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Where Y'Eat: Catfish Tradition, Through Thick or Thin

Ian McNulty

Badly damaged by Hurricane Isaac, a landmark Louisiana eatery is rebuilding once again.

The scene around Middendorf’s Seafood Restaurant after Hurricane Isaac was heartrending, and also all-too familiar. Waist-high water, dining rooms inundated, even white-capped waves rippling past its parking lot. Isaac hit hard at this famous southeast Louisiana eatery.

That was the bad news. The good news is that not every part of Middendorf’s small campus of buildings was flooded, and repair work started quickly to get the restaurant’s trademark, thin-cut catfish back into circulation.

This should be welcome news to Middendorf’s legions of fans considering all the restaurant — and its proprietors — have been through lately. Located in the tiny fishing village of Manchac, Middendorf’s was founded in 1934 and has been a landmark for generations. Its location between New Orleans and Baton Rouge has made it a cherished meeting spot for families and friends spread out across the region. On weekend evenings, it’s common to find a line snaking from the front door as customers wait for tables, and its specialty of crackling-crisp, razor-sliced fried catfish has earned such a following that some New Orleans people routinely make the 40-mile drive for a meal here.

Middendorf’s has one of those menus that rarely ever changes, and it’s tempting to think about it as a place where time stands still, but that’s hardly the case here. In 2007, a German-born, European-trained chef named Horst Pfeifer and his wife Karen Pfeifer bought Middendorf's from its original family owners. The couple previously ran Bella Luna, one of the most posh and romantic restaurants in the French Quarter before it was wrecked by Hurricane Katrina. So there they were, in one of those unscripted, post-Katrina twists of fate, going from proprietors of an acclaimed fine-dining destination to presiding over a sprawling, Depression-era seafood house in a tiny Louisiana hamlet surrounded by lakes and swamps, greeting the regulars waiting in line for fried catfish dinners.

Naturally, they took pains to reassure everyone, including the staff, that they had no intention of messing with Middendorf's ingrained character. Sure, they would tweak this and streamline that behind the scenes, but they weren't about to deviate from the formula of the beloved institution they found themselves overseeing. And just when they convinced everyone nothing big would change, something very big did.

Enter Hurricane Ike, the storm that followed so fast on the heels of Hurricane Gustav, back in 2008. Its storm surge swamped the small complex of dining halls and outbuildings that make up Middendorf's. The damage was severe, and unprecedented. The Pfeifers were new to Manchac then, but old timers in the village told them Ike caused the worst flooding they had ever witnessed there.

The Pfeifers got Middendorf’s partially functional within weeks of Ike, operating initially out of the newer of its two large dining halls while repair work continued. As they made those repairs, they also built a little more survivability into their restaurant, like a new kitchen raised substantially off the ground. That kitchen and the newer dining hall escaped major damage this time around from Isaac, and that is giving the Pfeifers hope that they can reopen quickly, once again. So, traditions march on at Middendorf’s, from the old traditions of catfish to the newer traditions of building back better.

Middendorf’s Seafood Restaurant

30160 Hwy. 51, Akers, La.

Ian covers food culture and dining in New Orleans through his weekly commentary series Where Y’Eat.

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