RSS Feed

Tag Archives: catfish

Catfish Heaven

Heaven isn’t too far away. If you travel on Greensboro Avenue, you get closer to it every day. It’s something of a dive and it isn’t in the glossiest part of town, but no matter what your friends might say we’ll find our way.

The late Jani Lane of Warrant penned much of the preceding paragraph for their song “Heaven.” It isn’t all that much of a stretch to think he was writing about Catfish Heaven, Tuscaloosa’s premier catfish shack. I want to say that it is located in an inconspicuous beige building in Tuscaloosa’s West End neighborhood, nearly underneath I-359. But it isn’t inconspicuous; it stands out for having the only fresh coat of paint in a block full of dilapidated housing, rusting train tracks, and abandoned service stations. There’s always a sort of charm to a business that succeeds despite adverse conditions, despite its own community politically privileging the other side of 15th Street. And Catfish Heaven does nothing but succeed.

You open the heavy metal door to find yourself already out of room to stand. People are in line ahead of you or waiting for their order at one of 5 or so tables. And it isn’t like there’d be any room if those people weren’t there. You walk into Catfish Heaven with the front counter immediately in your face. It’s a large glass-and-wire separating wall with two windows, the one on the right for ordering and the one on the left for picking up your order. You can see the kitchen staff through the glass, affixing breading to bird, applying fish to fryer. Industrial-sized buckets of house-made teas and lemonades balance precariously behind the cashier. Beside the register hang little packages of pork rinds and little plastic to-go boxes of homemade cakes.

The menu at Catfish Heaven is pretty straightforward: catfish filets and pan trout (aka whiting) filets, either in a combo plate, a 10-piece order, or a 20-piece order. You can order whole catfish as well. Sometimes they have tilapia. Sometimes they cook up some pork chops. And they sell a whole lot of hot wings, which you can order in increments of 10. But this ain’t Hot Wing Heaven. It’s Catfish Heaven, and the primary reason to come here is for the fish.

Each batch is fried up to-order. Catfish Heaven’s fry cooks don’t believe in making up a bunch of fish at once, letting them get cool and soggy, their flavors diminishing every minute. They don’t take the cost-effective approach. That’s for mere Earthlings. In Heaven, you will have to wait 15 or 20 minutes, but the personal care that each batch is fried with makes the time worth it.

Some filets come out straight and flat. Some are wound up on themselves in a curly loop. Others are like hunks of meat, like a baby’s fist. No matter the size or density, each piece of catfish is prepared the same way: fried in a cornmeal “batter” seasoned with salt, black pepper, and some other secret spices (I detect white pepper and a trace of singed brown sugar). These things are given individual attention so that no piece is overcooked. These are the least greasy catfish filets in town. No grease + tons of flavor = why eat anywhere else? Though these filets are smallish in size, they catch up to you in a hurry. No matter how hungry you are, a 10 piece order of catfish is going to fully satiate you.

If you’ve ever been to a proper Southern or Midwestern fish shack before then you know how critical hot sauce is to the whole enterprise. Catfish Heaven’s hot sauce, presumably made in-house, is one of Tuscaloosa’s absolute best condiments. The vinegar is not subtle in this sauce, but there’s a fairly robust tomato sweetness there too, which balances out the immensely piquant vinegar tartness. To say that this hot sauce compliments the fish would be underselling it.

Catfish Heaven likes tartness in their drinks, too. Their house-made pink lemonade, served from a tap attached to a giant white bucket, is seriously one of the top 10 beverages in Tuscaloosa. It’s fabulous. It fully embraces a cutting tartness, with a slightly-sweet finish. It has a thick mouthfeel relative to the Lipton or Minute Maid pink lemonades that come from soda fountains. I have to restrain myself from ordering multiple large cups full of the stuff.

It’s an unfortunate truth concerning Catfish Heaven that many UA students will likely never once eat there. It’s on the wrong side of 15th Street for them. It’s a place whose clientele is nearly exclusively black. Sadly, these things keep many undergrads from even hearing about Catfish Heaven’s existence, let alone actually eating there. I’m telling you to eat at Catfish Heaven. I’m telling you that you need to tell your friends to eat at Catfish Heaven. We’ve got a treasure of a fish shack here and it should be our civic duty to let people know about it.

[barry]

Catfish Heaven is located at 2502 21st Street, right off of Greensboro Avenue.

