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

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.

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.

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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