In New Orleans and its surrounding parishes, there are restaurants, and then there are institutions.
What would this city be without our beloved beignets at Morning Call, oysters at Felix’s, Willie Mae’s fried chicken, debris from Mothers, Arnaud’s remoulade, or a Friday lunch at Galatoire’s? To the definitive list, New Orleanians often include not just a trip to the Vieux Carre, but a drive out past the airport and a turn north on Interstate 55, to Manshac, for the incomparable thin-fried catfish at Middendorf’s.
Nestled at the side of Lake Maurepas, among the fishing boats and cypress knees, Middendorf’s has been serving up its iconic fare for 78 years, specializing in a catfish sliced diaphanously thin, battered and fried to airy perfection with a singular, crispy and nearly greaseless consistency that seems almost more like potato chips than any conventionally fried fish.
For some — this writer included — it is literally the stuff from which dreams are made.
Over time, however, all things change, even places and dishes beloved by so many of us.
In 2007, the Lamonte family, which had owned the restaurant for two generations, turned over the catfish keys to Horst Pfeifer and his wife, Karen, who had most recently owned the acclaimed French Quarter eatery Bella Luna, after significant damage and subsequent bureaucratic hassles following Hurricane Katrina forced them to close doors.
“After Bella Luna and Katrina,” Pfeifer said, “my wife wanted a restaurant with two things: a laminated menu, and no tablecloths.”
“It worked perfectly for me,” he said. “Middendorf is a German name, Pfeifer is a German name ... I tell everyone, ‘You have to be German to own this restaurant.’ ”
Hence, Pfeifer “traded thin fettucini for thin-fried catfish,” and decided to take a south Louisiana institution into the 21st century.
Not only did he modernize Middendorf’s by adding computerized point-of-service stations for the servers and induction burners for the cooks, Pfeifer decided to account for geography and climate, as well.
After fighting City Hall with one restaurant, Horst Pfeifer had a new fight on his hands: A bout with Mama Nature.
“We got hit hard by Hurricane Ike in ’08, with the highest water we’ve ever had here. It did so much damage: the building shifted, even floated off the pilings. That’s when I started working with the local permitting department to find out all the rules I needed to know to renovate and protect this restaurant.”
Over the course of two years, the work continued, as the restaurant never ceased to serve its signature seafood to its hungry, loyal fans.
Pfeifer elevated the kitchen, and added a new, raised dining room, as well as a massive generator and new pumps.
So, when the sadly inevitable surge of nature’s wrath came again with Hurricane Isaac, Middendorf’s was well prepared.
Horst and Karen had to close for only two weeks to repair their flood damage, and at the same time were even able to continue serving food in a limited capacity, because of the generator.
“Well, you had to come by boat,” Pfeifer said, “but still!”
And for the food, has the former owner of a fine-dining French Quarter Italian establishment tried to reinvent the cuisine at a treasured Louisiana landmark?
“We don’t change things here,” he said. “We just ‘add to it.’ If we make what people want, and what they love here, we don’t feel the need to do anything elaborate with the menu.”
On a recent trip to Middendorf’s, the catfish, oysters, shrimp and hush puppies were every bit as delectable as I’d remembered and dreamed about, and the gargantuan fried soft-shell crabs went above and beyond.
But it turns out, there’s so much else left to love about the menu Pfeifer has lovingly curated.
Tangy barbecued oysters make an excellent starter, as do the classic oyster stew, garlic and parmesan broiled Italian oysters, cheesy stuffed mushrooms, and the crawfish cakes with remoulade. And a simple, broiled flounder was a light, lovely addition to the deep fried fare.
Which is not to say that Horst has kept the Middendorf’s menu identical to his predecessors.
Most notable are the desserts, brought over from his Bella Luna days, including house-made ice creams (pineapple and an astonishingly refreshing coconut), banana bread pudding with rum sauce and whipped cream, and a classic banana split that would delight anyone’s child ... or inner child.
Moving into the future, Pfeifer remains upbeat and undaunted about Middendorf’s and its place on the bayou and in our hearts, weather be damned.
The renovations continue — the original building still needs to be elevated as well — “but we’re going to do it. We’ll get there. We’re going to keep building, keep improving, keep trying to make sure that the next time this thing happens, we’ll be even better prepared. And if you have a boat, you can step right off and have a good, hot dinner.”