Walt’s Fish Market—Sarasota, Florida

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Nearly a century of family history goes into this Sarasota classic, evocative of another era a rapidly changing state.

It’s a touchstone of the city, and a link to what this city, and what this state, used to look and feel like. In a town of transients, transplants and snowbirds, Walt’s Fish Market is that rarest of Florida institutions: An old school place that’s been in the same family for four generations.

The history of the family that runs it is a story it would be hard to imagine outside of Sarasota. The Ringling Brothers Circus casts a big shadow here, as the town served as their winter headquarters. When the circus hit town in 1918, they had a young Swede in their ranks who’d fled his home country to join them. Claus Wallin, the young Swede, settled in Sarasota and became a commercial fisherman.

Claus passed his fishing knowledge down to his son Walt, who sold fish on Whitaker Bayou, then opened his own market after returning from World War II. Eventually, it began serving food as a restaurant, and it’s remained a family establishment ever since. Walt passed the business to his sons Walt Jr. and Tom, who in turn passed it to Tom’s son Brett, who runs it today while continuing to fish and crab the waters around the city.

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Fresh catch.

While Sarasota today trades on that history of being “Circus City” (there’s a museum, and even a brewery that goes by that name now), the commercial fishing industry has grown harder to navigate. And yet, Walt’s Fish Market on South Tamiami Trail continues to stay deeply connected to the nearby waters. As you go along the counter, you’ll see a few items imported from elsewhere. But if they tell you the seafood came from Florida, you can be sure it was swimming that morning, and that the owner can tell you the name of the person who caught it.

Like the business he owns, Brett Wallin is something of an anomaly in a city defined by rapid development. He’s kept a family business alive by treating the people who work there like family. (Edible Sarasota ran an excellent piece on Brett and the way he runs the business, which you can read here.)

Throughout my life, Walt’s is one of the handful of places img_3974whose consistent presence has kept this strip of South Tamiami surprisingly familiar in the midst of the city’s population explosion. Along with other local institutions like Demetrios Restaurant and Pizza (with that same sign all these years later), Karl Ehmer’s Meats (Home of the Original Turducken!) and Fogt’s Gulf Coast Music Center (your place for rentals and repairs!), Walt’s is a reminder of a Florida that many people looking to make a buck off the landscape seem all too ready to forget.

In 2012, Brett Wallin oversaw a redesign of both the space and the menu, and the results were excellent. The place still has the feel of Old Florida. It’s kitschy without being ironic. Stuffed fish and wooden ship wheels adorn the walls. The tables are lacquered wood and the bar (Chickee Hut) has a tiki theme and classic cocktails suited to the climate. But this isn’t a design for the newcomers so much as it is a salute to what always made the area what it was. There are photographs of old fishermen who kept the market stocked, there as much in reverence as in remembrance. For anyone who grew up here, the place feels like home.

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Mussels in garlic butter and white wine. Classic.

The menu in the restaurant and the offerings in the market remain true to that old spirit. Appetizers like steamed mussels, conch fritters and hush puppies. Sandwiches of grouper and mangrove snapper. Unbelievably delicious stone crab claws, which were available in bulk when I was a kid and now sell for up to 35 dollars a pound. And most importantly, the famous smoked mullet spread, which my family demanded I bring home for a Thanksgiving appetizer.

I know this place. I’ve seen gilded stores up the street like Lechmere and Circuit City come and go. I saw the Sarasota Quay as it was built, and I saw it as it was demolished. I watched the Ringing Towers come down a Ritz Carlton fill its place. My elementary school, Phillippi Shores, now sits about 300 yards from where it was when I played touch football on the playground. My parents even had a restaurant over here, where my mother was the chef. The door was just under a mile from Walt’s.

Walt’s has been at its current location since 1977, one year before I was born. The restaurant my parents owned no longer exists. My old neighborhood is barely recognizable. But every year I drive down this road and see that Walt’s is still there, and I’m thankful for that.

