75 Manchac Way
Akers, LA 70421
Napoleon's Rating - ***/*****
For those who have been to Middendorf's, the name is synonymous with its uniquely-thin, fried catfish. It's such an exemplary specialty that it lures New Orleans people along a 40-minute highway drive to the tiny town of Manchac, and has inspired many diversions during the trip to Hammond or Baton Rouge.
The restaurant made 75 years in 2009, and it long ago attained landmark institution status. So it wasn't surprising that regulars were a little nervous about what changes would occur here when new people bought Middendorf's from the original family owners in 2007. Enter German-born, European-trained chef Horst Pfeifer and his wife Karen, who owned the upscale French Quarter restaurant Bella Luna before Katrina. They obviously came to Middendorf's with a different kind of restaurant background. But they pledged to keep everything that people loved about the old place, and make any changes gently. Recent visits prove they were true to their word and, despite a disastrous 2008 storm season, Middendorf's is in some ways better than ever.
Middendorf's got through hurricanes Katrina and Rita fine, but it was Hurricane Ike in 2008 that walloped the place with storm surge flooding. The owners got the place up and running again in record time, however, using the newer of their two dining halls. The original restaurant building was still undergoing extensive repairs and renovations at the time of this review. But one of the big changes the new owners made before Ike is also back again: the new, screened-in dining deck right on the channel leading to Lake Maurepas. This finally takes full advantage of Middendorf's proximity to the water, and it's a great place to dig into seafood.
This is country-friendly service to be sure. The ladies who take your order and bring your food will take care of you, but don't expect high-touch service or any pretensions. When sitting on the deck, which I highly recommend, meals become a bit self-service, since you have to carry orders from the restaurant to the deck yourself. It's worth the effort when the weather is right.
Barbequed oysters on the half shell are one of the great but lesser-known specialties here. The oysters are cooked in a tangy red sauce, like a thicker, heartier version of what goes into New Orleans-style BBQ shrimp, and they're fantastic with fresh parsley and a squeeze of lemon. Soups are also great, and the kitchen usually makes three different gumbos (shrimp, crab or shrimp and crab), a turtle soup and an oyster stew, which is creamy and rich but not so much that it obscures the oysters' marine flavor. The medium-sized boiled shrimp are messy, but they're still a good way get in the waterfront mood for a seafood feast.
You can order a rib eye or broiled chicken here, but it's hard to believe many people do. Most people coming here have catfish in mind, particularly the Middendorf's special that is cut so razor-thin it's almost like chips or fried ribbons of fish. I love this for its unbeatable, brittle crispness, but it's not for everyone and those who complain that it tastes more like cornmeal fish fry than actual fish have a point. The thick-cut option is more in line with normal fried catfish expectations. All the seafood benefits from quality frying, with evidence of fresh oil and separate batch cooking.
Frying isn't the end of the story at Middendorf's, though. Broiled seafood dishes are also worth checking out, especially the whole flounder, moistened with lemon butter and topped with a big load of crabmeat. They'll give catfish the same treatment, though I like the spicy broiled catfish better, with its red sprinkling of pepper clinging to the glistening fish filets. Even the seafood platter (shrimp, oysters, thin catfish and stuffed crab) can be ordered broiled, rather than fried.
The biggest change the new owners have made in the food department is probably with desserts, though I can't see too much complaining about the addition of ice cream made in-house. Get it by the scoop or in a banana split. My own favorite here, though, is the white chocolate pecan pie.
There is a bar with the standard selections.
Pricing has stayed moderate, and the seafood dinners that people order the most go for between $10 and $15. Appetizers and salads range from $5 to $10. Two people can eat their fill for $40, while a kids' menu of dishes under $6 is a big help for the many families who come here together.
Old, beloved restaurants are the work of many generations. They become institutions for their customers who eye the prospect of change with concern or even suspicion. But Middendorf's these days is an example of how the torch can be passed successfully to new blood and make the whole place better in the process. The addition of the waterfront dining deck was a stroke of genius that adds a whole new appeal to this old favorite, while the flavors and laidback mood that have people lining up outside its door on busy weekends is the same as it ever was.