Historical atmosphere helps Frank and Mary's reel in Hoosier catfish lovers


PITTSBORO, Ind. -- About three-quarters of a century ago, there was a car dealership on State Road 136 in Pittsboro. It sold Overlands. Overland cars bit the dust, and the building became a hardware store, then a gas station, then a hatchery. It is now Frank and Mary's restaurant, one of the nicest places in the Midwest to eat catfish.

The historical atmosphere adds special flavor to the dining experience, because the meals served at Frank and Mary's long tables in the big old dining room are themselves a taste of tradition: Midwestern Americana, from fried chicken or catfish or ribeye steaks to peppermint ice cream (a Hoosier favorite) for dessert. Waitresses are fast and friendly; and customers are Hendricks County regulars, as well as a few pilgrims from Indianapolis to the east, who drive out to Frank and Mary's because it has become a custom among families who relish down-home cuisine.

The food nearly everyone comes to eat is catfish. Since Frank and Mary's Tavern opened for business back in 1945 (in a different building), the specialty of the house has been fried fish. Originally it was codfish, cooked in an iron skillet and served as a sandwich. In the early '50s, about the time the restaurant moved to the present location, it started serving fresh, natural (not farm-raised) catfish from Florida; and since then catfish, a k a fiddlers, have been Frank and Mary's claim to fame.

You can get whole fish or filleted tenderloins. Either one comes encased in a crackling-crisp crust, nearly a pound's worth per order. Catfish epicures generally consider the whole fish better and more succulent; but for novices, it can be some work to retrieve the meat from the bones. Fillets are easy to eat; and although Frank and Mary's does not offer an all-you-can-eat supply like many Deep South catfish parlors, a dinner's worth lTC won't leave you hungry. According to the extremely informative menu (where we learned the history of the business and the building, as well as of Frank and Mary Herring's family), excellent catfish is the kitchen's holy grail. Whenever possible, they continue to serve the natural kind, which are considered tastier, rather than farm-raised fiddlers, although there are occasions when they simply cannot get enough natural ones to meet customers' demands.

A word of warning is in order: Frank and Mary's is an easy place to eat during the week for lunch or dinner, but on Friday and Saturday evenings, it can get mighty crowded. Actually, that's the way we like it. There is a special flavor to a big, sweet catfish meal when you sit down to share it at a long table with a throng of fellow catfish connoisseurs.

Our recipe for catfish, which is increasingly available in most well-stocked fish stores around the country, is for fillets. If the place where you buy fish sells catfish tenderloins, ask the market to slice them very thin. You want fillets that are about 3/4 -inch thick.

Hoosier catfish fillets

Serves four.

1 1/2 pounds thin-filleted catfish

1 to 2 cups cold milk

2 cups yellow cornmeal

1 tablespoon salt

1 teaspoon ground black pepper

1/2 to 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper, to taste

vegetable oil for deep-frying

Rinse and thoroughly dry catfish fillets. Soak in milk, turning to make sure all fillets are wetted.

Combine cornmeal, salt and peppers in a wide pan.

Heat vegetable oil in deep skillet or deep fryer to 375 degrees.

Working with a few fillets at a time, move them from the milk into the cornmeal mixture. Roll them about in the cornmeal until thoroughly covered, then set them individually on a piece of wax paper, not touching each other. Wait about 5 minutes for the cornmeal to begin drying on the fish, then gingerly slide them into the hot oil. As the first batch fries, begin preparing the second. Cook each batch until golden brown, about 5 to 6 minutes.

Frank and Mary's, 21-25 E. Main St. (State Road 136), Pittsboro, Ind. 46167; (317) 892-3485.

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