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Walt’s Fish Market and Restaurant is located at 4144 South Tamiami Trail in Sarasota. They have different hours for different parts. The fish market is open from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day, except Sunday when they open at 10. The restaurant opens at 11 a.m. every day, as does the bar. The restaurant closes at 10 p.m. and the bar closes at 11 p.m.

Walt’s has a website here.

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Eating Oaxaca

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The crowded food stalls in 20 de November Market in Oaxaca.

The steam coming from the grills is the first thing you notice, even before the smells reach you. In the front of Oaxaca’s 20 de Noviembre Market, right where it connects with the Benito Juarez Market, there are food stalls everywhere. For the shoppers. For the vendors. For the tourists, if they get the urge. Most of the stalls are sit down counter restaurants. But in a small section on the side are a row of grills and stands with beef and chorizo laid out on slanted tables, with thin loops of tripe hanging just above. You tell them what kind of meat you want, and the butcher/grillmaster cuts it, cooks it, and brings it to your table in a basket with tortillas. Meanwhile, other vendors make their way around with nopales (diced stewed cactus), green onion, red and green chiles and other condiments.

And this is just the market.

From around the world, people come to Oaxaca for the food. They come for the markets that draw from the incredibly rich countryside. Because of the shifts in altitude, Oaxaca has a huge number of climate regions, and a wide variety of the best of the best produce grows down here as a result. In a country renowned for its cuisine, Oaxaca stands tall. It’s the place that gave us the drink of the gods (mezcal), the food of the gods (chocolate), and the sauce of the gods (molé).

Even the pests become food here. A popular snack, sold everywhere from markets to football matches, is a bag of chapulines—grasshoppers, toasted and spiced.

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Chapulines. They taste better than they have any right to.

The cuisine is a rich mix of dishes that pull from the multiple indigenous groups that live in the area, including the Zapotec and Mixtec. The cuisine the region is most known for is molé, including the so-called “Seven molés of Oaxaca”: Verde, amarillo, colorado, coloradito, negro, chichilo, and manchamanteles (which literally means “tablecloth stainer”). Each of these sauces is served over some kind of meat, be it turkey, chicken, beef or pork (though each does have a meat it is most traditionally served with). They vary in complexity, from molés that can be prepared in a couple of hours to ones that might take a week or two to complete.

One of the best known, and best appreciated, is molé negro. Made from a variety of crushed and ground spices, seeds and nuts, multiple chiles, and Mexican chocolate (which helps give the sauce its unique color), molé negro is an exceedingly complex sauce and, as a result, often saved for special occasions. The best I had in Oaxaca City were at the well known staples Los Danzantes and La Biznaga, and a less well known breakfast spot El Escapulario.

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Molé negro.

The region’s drink of choice, mezcal, is widely available in a staggering number of varieties. Sit down at some restaurants, most bars, and virtually any residence in the city of Oaxaca and someone will pour you a shot as a welcome. At many of the bars—or mezcalerias that specialize in the eponymous drink—the menu can be overwhelming. Distilleries are listed, along with the type of agave they use, and whether it is joven (young—a couple months of aging), reposado (aged from 2-9 months), añejo (aged at least a year) or some other category.

In the United States, mezcal long suffered a reputation as an inferior drink. This was due to the poor quality of what was being imported, as well as the extreme popularity of its cousin, tequila (which is actually a type of mezcal). In the last couple decades, however, the drink has experienced a rebirth outside of Mexico (it never really went out of fashion in Oaxaca). Smoky and earthy, and containing a flavor profile that varies greatly with the type of agave and the type of preparation, good mezcal is probably best compared to good scotch. Delicious, distinct, strong, and highly complex. Tequila shots are ubiquitous in the countries where it is exported. Mezcal is never, ever, EVER meant to be shot. You sip it with all the care of a hummingbird.

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Sipping mescal with Roberto Bolano at Restaurante Tobizache.

But my personal favorite treat from Oaxaca is the chocolate.

