Holy Cats!

Photo by Jeanne RiceI wasted plenty of my youth tempting catfish out of the muck of Midwestern rivers. The bait was spoiled chicken organs or, when we could get them, dead chicks marinated in booze or anise oil and then wrapped on a treble hook and stuffed into the toe of Mom's old nylons. Most of the time, we were after bragging-size cats, invisible monsters that lurked in the black, manure-rich waters where storm drains or cow-shit creeks met the mighty Mo'. These fish had great heads bigger than our own and stumpy bodies that resembled wrestlers' necks.

These trophies often ended up nailed to the side of fishing cabins or nearby cottonwood trees. With all the texture and flavor of a 3-year-old's mud pies, they weren't palatable eating. Even the pan-sized bullheads we pulled from spring-fed lakes tasted like fertilizer. Unlike trout or salmon or almost any other fish, cats taste better commercially grown. Their garbage-foraging wild cousins are a gag.

Farm-raised cats, though, have a meat that's light and almost without flavor, a blank slate for sauces and other dressings. Like everybody else, I like them fried in cornmeal.

Catfish resurfaced in our consciousness recently, appearing on a platter in a looking-glass vision in the mirrored walls of Favori Restaurant. We'd gone to the veteran French-Vietnamese hybrid for inexpensive French dishes of the kind that have all but evaporated from our cholesterol-obsessed culture. When French restaurants were disappearing right and left in the '80s, we would travel to a now-defunct French-Vietnamese restaurant across from the Farmers Market in Los Angeles for a fat fix of coquilles St. Jacques, frog legs and creamed sweetbreads. We hoped Favori could revive that experience.

Sure enough, Favori's Fruit de Mer au Gratin was right out of memory with sweet clams and pungent mussels (both still in their shells), smoky shrimp, bits of fish and, inexplicably, strands of faux crabmeat, all baked in a terrine of cream sauce rich with butter. I'd begun the meal with French onion soup, now a lost art, here given a fresh twist with fish broth. At the bottom of the bowl, as the menu promised, was a sweet, whole egg yolk waiting like the center of a Tootsie Pop. My one concession to the Vietnamese side of the menu was the rice-paper-wrapped spring rolls stuffed with crunchy first-rate vegetables, pork and a snap of mint.

But then that catfish came into view. Head and tail hanging off the platter, it was a glistening golden brown, surrounded by plates of fresh lettuce leaves, mint and other herbs; leaves of rice paper; and a bowl of chile sauce spiked with shards of ginger. As good as my meal had been, it all began to pale beside the sight of that beautiful fish.

So I went back the next day and ordered my own. The waiter tried to warn me it was too much—good for three, maybe four people. It came on a bed of lettuce and the tinfoil it was baked in, decorated with chunks of tomato and cucumber. The eyes were gone from its noble head, and the cute, wispy namesake whiskers we remembered from our fishing days were mercifully burned away. The skin was wonderfully crispy, like Peking duck, with just a hint of grease. The flesh beneath had a delicate oily character, and I savored it by the flaky forkful with and without the aid of greens and wraps. Before leaving, I stuffed what was left of that magnificent carcass into a giant takeout box. When the meat was gone, that proud head would look good nailed to my front porch.

Favori Restaurant, located at 3502 W. 1st St., Santa Ana, is open daily, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. (714) 531-6838. Dinner for two, $18-$35, food only. Beer and wine. Discover, MC and Visa accepted.

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