The kinds of things that can trigger a memory are often happenstance and free thought. How many times have I driven by the Catfish Palace on East Ben White (aka Hwy 71) on my way to Houston or to the airport or to anywhere on that side of town? Too many times to count would be my best guess.
In rush hour traffic on Tuesday, I noticed the barnlike structure of the restaurant and the signage on the side of the building. I had the immediate thought, “That place has been there since we first moved to Austin in the mid-1970s”. It obviously is pretty popular judging by the number of cars that were crowded in the parking lot as I drove past. Though I don’t know how many times I’ve driven by the location, I do know how many times I’ve eaten there. Did I mention that catfish is one of my favorite foods?
I made a mental note that we needed to eat there. It isn’t the first time I’ve had that thought over the past forty years. Sometimes or perhaps most times, when I drive by that location, I am lost in thought and the signage doesn’t garner my attention or impact my psyche in an effort to draw me in. Sometimes it does. Regardless of the draw, we haven’t yet opted to eat there.
It isn’t that I’m opposed to eating in a barn or rustic setting. For that matter, the ambience of the Salt Lick in Driftwood is a popular venue of choice for many tourist that come to Austin. In fact, I went there for dinner with a group from work before we ever moved to Austin. Consequently, that venue like the Catfish Palace, predated our being locals.
In the past year, I’ve even sat at a picnic table outside the Salt Lick in the heat of the summer waiting for the privilege of setting at another nondescript table inside the restaurant. Did I mention that we waited for two hours? Actually, the wait came as no surprise. We were provided fair warning by the guy who took the name of our group and handed us an electronic device to know when our inside table was available. I can’t remember, but his name could have been Bubba for all I know. The two-hour wait wasn’t bad. “Family Time” is how my daughter described it. She actually is the one who immediately said that we had no objection to waiting for two hours.
I don’t always get it right. If I had been the one asked if a two-hour wait is acceptable, I’d have probably opted to say: “Thanks but no thanks.” However, as it turned out my memory of the experience is very favorable. Craig and his family were also part of the group and the kids had room to run and play while we were seated outside. Two hours can go by quickly in the midst of pleasant family conversation. Some people might be tempted to say, “If you’re in church, two hours can seem like an eternity”. I guess it all depends on the venue.
Given a choice between fried catfish and barbeque, I suspect I would favor the fried catfish more than barbeque. For that matter, BBQ places in Austin and the surrounding area are everywhere. A place for really good fried catfish is few and far between.
For that matter, BBQ and fine dining are an oxymoron. What about Coopers in Llano? I like the privilege of standing next to the grill and pointing out the inch thick pork chop I want. Throw in a Styrofoam cup full of potato salad and a Styrofoam cup of red beans with an added layer of chopped onion, and I am good to go. I will even bus my own table and throw away the butcher paper provided to serve as a plate.
At any rate, the visual image of the Catfish Palace reminded me of another Austin restaurant from the 1970s with a very different and delightful kind ambience. It is no longer an Austin venue and actually it’s origin did not predate our arrival or our introduction to being locals. Do you remember the Magic Time Machine on Riverside Drive?
I can promise you that nobody named “Bubba” greeted you at the door. It may have been Cinderella or Peter Pan. In fact, pick any childhood storybook and you could probably find a waiter or waitress who was dressed for the part. Trust me, the magic time machine would never be presumptuous enough to think any of their patrons would find butcher paper acceptable for food service.
The salad bar section was probably my favorite because I’m remembering the display of food selections were displayed and available in a portion of a sleek sports car. I don’t remember the make of car, but the color red comes to mind. Actually for that matter, an MG comes to mind, but I could be wrong. No, on second thought, I’m sure it was an MG roadster.
The fun part of the dining experience was the interaction with the storybook characters. Both young and old found the experience delightful. We didn’t go there often, but we never went there that we didn’t find it an enjoyable experience.
Did I mention that the General isn’t as fond of fried anything the way I am. Consequently, maybe I do know one of the variables that have kept us an arms length away from the Catfish Palace.
All My Best!