This is not the type of chocolate normally associated with Switzerland or Belgium. The chocolate of Oaxaca is rarely used for pastries or confections, but more for baking, as an ingredient in sauces and, in particular, for hot chocolate.

Is there any drink more comforting than hot chocolate? In Oaxaca, it’s available in any coffee shop, and not merely as a dessert. It is perfectly acceptable to drink it for breakfast, proving that Oaxaca is a land of elevated culture and taste. On ordering you will be asked if you prefer it with milk or water. Milk is rarely drunk alone in Oaxaca, so the quality is not what you might be used to if you live in a dairy region. But it works just fine for hot chocolate. The drink will then be spiced with cinnamon and, occasionally, with chile. In the cool climate of the mountains, it’s unbelievably refreshing.

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This man spends all day dealing with chocolate, which makes him smarter than you.

I haven’t mentioned the service, which from restaurants to bars to mezcalerias to coffee shops is uniformly superb. Hospitality, as demonstrated by those welcoming shots of mezcal, is of high importance here. There seems to be little secrecy about what makes the food great, which makes sense. The cuisine here is defined by quality ingredients, but also by meticulous attention to detail that consumes a great deal of time. Whatever secrets are held by those who prepare it are deeply encoded in the method of preparation. You could probably get a full list of ingredients of a family secret molé sauce and still have no idea which step to open with. The secrets are safe, and the land is abundant. These are secrets that are safe to share.

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El Escapulario is located at Calle Manuel Garcia Vigil 617 . They have a Facebook page here.

La Biznaga is right down the street is Calle Manuel Garcia Vigil 512. They have a Facebook page here.

Los Danzantes is across from the Santo Domingo cathedral, at Macedonio Alcalá 403. Their website is here.

Restaurante Tobizache is located at Calle 5 de Mayo 311. They have a website here.

Café Arábico is located at Macedonio Alcalá 802.

Tacos and Churros in Mexico City

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A bubbling cauldron of everything good in life.

It’s the street food capital of the world, and it hangs out its shingles for everyone. For those on a budget, for those with millions. Walk Mexico City and you see the stalls everywhere. Food stands hawking tacos and tortas. Breakfast and lunch and dinner and dessert. Guys on tricycles with speakers on the front blaring advertisements for tamales. Vendors on corners selling cups of freshly cut mango and papaya, with a dash of chili salt on top if you’re feeling that. You can find something to eat everywhere. And if you can’t find it, give it a minute and it’ll find you.

There are few cities in the world where you will see more people eating on the street. As the writer David Lida explains in his marvelous panorama of the city First Stop in the New World, street stands in Mexico City share two distinct advantages. The first is the weather, which is consistently temperate, enough so that eating on the street is a good idea almost any time of year. The second, more important reason, is that the government hardly taxes food stands. Essentially, every vendor gives the city a small percentage of their profits. This allows for an interesting experiment in democracy, with people intermingling from street corner to street corner without sequestering themselves into corner booths or tables, isolated from one another.

The other thing that makes it work, of course, is the quality of the food.

For most Norte Americanos, the food most associated with Mexico is the taco. And while it would be a mistake to call the taco Mexico’s national dish, it is probably the go-to convenience food for every state in the nation. Mexico City, being the central switchboard for the country, holds countless restaurants and food stands that cater to all of the nation’s regional cuisines. This means that you can find every kind of taco under the sun, stuffed with every imaginable combination of stuff. Everyone contributes. And Mexico City, for its part, contributes perhaps the greatest version of them all: Tacos al Pastor.

In the 1920’s, Lebanese immigrants made their way to Mexico City, and brought with them the shawarma spit. Enterprising Mexican vendors took the basic design (meat on a vertical spit with a flame toasting the side) and replaced the lamb with pork. Cured, and marinated with chili, citrus and spices, the trompo, as it’s called, rotates on the spit, turning the meat a distinctive orange hue. When you walk up and order, an expert takes a knife to the meat with one hand and slices downward, shearing off strips of meat that fall into the tortilla waiting in their other hand. Cilantro and relish are added, and often a slice of pineapple, which is usually roasting on the spit just above the pork.

