Friday, June 15, 2007

Frog Legs and Fine Fare: Catfish Johnny's

Under a few hundred live oaks, their mosses dragging the ground under a cool October sky, is the town of Lake Panasoffkee, Florida. Only 900 residents populate the town. It is not even a dot on the map compared to its neighbors – Orlando to the south, Tampa to the east. But while diminutive in size, it holds the secret of a regional style of cooking found from Biloxi to Nashville to Charleston. Traditionally, the line of Southern cooking has been drawn at the Florida/Georgia Parkway. However, the breadth of Southern lifestyle, ingredients, method of preparation, and culinary personality crosses the border and extends as far south as Gainesville, 200 miles into the state of Florida.

While commercial chains like Cracker Barrel attempt to hone in on this down-home, rustic style of food preparation, no restaurant I have found comes close to the level of mastery, the cornucopia of ingredients, and the comfortable ambiance of Catfish Johnny’s in “Lake Pan.” Catfish Johnny’s is a low-key, casual dining restaurant, boasting indoor seating for 50, outdoor patio seating for 25, and a dance hall with a bluegrass band every Saturday night. It preaches the gospel of Southern cuisine – fry everything.

A typical Southern meal includes generous portions – no one is to leave the table hungry. At the end of the meal, third or fourth glasses of sweet tea are poured into Styrofoam cups, topped with lids, and sent home with each guest – a typical gesture of Southern hospitality.

An assortment of fried seafood is always available in the South, especially freshwater fish and reptiles. Catfish Johnny’s is no exception. A typical combination plate includes piles of gator nuggets, fried oysters and clams, fried catfish fingerlings, and, yes, fried frog legs, which I love. For the less adventurous Southern connoisseur, fried chicken, grouper filets, and butterflied fried shrimp are also available.

Vegetables get simple treatments, the preferred method of cooking being frying. A hot plate of fried okra is always on hand, ready to be smothered in Crystal Hot Sauce, straight from the plant in New Orleans, Louisiana. After Hurricane Katrina, the plant was utterly destroyed, sending lovers of the hot sauce scrambling to buy water, batteries, and cases of Crystal. But, I digress. Another time, perhaps.

Johnny is there, too. He’s always occupying the table in the corner of the restaurant. There’s only one corner, really. His table is guarded by at least five of his close friends and a petrified alligator head from a 12-footer that Johnny ‘wrassled’ in his yesteryear. His white beard, silver hair, and rosy, bespectacled cheeks make him the jocular personality you would expect from a man bearing a nickname like, “Catfish.”

Dine indoors or out under the live oaks, and Catfish Johnny’s will be an authentic Florida experience. All it really needs is a swamp. But you wouldn’t want 6-inch dragonflies as dining partners.

1 comment:

Kritter Krazie said...

Johnny, your place is so great. We always enjoy a great meal and good conversation with you. We thank you again for the music jams, steel guitar jams and keeping country music alive. We love you. Continued good health.
Jack and Gail B.