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Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Catfish Salad Showdown: This Ain't Your Mama's Catfish

Posted By on Tue, Jul 10, 2012 at 9:00 AM

  • Camila McHugh

When it comes to Thai food in San Francisco, I am first and foremost Team Tenderloin. The crunch of the rice powder, the lime infused spice of a dipping sauce or the chewiness of a pad see ew noodle seem somehow difficult to replicate outside of this not especially scenic neighborhood. Even Lers Ros's expansion into Hayes Valley or Thai House Express's partner restaurant in the Castro just don't quite do it for me. I'll forgo the shops and surroundings of these locations any day for my favorite strip of Larkin Street. 

Once I've avowed my allegiance to the area as a whole, I'll admit my preference grows even more particular. If I'm not craving boat noodles, I am Team Thai House Express and only have to speak the words "Catfish Salad" to persuade my friends to forgo the pork-y specialties and sea bass at Ler Ros for the Thai restaurant up the road.

It's time to kiss the days of Pad Thai goodbye. You're ready. I always order Catfish Salad (Yum Pla Dook Foo, $10) first, secretly satisfied when the waiter looks a little impressed. Order the Catfish Salad medium spicy so that the spice doesn't overpower the flavor or your ability to eat more than a few bites, (unless, of course, you're super hard core or something).

The Catfish Salad is all about crispness. Julienned green apples and a few red peppers sit atop a bed of chilled and finely shredded iceburg lettuce. Roasted cashews scattered on top give a deeper kind of crunch. You can recognize when a Catfish Salad is prepared correctly by how thinly the ingredients that form the throne for the catfish are chopped. The dressing is brought on the side so that the salad can be eaten right after it is dressed - before the lettuce even gets a chance to soften. The dressing is a complex mixture of classic Thai ingredients like lime, cilantro, fish sauce, sugar, and chiles to create an emulsion of flavor so delicious I'm often tempted to lap remnants up from the plate. Pour the dressing over your salad and mix it thoroughly, but gently. You want to be mindful to dress the salad well without breaking the catfish into small pieces. 

Catfish Salad is so unique because it is an experience both in flavor and texture. The puffs of catfish have been deep fried, but there is nothing oily about them. This lacy catfish collapses in your mouth as it somehow seems to melt and maintain its crunch at the same time. As the spice creeps up on the tangy sweetness, this Catfish Salad could not be further from the familiar fries of the American South or anything else we've tried before. 

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Camila McHugh


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