"I thought it was going to be a shack," my friend said the first time I pulled in front of the Epcot-immaculate shrubbery that lines Barrow's parking lot on tucked-away Mistletoe Street. I thought so, too. I knew that Barrow's served only catfish; I wrongly assumed that their pruning and housekeeping ideals would be equally basic. I had a lot to learn.
The first lesson is Mistletoe -- a street whose name is cuter than the act of finding it. Down Earhart Boulevard, past Margie's Lounge and across Carrollton Avenue, another cute street called Hollygrove is essential to the Mistletoe connection. When you miss that turn, you'll be launched onto the expressway just in time to catch Barrow's green neon catfish on your left. Second time's a charm.
The Barrow family is keen on signs. "Tank tops not allowed," says one sign in cursive beneath neon excitement. Another sign outside directs drivers to park between the white lines. I slid in between an SUV and a vintage Cadillac, both of which fit snugly within the lines. I imagine tidy parking was a larger issue when the Barrows still poured vodka into their homemade, hummingbird-sweet lemonade. The liquor offerings, sadly, are no more.
Inside the building of ornate, white cinderblocks and leafy ironwork, useful signage continues: "Cash Only," "sweet potato turnovers," and "Condiments provided upon request." A quote credited to Billy Barrow earned two plaques, one on each side of the swampy cool room. "Smile. You're better looking than you think you are," it instructs. It adds up that the late Billy Barrow 1) was a schoolteacher, and 2) liked to golf. Teachers and country clubs love to post rules. Lucky for us, Billy had a sense of humor. According to one server, he had the place rolling every night until he passed away two years ago.
I wager Billy would have chuckled over the sign I searched for but couldn't find. In a rare moment of intuition, I had ordered sweet tea. The tawny nectar -- a hybrid of lemonade and tea -- happened to be another house specialty. My waitress, Shirley, misinterpreted my beverage prowess. She delivered the sweaty glasses and flipped her order pad to a blank page with, "Can I help you?" Shirley knew something I didn't. I scanned all the signs with my peripheral vision, noting a man studying the Bible nearby, and a shark in the fish tank. There was no sign of a menu board.
A more astute observer might read the walls differently. Barrow's doesn't just serve catfish. It's a catfish hall of fame. Cooks wear "Catfish King" t-shirts, and mounted catfish decorate the bar. Mirrored walls reflect customers all forking at the same golden mounds of fried fillets. Above the mirrors, from poster-size photos, a smiling Billy watches over the room like the patron saint of catfish. Looking around for a menu at Barrow's is as silly as looking for a husband on Bourbon Street.
Fortunately, the ladies at Barrow's are more compassionate than dudes at the Cat's Meow tend to be. "Ohhhhhh," Shirley finally said sweetly. "You never been here before." I swear she liked us better because of our ignorance. She retired the order pad and gave us the rundown: $13, $14 or $15 platters. The price difference accounts for catfish quantity, and the $15 platter includes a second salad. This promotes sharing, which is a brilliant idea. At Barrow's, the catfish travel in droves.
Salads are creamy, yolk-yellow potato with a sprinkle of seasoning and shards of egg white, or shredded iceberg with tomato slices and pickles (the only item that lands you a knife). Bread is toasted and buttered or plain. Shirley offered the sides with an inflection that strongly suggested potato and toast. Shirley knows best.
The catfish, however, has its own voice: a prick of spice, a mouthful of toasty corn and the clean juices of a fish that flopped into a frying pan just long enough to realize its mistake. Singular pips of cornmeal fall off the twisted, farm-raised fillets and crunch like miniscule corn chips. We made serious headway on our pile before realizing we hadn't missed Crystal or tartar sauce. If I believed in sweeping statements made before my fieldwork was complete, I might call this the best fried catfish in town.
But then I'd have to walk the plank again for sublime sweet potato pies the size of muffin tops; dark, milky praline candy; and the jukebox that regulars approach with the number for Al Green's "Love and Happiness" memorized.
Billy inherited the now-53-year-old restaurant from his parents, whose images above the bar also track the schools of patrons who parade across shattered mosaic tiles to nibble at their legacy. When he passed away, Billy's daughter and her husband took over the keys to his catfish palace.
A server who said that everyone still grieves for him bubbled with stories about Billy's contagious spirit. This wasn't the only sign that his ebullient character remains. One Friday night, two friends and I exchanged ridiculous stories for two hours after cleaning our platters. Everyone catches on eventually.