We don’t eat fish very often, so when we do it seems like a real treat — even as we try to ignore our internal ethical nagging. And we do love us some catfish, especially. When freshly fried and hot, it’s divine and needs only a little hot sauce (or a squeeze of lemon) to render it perfect.
So it was with high hopes that we set out for nearby Millbrook to visit the Catfish House. This was our second attempt. The first time we had gone on a Sunday only to find out it was closed, what with Jesus being against eating out on the Sabbath and all. So we picked a bustling Friday night and got ourselves on up the northbound freeway to see what all the fuss was about. (And by “fuss,” we merely mean that a couple of people had told us that this was a good place).
We certainly were surprised.
The building is quite close to the Interstate, but looks rural enough to lead you to believe that you are in for some sort of, well, at the risk of sounding like a rube, some sort of “authentic” country catfish shack type of experience. You’ve got the gravelly parking lot (with spillover lot) packed with pickup trucks emblazoned with their religious and NASCAR logos. You’ve got your folks in camouflage formalwear or dress overalls, mixed in with the folks in their Friday night date clothes. You’ve got decorative rustic (and rusting) 1920s style gas pumps and benches outside for sitting.
Yet, these things are all window dressing for the fact that the Catfish House is really an exercise in mass scale Fordist efficiency. It is no more a laid back country hole in the wall place than Goldman Sachs. Sure, the food is fried, the tea is sweet, and the service comes with a River Region twang. Yet, the sheer scale of the operation, the hyper-efficient processing of customers in and out, calculated down to the milliseconds of table turnover time, well, that all just seems to trigger a reminder that the food you’re eating isn’t all that good.
There was a modest wait (20 minutes) for a table, so we milled around outside, waiting for the loudspeaker to call our names. The restaurant has grounds and adjoins a pond, which is scenic. The pond is merely to add to the rural vibe, and is not where the catfish are coming from. There are a few sketchy-looking small outbuildings out back. When we’ve taken in the pond and the windmill, we walk back up, look at their small collection of antique gas pumps and sit on a bench by the front door. A high school couple is seated next to us – they are clearly on a date. They are kissing and talking softly to each other. Other people are standing around chatting, and it strikes us that people are having a nice time waiting for a table. There’s a happy end-of-the-week vibe around the place. When our name is announced, we are seated at a pond-view table in a giant room that’s hung floor to ceiling with a strange combination of memorabilia, antique kitchen appliances and old advertising. When we look closer, it appears that a number of the items are either for sale or sport descriptive tags. Many look as if they came from the Eastbrook Flea Market.
While we wait for our drinks to arrive, we are presented with a group of items standard for every table. We get a cast iron bucket of hush puppies, a crock of white beans, and two small dishes of slaw scooped with ice cream scoops. The hush puppies are good, but we’re given an absurdly large amount for two people. The beans are great. The slaw is flavorless and weirdly green. Boiled shrimp arrives as our appetizer – we got a quarter pound, and it was delicious.
For our entrees, one of us got the “house feature” ($12.29-ish for two and a half boneless catfish fillets and a baked potato) while the other got the “Seafood Platter” ($15.49 for fried catfish, fried scallops, fried shrimp, some kind of fried stuffed crab thing that seemed never to have been near a crab before, and french fries). The food arrived quickly. Otherwise we just don’t have that much good to say about it.
It’s not that the food was bad. It’s just that, well, for a place with catfish in its name, you expect that your catfish will taste like something. If you expect this at the Catfish House, you will be disappointed. You may reach for the salt and pepper, since the fish seems to have been seasoned with neither. Maybe you, like us, will think twice about using the unrefrigerated tartar sauce kept on the table, but even if you used it, you would still not find the fish flavorful. We felt a little like we were in a test lab for the Catfish Council. Which Council has, probably not coincidentally, placed an official bit of industry promotional material on each table, perhaps to remind you in these nativist times that this catfish isn’t imported (although it doesn’t go so far as to say that our food is raised in Alabama’s Hale County monocultural mega-farms). The fried scallops were the best thing we ate by far. They were sweet and perfectly fried and wonderful.
And it just doesn’t make you want to come back. Or tell everyone, “Ya’ll, I had the best catfish the other day.” It’s decent enough, but it’s more like a simulation of a good old country fish fry, where they’ve tried to ramp the lake cabin up to scale to serve 2,000 people on a busy Friday night and, unsurprisingly, you lose the flavor.
And that’s the deal with the whole place. It looks like a southern place where they slap random crap on the walls to add character (which is what rural places used to do before they could afford art). But it comes off feeling focus group tested — intentionally unremarkable kitsch. Maybe someone’s grandparents love to go to the Catfish House and marvel at the wall debris, but for us, it came of as our idea of nostalgia for the boring.
And our dissatisfaction led to the question on the way home — What’s so good about not being a chain?
The Catfish House may have started off as country, or authentic, or flavorful, but at some point over the years, perhaps after being the only decent thing to eat in Millbrook for a long time, they seem to have become a victim of their own success. They’re crowded, yes. The server jobs are likely coveted slots for area teens. And surely the owners are raking cash in, hand over fist. But at what cost to us, to our precious customs, to the fish that have been sucked dry of all of their fishy succulence?
A lot of people make fun of Cracker Barrel (justifiably) for being a theme park version of Southern Cooking. Here’s a case where the simulation (Cracker Barrel) may be a more authentic dining experience than the real thing (Catfish House). That’s not to say that the people are more real or more country at one place or another, but it’s like they (Catfish House) took the worst things about the Cracker Barrel (the wall kitsch, the mechanized efficiency), without keeping any of the things that make Southern cooking good (the flavor, the individual attention, the charm).
Needless to say, next time we go hunting for the Alabama delicacy known as fried catfish, our ship shall not pass through the waters of Millbrook.