Charles Petzold

The Last Catfish in the East Village?

January 30, 2012
New York, N.Y.

People who live in New York City often inhabit tiny apartments, and the only reason we tolerate them is that we've exchanged private spaces for public spaces. We can frequently be found not in our apartments but walking around outside, or in a store, or a theater, or a concert hall, or a museum.

New Yorkers also tend to eat out a lot. If you saw my kitchen — about 5-foot by 7-foot with 12 square feet of floor space — you'd understand why. Although New Yorkers will take the subway to go to a concert, play, or museum, mostly we eat in our own neighborhoods, and for me that's the East Village.

I'm a person of simple tastes. My favorite meal consists of catfish, mac-and-cheese, cornbread, and sweet tea, perhaps with some pecan pie for dessert, and I need to have this meal at least once a week. For several years my favorite place to get my favorite meal was Old Devil Moon on 12th Street between Avenues A and B. Decorated with tacky paintings and objets d′art apparently acquired for pennies at lawn sales, as well as a model train that sometimes circled the perimeter, Old Devil Moon featured a reasonable facsimile of southern cuisine served up by tattooed waitresses, plus a number of vegetarian dishes that made it safe to bring friends of all persuasions.

But three years ago we walked over to Old Devil Moon for my birthday dinner, and found the restaurant dark, never to open again.

Fortunately that very afternoon Deirdre had walked by a restaurant called Mara's Homemade on 6th Street between 1st and 2nd. This is the block well known for its multitude of Indian Restaurants, but Mara's Homemade was New Orleans oriented. It had four different catfish dishes, plus some great crab cakes and a Crawfish Cheesecake (not a dessert!) to die for. The actual desserts were sitting on display just as you came in, and Mara herself was always there to greet you and chat.

The seating area at Mara's Homemade was tiny, reservations were usually required, and it was a bit pricey so it was mostly for special occasions (like my birthday). But then last year Mara moved her restaurant to Long Island. Someday we'll drive out there and stuff our faces, but we haven't yet.

For more regular dining after Old Devil Moon closed, we started going more to Acme on Great Jones Street between Broadway and Lafayette. (Great Jones Street is a continuation of 3rd Street east of Broadway. It should not be confused with Jones Street in the West Village, or with Jones Alley, which is a little south of Great Jones Street. Reputedly in the 1960s addicts would use Jones Alley to shoot up, and that gave the world the charming expression "jonesing for a fix.")

We liked Acme because it was convenient, it was fast, and it was large enough that we never feared being shut out. A ledge along the walls held myriad brands of hot sauce, so you could just reach up and choose one to dump on your food. The hot sauce motif was continued with the actual tables, which had been all been painted like labels from classic bottles of hot sauce, each one unique. Displayed on the walls were paintings of blues singers, surrounded with the text of the first line of their obituaries. You could get catfish cooked four different ways, plus mac-n-cheese, and complimentary cornbread. We liked Acme and so did many of our friends.

Last spring, around the time that Mara's Homemade left for Long Island, Acme closed "for renovations." It's always scary when a restaurant does that. The place didn't seem like it needed renovating to us, and it stayed closed for an awfully long time.

With Acme no longer available we walked a block further east on Great Jones Street and began patronizing Great Jones Cafe. They serve catfish either blackened or fried, and cornbread dripped with honey, but no mac-n-cheese. They have also have hefty burgers and fries and a few other items. But there's always a bit of anxiety going to Great Jones Cafe. There are only about 20 seats (and 7 more at the bar) and we always fear we'll have to wait for a table.

Recently Acme reopened, and initial signs were ominous. The website requested that we get reservations by email. Reservations! What had they done? The interior was even worse. Gone were the tables painted like bottles of hot sauce. Instead there were tacky white tablecloths and "mood" lighting. The bar had been classed up considerably, and was no longer underneath a huge Texaco sign. The only hopeful piece of decor was a crawfish on the wall. But the menu was a total disaster: Frequent mentions of things like "fennel" and "arugula," dishes that you couldn't actually visualize in your head, and not a single catfish anywhere.

Acme was once a perfectly good restaurant but was now totally ruined. The sign outside still said "Authentic Southern and Cajun Cookin'" — with extra authenticity guaranteed by the dropped "g" — but that sign no longer belongs on the restaurant, and the restaurant surely doesn't belong on Great Jones Street.

So for now it's Great Jones Cafe when I'm jonesing for some catfish. I'm sure there are other restaurants in the East Village that serve my favorite meal, but I don't know where they are, and I'm afraid I've had my heart broken just one too many times.