I could fill a book with praise for the East Bay’s hidden restaurants — its underground bakeshops, pupuserias tucked inside of convenience stores, and secret kitchens of every shape and size. Even so, I’m fairly certain Richmond’s Mississippi Catfish is the first restaurant I’ve been to that shares a wall with a smog inspection station.
Of course, the American South has a proud tradition of gas station eateries that serve better po’boys and barbecue than anything we can get our hands on in California. So, why not open the area’s only Mississippi-style fish-fry restaurant in a building attached to a Smog Express? Or why not, in the case of Lilly’s New Orleans Cafe, open a little shoebox of a gumbo-and-po’boy takeout spot in a residential neighborhood a little further south in Richmond?
Don’t let Mississippi Catfish‘s smog station setting mislead you into thinking that the place is some kind of dive, though. The inside is as quaint and cozy as any country general store, with its illustrated map of Mississippi painted on one wall and its overarching nautical theme — decorative seashells on each table and a display of old-fashioned wooden ship models. Plaques engraved with inspirational sayings line another wall: “Love is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away.”
Say, a moment spent eating one of the East Bay’s most exceptional plates of fried seafood. Owner Thomas Wright told me he’s been running the business for 15 years, the first eight of which were spent slinging catfish from the back of a trailer in the parking lot of the same smog inspection station. Born and raised in Yazoo City, Mississippi, Wright started doing the fish-fry trailer as a second career after 20 years spent working for Contra Costa County. Eventually, he rented the vacant building from the owner of the smog station, built out the kitchen and dining area, and, in 2009, opened Mississippi Catfish as a proper brick-and-mortar restaurant — albeit one with exceedingly limited hours (Thursday through Saturday only).
When you dine at a restaurant called “Mississippi Catfish,” you have no excuse if you fail to order the fried catfish, which turned out to be good enough to merit a special detour all on its own. Wright explained that the Mississippi style calls for a slightly thicker and more aggressively seasoned cornmeal batter than what you might find at other fish-fry restaurants. The fish came out greaseless and almost too hot to pick up, and, to my palate, the spicing was just right — flavorful enough to enjoy without any condiment, though the obligatory Crystal hot sauce and tartar sauce only enhanced the experience.
As good as that catfish was, the fried shrimp made an even bigger impression. Wright butterflies each shrimp to maximize the amount of crunchy, batter-clinging surface area. But the best part was that — rarest of rarities — the shrimp were not even the slightest bit overcooked. Textbook.
Indeed, when it comes to the fine art of the deep fryer, Wright could teach a master class — a crash course required for every aspiring Bay Area gastropub chef before bringing yet another misguided fish-and-chips take into the world. Exhibit C: It wouldn’t be a Mississippi fish fry without hushpuppies, a couple of which come with every order of seafood. If you find these fried cornmeal balls at all in the Bay Area, they’re usually oversized and sweet. I like those, too, but Wright’s Mississippi-style hushpuppies — small, wholly savory, and creamy and oniony in the center — were a revelation.
Order the “Raya’s 3 and 3” for all of the above: three shrimp and three pieces of either catfish or snapper, plus two side dishes, for less than $14.
Two years ago, Wright expanded the name of the restaurant, at least unofficially, to “Mississippi Catfish & Wink’s BBQ,” after partnering with William “Wink” Hay, who added barbecue ribs, chicken, and links to the menu. It’s “Jacksonville-style,” Wright told me in response to my query about regional influences, noting that Hay hails from Jacksonville, Florida. The centerpiece of the barbecue side of the menu is slow-smoked St. Louis-cut ribs, which came slathered in a thick, spicy-sweet sauce — too much sauce for my taste. No harm, no foul. After scraping off the excess, we found some fine barbecue underneath. The ribs had a whisper of smoke flavor but struck just the right balance between tender and toothsome. If barbecue is the side bonus at a fish fry restaurant, this was a nice bonus indeed. That’s one more reason I won’t be waiting until the next time my car is due for a smog inspection to pay a return visit.
For food traditions from further down the Mississippi River, you could do much, much worse than Lilly’s New Orleans Cafe. Chef Surako Follings Sr., a former elementary school teacher who grew up in Richmond, opened the little takeout spot in late 2014 with help from his mother, Mary Butler. They named the place after the chef’s grandmother, Manuella “Lilly” Butler, a New Orleans native who had dreamed of opening a New Orleans-inspired restaurant in Richmond but died in the Nineties before she had a chance. Follings recalled that, back then, his mother lived across the street from the current site of Lilly’s, which was a Wings and Things. “That should be our place,” she would tell Follings, who was enrolled in culinary school at the time. Now, finally, it is.
Follings makes for a charismatic and hardworking kitchen-team of one, and the restaurant offers a broader and more ambitious menu than any one-man operation has any business serving, including a full complement of side dishes that he makes in batches, replenished throughout the day. These run the gamut from familiar classics like oven-baked mac ‘n’ cheese to the new-to-me “smothered potatoes,” a kind of thin, peppery stew — one of Lilly’s recipes. Best of all were the crisp-edged cheesy corn cakes, which Follings said were inspired by the cheese biscuits at Red Lobster.
But if you’ve traveled a long way to order takeout at Lilly’s, it’s probably for one of two things. First, the restaurant serves six different kinds of po’boys, including the fried oyster po’boy I ate during my first visit. Unlike some of the po’boys you’ll find around town, which tend to come overloaded with toppings, Follings keeps things simple: lettuce, tomato, pickles, pepperoncini (the only non-traditional addition), and a hot sauce-spiked aioli, all served on a soft French roll. I’d have him omit the pepperoncini next time, and go lighter on the pickles, the better not to overwhelm the star of the sandwich: oysters fried “medium,” as requested, so that their delicate creamy centers were still juicy and tender.
If you plan to pay only one visit to Lilly’s, though, it’s best to call ahead to make sure the seafood gumbo is available. Follings serves an okra-less version of the Creole staple that comes studded with shrimp and Evergood all-beef links — the whole stew gloriously soupy over rice just this side of al dente. What I loved was the earthy and licorice-y flavors of the filé powder, which most Bay Area restaurants use but sparingly. (The gumbo normally comes with Dungeness crab, too, but my visit coincided with the recent fishermen’s strike.)
There’s barely enough room inside for more than three or four customers to stand, and for now, the only seating to speak of consists of two tables outside facing the street. That didn’t stop me, and shouldn’t stop you, from sitting down and enjoying myself.