When it comes to fishing, catfish is the only one that’ll hook you, or so I was told by an old guy at a barbecue restaurant. He was absolutely right, but he wasn’t telling me anything I didn’t already know.
Perhaps it has to do with my Mississippi heritage, but the nobly whiskered bottom-dweller, properly batter-fried and served with some good soulful sides, makes my mouth water.
Indeed, fried fish of almost any sort has that effect on me; I’ve often said that it would likely be the meal I’d choose the night before my execution. So I’ve never quite understood the use of fish as a “sacrifice,” instead of steak or pork or chicken, for observant Catholics during the Lenten season.
But that is indeed the tradition, especially on Fridays, and maintaining it in style is Word of Mouth Grill, the new BBQ joint at Elliot and McClintock in Tempe. If you’re looking for a first-class Friday meal in the couple of weeks leading up to Easter Sunday, you could hardly do better than to try Word of Mouth Grill’s Friday catfish special.
“We’re Catholics ourselves,” explains proprietor Demetrious Makel, referring to himself and wife and co-proprietor Jacque. “Catfish is not really a part of our regular menu, but we thought it would be great to offer it on Fridays, especially this time of year.”
He isn’t wrong. The place’s catfish, available in one- or two-piece portions, has a slightly different quality than the classic light-brown, gritty cornmeal batter associated with the dish.
Makel is a native of Boston, and maybe that’s why his batter has a thicker, more golden-brown texture, more like fish n’ chips batter.
In any case, it’s delicious, as is the bed of fries on which it sits, along with the tartar and hot sauces, plus ketchup, to dress them all up. And the fish within that batter is splendidly firm and clean and non-greasy.
The rest of the week, of course, or even on Fridays for non-Catholics, Word of Mouth features a full spate of tempting meats—brisket, hot links, pulled pork and chicken, ribs and rib tips, in various sandwiches or combos, as well as an a la carte menu of wings by the pound or half-pound and ribs by the rack or half-rack.
There’s also a fine selection of sides, like BBQ baked beans, coleslaw, cornbread, mac-and-cheese, and potato salad.
Where did Makel earn the chops to create this bounty? South of Phoenix, mostly. He moved with his family from Beantown to Tucson when he was a kid, and got his first restaurant experience down there. “I learned to cook under Vinnie Spina,” says Makel. “He owns Mama’s Pizza in Tucson. I was a prep cook for him.”
After years working for Spina, Makel left to enter the corporate world, doing collections and online auction work and other non-culinary pursuits for a living. But he never lost his passion for cooking.
“My wife and I would still do potlucks and grilling, and a couple of times people told me ‘You need to go back into this.’ At first I thought, you know, your family and friends would always say that.”
But one friend in particular urged him to the point that he decided to take the plunge, first
into catering, then into the full-blown restaurant business. Adding an intriguing twist to the menu, especially to the side-dishes, is his wife Jacque, who is of Argentinian-Italian heritage.
“She institutes her Argentine recipes,” says Makel. “Like in the potato salad.”
Word of Mouth Grill is at 7600 S. McClintock in Tempe. It’s open from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; 1 p.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday; closed Mondays. Call 480-621-6247 for details.