By the time I had deconstructed the salad's components, I was deep under the spell of the Adams Family's nifty chop of fried catfish strips and hard-cooked egg mixed with just enough tartar sauce to make it stick. According to Dale Adams, who runs the place with brother Robert and their respective wives, his aunt invented the salad for her own lunch one day when a brazen waitress had eaten all the canned tuna in the house. Now served with cracker packets, the catfish salad is perfect card-table food -- the kind of stuff to go first during bridge parties and Monday Night Football. I fed it to a friend who possesses an unswerving proclivity for mayonnaise-based salads and Bunny Bread. "This is the best tuna salad I've ever eaten," she said with visions of crustless finger sandwiches dancing in her head.
Aside from originality, the brilliance of the salad is in its crunch. Neither the watertight vegetable crunch of onions or celery nor the pickled crunch of relish (although that's in there, too), but the chippy crunch of the fish's peppery fried armor. This texture bonus is a successful foil against the mundane mush that plagues most salad spreads. It's like the brownie's walnut; the muffin's poppy seed; the fried onions that top Mom's green bean casserole.
This seasoned coating is also the reason regulars think nothing of crossing the Intercoastal Waterway for catfish strips in small-town Belle Chasse, where Adams sits down the road from an open-air produce market selling pie pumpkins for a trifle, and just 'round the bend from a storybook wooden chapel. But the strips, browned and curled into themselves, are coated more in the style of fast-food chicken than with the delicate cornmeal touch of my favorite fried catfish masters. Although I do lust after a good crunch, I found the fillets dry and too burdened by their hides, more like animals from the range than ones fished from a freshwater Mississippi pond. I once walked into Adams at the tail end of a lunch rush and received lukewarm strips clearly not prepared to order. For best results, catch them on a Friday night when the cats waste no time between hot peanut oil treatments and your table.
Better yet, order the catfish scored and fried whole. This meal's finale -- a plateful of carcasses -- invokes images of Felix the Cat drawing entire twangy fish skeletons from his toothy grin. The skins of the whole fish, strongly peppered like the strips but clothed in a lighter sleeve of batter, gave way to more flavorful meat oozing sweeter juices. Even the fins went down like potato chips, as I learned by watching a ravenous companion pop them in and chomp with abandon. A mere $12.40 buys you all the whole fish you can manage, although even the biggest eaters might seek help (not allowed) cashing in on the deal. All the fish dinners came with steak fries as comforting and fluffed as a sofa pillow, and moist, golf ball-size hush puppies fortified with onion. With a sturdy, fried exterior and moist breading inside, these were as irresistible to eat the whole way through as a multi-layered jawbreaker. Grilled catfish fillets, alas, looked and tasted as flat as an insole.
Fried, always a winning adjective, is the way to ask for most things at Adams. Delicious sweet potatoes, fried with the same long-hot-bath philosophy as the strips, crunched with a caramel syrup bark. A flowering onion was snappier in texture and onion flavor than the novelty appetizer found at franchise restaurants. Resembling a batter-fried hedgehog, it came with pepper-riddled remoulade sauce. For dessert, we dipped penny-thin sour pickles, fried to a turn, into the final tablespoons of catfish salad. As for the non-fried items, Adams' famous cole slaw was drippy and overrun with sweet relish; side salads were the browning iceberg and unripe tomato sort.
Adams serves no sweets and no alcohol -- the former because they know what they're good at, and the latter because it's a proud, Christian-run restaurant with those kinds of values. From the street, the catfish house looks like the kind of place that would have flown the American flag even before our recent patriotic revival. In fact, the low-slung, barn-like building, set between a firehouse and a nursery, easily could pass for the Belle Chasse VFW headquarters. In large part, Dale Adams credits the several thousand servicemen and women at the nearby Naval Air Station for his thriving catfish business. A blessed thing indeed.