What can I say? I love catfish. I love grits. I love fried green tomatoes. I love just about anything fried. I’m a Florida Cracker.
The Catfish Place is located a block off the main drag in Apopka. It’s in an unassuming building right under, and behind, the pedestrian bridge that spans Highway 441. It’s easy to find – look for a giant Gulf service station sign on the front of the building, and a parking lot full of 4x4s.
The dining area is divided up into several rooms; each lined with wood paneling and second-hand oil paintings of old Florida - a Florida of swampland, palmettos, and alligators. Settled down at our table in the charming dining room, and beguiled by the southern drawl of our server, we almost forgot about the Florida of today – cars, shopping centers, and tourists.
The menu was a Florida Cracker’s dream, full of items from Grandma-cooked dinners past, with most items from either the sea or from local lakes. The House Special ($21.95) summed up the menu nicely. It included a little bit of everything: Catfish, Shrimp, Scallops, Clams, Oysters, Gator Tail and Frog Legs. There were a couple of steaks, and a boneless breast of chicken thrown in for good measure.
We started with Fried Green Tomatoes ($6.95). Light and gently fried in cornmeal, they were delicious. The dozen or so tomato slices were served with ranch dressing and tiger sauce, a buttermilk dressing with a touch of horseradish sauce for dipping. I loved the tang of tiger sauce with the traditionally bland taste of the tomatoes, a perfect compliment.
For the main course, we had only one thing on our minds – catfish. We both chose the only boneless catfish dinner on the menu, the all-you-can-eat Fried Boneless Catfish ($13.95).There was also Fingerling Catfish ($14.95) available, served with bones. It was also only available as an all-you-can-eat dish for dinner. If you’re not hungry, don’t order the catfish.
Boy was it a lot to eat. The plate was full of cornmeal-fried catfish - so much catfish that pieces spilled over the sides of the plate. And what flaky and lightly fried catfish it was. The fish was so light and delicate that each piece seemed to just float into my mouth. I have no idea how fish can be deep fried and not seem greasy at all. According to the menu, they fry only in soybean oil. Perhaps that is the difference.
Sometimes catfish can surprise you with an off-taste. Eating along, you bite into a piece that tastes fishy. Not at the Catfish Place. Every bite was delicious.
Our server explained that the owner buys only fresh, wild catfish from Lake Okeechobee – no frozen and no farm-raised catfish. That must be the difference.
It’s weird for me to complain about portions but I’m afraid I have to in this instance. There was so much catfish on my plate that by the time I got to the last pieces they were stone cold. Since it was all-you-can-eat, wouldn’t it make more sense to bring a little bit at the time instead of a giant plate full at once?
For my two sides, I chose Cole slaw and grits. The grits were bland, but perfectly cooked (not too runny and not too thick). The Cole Slaw, on the other hand, blew my mind. It was exactly the way this Florida Cracker likes it: chopped fine (but not too fine), runny (but not too runny) and sweet (but way too sweet). I’d come back to the Catfish Place just for the Cole slaw.
My guest chose the house salad and French fries. Both were non-remarkable.
Did I mention the catfish was all-you-can-eat? Well, one plate was all I could eat. That’s a first for me. I was too full for seconds and too full for dessert. And I really wanted to try the Bread Pudding ($4.25).
Service was outstanding at the Catfish Place. From the moment we entered the door we were treated like family. Our server was so friendly and outgoing we almost felt uncomfortable. The way you feel uncomfortable at your own family gatherings. She informed us of the specials, suggested items, answered our questions and kept our teas filled throughout our meal. We couldn’t ask for anything more.
The restaurant was spotless, and every server and bus boy in the restaurant was dressed the same, in a full and complete Catfish Place uniform. At a local restaurant like this you might not expect such professionalism. You might expect servers wearing street clothes and certainly jeans and t-shirts on the bus boys. It was nice to see that wasn’t the case here.
I enjoyed everything about my visit. The food and service were outstanding. I was taken back to the Florida I remember from long ago. Or at least the Florida I think I remember.
At the Catfish Place I can unleash my inner cracker. I can eat the food I love and be the southern boy that I am. It feels so good to be free. I love catfish. I love grits. I love fried green tomatoes. I’m a Florida Cracker. And I’m proud of it.
4 1/2 Forgotten Florida Fish Frys out of 5