The number of barbecue joints in Texas is staggering. Estimates exceed two thousand, which I think is still conservative, so when I began my Texas barbecue search more than a decade ago, I looked for ways to lighten the load. One initial strategy was to disqualify places that in my view didn’t adequately focus on smoking meats. If a restaurant advertised its salads or burgers, I ignored it. Today I realize how silly that was. Many barbecue joints, especially those in small towns, offer items beyond barbecue to keep the locals coming in several times a week. Among those offerings is delicious fried seafood, especially catfish. Because I missed out on a lot of great catfish, I decided on my recents travels to search for joints with both great barbecue and great catfish.
I call the combination barbecue surf and turf. I know “turf” is usually reserved for beef, but pork ribs work fine for me, and catfish don’t live in the ocean, but you get my drift. The challenge isn’t just finding barbecue joints that do both of them well; it’s finding places that make it easy to get fish and smoked meat on the same platter. Many restaurants barricade the two on separate sides of the menu, never to meet in the same meal, but I’ve found several that are ahead of their time. These are pitmasters who realize how well a smoky slice of brisket or a couple of sweet-glazed ribs pairs with fried catfish, slaw, and fries, and not just during Lent.
Forty years ago, Edward Davila was bracing for the annual Lenten slowdown at Davila’s BBQ, in Seguin. With a high concentration of Catholics in the area he needed a Friday offering besides ribs, brisket, and sausage, so he went out and bought a heap of catfish filets and a small electric fryer. He could hardly keep the oil hot thanks to an overwhelming response when he put the sign out for the Friday special. As tickets lined up in the kitchen, Davila was at the mercy of his fryer, but he eventually got all those orders out. What was meant to be a Friday-only special immediately went onto the everyday menu, and Davila invested in some better frying equipment.
It’s surprising to look up at a barbecue menu and see fried catfish listed by the pound. At Davila’s, just like every other meat, it’s $14.99 per pound. This makes it easy to build your own surf-and-turf platter with their brisket or unique lamb ribs, but my favorite thing to pair with the catfish is the house-made rings of beef sausage. The juicy links dripped onto the plate, and maybe I let some land on the crisp crust of the catfish. The filets are well-seasoned and steaming hot. “It’s fresh and fried to order,” Adrian Davila, Edward’s son, promised.
“Seven minutes,” Stephen Joseph, the owner and pitmaster of Joseph’s Riverport Bar-B-Cue, in Jefferson, told me when I asked how long it took for an order of fried catfish. If you want the kitchen to get a jump start on it, he suggests that you “holler ‘two piece, three piece,’ whatever you want” as soon as you walk in the door. Joseph lets customers add catfish as one of the meats on barbecue combo plates, so you can sample it along with a giant spare rib and some of that incredible sliced brisket for just $14. The catfish is served with two discs of hot-water cornbread, which has diced jalapeños and onions mixed into the batter. These are also fried to order and better than any hushpuppies out there.
Joseph isn’t shy about sharing his barbecue secrets, and he’s just as generous with tips on fried catfish. “One of the keys to it is using USDA catfish. It makes a world of difference. It’s flakier and it’s not as rubbery as the import fish,” he said, adding that it’s worth the extra cost. He uses a light cornmeal batter with Cajun seasoning mixed in and fries the fish in 350-degree oil. The catfish here also started as a Friday special during Lent twenty years ago, but, as Joseph said, “It kinda caught on really fast and made the menu.”
The key to good fried catfish is simple. Buy high-quality catfish, season the batter well, and fry the fish fresh for every order. Beware the barbecue joint that doesn’t make you wait for fried catfish; storing it on a steam table is tantamount to boiling ribs. Take it from Tim Hutchins, whose barbecue joint used to be named Hutchins Bar-B-Q & Catfish when it moved to its current location in McKinney in 1991 (the name has since been shortened to Hutchins BBQ). Chow down on that tray of barbecue as soon as you pay, but take a number to your table for the catfish. It’s gonna take six minutes.
Hutchins BBQ, which also has a location in Frisco, is famous for its incredible deal of $25 for all-you-can-eat barbecue. That includes fried catfish and almost every other meat (except beef ribs). Back in the nineties, the AYCE special was just for ribs and catfish for $7. Fried catfish represented almost a third of their sales back then, but it’s more like five percent of the business now. You can buy it as a platter or by the half-pound for $11.50 (at the McKinney location only). “We sell it pretty much any way,” Hutchins said. They also slice the filets in half before frying, so it’s easy to add a small portion to any barbecue tray.
They might not offer an AYCE option at Ray’s BBQ Shack, in Houston, but I’d bet against anyone who said they can finish the $25 Max platter on their own. It includes four barbecue meats, two fried shrimp, and two fried catfish filets. The catfish are nicely seasoned with a clean flavor. There’s nothing muddy about it, which is why they sell four hundred pounds of catfish every week. If you’re lucky though, you may find owner Ray Busch’s specialty muddy water sausage available during your visit. The link itself is a surf-and-turf marvel with shrimp, crawfish, crab meat, and pork all mixed together in a casing before hitting the smoker.
Ray’s is also the only Texas barbecue joint that I’ve found that serves whole fried catfish. The filets are still attached to the bones, but they peel off easier than a tender baby back rib. It’s also the only way to get the fatty morsels from the catfish collar. And with the by-the-pound barbecue menu, it’s easy enough to add some rib tips or a link of the house-made boudin to the order.
At Smokey John’s Bar-B-Que, in Dallas you need to know the secret menu if you want the surf-and-turf platter. Ask for the Steve White plate, and you’ll get cornbread, two sides (my vote is for greens and mac and cheese), two filets of crisp fried catfish, and two tender pork ribs for $17. It’s not so much a secret as a way for them to gauge how well their social media following is listening. Co-owners and brothers Juan and Brent Reaves say they’ll post about the Steve White plate in the morning and see how many folks order it that day for lunch.
The plate is named after a late customer. The real Steve White worked for a Japanese company in Dallas, and when colleagues would visit from Japan, he’d take them to Smokey John’s for ribs and catfish. “He’d bring in sixty people a year, easily,” Brent Reaves said. White would order for them, and insist that they try the catfish without any tartar sauce, and the ribs without barbecue sauce. “He was one of our best guys,” Juan remembers. When White passed away in 2014, his family decided the most appropriate venue for a memorial service was at Smokey John’s. Of course the guests were served ribs and catfish.
With all the barbecue I eat, it was a nice change of pace searching for good catfish. Tim Hutchins, who likes his catfish with Louisiana hot sauce, agrees. As a pitmaster working around barbecue all day, he said, “You gotta find something else to eat here that’s not just brisket, ribs, and all that.” And I’m not hoping more barbecue joints will start frying up catfish. I just wish those that already offer it will make it easier to try it along with their barbecue. Make the fried catfish available by the pound or by the filet or, better yet, add an option like the Steve White plate with a little of both to the menu. I mean, steak and lobster is great when money is no object, but there’s no surf-and-turf value quite like barbecue surf and turf.