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