The best catfish–small, wild-caught specimens from the freshwater bayous around Louisiana–are among the best eating fish we have. Unfortunately, almost all the catfish you are likely to find in markets and restaurants was raised in farms. The food it eats, the environment it lives in, and the large size it is allowed to attain make the flavor of farm-raised catfish sub-optimal.
But not being the best doesn’t make it bad. Catfish is not only delicious–it’s unique. The best fried catfish (and fried beats any other preparation) is a pure joy. That’s one of the reasons catfish has become the default frying fish on seafood platters around town.
The other reason is that it saves a restaurateur one of his many headaches. He can place a standing order for so many pounds of catfish to be delivered once or twice a week, secure in the knowledge that it will show up. It just won’t be as good as it could be.
It’s not all the restaurant’s fault. Most customers have eaten nothing but farm-raised catfish. And they prefer the big plate-filling fillets to the better small ones. The allure of large portions is irresistible. But big catfish don’t cook right. The coating gets too dark, or the inside is undercooked. The latter condition is offputting.
A few restaurants still serve wild catfish. Mr. Ed’s Oyster Bar (formerly Bozo’s, whose catfish style Mr. Ed’s kept), Spahr’s (Des Allemands and Thibodaux), K-Gee’s (Mandeville) and Bistro Orleans have it all the time. Middendorf’s has it sometimes. Taste wild-caught catfish, and you understand why catfish was held in such high regard thirty years and longer ago.