(Guest blog by The Boyfriend)
The most venerable and beloved dish for any native Southerner (That’s me…Hi.) HAS to be catfish and hushpuppies. Well, unless you count barbecue. Authentic, slow-hickory-smoked barbecue is the best.
But I digress. That’s another story for another posting.
Fried chicken, country ham, grits, biscuits, and cornbread would have to be near the top of the list, too. Oh…and banana pudding…I love banana pudding. And peach cobbler.
Again, I digress. My Southern genes come out with a vengeance when I talk about food.
But catfish and hushpuppies would definitely be number one on the list. I think. (And for what it’s worth, “FRIED catfish and hushpuppies” is a redundancy. How else would one cook them? And down South, anything worth eating is worth frying.)
So when I drove past the Alabama Fish Bar (located at the corner of Race and Liberty in Over-the-Rhine) for the first time several months ago, I knew I would be eating there sooner or later. As a native-born Alabamian who spent the first thirty-nine years of his life there, how could I NOT? A few days ago, I was craving catfish and hushpuppies and decided to do a late lunch at AFB.
I arrived around 1:20, well after peak lunchtime, and the line still extended out the door. This is a good sign.
When I finally muscled my way inside the door, the first thing I noticed about the chalkboard menu was that it included neither catfish nor hushpuppies.
ALABAMA Fish Bar? With no catfish or hushpuppies? Excuse me?
(At this point, the reader should disregard everything that appears in the first and fifth paragraphs of this posting.)
Despite my self-righteous indignation, I decided to stay and order.
The menu offers three kinds of fish: cod, whiting, and perch. All the fish are fried. So the place does have at least a passing link to the South, after all. Dinners include six or seven (you read that correctly) fish filets, fries, and two slices of bread. Coleslaw is available as a side dish.
All of the people in line ahead of me seemed to be regulars and to know the protocol of ordering. They all looked at me, and I could read their minds: “New guy.” There’s nothing worse than being a newbie among veterans. I was trying to make up my mind when the guy behind the counter yelled “NEXT IN LINE! STEP UP AND PLACE YOUR ORDER!” Two other people in line immediately said “That’s you.” I hate pressure. But at AFB, they apparently move people in and out quickly and efficiently…probably why people don’t mind lining up out the door. If you’re a customer, it’s get out of the way or get run over.
I settled quickly on the perch dinner. Of course, as soon as the guy totaled the order, I remembered that I hadn’t ordered coleslaw. I asked meekly if I could add a side to the order. (For a fleeting moment, I felt like George Costanza, reliving “The Soup Nazi” episode of Seinfeld…”NO FISH FOR YOU!”) He obliged, but I could read the look on his face (and the faces of the other customers): “New guy.”
I spent most of the next four minutes studying the tops of my shoes and trying to appear invisible. I did notice out the corner of my eye, however, that as most customers received their orders, they covered their food with one or more of the three sauces that sat in squeeze bottles on the counter. (I’m not exactly sure what the sauces were, but I suspect that they were ketchup, mustard, and hot sauce.) Customers then received a packet of sauteed peppers and onions before the whole order was wrapped and bagged.
Since I wasn’t exactly sure of what was in the squeeze bottles and was too embarrassed to inquire (not to mention that I needed to photograph the order before eating), I asked for tartar sauce in a container. When the whole order was wrapped and bagged, I headed out the door for home.
My earlier umbrage about the catfish was quickly replaced with total satisfaction. The perch filets were perfectly cooked…dredged in a cornmeal breading and fried to golden brown perfection. (The cod and whiting appeared to be dredged in a flour-based batter.) The perch were well seasoned, crispy on the outside, and light and fluffy on the inside. The fries were OK, but nothing more. The coleslaw was creamy and very sweet. I didn’t touch the two slices of white bread.
I did take a couple of bites from the pepper/onion packet. To say that the peppers were “hot” would be akin to describing the Empire State Building as “tallish”. My eyes watered, and my tongue burned for a good fifteen minutes.
Usually, if I haven’t eaten fried foods in a while and then make an entire meal of fried stuff, I’ll end up chewing half a Costco-sized bottle of Tums. But I was pleasantly surprised to find that the meal was not at all greasy. They use the right kind of batter and have the fryer set to the perfect temperature. I was tempted to finish all seven filets, but thought better of it. No need to tempt fate. Besides, fried fish (like fried chicken) makes a terrific cold snack. (Ed. note: I found them in my fridge when I got home. Yum!)