It’s lunchtime, and I am driving the I-55 overpass in southeast Louisiana, between LaPlace and Hammond. Lake Maurepas is below me, old fish camps on slender stilts and moss-covered cypress trees dot the sparkling noonday water–a gorgeous, classic Louisiana photo-op, if you are willing to risk your life and pull over to snap a picture while the 18 wheelers roar by!
Instead, I take the Manchac exit to another Louisiana classic, its cheerful white and red exterior visible from the interstate–Middendorf’s Seafood Restaurant.
A lot of people down here have a lot of opinions about where to eat. At best you can count on polite disagreement and, at worst, a passionate argument, if you state too emphatically that this or that restaurant has the best fried seafood. That being said, I haven’t met too many people who don’t respect the cooking at Middendorf’s.
The restaurant changed hands after Hurricane Katrina, when the family who owned it for generations sold to German-born chef Horst Pfeifer and his wife Karen, who lost their New Orleans restaurant Bella Luna in the storm. To the great relief of anxious patrons, they kept the menu much the same, using the beloved original family recipes and adding a few specialties of their own.
The specialty for which Middendorf’s is known far and wide is their thin fried catfish. And for good reason. It’s got to be tricky frying these razor thin filets. At any other place, they could end up tasting like an empty sheath of fried batter, the fish filet nowhere to be found. Somehow Middendorf’s manages to give you a crispy, thin filet that has the perfect crunch-to-fish ratio. For those who like a more substantial piece of fish, you can order it “thick fried” too.
There’s a lot more to Middendorf’s menu that just fried catfish. A few years ago, I stumbled upon the oyster stew. A very rich appetizer–not something I usually order when I am on a catfish eating binge. You can order the stew in a smaller size (containing 1/2 dozen oysters) or entree size (a dozen). Yes, the stew is primarily cream and butter, but Middendorf’s is doing something simple and great here with a few spices, chopped green onion and plump Gulf oysters. It’s impossible for me to leave even a spoonful in the bowl.
This time, I happened to be visiting Middendorf’s during softshell crab season. So I had to pass on my usual large order of “thin fried” in favor of the seasonal fried softshell crab special. The peak of soft-shell crab season is March through June, and Louisiana and Florida are the only states in which you will find soft-shell blue crabs. Since Manchac is ground zero for commercial and recreational crabbers, how could I pass up these two colossal and meaty soft shells, fried just right and served piping hot?
Most of the entrees at Middendorf’s are served with a traditional mayo-based cole slaw, french fries and hush puppies, the last of which is really exceptional.
Who eats at Middendorf’s? On my most recent visits I have eaten alongside busloads of German tourists, local guys in LSU and Saints attire, (the official leisure wear of all south Louisianians), older couples who come every week, business people driving to and from New Orleans, extended families–you name it, everybody likes Middendorf’s.
After your meal, you can walk down near the waterfront and think about how Hurricanes Ike and Isaac each sent a devastating storm surge this way, filling the restaurant to the gills with water each time. And each time, the restaurant closed down for repairs and then rose from the floodwaters once again. Currently, the newer of the two buildings is up and running, while the old, original building next door is closed indefinitely.
My grandparents and parents brought me to Middendorf’s, and now I bring my own children. It’s the kind of place you want your kids to know about. Every time I eat here, I think about what a miracle it is that, sitting where it sits, Middendorf’s is still here.
It wouldn’t be the same anywhere else except here, sitting precariously at the edge of Lake Maurepas, which connects to Lake Pontchartrain, which in turn connects to the Gulf of Mexico.
Could another big storm close the doors of Middendorf’s? Maybe, but only temporarily. The owners and the patrons are just too tenacious and too set on keeping this landmark alive to let a little water and wind stop them.
Middendorf’s Seafood Restaurant
30160 Highway 51 South
75 Manchac Way
Akers, Louisiana 70421
Open Lunch and Dinner, Wed. – Sun., 10:30 am – 9:00 pm