Memphis has plenty of well-established catfish restaurants like Soul Fish and the Catfish Cabin. But there is also some great catfish lurking in places most people wouldn't think to look for it.
In all the posts I've done about Southern food catfish is one major staple that I've pretty much completely neglected. It is just as heavily associated with the South as barbecue, fried chicken or neckbones. And I certainly love the taste of a perfectly prepared catfish dinner, like the ones that used to be served up every Friday at the Brunswick General Store on Brunswick Road near Bolton High School.
The now-empty Brunswick General Store building.
The Brunswick General Store was within walking distance of my parents' house. It was known for its large, expertly-seasoned fried catfish fillets and sides that included baseball-sized jalapeno hush puppies. Unfortunately, the store was eventually sold to new owners who began cutting corners, which quickly alienated longtime customers leading to the closing of the area institution.
This was a significant blow to my dad and many of his neighbors, for whom the catfish Fridays were a decades-old tradition. But my dad recently mentioned to me that the Wolfchase-area Gus's Fried Chicken had the best catfish he'd found since the decline of the Brunswick General Store. Given my deep love for the fried chicken served at Gus's I was immediately ready to sample some catfish there.
Although I frequently see catfish dinners on area menus, I tend to avoid them since they are hard to reconcile with my goal of making relatively healthy choices while eating Southern food every day. Your typical catfish dinner is a starch-heavy pile of battered fish, French fries and hush puppies that have all been cooked in toxic, industrially-produced vegetable oils. But at Gus's peanut oil is the preferred cooking oil and I was able to request mixed greens and baked beans as my side items.
The catfish ended up being a spot-on rendition of traditional, country-style catfish with cornmeal breading. And the standard four-piece meal was more than I could finish. It was an interesting contrast to the also-good-but-different catfish I was accustomed to from the Collierville Gus's, where I frequently stop for lunch.
The Collierville Gus's gives you the option of adding a piece of catfish to a fried chicken dinner for a nominal fee, so a two-piece dark meat with an added piece of catfish is a pretty standard order for me there. In Collierville the catfish uses the same batter as the outstanding fried chicken instead of the traditional country batter used at the Wolfchase store. On a recent stop in Collierville I asked about the different approach and found out that the Collierville location is owned by the same people as the Downtown location, while the Mendenhall and Wolfchase locations have two different separate owners.
As often as I drive past the Mendenhall location I've never stopped there since the parking lot is always so crowded, so I'm not sure what approach it takes to catfish. Besides, when I am craving catfish on that end of town I usually end up heading further down Mt. Moriah to Emerald Thai. Two of my favorite spots for eating catfish in Memphis are places that specialize in Southeast Asian cuisine. It shouldn't come as any surprise considering that part of the world is home to the largest species of catfish on the planet; the Mekong giant catfish that currently holds the record for being the world's largest freshwater fish period.
I'll come back to the catfish at Emerald Thai in a minute, but first I want to discuss the restaurant where I initially fell in love with catfish as an Asian entree. I was working in a Downtown radiator factory about ten years ago when my then-girlfriend/now-wife and I first discovered Saigon Le on Cleveland just south of Poplar. A large percentage of my coworkers were Vietnamese immigrants so one day I brought a Saigon Le menu to work with me and asked some of them what they would order there to see if I was overlooking any hidden gems.
I always prefer when my takeout order of catfish from Saigon Le is served with the sauce in a separate container to keep the fried fish from getting soggy.
One of the first recommendations one of my Vietnamese coworkers made was was fried catfish with tomato sauce. The first time my wife and I ordered it we were surprised by the country-style breading on the catfish. Meanwhile, we weren't sure what to expect from a Vietnamese tomato sauce but it ended up being a flavorful combination of tomatoes, peppers and pineapples. A decade later, the dish is still a common order for us when we get food from the restaurant.
The catfish topped with sauce. And my wife considers it a high crime to ever order Saigon Le takeout without getting an order of the restaurant's vegetable fried rice.
Vietnamese cooking has been heavily influenced by Western imperialism dating back to French occupation during the mid-1800s. French-Asian fusion cooking was happening naturally in Vietnam over a century before the concept became trendy in the restaurant world. Put two cooks in the same kitchen and they will naturally steal good ideas from each other. Plenty of G.I.s from the Southern U.S. served in Vietnam and I'm sure it wasn't long after some of them saw giant catfish being pulled out of rivers and ponds over there that the Vietnamese people were introduced to country-style breading.
While Saigon Le and Gus's both have great catfish, my most regular catfish stop in Memphis is the Emerald Thai Restaurant on Mt. Moriah. Since the unfortunate closing of my beloved Chao Praya over in Hickory Hill, Emerald has become my favorite local Thai place. Also worth noting is that my sister-in-law is from Thailand and also vouches for the food there.
I've never had a bad experience at Emerald, but there is one dish there that I am truly addicted to. I order the pad prik made with catfish so often that when I walk in the owner usually just asks, "You want fish?" when she sees me instead of handing me a menu. It's a large fillet of fried catfish in a sea of chopped vegetables and spicy, savory sauce. Once you've eaten it you'll find yourself making return trips to order it again when you end up daydreaming about it later.
There is also a lower-priced lunch menu at Emerald that I sometimes order from. On those days I get the cashew chicken. At most Thai restaurants cashew chicken sounds good but it usually ends up being a little bland and disappointing. The cashew chicken at Emerald is loaded with little hot pepper pods that add a fiery kick to the dish. Even if you don't eat them they still infuse some spice into the dish.
The lunch meals also include a cup of soup. I'm convinced the Tom Kha Kai soup has magic curative powers for any time I am suffering from Memphis weather allergies. It is loaded with chicken, mushrooms, kaffir leaves, galanga and chilies in coconut milk with lime zest.