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Behold, El Huequito’s Taco al Pastor. Quite possibly the best taco in the world.

Like po boys in New Orleans, hot dogs in Chicago and pizza in New York, every neighborhood in the city claims they have the best of the best Tacos al Pastor in the city. Following the advice of David Lida, I went to El Huequito. This joint’s been serving the famous dish (and a variety of other things) since 1959, and their al Pastor is legendary. They have a sit down restaurant on the inside, but you can just as easily stand on the street and chow down right by the freshly cooked meat. You also get to witness the curious honor system of the taco stands. You walk inside to pay, tell them how many you had, and they charge you. Nobody questions it, and nobody seems to lie about it, either. The street food exchange is, it appears, sacred territory, free from con artists.

El Huequito brushes their Tacos al Pastor with an orange salsa. Perhaps it’s the salsa, perhaps it’s the way the meat is cured. But when you bite into one of these, everything bad in your life vanishes. I’ve eaten my share of tacos, both in Mexico and the States, and I have never tasted one so good. It is as perfect a bite of food as I’ve ever had.

To move onto another stand is not so much about improving upon El Huequito it is about variety. Quite simply, if you can go anywhere to eat, you should. Eventually, you’ll find a few stalls you return to repeatedly.

Fortunately, El Huequito sits right next to the model of taco variety: Los Cocuyos.

Extending out onto the sidewalk with a small metal bar and a few stools, Los Cocuyos, prides themselves on, and distinguishes themselves with, their varied menu, which includes earlobes, throat, head, tripe, tongue, and eyes.

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Eye meat for the taco. Don’t knock it til you tried it.

I tried everything. Even the eye, which it should be noted is NOT the eyeball, but rather the meat that surrounds the eyeball. It was pretty good. Everything was good. But the surprising winner was the tripe, which pops with a charred smoky flavor that you would never associate with stomach. The folks at Los Cocuyos will also toss in some nopales—stewed and diced cactus leaves—which make for a nice side.

These two stands, three doors apart, make up a microscopic section of the savory street options in town. Once, coming out of a bullfight, I ate tortas that I was assured were made from cabeza de lobo—wolf’s head. I had no way to confirm this. I simply took the man’s word for it.

But if you’re feeling like a sweet option, you can get everything from fresh cut fruit to ice cream. My personal favorite, however, is the churro.

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Churro stand. A beacon of hope.

I fell in love with these sugary torpedoes while visiting Spain, where people often have them with chocolate dipping sauce for breakfast, proving that Spain is one seriously civilized country. The churro is basically a tube of fried dough, smothered in sugar and cinnamon and often dipped in some kind of sauce. On the streets outside the main plaza of the Coyoacan neighborhood, La Estacion serves these things up with a couple dozen options of sweet sauces to cover them.

My friend Chris and I happened upon this place after we may or may not have been drinking rum in a nearby cantina. I can’t tell you the hour, but I can tell you that a churro sounded like the perfect cap to the evening. Chris ordered his with a sauce made from Bailey’s Irish Cream, and I ordered mine with Nutella.

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Churros.

We got them to go, took our first bites, then turned and walked back to the stand to get seconds.

Perhaps these were the best churros on the planet. They sure tasted that way to me, even the next day when I was far more sober. But whether they are, objectively, the greatest churros ever, isn’t the point. The point is that just by walking and sampling what’s available on the street, you can find some of the best food in Mexico City. In that kind of environment, it’s advisable to never be in a hurry. Wander, graze, try a bit of everything. In the city with the greatest street food on the planet, it’s easy to have a great meal. Even if all you’re doing is going for a walk.

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Los Cucuyos is located at Calle Bolivar 54 in the Centro.

El Huequito is a couple doors down at Calle Bolivar 58.

