100 Favorite Dishes 2012: No. 65, Fried Catfish and Gumbo at Cafe-A-La

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Photos by Katharine Shilcutt
Yes, this is a hospital cafeteria tray.
This year leading up to our annual Best of Houston® issue, we're counting down our 100 favorite dishes in Houston. This list comprises our favorite dishes from the last year, dishes that are essential to Houston's cultural landscape and/or dishes that any visitor (or resident) should try at least once.

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In the basement of the Select Specialty Hospital - Heights at the corner of 19th Street and Ashland lies one of the neighborhood's greatest hidden treasures: the Cafe-A-La cafeteria, where Chef James whips up Cajun and Southern specialties such as fried shrimp, stewed mustard greens, gumbo, fried catfish, ribs and boudin. On certain days of the week, you'll find King Ranch casserole or cheeseburgers, but Fridays are the best day to go.

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Wondering where some of the best catfish in town has been hiding? It's here.
That's when Cafe-A-La offers its fried catfish and gumbo. The cafeteria here is much smaller than at most hospitals, with only one steam table and one salad bar. You won't find it stocked with Power Bars or cups of yogurt, nor is there a dining area filled with TVs.

Instead, you'll find a cozy cafeteria that's half hospital patients and half neighborhood residents, like mailmen on breaks or moms toting hungry children, many folks taking the food to-go. Part of the reason for the cafeteria's popularity could be its price -- less than $10 will get you a salad, hushpuppies, mustard greens, fried catfish filet, large bowl of gumbo and a Diet Coke -- but I'm sure the majority of the reason is how good the food is.

Very little of what Chef James makes is store-bought. The catfish is fried in a thick, subtly spiced cornmeal batter that sticks steadfastly to the fresh, fluffy filet (which doesn't have a trace of that muddy catfish flavor). The gumbo is full of meat so tender it falls apart when you barely touch it with a spoon, along with okra, shrimp and plenty of tomatoes over buttery rice. Even the boudin is homemade, filled with liver and dirty rice. And remember to save room for some of the hybrid blackberry cobbler/bread pudding the cafeteria sells for dessert.

The list so far:

No. 100: Chili cheese mac at Jus' Mac
No. 99: Texas turkey sandwich at Spec's
No. 98: Custard at Petite Sweets
No. 97: Caprichos mixtos at Taqueria Monterrey Chiquito
No. 96: Pineapple-wasabi burger at Lankford Grocery
No. 95: Farmer's MKT Pizza at Phoenicia's MKT Bar
No. 94: Potatoes at Money Cat Brunch
No. 93: Breakfast tacos at Sunrise Taquito
No. 92: Hot dog at Tacos D.F.
No. 91: Avocado gelato at Frozen Cafe
No. 90: Chicken sandwich at JerryBuilt Homegrown Burgers
No. 89: Beer-battered asparagus at Hearsay
No. 88: Honey Badger omelet at Kraftsmen Cafe
No. 87: Pastelitos de carne at El Jalapeño
No. 86: Pancakes at Union Kitchen
No. 85: Wild boar and crab pizza at Boheme
No. 84: Breakfast croissant at BB Donuts
No. 83: Pretzel at Anvil Bar & Refuge
No. 82: Short rib sandwich at Shepherd Park Draught House
No. 81: Grilled shrimp po-boy at Pappadeaux
No. 80: Dahi puri at Shiv Sagar
No. 79: Aporreado at Los Corrales
No. 78: Oxtail francobolli at Aldo's Cucina Italiana
No. 77: Tonkotsu at Cafe Kubo's
No. 76: Spinach danish from Angela's Oven
No. 75: Pupusas at El Petate
No. 74: Pheasant dog at Sammy's Wild Game Grill
No. 73: X-Tudo burger at Friends Pizzeria
No. 72: Esparragos gratinados at Tintos
No. 71: Gua bao at Yummy Kitchen
No. 70: Geisha dog at Happy Endings
No. 69: Oyster po-boy and gumbo at Goode Co. Seafood
No. 68: Ceviche at Sirena Seafood
No. 67: Caldo de mariscos at Taqueria Arandas
No. 66: Banana pudding at Pizzitola's



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Location Info

Cafe-A-La

1917 Ashland St., Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant

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5 comments
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Bruce R
Bruce R

Imagine how good that food would look if it weren't served on foam plates with plastic utensils.

Ronmayatty
Ronmayatty

Best gumbo in Houston! And you can't beat the value! Wife loves the fried shrimp.

Urban Swank
Urban Swank

This is definitely a hidden gem. We will have to go and check it out. I am always in the mood for fried catfish! ~ UG

Matthew
Matthew

i love hidden places like this.

Tim
Tim

What a neat find.  I drive by there almost once a day, so I'll have to stop in if the timing is right.

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