Straighten up and fry right
Ella’s Southern Catfish9080 Laguna Main Suite 2
Elk Grove, CA 95758
Elk Grove may be located to the south of Sacramento, but that compass direction is about all it would seem to have in common with the South. It’s hard to detect much distinctive character, history or atmosphere in this new, sprawling and generally soulless suburb. But Ella’s Southern Catfish is doing its best to provide them, in the face of an unpropitious shopping-center location.
Reaching the restaurant is a little baffling. Its street name, Laguna Main, does not indicate the presence of any sort of lake, but it is in the midst of a veritable sea of other rather nonsensically Laguna-named streets: Pointe, Crest, Woods and so on. If you’re driving west on Laguna Boulevard from Highway 99, therefore, consider yourself warned not to expect Laguna Main until you’ve passed at least 10 other similarly named streets.
Once you get there, there’s nothing particularly distinctive about the seat-yourself interior; we passed through it to a patio with plenty of plastic lawn-chair seating, shade-providing umbrellas and an unfortunate adjacency to a busy street. We were there in the morning, when the restaurant switches its handle to “Breakfast with Ray” and offers breakfast basics (pancakes, omelets with the usual accompaniments and so on) along with some more distinctively Southern plates like fried catfish and grits. There’s a bit of overlap with the dinner menu—no surprise, since Ray is the cook.
You’ll also find chicken and waffles, a celebrated combination I’ve never seen on a Sacramento menu and that I was sorely tempted to try. In the end, though, I concluded that it was incumbent upon me to try the catfish at a place that stakes its reputation so heavily on the dish that it’s in the name of the restaurant.
We found that it really was breakfast with Ray: At slow times in the kitchen, he came out onto the patio to chat with and gently tease the customers. I made a wrong turn toward the kitchen when looking for the restroom, and he laughingly threatened to get an apron on me and get me cooking. I wouldn’t have minded if it would have enabled me to find out how he got the breading on my catfish nuggets so crisp, light and grease-free.
Initially, service appeared to move at a truly Southern pace. It was a while before we got a chance to order, but once we had done so, things arrived briskly, starting with some very creditable coffee. When it was set down, we discovered that our table (a plastic job, to match the chairs) sagged slightly in the middle—a trait that spoke well for the portion sizes to come. Coffee was shortly followed by the catfish and grits, accompanied by a big pile of fresh fruit (mostly melon—not my favorite, but seasonally appropriate) and my husband’s Louisiana scramble.
It was a tossup whether the scramble contained more of the scrambled-egg base or the tastier, rich mix-ins: not-spicy-enough hot links; green peppers; onions; and oozing cheese that tied everything together in a savory, gooey mélange. It wasn’t especially hot, but a little hot-pepper sauce—liberally on offer—helped remedy that. It came with excellent home-fried potatoes that had a fresh, true potato flavor; I couldn’t detect the slight taste of the freezer that you get at so many breakfast joints.
My catfish nuggets were also mild, but there was some pleasant spicing in the cornmeal breading, and the sweet and earthy but unobtrusive flavor of the catfish shined through. These, too, were excellent with a touch of the hot sauce. The grits were thick, creamy and nubbly like white polenta.
The dinner menu also offers catfish and plenty of other fried seafood—snapper, shrimp and oysters—with cornmeal breading, plus crab cakes and a Cajun shrimp pasta. I’d love to go back and try the various sides: hush puppies, Cajun potato salad, red beans and rice, and more. At lunch, the same options turn up in sandwiches.
There’s also a dessert menu, listed on a board by the cash register. Since it was nearly noon, we took a couple to go. I wished I’d gotten the pecan pie to enjoy with my coffee: There’s nothing quite like pie for breakfast, in my opinion. It stood high and caramelly, with a tasty thick crust and a distinctly boozy redolence—bourbon, I think. The peach cobbler, juicy and rich with cinnamon and nutmeg flavors, didn’t survive the trip in a Styrofoam container quite so well. By the time we got it home, the peach slices (unhappily, their firm texture and super-sweet taste made me suspect they came from a can), streusel and what looked like the remains of a lattice crust had merged into a yummy mess. Still, we ate it up happily and looked on it and our fond memories of fried catfish and grits as proof that there is a little bit of Southern soul lurking in Elk Grove.