La Polar: Mariachis and Hangover Cures

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Every country has its suggestions for how to recuperate when the previous night was too much. From full English breakfasts to the heart-attack inducing Canadian specialty of poutine to—my personal cure-all—pickle juice right out of the jar, humanity worldwide looks to certain specialties to save them from crippling headaches and sideways glances after a night of poor decisions.

In the Mexican state of Jalisco, that specialty is Birria.

Birria is ideal hangover food. Like the hangover cure of choice in many places, it centers around a bowl of salty, spicy broth. The salt helps your dehydration. The spice makes you sweat out your sinful nature. Birria chefs then pile the bowl high with shredded lamb, and the waiter brings out sides of avocado, cheese, lime, and various peppers. Even if you stagger in like the village drunkard, by the end of the meal you’ll be right with the world again. Just wash the club stamp off the back of your hand and you’ll be ready for church.

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Goodbye hangover. Hello clean living.

Since 1934, Mexico City’s Cantina La Polar has specialized in this particular hangover cure. Sitting in the Colonia San Rafael, a frequently overlooked neighborhood studded with colonial mansions in various states of repair (or disrepair), La Polar is easy to spot with its distinctive yellow and blue paint job and their logo of a polar bear walking away from an igloo where he may or may not have been feasting on the inhabitants.

The neighborhood of Colonia San Rafael was once the major theater district in the city, but sustained heavy damage in the 1985 earthquake. The area has been undergoing something of a rebirth of late, but a slow one, as other areas of the city seem to be gaining a lot more attention. The one business in the area that seems to never have slowed down is La Polar, whose busy valet parking lot speaks to the restaurant’s continuous business. This is one of those neighborhood joints that it is fair to call an institution.

Birria is more or less the official dish of the state of Jalisco, which contains the nation’s second largest city, Guadalajara. This region is famous for another piece of Mexican culture quickly identifiable to foreigners: Mariachi bands.

And at La Polar, you can order your very own band to serenade you while you eat.

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You definitely need to hire these guys.

Listed on the walls in each of La Polar’s four large, spare rooms are prices for bands. 135 pesos for Mariachi tunes. One hundred for Norteños. Ninety pesos for photos of the band, or with the band. Often, the bands walk up to your table and offer their services, but if you don’t see them you simply tell the waiter what you want to hear, and he will retrieve the band. These guys are professionals, too. You will see them tuning up in the parking lot, checking the shine on their boots and the cut of their jackets. They make a joyful noise, which might be a bit much if you walked in with a hangover, but that’s what the birria is for anyway.

This is a classic cantina, about as old school as it gets. But its a proudly local spot, off the main tourist track, and still very much as it was a few decades ago, when the neighborhood had more movie theaters than any other in the city. Despite the changes in the neighborhood, from high to low to (hopefully) high again, La Polar remains there, a signpost of consistency in a rapidly growing, rapidly changing town. Still serving the old recipes. Still bringing in live music during the meals. Still there, whether you are arriving in the highest of spirits or trying to crawl back from the dead.

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Cantina La Polar is located in Mexico City’s Colonia San Rafael neighborhood at Guillermo Prieto #129. Their number is +52 55 5546 5066. They are open at 7 a.m. every day, and stay open till 2 a.m. on Friday and Saturday, midnight on Sunday, and 11 p.m. every other day. More information here.

Dining Out in New Orleans: Jack Dempsey’s (with Keith Hurtt)

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Deep in the Ninth Ward sits the local institution Jack Dempsey’s, an island of consistency in a sea of change…

Dining Partner: Keith Hurtt IMG_1950

Occupation: Attorney at Law, Tour Guide, Gentleman of Questionable Reputation.

You can find him: Drinking an Abita Amber on Frenchman Street, Zydeco dancing in your neighborhood bar, wearing better clothes than you.

 

For roughly three years, I lived around the corner from Jack Dempsey’s. It sat there on Poland Avenue, a little white cottage with no windows, no way to see if they were open unless you walked up and read the hours of operation. Over the years, I’ve found something comforting about the consistency of the place. New restaurants came in on Chartres and St. Claude. Another standby of mine, The Joint, moved a few blocks over from its concrete bunker on the other side of Poland Avenue. But Jack Dempsey’s simply sat there, marking time, always ready to receive me whenever I finally passed through its doors.

