You know how some people stumble into being collectors? George’s girlfriend gives him a brass monkey as a private joke. A friend gives George another monkey, this one in onyx, and he sticks it on the shelf next to the brass one. Pretty soon the monkeys start to pile up — in oils, in wood, in papier-mâché. After a while, no one — not even the ersatz collector — remembers whether he actually likes monkeys or not. George is just the monkey guy.
The same thing has happened to me and fried catfish. Over the years I’ve done a couple roundups of Oakland and Emeryville’s fried-fish joints, or fried-fish-and-chicken-wings stands, to be more exact. I publish one article and then get a flurry of e-mails asking, “How come you haven’t tried X?” Pride compels me to go. My arteries may clog in the attempt, but the quest is far from over: Like taco trucks on International, Oakland is just full of little mom-‘n’-pop fish joints that from day one look as if they’ve been there for years. Sometimes they have been there for years.
February brought in three new fried catfish recommendations. Well, two — the first comes as an apology. A couple of months ago, two people reported to me that the venerable Emeryville institution Scend’s was no more. An “under remodeling” sign had been plastered to the door and stayed there for a while. Oh, me of little faith, I passed that info on to Express readers. Then I got another e-mail saying Scend’s was back in business.
The new Scend’s doesn’t look too much different from the old one, except there’s more of it. The owners have separated the bar from the restaurant, opening up a second dining room with four (yes, four!) TV screens. The waiters are all there, the patrons are all there, and most importantly, the menu hasn’t changed a whit.
And those chicken wings — orderable in quantities of four, eight, ten, twenty-five, and one hundred — are just as good as ever: The seasoned-flour-dusted skin hasn’t lost any of its crispness, and the meat inside parts from the bone with the slightest of tugs. However, on my visit, the cornmeal-crusted fried snapper had been cooked longer than usual; the fish almost forgave the cooks for the oversight. The rest of the report card was equally mixed. Fried oysters: overdone. Fried shrimp: great. Fried fries: even better.
Next on the list was Wilma’s Catfish Kitchen, about a half-mile north of Scend’s on San Pablo Avenue. Wilma’s boasts just about the same selection of fried chicken wings, catfish or snapper as Scend’s. But with your meals you can get sides, some of which contain actual vegetables to round out your meal. Beer is out of the question, but you can have cherry Kool Aid instead.
The Wilma behind Wilma’s, one Mrs. Charles, opened her tiny Catfish Kitchen four years ago. Sparely decorated with an aquarium, a jukebox, and a row of cakes under glass, the restaurant has as its main draw the chatty, amiable Wilma herself (and on weekends, her daughter).
Wilma’s wings weren’t anywhere near as tender as the ones from Scend’s, but they’d come from mammoth birds, the kind you wouldn’t want to run into in a dark alley late at night. My plate of six could have fed a hungry couple. I looked askance at the huge pile of dark brown catfish slices when they arrived. But every last drip of juice stayed inside the cornmeal crust, keeping the fish moist. You do know that when you deep-fry something in oil at the right temperature it steams itself from the inside out, don’t you? It’s scientific fact. Tell your doctor.
Wilma’s greens made me happy, with all the crunchiness and bitterness boiled out and the flavor boiled in. So did the mustardy, creamy, mashed-potato salad, but I skipped over the unmemorable mac ‘n’ cheese. Then we asked for cake. “You want my opinion?” the daughter asked. We nodded. She pointed to the caramel cake. A six-inch-high yellow cake, spongy enough to be made from scratch or a good box mix, became transcendent with the addition of thickly swabbed homemade caramel frosting. My dining companion keeps e-mailing me to tell me he’s still thinking about it.
Friday night at the Southern Cafe packs most of the tables in the front and fills the rest of the restaurant with people waiting for takeout. There’s a good reason the restaurant is so packed: Southern Cafe’s food is pretty phenomenal. But, then again, so is the wait.
The menu, all traditional soul food, covers all the staples — fried chicken, fried fish, smothered steak — along with lesser-seen oxtail, chitterlings, and stuffed shrimp. The tone for both my dinners there, though, was set by the waitress, who greeted every table with “This is what we’re out of tonight…” instead of hello. Greens and mac ‘n’ cheese go fast. Call ahead to see if they’ve made oxtail or braised short ribs. And the fried chicken and seafood are dropped in the oil the moment the server delivers the order, so expect a wait of 30 to 75 minutes for your entrees.
But damn is it good! Under its cornmeal coating, the flesh of the catfish was almost translucent — a proper medium-rare, as most bistros cook fish. I couldn’t get enough of the flaky, crunchy skin on the fried chicken; the breast was a little dry, but the thigh, which generally stays moister because the cut is less lean, approached the Platonic ideal of fried chicken. A thick wedge of meatloaf had been larded with enough fat to keep it moist and succulent. And almost all the sides were top-notch: Little bits of salt pork poked out of the mass of turnip-collard greens and the black-eyed peas, filling out and enriching their flavor. Halfway between sweet and savory, the corn went down creamy but retained some crunch. I could have done without the half-cup of nutmeg flavoring the sweet potatoes, however, passing it over in favor of the peppery, silky braised cabbage.
One request to readers: no more fried-fish recommendations, for a couple of months at least. There are some new taquerias on International Boulevard, and I need time to visit every one.