Saturday, January 9, 2010

Tasty Hill Country Catfish

Along with all of the many eateries in the Texas Hill Country serving up beef brisket and chicken fried steak, there are also quite a few places which specialize in catfish. I don’t eat catfish all that often, maybe once every other month, but there are some days when I find myself craving this aquatic delicacy of the South.

In my mind, there are great catfish meals and bad catfish meals, and absolutely nothing in between. Since catfish is cut and fried, how it is cut and fried makes all the difference. Bad catfish meals, in my opinion, consist of filets which are cut too thick, too heavily coated with liquid batter, and dripping with grease. Additionally, if the catfish is cold, you’ve got a real disaster in your hands, literally.

The perfect catfish filets should be thin and lightly breaded (not battered in some heavy and wet concoction), hot, and with no trace of grease. While that seems simple enough, it’s remarkable how many places around the country can’t get it right. And, if you only eat catfish occasionally, as most people probably do, you don’t want to waste that occasional catfish hunger on something which disappoints.

There are several places in the hill country that know how to prepare catfish correctly. One of them sits across the street from the North Fork of the San Gabriel River in Georgetown, Texas. Bob’s Catfish-N-More, has been around for over 30 years. And, it seems to me, that Bob McMinn, the owner, has not wasted a single minute in all those years perfecting the perfect catfish filet.

The building which houses the restaurant, both inside and out, has that “fishing camp” charm which only adds to the dining experience. In fact, this is exactly the kind of place where you feel like you should be eating catfish, or, at least, some kind of fish.

Once entering the door of the small, brown, wood building, you are greeted with a warm and friendly room. The walls are decorated with all kinds of knick knacks, fishing nets, fishing rods, old license plates, unique clocks, flags, pans, hats, photographs, drawings, news articles, chalkboards, and an old hand crank telephone. While some of the chain restaurants around the country decorate their places in similar fashion, they don't look authentic. Here, it works, and it works very well.

Gladly, there are no high definition wide screen television sets hanging off the wood paneled walls showing replays of the same sporting event you’ve already seen tens of times. There is also no depressing news being shown or music blaring from large speakers. What you hear, instead, is the pleasant conversation of local workers on their lunch break, families having dinner, and senior citizens from Sun City enjoying a meal. This used to be common in restaurants, and now it’s not, and that is unfortunate. The service, by the way, is excellent.

This is not the place to come if you are looking to peruse page after page of menu items. The menu is pretty much catfish, oysters, shrimp, crab, and clams, with accompanying sides, of course. Like most places, there are variations of portion size and platter selections. Being Texas, Bob does serve up the obligatory chicken fried steak. There are also chicken strips for the kids and whoever else likes that sort of thing. But the “Big Fish” at Bob’s, to my way of thinking, is the catfish.

I ordered the Catfish Dinner. It was the featured special, so I got 5 pieces of catfish, beans, cole slaw, jalapeno hush puppies, fries, and an ice tea for a bargain price. What a great deal. Not just because of the great price, but because the food was really very good.

To my liking, the catfish filets were thin, temperature hot and gently breaded with cornmeal. There was no grease present and so no need for extra napkins (I eat catfish filets by hand), and the dry breading flicked off as I was eating it. The filets of catfish were close to perfect, if not perfect.

The beans were nicely prepared, seasoned with the appropriate amount of black pepper, as is common in so many places in the hill country. The slaw, served with the meal, was not chopped up into little miniature pieces and formed into a tasteless, watery, wilted, and ice-cream cone shaped mound so common these days, but had large, firm, and crunchy chunks of cabbage. The jalapeno hush puppies were outstanding. They were not spicy hot at all, but had a very mild and delicious flavor.

In addition to the wonderful food, appropriate atmosphere, and attentive service, there is one more thing I really like about Catfish-N-More; the servers drop off your check when they deliver your food. This way, when you are ready to leave, you pick up the check and pay the cashier. There are few things more annoying to me, than spending time trying to flag down a server to get the check after you’ve eaten. And, with resect to paying the food bill, Bob only accepts cash and local checks. No plastic money cards of any kind are accepted.

If all that isn’t enough, you might be interested to know that Catfish-N-More shares its small building with the Harvest Baptist Church, which has its own entrance around the side. What a unique and wonderful place to eat a catfish meal.

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