It seems entirely appropriate that when I finally made my way there, it would be with my friend and fellow tour guide Keith Hurtt. Not just for proximity (he lives within a block of the place), but because few people seem to exemplify the staying power of the New Orleans character more than Keith. A lifelong resident of the city, a former attorney with a stint as a public defender on the city payroll, he seems to know every corner, every restaurant, every person on the street. I think of myself as a pretty sociable person, but Keith puts me to shame. A life moving through every strata of New Orleans society gives him the air of a man who has seen everything. He pops up seemingly everywhere in town, an Abita Amber conspicuously attached to his right hand.

This town produces many great artists and musicians, and an overflow of brilliant cooks and corrupt public officials. But what New Orleans produces most readily, and most uniquely, is characters. The carriage driver with the laugh everyone knows. The homeless man on Jackson Square with the golf club. The fruit seller with the loudspeaker mounted on his pickup truck. Like signposts that read YOU ARE HERE, they move through the city, stitching it together with a thread of familiarity.

Keith and I made for Jack Dempsey’s just before sunset. It’s a friendly place, with the low key air of a neighborhood sports bar. The waitress called us “sweetheart,” brought us a cold draft beer (for Keith) and a cold Barq’s root beer (for me), and a plate of onion rings roughly the size of Indianapolis.

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You should see the large order.

You come to Jack Dempsey’s for steak and for seafood. And if you’re really serious like me, you go for the half and half: a choice of two dishes—shrimp, oysters, frog legs, soft shell crab, catfish, redfish—along with a side. I went for the frog legs and shrimp and mac and cheese. Keith opted for the oyster po- boy. The portions are massive, and you should get your conversation in early, because it’s going to be nap time by the time you finish.IMG_1855

Keith and I have been working together for over two years, but like a lot of people I know in New Orleans, getting to know him has been a process. Not because either one of us lacks a desire to communicate, but because New Orleans presents such an abundance of options in company, food, entertainment, and all the rest of it. It can be hard to connect regularly with everyone you want to connect with, and it’s usually an unexpected encounter that allows you to finally get to know someone you have known as an acquaintance for years.

Perhaps that’s why it’s so special when you finally start to feel like a fixture in this city. When you can walk down the street and people call out to you, specifically you, in this sea of excess, this always transient population, it makes you feel you’ve stumbled on the keys to the kingdom. When the Dixie Brewery shut down after Hurricane Katrina, Keith hunted down every bar that had an available bottle of his favorite beverage. Bars began saving their final Dixie Beer specifically for him. In an article published in the Gambit in 2007, Keith talks about the waiter at the Napoleon House who raced across the room to bring him the last bottle of beer everyone thought was gone for good. You’re in a special place when things like that happen to you.

Staying power means a lot in this town. As history sweeps over this city, the places and people that stake their claim to the territory, come hell or high water, demand respect. We’re not going anywhere, they seem to say. We’ll be right here, even if it takes you half your life to find us.

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Jack Dempsey’s is located at 738 Poland Avenue. They are open on Tuesday from 11 a.m. til 2 p.m., Wednesdays and Thursday from 11-8, Friday from 11-9, and Saturday from noon til 9 p.m. They are closed on Sundays and Mondays. Deal with it.

They have a website here, and a Facebook page here.

How to Shave a Catfish: Middendorf’s Restaurant

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Forty miles from New Orleans sits this legendary little roadside stand that serves the state’s most famous, and most unique, catfish platter. Bring your appetite, and a few friends to help you…

“Shaved catfish is what we’re famous for,” said the waitress, a woman who made sure to give a member of our dining party the side-eye for ordering unsweetened iced tea, which as all God-fearing Southerners know is just unnatural. “You want the small or the large plate?”

