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Tuesday, June 1, 1999

Hook shot

Posted on Tue, Jun 1, 1999 at 4:00 AM

There aren't a lot of inland restaurants where you can savor fine Florida game such as gator tail and frog legs, done to a fine crunch in true Southern-fried-seafood style. But if you don't want to travel to remote fish camps on the St. Johns River or Lake Monroe, they'll hook you up at The Catfish Place in Apopka. You'd still better gas up the car before heading out, though. From central or south Orlando, it could take 45 minutes to an hour to get there, depending on traffic.

As you head west on State Road 436 deep into Apopka territory, The Catfish Place finally appears on a completely unnoticeable corner of Forest Avenue across from City Hall. It's a rustic, inviting beacon. Inside, the dining area is as snug as an old quilt, and the friendly wait staff invite you to huddle down over healthy helpings of comfort food.

Let the menu lure you into swamp territory: Frog legs are featured as an appetizer ($5.95), as well as served as a part of various entrees. After being deep-fried, they resemble quail and are so delicate and juicy they tempt you to suck on the bones. Gator-tail nuggets are fried as well, but not overly so. Truly, the meat resembles chicken, although it's not as tender.

But the star of the menu is catfish -- and rightly so. Chances are you've never had it prepared as expertly as it is here. Get the boneless catfish tenders, either as an all-you-can-eat special ($9.95) or included in different dishes. Clean and fresh, they are rolled in a cornmeal breading and deep-fried to a crisp, greaseless finish in soybean oil.

Some more standard varieties of seafood are presented in inventive ways: Lobster is quartered into nuggets and deep-fried as an appetizer ($7.95). They're delicate and crunchy, dipped into a pot of melted butter and chased down with a frosty beer. Among the entrees, there's the country-boy-named "shrimp a la Bob" ($14.95), sautéed in a fragrant sauce of butter, lemon, Cajun spices and garlic. For variety and abundance, there's the house special ($15.95), loaded with boneless catfish tenders, crackling fried shrimp and frog legs, and fried scallops that collapse at the slightest nudge. There also are long, chewy clam strips and gator-tail nuggets.

Dinners come with a choice of side items, the best of which are the creamy, tart cole slaw, tangy-buttery collard greens, and chunky hash browns melted with cheese and onions. The too-soggy hushpuppies flopped miserably, though.

Our waitress was friendly and efficient. If you go to The Catfish Place, expect to be on your way in a short time -- it will help to make up for the long drive back home.

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