor Grocery (a few miles south of Oxford).
Mixon's outside of Hattiesburg for sure.

And that's only a minuscule list of classics.

Anonymous said...

Recovering from triple bypass surgery. Doc says to stay away from fried food. Grilled is OK without fries. When I get to feeling better with try one of the above restaurants.

Anonymous said...

I really hope Robert will reopen his fish house concept. Of all his restaurants, we ate most often at the 589 Family Fish House. The rustic building and its location just north of Bellevue (west Hattiesburg) on 589 north going toward Sumrall was great for a fish house. Everything Robert did with that concept was perfect and our family enjoyed it.

LT's and Cuevas Fish House in Purvis are very good, as is Stogner's Fish House in Tylertown on old 98 east.

Krusatyr said...

I am also a heart patient who loves charcoal grilled fish, and contrary to author's opinion, I have found all fish can be delicious grilled over charcoal and mesquite or hickory.

Need to use a fish grilling contraption, hinged and criss-cross wired, which holds the fish intact while smoking/cooking and flipping, with long flat handles that protrude beyond edge of grill. Olive oil, lemon juice, garlic flakes, chipotle pepper flakes, salt, fresh ground black pepper, smoked paprika, fresh ground cumin seed.

Jackson has excellent, devoted cardio docs!

Anonymous said...

" Stogner's Fish House in Tylertown "

Indeed !

Just arrive at Stogner's early.
(on Friday or Saturday nights).

Anonymous said...

Tilapia is trash fish. It smells like sewage the minute it is pulled from the water. I'll stick with fresh catfish raised in clean water, and I like it fried, grilled and even oven-roasted with appropriate seasoning.

Anonymous said...

Once saw a fish farming documentary. The tilapia were in a tank downstream of the striped bass...and they only fed the striped bass.

Anonymous said...

"Well, afterwards you can support your local cardiologist…"

Hell, the cardiologists are eating at the fish houses too while lecturing you on eating simply prepared grill red meats.

Anonymous said...

Robert got on a table and sang an Elvis song for us to get free iced tea with our catfish at Mack’s fish camp in 1976? Shortly before our friend slid Patty’s Ford Galaxy off the road on the way home. Is Mack’s still there.?

Anonymous said...

I once stopped and ate at Rayner's about 15 years ago based on RSJ's recommendation. That's when I learned to take everything anyone says about good places to eat with a grain of salt. I wouldn't call Rayner's bad, but it was vastly inferior to many other places I have eaten.

My favorite place is in the mostly rural county where I live and I'm not naming it - they are crowded enough already. It's the only place I know of that gets it all right - not just good fish, but good greens, slaw, fries, and hush puppies. I recall the fish at Jerry's being good but everything else being just ok. Someone mentioned Cindy's - another just ok place.

Whoever the commenter is who said you shouldn't serve greens with fried fish - really? I don't recall a fish house I have ever eaten at that DIDN'T serve greens. Serving cornbread with it like Cock of the Walk does is a little redundant since hush puppies go with greens just fine, but nothing wrong with that.

RSJ is also wrongly opinionated about not frying any other fish other than catfish, or not grilling catfish. But to each his own.

Oh, snarky guy about Mississippians being fat and not needing fried food - that's true, but it's mostly not the food, it's the quantities, frequency, and lack of exercise. We probably eat at our favorite fish house 3 or 4 times a year but eating fried food once a week isn't a big deal if you work it off and don't gorge yourself. All things in moderation - including moderation!

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