The place is great, but I’m not sure it’s worth the fortune an eighty-mile round trip cab ride would cost. If you’re an absolute catfish connoisseur, you might go anyway, because an awful lot of Southerners consider the Middendorf’s Special to be the gold standard for catfish.
The two-lane highway looks curiously antiquated today, but until 1981 when the 21-mile bridge was completed, it was the major federal highway leading into New Orleans from Memphis, St. Louis and Chicago. U.S. 51 still runs in a mostly straight line through the swamp between Ponchatoula (Louisiana’s strawberry capital) and LaPlace (the state’s sausage capital), but these days it runs in the shadows of the “double nickel” (Interstate 55).
When the interstate highway system started bypassing towns and cities, it was the death knell for countless mom-and-pop cafes that had flourished on America’s roadsides for the half century between Henry Ford’s development of an automobile affordable to the emerging middle class and the advent of cloverleaf exchanges and entrance ramps.
For the descendents of Louis and Josie Middendorf, it impacted the family business like an oil well coming in. The eponymous family restaurant had been doing well enough for its first 48 years of existence, but once the main highway stopped running past the front door and the entrance to the interstate where cars whizzed by overhead was opened ¾ of a mile up the road, the dip they expected never occurred. In fact, the reverse happened. Business boomed.
Directed by a half dozen mileage billboards starting just south of Jackson, Mississippi, cars pulled off I-55 at the Manchac exit, sampled the food and before long the business started growing rapidly through word of mouth. The chatter hasn’t stopped for 30 years.
The reason is catfish, a good portion of it fished out of Lake Maurepas (literally across the highway from the restaurant) plus nearby rivers and bayous. Now, fried catfish is hardly an earthshaking idea in a part of the country where it’s been served for as long as there’s been fish, batter “fixin’s” and cooking oil, but Josie Middendorf put her own twist on the old Southern favorite.
Taking a razor sharp knife, she sliced the filets as thin as she possibly could before battering and frying. The result is the “Middendorf’s Special,” a plate full of crisp fish so thin it curls up in the frying, served with hush puppies, slaw and fries. (The other named “Middendorf’s Special” is exactly the same, except that the catfish is cut thick instead of thin. Go figure.) I’ve never taken a clipboard for notes nor asked anyone, but my pseudoscientific method of gathering data, better known to most as eavesdropping, suggests that thin fish outsells its thicker brethren by a 2-to-1 ratio.
As I write these words, I am reflecting on the dozens of times I’ve stopped at Middendorf’s over the years, and I think I may have ordered something else (probably gumbo) once, but I wouldn’t swear to it. Friends who have tried items from the rest of the lengthy menu insist the quality of everything is impeccable and what I’ve seen carried past me seems to bear that out.
One item I have perpetually missed is the blue crabs. Boiled by the dozen, they are a visual delight to behold when they pass by my table, steaming. I keep meaning to order them, but creature of habit that I am, I don’t even open the menu anymore and order the “thin fish special” without thinking. About the time I’m halfway through, a tray full of crabs passes by and then I remember what I forgot.
From the highway, Middendorf’s looks like an old roadhouse, which I suppose it technically is, but the three inside rooms have the feeling of a family restaurant. With stained and lacquered wooden walls and institutional furniture, the place isn’t much to look at. At one point, the walls were dotted with taxidermically mounted specimens of oversized crawfish, giving the place a bayou ambience, but the critters are long gone. Oddly enough, the more interesting accessories are the door handles going out of the front and, of all places, into to the rest rooms; they’re brass alligators, approximately a foot tall, and whenever I see them, I wonder how many other visitors have walked away from the restaurant with equally larcenous ideas.
A second restaurant has been built next door, but isn’t generally opened except for Sundays or times when the overflow justifies such an action. It’s not uncommon to see a tour bus or two in front of what is essentially an annex.
Unless you’re coming to New Orleans by automobile, the chances are pretty good you’ll decide to skip the forty-mile, northwesterly drive from the French Quarter to Middendorf’s, and to be honest, you probably should. The place is great, but I’m not sure it’s worth the fortune an eighty-mile round trip cab ride would cost. If you’re an absolute catfish connoisseur, you might go anyway, because an awful lot of Southerners consider the Middendorf’s Special to be the gold standard for catfish. You certainly wouldn’t be alone; despite the drive, Middendorf’s is enormously popular with New Orleanians who regard the journey as simply another facet of the entire adventure.
Middendorf’s does an enormous volume of business, particularly for a mom-and-pop joint on a sparsely populated strip of two-lane highway. Consequently, the interval between the waitress taking your order and bringing the steaming food to your table is short enough to rival the burger delivery time in a New Orleans fast food franchise. While the timing may be comparable, the quality is anything but; the quality of Middendorf’s food, for what it is, has few peers in all of Louisiana.
Finally, there’s something reassuring about driving around the lake and across the marshes before arriving in a small town, elevation of three feet, where houses on stilts rise out of the backwaters, most people fish for a livelihood and the easiest way to get around is by boat. The town, such as it is, is known by two names – Akers and Manchac – and I could find neither one in the census. There are more people than I can count on my fingers and toes alone, but I wouldn’t need a lot of friends to find enough digits, or much time for that matter, to take a census of my own. Outside Middendorf’s, there’s a beer joint, a bait shop and not much else. The buzzing interstate highway immediately overhead, and within feet of Highway 51, is a world away.
It’s the kind of place where a fish house should rise above the marshes, and thank God one does. When all is said and done, Middendorf’s also rises above most other restaurants for miles and miles around. It’s a thin slice of America you really don’t want to miss.
Middendorf’s, 30160 Hwy 51 South in Akers, LA
Lunch and Dinner served Wednesday – Sunday, 10:30 a.m. - 9:00 p.m.
Most major credit cards accepted. No reservations.
Website: www. middendorfsrestaurant.com
Images courtesy of middendorfsrestaurant.com