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Thu October 15, 2009
Catfish Tradition, Through Thick or Thin
By Ian McNulty
New Orleans –
Middendorf's Restaurant turned 75 this year, but the seafood destination in Manchac attained its institution status long before this anniversary. Located by the western edge of Lake Pontchartrain, it has been a landmark on the route between New Orleans and the Northshore for generations. And its specialty of ultra-thin, razor-sliced fried catfish has earned such a following that some New Orleans people routinely make the 40-mile drive for a meal here.
It's understandable then, how some Middendorf's fans were a bit anxious to see what would happen to the old place when new owners took over in 2007. These owners included the German-born, European-trained chef Horst Pfeifer and his wife Karen Pfeifer. 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. And yet there they were, in one of those unscripted, post-storm twists of fate, 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. They were the first owners not related to founders Josie and Louis Middendorf since the place first opened in 1934.
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 mess with the formula of the beloved institution they suddenly found themselves overseeing. And just when they convinced everyone nothing big would change, something very big changed.
Enter Hurricane Ike, the storm that followed so fast on the heels of Hurricane Gustav in 2008. It caused relatively little trouble for New Orleans, but sent a storm surge barreling through Lake Pontchartrain to swamp the small complex of dining halls and outbuildings that made up Middendorf's. The damage was severe, and unprecedented. The Pfeifers were new to Manchac, but old timers told them Ike caused the worst flooding they had ever witnessed there.
Just a year and a half into their tenure as Middendorf's owners, the Pfeifers faced a devastated restaurant and the real possibility that a Louisiana legend might go under on their watch.
Fortunately, this story has a different outcome. There came a second inundation - this time of pleas to reopen the restaurant and offers to help from many quarters. Teams of volunteers were assembled, an ambitious but practical plan was worked out and within just five weeks, one of Middendorf's two separate dining halls was open for business again. This was the newer of the two. Repair and restoration of the original hall was a taller order, but that too was completed this fall, in time to mark the restaurant's 75th anniversary.
Now, some changes did crop up at Middendorf's along the way. But the most obvious also might be the best thing to happen to the restaurant in a long time. The Pfeifers built - and, after Ike, rebuilt - a screened-in, outdoor dining area, perched on the waters of the Manchac channel running right by their restaurant. The breeze, the view and the old time feeling of the new addition just add to the appeal of this rural seafood destination, where the catfish is thin, but tradition runs thick.
Hwy. 51 at Pass Manchac, (Exit 15 off I-55), Akers