Monday-Saturday  11am-7pm

Mr. Bill’s Kountry Kookin

Tuscaloosa/Northport is a community of Meat & Three restaurants, and everyone knows that the venerable City Café sits pretty at the top spot in the civic totem pole. City Café was one of my first Tuscaloosa meals, and I’m pretty sure that just about everyone can say the same. It’s an icon. But part of what I want to do for you, Dear Reader, is to expose you to unconventional thinking, to opinions that differ from the city council mainstream. So, for you, I take the risks inherent in speaking the following heresy: City Café is not the best Meat & Three in town. Mr. Bill’s is better.

“Mr. Bill’s? What is that?” you may be asking yourself right now. I sure did after I was told about it for the first time. The name itself registers as hilarious, and it’s located on McFarland in Northport, in that mysterious strip of commerce between state highway 69 and U.S. 43. It’s located in an innocuous brick building with crimson awnings, but all I really had to do was look for the parking lot. Mr. Bill’s was absolutely packed on this Sunday afternoon; apparently it’s a popular place to be post-church.

Mr. Bill’s has one of the stranger interiors in a town that’s full of ‘em. For one thing, it’s a very long restaurant, with dozens upon dozens of Formica tables split across three clearly delineated sections. One third of the restaurant is covered in blonde wood paneling, the middle third is very open, with a beeline to the kitchen; the final third features a gigantic painted mural of wooden buildings and horses and carriages and, presumably, this is supposed to be old timey Northport or something. Very quickly you are directed to one of the many tables (and on this Sunday there were only two that weren’t occupied) and handed menus.

Mr. Bill’s Meat & Three menu (a single sheet of paper printed on one side) appears to change regularly, perhaps weekly. Meals cost between $7 and $8 depending on what meat you order, that price inclusive of sweet tea or coffee & your choice of cornbread, Mexican cornbread, or roll. The cornbread comes out in muffin form – a fluffy yet firm interior, singed and tangy on the caramelized bottom.

The side dishes are just straight-up, well-executed versions of Southern staples: green beans, purple hull peas, creamed potatoes & gravy, macaroni & cheese, baked beans, coleslaw, fried okra. Mr. Bill’s prides themselves on their made-from-scratch apple cobbler and banana pudding, and these desserts are available as one of your three sides. I can’t speak to the desserts, but the green beans were classically seasoned with just the right amount of vinegar tang, and the mac & cheese looked quite cheesy. The creamed potatoes are very rich, and they cram a lot of them into the unexpectedly deep plastic serving bowls. My only complaint with these potatoes is that the ratio of brown gravy to potato was slanted too far in favor of the potatoes; the potatoes are certainly enjoyable without any gravy, but this is solid gravy, y’all. Each of the sides I tried at Mr. Bill’s is slightly better than their counterparts at City Café. It is useful to note that the green beans weren’t cooked with ham or other meat, and the hull peas likely aren’t either. It’s hard for vegetarians to find sides at meat & threes that don’t have of animal in them, so Mr. Bill’s $6-for-four-sides deal might be an attractive option.

Where Mr. Bill’s really separates themselves from City Café is in the meats. Mr. Bill’s focuses on chicken, with fried chicken strips and smoked chicken strips, and a delicious chicken & dressing w/ giblet gravy being staples of the menu. There’s a rotating slot that will change from week to week, usually occupied by traditional comfort foods like meatloaf or pot roast & carrots. Some days will feature actual, legitimate barbecue.

I’ll one day go to Mr. Bill’s specifically to try their pulled pork, but I could not resist ordering their catfish. If there’s a better fried catfish in town then I’d be surprised. You get two large, meaty filets per order. Two sounds like you’re getting ripped off, but there is no comparison between these beauties and the three frail, over-fried, skimpy strips you get at City Café. A batter composed of nearly entirely cornmeal, simply seasoned with salt and pepper, coats each filet and coaxes out their essential flavor. These are not overcooked one bit. The flesh has a slightly flaky texture without being at all dry. While uniformly moist and tender, the only thing that could make these better would be if Mr. Bill’s could cook up wild catfish. These farmed ones acquit themselves nicely, though.

Mr. Bill’s is precisely the sort of place that Druid City Eats wants to introduce people to. I’ve lived in Tuscaloosa for more than a year and I’d never heard of it. This community is full of hidden gems. I strongly recommend that the southern cooking fans out there find Mr. Bill’s and make it a little bit less hidden.

[barry]

Mr. Bill’s is located at 2715 McFarland Boulevard, Northport, AL, near the Buford Plaza Shopping Center.

Monday-Friday: 10:30am-8:00pm
Sunday: 10:30am-2:30pm

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.