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Whole catfish, $14.99.

Image: Alice Levitt

To a northerner, Tony Mandola's Gulf Coast Kitchen is a place of mystery. I had my first bowl of red beans and rice in the form of a soup, not a side and speckled with sausage, there. The menu is full of words like Pontchartrain and Atchafalaya that we just don't see north of the Mason-Dixon line. 

Last weekend, I ordered another first. My first whole Southern-style fried catfish. It's not the extra-large head-on creature I've supped on at Saigon Pagolac, but slabs of filet with bones still attached. Strangely, it is $2 less than two regular catfish filets, presumably some sort of bone-picking convenience fee. No matter, the cornmeal-crusted fish glistened beneath its salty jacket. The slaw on the side is speckled with chunks of crabmeat, in case a whole catfish wasn't enough seafood to sate a diner.

But those elements faded in importance the moment I tasted one of those fries. Then another. And another 12. What alchemy was happening in the kitchen? I am always a proponent of the battered fry. I even maintain the unpopular opinion that the crown for best fast food frites belongs not to Ronald McDonald, but appropriately, the Burger King.

But these were lighter, crunchier, more flavorful than any fry I could remember tasting. What was going on? According to chef Juan Arellano, he achieved French fry mastery with a combination of batters. The airy texture comes from tempura, the flavor from beer batter. 

If you make French fries, you should try this at home. Or better yet, head to Tony Mandola's for the real deal, with a whole fried catfish on the side.

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