A Catfish Out of Water

There’s a Texas A&M banner hanging over the door to the restrooms at Lafayette Cajun Seafood Restaurant. It’s only one example of the endearing quirkiness of this Cajun seafood restaurant located in a crazy-quilt neighborhood surrounding the intersection of West Bellfort and Wilcrest in southwest Houston.

Lafayette Seafood Restaurant - Fried Catfish
Lafayette Seafood Restaurant – Fried Catfish

I’m a sucker for anything food-related that’s labeled “Cajun.” It’s a weakness I fully accept, and it led me to pull into the parking lot of the down-at-the-heels mini-mall that Lafayette Cajun Seafood shares with a washateria (coin-operated). It’s an improbable location for a seafood restaurant, surrounded by smoke shops, taco trucks, and Middle Eastern ethnic markets. My philosophy about seafood restaurants is, “How bad can you screw up fried catfish?” Of course, it’s really quite easy to screw up fried catfish. But I’m an optimist.

Lafayette Seafood Restaurant
Lafayette Seafood Restaurant

Even before you step into the restaurant, you are confronted with five, count’em five, signs taped to the front door that say “No public restrooms.” Maybe the A&M banner is some kind of final warning?

Lafayette Seafood Restaurant
Lafayette Seafood Restaurant

I was seated at a table by myself in a half full restaurant around lunchtime on a Saturday. Inexplicably, each table had a removable tag with a number on it. Presumably the table number? I’d certainly never seen this before in a restaurant. As the friendly and efficient waiter took my order, I imagined the owner shuffling the numbers every morning just to keep the waiters on their toes. I liked that.

Every Cajun seafood restaurant can be judged by two things: gumbo and fried catfish. I ordered a cup of gumbo, and the fried shrimp and catfish combo. Really, just typing the words “fried shrimp and catfish” makes my mouth water. Coon-ass conditioning you might call it.

When I ordered the gumbo, I asked the waiter about the “chicken gumbo” on the menu. “Is that chicken and sausage gumbo?” I inquired. “No,” he replied, “just chicken. But I can throw some sausage in there too if you like.” I ordered the shrimp gumbo. When it came out, it had the requisite dark roux, but several small, rubbery shrimp were elbowed out by giant chunks of bell pepper and celery (where was the onion?). The gumbo soup was thin and one-dimensional, supported mostly with a generous component of salt. In a town with lots of good gumbo, this didn’t measure up.

I didn’t have much hope for the fried shrimp and catfish and resigned myself to taking one for the team. But when the dish came out, it didn’t look half bad. The shrimp were small but capably fried, and quite tasty. The two generously-sized catfish fillets were fresh, flaky, moist, and covered in a finely-textured cornmeal batter. A heaping helping of dirty rice was properly prepared with flakes of meat and giblets, and mercifully devoid of any extraneous ingredients like green onions or parsley. The tartar sauce and cocktail sauce were better than expected.

As I sat and enjoyed my Cajun meal, listening to piped-in music that veered from Willie Nelson to something that sounded like Mannheim Steamroller to “Panama” by Van Halen, I asked myself, “Why, other than the competent seafood and quirky atmosphere, would someone come here rather than one of the many other Cajun restaurants in Houston?” The answer was on the menu in the form of prices. Most of the main dishes were under $10. My satisfying shrimp and catfish dinner cost all of $9.75. The same dish is listed as $18.95 at Pappadeaux and $21.00 at Danton’s. It’s cheap, it’s good, it’s Cajun. I’d go back.

This blog entry was originally posted 24 May 2010 on the www.29-95.com website.

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