Yes, it’s got a shoddy reputation, often relegated to stews dense with flavor-masking spices. Its meat is sometimes called grainy, gritty, flat-out dirty or even worse, bland. In Whole Foods, the capital of $20+ per pound fish, it sits sadly under signs that say $8.99.
But there are countless catfish dishes served around Orange and LA counties that use its mild, river-infused flesh to the best of its potential.
Try it fried, skin and all, down to little crispy pieces, tossed with green mango, peanuts, onions, baby shrimp, and fiery black and red peppers at Thai Nakorn in Garden Grove. When they ask you how spicy you want it on a scale of 1 to 5, say 5 at your peril and ready your teeth for a carnival of crunch and your tongue for an onslaught of tingly burn.
Or keep it whole, its long body spilling over the edges of the plate, baked with shallots, onions, oranges, and peanuts at Phong Dinh in Rosemead. They serve it to you accompanied by rice paper, pickled and non-pickled veggies, and sweet tamarind dipping sauce so you can prepare your own little catfish rolls.
If you prefer your fish in recognizable cutlet form (though still shot through with bones, so beware), order it smothered in sweet coconut curry and breaded like fish-n-chips at Vientiane Thai Laos in Garden Grove.
It comes out similarly cutletted but hot and dark with peppercorns and poured sparely over rice at Wat Dong Moon Lek Noodle in Los Angeles. Be sure to order a basil pineapple smoothie to cool your lips.
Finally, chả cá thăng long, a Vietnamese dish, is center stage at Canton Restaurant in Westminster. Make sure before you order that you love onions, dill and turmeric enough that you won’t mind sweating these aromas for the next week. As for the purple, amazingly stinky crab and anchovy paste on the side, don’t ignore it, but don’t use too much more than the amount that would cover the end of a chopstick, unless you are unafraid of pondering why crab paste would possibly be purple.
And please, once you’ve gone on your catfish adventure, do your part to pay your tribute to the fish that have died for your dinner by defending them to the naysayers who call their meat gritty and bland.
Thai Nakorn: 12532 Garden Grove Blvd, Garden Grove, CA 92843. http://thainakornrestaurant.com
Phong Dinh Restaurant: 2643 San Gabriel Blvd, Rosemead, CA 91170. http://phongdinh.com
Vientiane Thai Laos: 10262 Westminster Ave, Garden Grove, CA 92843.
Wat Dong Moon Lek Noodle: 4356 Fountain Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90029. http://www.watdongmoonlek.com
Canton Restaurant: 8550 Westminster Blvd, Westminster, CA 92683.
(originally published over at Examiner)