Grain-Fed Catfish Has Customers Waiting

XX Catfish Corner, 2726 E. Cherry St. Fried fish, burgers. Lunch and dinner (same menu: $3 to $6), 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Friday. Noon to 10 p.m. Saturday; noon to 7 p.m. Sunday. No alcohol. No credit cards. Smoking allowed. Reservations and takeout: 323-4330.

It was 3 o'clock on a midweek afternoon; too late for lunch, too early for dinner.

But at the Catfish Corner, in the heart of the Central Area, more than half of the booths were occupied, and there were three or four customers waiting, most of them waiting for catfish.

The catfish has a curious history in the chapters of Southern regional cooking. It is possibly the only native American food that not only survived industrialization and mass agri-aquaculture, but was improved by it.

Considered for years as an inexpensive junk food by some (and a regional delicacy by others), catfish faced increasing disfavor, even in the South, as worsening levels of water pollution during the 1940s and '50s made many of the river-bottom scavengers less tasty.

In the 1960s, however, farmers in Mississippi and Louisiana (and elsewhere), hurt by falling agriculture prices, began experimenting with environmentally clean, pond-reared, grain-fed catfish. The product was excellent; sweet, mild, ``unfishy'' and unmuddy.

Artificial ponds were dug into depressed cotton and soybean fields. Twenty years later, 200 million pounds of high-quality catfish were being harvested annually. In Mississippi alone, 75,000 acres of rearing ponds were established.

Marketing eventually transcended the traditional culinary boundaries. In 1985, for example, the Church's Fried Chicken chain (based in San Antonio) ordered 54 million pounds and sold it nationally.

And also in 1985, the Catfish Corner, owned and run by Woodrow and Rosemary Jackson, opened for business at the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Way and East Cherry Street. The Jacksons obtained their catfish from Delta Pride, of Indianola, Miss.

``We first tried to open a catfish restaurant in Federal Way,'' Rosemary Jackson said. ``We were there for eight months. But that didn't work out for us. So, we moved to this location and it's been doing fine. People really do like the flavor. It's just plain good.''

The menu is simple and geared to a fast-food or take-out preparation. Although everything is cooked to order (except, of course, rice, beans and desserts) the average wait is less than 15 minutes.

Catfish dinners are available either whole or in strips (fillets); $5.49 or $5.99.

The fillets are the most popular. Included with the dinners is a portion of red beans (served over rice), a truly fragrant cornmeal muffin and a choice of potato salad or coleslaw.

A tangy scoop of mustard greens ($1.50), done with fried pork and a slight vinegar finish, is a recommended side dish.

If you want to make a multi-course dinner out of the occasion, start off with a plate of Hot Wings ($2.25 for about a half-dozen) and a bowl of pickled jalapeno peppers (a dime). The red beans are quite mild, and brought to mind an observation by the late Wick Fowler, founder of the Two Alarm Chili Co. of Austin, and one of the originators of the Terlingua Chili Cookoffs:

``If you want pinto or red beans. . . for God's sake cook them separately, and there's no need to make the beans highly flavored. I'm constantly running into people who cook beans in with meat making chili con carne. These people flunked chemistry.''

The Jacksons did not flunk chemistry.

If you want to add heat to the catfish chunks, try some of the Corner's tartar sauce or sloshes of Trappey's hot sauce, a bottle on each table. The tartar sauce is not what you'd find at Skippers; this stuff contains serious traces of what I suspected was ground or minced jalapenos and cayenne.

If for some reason you have arrived at the Catfish Corner without a yen for catfish, take heart. Or take snapper. Cornmeal-dipped red snapper dinners are $5.49.

Although deep-fried in vegetable oil, the fish fillets are crisp and not at all greasy. And you can order them with either French fries ($3.99), or with a side order of Hush puppies (89 cents). In short, whether you are there to snack or gorge, it's not easy to spend more than $10.

Some of this food fairly cries out for a cold beer, but Catfish Corner serves no alcoholic beverages - only soft drinks, iced tea and coffee.

The Jacksons at one time offered Cajun Style Catfish, oven-baked rather than deep-fried, and served in a spicy and rich butter sauce. And on occasional Friday nights it may be available.

``But because of the small size of the kitchen, we can't do it on a regular basis,'' Rosemary Jackson said. ``We make it when we go to food fairs, though, like the Bite of Seattle and the Bite of Tacoma.''

I forgot to find out exactly whose aunt it was that makes Auntie's Peach Cobbler ($1.75), but I trust she has been nominated for sainthood.