"It was really, really good," she told me. "First, before you even order, they bring you big bowls of cole slaw and these cooked navy beans. I think the beans had pork in them, but I didn't even care because they tasted so good. Then they bring a basket of hush puppies and this huge cluster of crab legs. They were delicious! I love crab legs but I could barely finish that first plate."
I've heard great things about The Jumpin' Catfish for years, but I've never really been motivated to go and eat in one of David Hampton's three restaurants he also owns the original 20-year-old location in Olathe and a second venue in Lee's Summit because I also heard tales of customers waiting patiently, sometimes as long as an hour, for a table. I don't like catfish enough to wait in line for it.
But Loretta's testimonial turned my head, and I decided it was time for me to jump on over there. My friend Rick tried to talk me out of it, insisting that I would hate the place. "It makes Red Lobster look like McCormick & Schmick's," he said. "It's filled with dead animals and photographs of dead animals and female customers with permed hair that looks so bad that it might as well be a dead animal."
I told Rick that he was a terrible culinary snob and that if he'd been a lifelong Midwesterner (like me, for example), he'd understand that catfish is one of the few truly fresh fish we can eat in the heartland. Besides, I've never known a catfish joint to be fancy.
So my expectations weren't that high when I hopped in my car, crossed the Missouri River and swung off the Northeast Antioch Road exit from Interstate 35. I somehow caught a quick glimpse of the restaurant sign in time to make a dizzying hairpin turn onto a surprisingly narrow road that leads up a hill to The Jumpin' Catfish parking lot. The building wasn't unfamiliar. It once housed a second-rate Chinese restaurant named after a cheap 1960s men's cologne. But when Hampton turned it into his third Jumpin' Catfish in 2000, he gave the place a rustic makeover, so now it looks like a cabin the Disneyland version of a cabin, anyway. There's a big deck at the front and, inside the front door, an elaborate tableau of taxidermy, including mounted bears, deer, raccoons and squirrels in a forestlike setting.
"The owner of this restaurant is a big hunter," announced the nice white-haired lady at the hostess station, who noticed me wincing when I saw the stuffed baby doe. "The little deer died of natural causes," she explained. Natural, she said, as in hit by a trailer. "Some of the smaller animals were roadkill," she added, completely straight-faced.
"I'll bet that puts your heart at ease," said my friend Bob, who had come along for the adventure. We were escorted past a tiny salad bar displayed in a dinghy to a booth in the nonsmoking dining room that was tastefully decorated with framed color photographs of hunters with dead game birds or fishermen smiling in front of piles of fresh catches. The waitresses also took part in the hunting motif, wearing multipocketed fishing vests as part of their uniforms.
"I'm Serinna, and I'll be helpin' ya," announced our slightly disheveled young woman in her fishing vest. She set two bowls in the center of the table, one containing cold, creamy cole slaw and the other a mess o' generously peppered white beans, hot and soft and loaded with fat chunks of pink ham. Following that came a plastic basket of hush puppies, a quartet of little cornmeal balls that had spent too many minutes in the deep fryer another motif of this restaurant so that their exteriors were nearly rock-hard. I was tempted to ask for a nutcracker.
A minute later, Serinna did bring a nutcracker, but it was for the crab legs that came with my Jumpin' Catfish Platter, a high-cholesterol treasure-trove that included two deep-fried shrimp, two cornmeal-dusted curls of fried catfish, and two "stuffed" crabs that had been plunged into hot grease until they were dark-brown and barely recognizable. "The oil is dirty," Bob groused, wrinkling his nose at the overcooked crablets.
He gave only faint praise to his plate of Southern fried chicken because the bird's crunchy battered surface was also a shade over-fried. But we agreed that it was a plump, moist breast underneath that greasy exterior. The fried potato wedges were also pretty dark but pretty tasty, too.
I'm not putting down deep-fried food. I'll eat just about anything fried in grease if it's prepared correctly. That's why I promised Jason and Jennifer that I was taking them to fried-food paradise when we went to The Jumpin' Catfish for lunch a couple of days later. They're both young and healthy, so they were excited by the prospect of such a decadent midday meal. Once again, Serinna carried in bowls of beans and slaw. Jason thought it was weird to be served side dishes as an appetizer, but weirdness rules at The Jumpin' Catfish. I mean, where else can you get a single fried frog leg as a starter? Jason and I split it, agreeing that it had a lovely, crackly crust and didn't really taste like chicken it tasted like frog. "But soft, meaty and juicy frog," Jason said.
Our amphibian appetizer trumped the "combo basket," a french-fried jumble of okra bits, chewy cheese balls, sweet corn nuggets and a battered sliver of leathery "duck tenders." Some things, like duck meat, are not meant to be deep-fried.
Jason chickened out of ordering the fried-quail-and-grilled-catfish combo and asked Serinna for a platter of fried catfish instead. He pronounced the farm-raised fish to be a bit dry and chewy but not too bad dipped in tartar sauce. "Everything tastes better with tartar sauce," he said. Given that assess-ment, Jennifer probably could have used some tartar sauce for her lemon-pepper catfish.
Meanwhile, I asked Serinna to describe the sauce on Dave's Creamy Parmesan Catfish. "It's really parmesany," she told me, "although I know that's not a word." No, it's not, and it didn't do justice to what turned out to be a surprisingly thick and tasty cream sauce loaded with tiny shrimp, blanketing an otherwise bland grilled fillet. It was quite good but too rich, even for a cream-sauce devotee like me.
Jason nibbled on his fish and potato wedges but ultimately decided that a totally deep-fried lunch was just too heavy for a summer afternoon. But we did finish up the meal with two decidedly ungreasy desserts. Jennifer and I shared a hot cherry cobbler, baked under a layer of sugary pastry with a baseball-sized scoop of vanilla ice cream. Jason ordered the Hershey-chocolate version, which looked like a big, soft brownie. Both desserts were almost unbearably sweet, but sugar is such a neat counterpoint to fried food that we didn't mind too much.
We walked out of the joint feeling stuffed, though not in the taxidermy sense, thank God. But if I ate at The Jumpin' Catfish too often, I'd end up as an exhibit somewhere.