Three of them wanted the small plate. But I didn’t come to Middendorf’s to go small. If I drove 45 minutes for catfish, I was getting a mountain of it, even if that meant I exploded by the meal’s end.

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And that’s the small plate.

Middendorf’s, an 82 year-old institution sitting on the banks of Pass Manchac, is a breezy 40 mile drive from the city of New Orleans. It has been a happy place to generations of road-weary diners. From far and wide they come to sample this flavor, something very current and unquestionably out of the past. The family-style decor and homey feel play right into the idea of a place that never changes an already perfect recipe. But the chef/owner of the place? That’s a bit more modern.

You wouldn’t expect the owner of a catfish palace to be a European Master Chef, but there it is. Horst Pfeifer, a native of Germany, purchased the place in 2007, and made the incredibly wise decision to change almost nothing about the place. The former head honcho of Bella Luna—a French Quarter fine dining staple lost to Hurricane Katrina—Pfeifer raised more than a few eyebrows when he stepped in to take over a country kitchen.

“I would say ninety percent of my friends thought I went crazy,” Pfeifer said in an interview with the Southern Foodways Alliance. “Going from fine dining to owning a catfish house.”

Things have been going just fine since Pfeifer took over, largely because he kept all the people and machinations of the kitchen in place. If something’s been working for eight decades, do you really need to change it up?

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Jenna Welch and Victoria Miller pretend to read the menus.

The menu at Middendorf’s leaves room for plenty of choices, but if you’ve come all the way out here for the first time, everyone knows what you’re getting. Thinly sliced catfish, breaded and fried in a time-honored recipe, then served with slaw, bread, hush puppies and fries. A side of tartar sauce and a side of cocktail sauce if you like things saucy. And because Victoria Miller, Jenna Welch, Chris Romaguera and I had come this far and, in two of our cases, for the first time, we all ordered the same thing.

I am not a delicate man. And when the plate was served, I got about as quiet as I ever get in any situation. There’s a rhythm you have to adopt when eating that much food. Slow down, you get full. Eat too fast, you get sick. Stay consistent, you end up polishing off an entire large plate which, in a place like this, serves as a badge of honor. I don’t want to say that I was the only one to finish his entire plate off (even though I was the only one to order the large), but I do want to imply it.

Middendorf’s is a place that has withstood not only the test of time, but tests of the economy. The area around here used to be a thriving restaurant scene, but these days, Middendorf’s is one of the last soldiers standing. Hurricanes, shifting tastes, and bad season catches have cleared out most of the others, but this place stuck, and seems locked in place for the future thanks to frequent visits from celebrity chefs (Sean Brock recently visited on an episode of Mind of a Chef) and write-ups in publications like Southern Living, who declared the catfish here to be “Quite possibly the best fried fish in the world—yes, the world.”

After dinner, dessert. And you can grab MiddleDorfs and Other Things Pre-Mardi Gras 157anything from Key Lime Pie to house-made Banana Rum Bread Pudding, just in case you haven’t offended the forces of temperance quite enough. When it’s all said and done, you should probably leave one member of your party as the designated driver. That is, make sure someone in the crowd orders a smaller plate of food, or at least gets part of it to go. The rest of you will likely be down for a nap.

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Middendorf’s Restaurant is located at 30160 U.S. 51, an easy turn off of Interstate 55, in Akers, Louisiana. They have a website right here.

Dining Out in New Orleans: Satsuma (with Magda Boreysza and Robin Rapuzzi)

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Lunch at a Bywater staple with two of my nearest and dearest. A long time with these two, and with this restaurant…

Dining Partner 1: Magda Boreysza IMG_1111 - Version 2

Occupation: Comic book artist

You can find her: At a gallery opening showing her work, hunched over her work desk and working harder than you.

 

 

IMG_1096Dining Partner 2: Robin Rapuzzi

Occupation: Musician

You can find him: On tour in Europe, playing on the streets of New Orleans, standing around wherever fine washboards are sold.

