Middendorf’s Celebrating 90 Years

The restaurant and its thin-fried specialty are both thick on tradition.

For 90 years, a drive north or south across the Manchac swamp has meant thin-fried catfish to generations of fans of Middendorf’s — the famed restaurants nestled between Lake Pontchartrain and Lake Maurepas. The catfish here arrive by boat, helicopter and even seaplane.

“Once a conductor stopped a freight train to run across the parking lot and pick up his to-go order,” Chef Horst Pfeifer recalled with a smile.

Susie Lamonte, granddaughter of founders Josie and Louis Middendorf, sold her family’s restaurant to Horst and his wife, Karen, in 2007. The Pfeifers lost their own legendary restaurant, Bella Luna, after Hurricane Katrina. With views of the Mississippi River, Bella Luna was known as the most romantic fine dining experience in New Orleans’ French Quarter.

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When the news circulated about the purchase, many thought Horst and Karen had lost their minds.

“I ran into Archbishop Hughes at a funeral, and he said ‘Horst, are you OK? Is everything all right?” he laughed.

Luckily for Middendorf’s devoted fans, the Pfeifers deeply appreciated the opportunity to purchase the then-73-year-old business.

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“It is real, real special to be the keeper of a place like this,” Horst reflected.

Josie and Louis Middendorf opened their seafood restaurant in the tiny village of Manchac on July 4, 1934. All the original recipes were Josie’s, who brilliantly developed the now-famous, thin-fried catfish. The consistency of that thin-fried catfish means everything at Middendorf’s. The simple recipe involves nothing more than a salt brine and cornmeal cooked in carefully maintained fryers — no other special seasonings or secrets are involved.

After Louis’ death in the late 1940s, Josie leased the business to Pat Mydland, a local businesswoman who also owned saloons and dance halls nearby. Josie continued to live next door to Middendorf’s, guaranteeing continuity until her son, Dick Smith, and his wife, Helen, took over the family business, raising their two daughters, Susie and Patti, in the restaurant.

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The Middendorfs’ extended family included generational employees as well. Susie’s husband, Joey Lamonte, worked there before they were married, as did his father and sister. Horst marvels at the staff he acquired with the purchase.

“Miss Deedee started here when she was 18,” he noted. “She’s still working the dining room today, 50 years later!”

The greatest challenges the Pfeifers face are delivered by Mother Nature. Barely a year after the purchase, Hurricane Ike completely flooded Middendorf’s, beginning Horst’s battle to build back “stronger, higher, drier. If they say use two nails, we use four,” he said. When a storm approaches now, Horst is ready with watertight floodgates. Middendorf’s is quite self-sufficient, ready to operate off the grid with generators powered with a reserve of 1,500 gallons of diesel and 1,000 gallons of propane.

In 2019, the Middendorf’s brand successfully expanded to Slidell. bringing in new customers from surrounding states with its convenient location just off I-10. One of the Slidell dining rooms is named for their beloved Bella Luna. Horst regularly hosts four-course, wine-paired dinners there, reaching back to his European, fine dining roots.

Every September, both locations hold “Fettucine Frenzy,” when Bella Luna’s favorite dish is served, but Middendorf’s two gift shops offer Horst’s house-made, paper-thin fettucine noodles year-round. The annual Oktoberfest celebration showcases Horst’s German favorites — from sauerbraten to strudel. With special German beers on tap, Middendorf’s Oktoberfest holds an authentic party where Horst’s brother often appears in lederhosen to play the accordion.

Horst declares his greatest reward is “watching families get together, being happy and enjoying the same comfort food.” As Middendorf’s begins its 90th year, Horst ambitiously hopes to celebrate the 125th one day!

Catch Poppy Tooker on her radio show, “Louisiana Eats!” Saturdays at 3 p.m. and Mondays at 8 p.m. on WWNO 89.9 FM.


Poppy Tooker has spent her life devoted to the cultural essence that food brings to Louisiana, a topic she explores weekly on her NPR-affiliated radio show, Louisiana Eats! From farmers markets to the homes and restaurants where our culinary traditions are revered and renewed, Poppy lends the voice of an insider to interested readers everywhere.

 

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