 

I used to come here years ago, before its current incarnation. In 2007, this place was called Coffea, and it was the first neighborhood spot at which I was a regular. I came occasionally to write, but usually because it was a cheap, rather remarkable breakfast (five bucks for a stack of perfect sweet potato pancakes) and damn near everyone in the neighborhood showed up over the course of the day. I still don’t know why it took the changeover in ownership before it became widely recognized by people from outside the city. Maybe it was just a matter of timing.

In 2009, the new owners took over, added in a juice bar, renamed the place Satsuma, kept the interior pretty much the same, and became popular enough that they were able to open a second location uptown on Maple Street. And the place is still fantastic. I still go there regularly. But what I will always remember best were those first couple years, and opening my 30th birthday with those sweet potato pancakes before I happened upon a wedding reception where the groom piled me up with fresh oysters and jambalaya like I was the one who was getting hitched.

But that’s another story.

Today, Satsuma is a regular stop for both locals and tourists. It gets written up in the guidebooks as an example of the culinary scene of the Bywater neighborhood, and on Sundays the line usually extends out the door. The place has been successful enough that they’ve expanded not just to the uptown location, but to another juice/coffeehouse/bakery location in the Warehouse District called Pulp and Grind. Business, it’s fair to say, is booming.

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Green Eggs and Ham. Shaved ham and basil-pesto-eggs with onion and Swiss Cheese on a croissant. Sam I Am would be impressed.

I met up with two of my closest friends for breakfast here. Robin Rapuzzi was recently back from yet another tour with his band Tuba Skinny, one of the many bands he plays with. Like most musicians in New Orleans, he wears a wide assortment of hats. He can be seeing playing drums with a number of bands, everything from Calypso and Klezmer music to rhythm and blues. But he’s best known around town for his off the wall washboard routines, which are half Washboard Sam and half Charlie Chaplin.

Here’s a nice example of Tuba Skinny on the street, as well as a nice view of what makes Robin a crowd favorite (his first solo starts 42 seconds in):

A few years ago, Robin met a lovely Swedish comic book artist by the name of Magda Boreysza. There’s a tendency to be protective of your friends when they bring around someone they’re crazy about. You don’t want them throwing their lot in with somebody who won’t appreciate what makes them special. Robin’s a rare bird, and the kind of gentle individual you fear will be taken advantage of. But it was apparent immediately what a wonderful match Magda was for him. Not just in her kindness and her loyalty, but in the fierceness of her dedication to what they are building together.

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There’s a bad tendency to talk about artists as flighty creatures, prone to talking about their work more than they actually do any work (a category I have definitely fallen into at various times). What separates Robin and Magda is how completely they absorb themselves in the things they create. I’ve seen few musicians who work harder or keep their ears open wider than Robin, and I’ve seen few artists of any kind who work harder than Magda. And I think this dedication to their individual work is a big part of what fuels their marriage.

It might seem incongruous that a focus on one’s own creativity could be such good fuel for connection with another person. This culture is full of stories of people who burned themselves out so completely at the office that they couldn’t give any attention to the people who loved them. Artists are no exception, as I’ve seen plenty who existed beautifully within the world of their creativity and stumbled mightily when it came to extending beyond themselves. But sometimes you meet people who have learned to strike the right balance, not only in allowing themselves the time and space to build their own work, but giving their partner the room to grow their own talents.

I doubt Robin and Magda did this automatically. It’s a balance, I’m certain, that they have to work at. But work they do, and in a city of transient artists, polyamorous dreamers, charming con-artists and charmless drifters, they have managed to build a beautiful marriage, in the truest sense of that term. Of their lives. Of themselves. Of their work.

And all of it is work of the best kind.

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You can see more of Magda Boreysza’s art at her website, Fox and Comet, which is located here.

Robin’s work with Tuba Skinny can be seen all over Youtube and heard on their many albums. Their website is right here.

Satsuma int he Bywater is located at 3218 Dauphine Street. They are open every day from 7:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Their website is here.