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CHOW Tour: North America: Follow along with Chowhound cofounder Jim Leff as he crisscrosses North America on a monumental road trip in search of hyperdeliciousness. You never know where he might turn up...

Follow along with Chowhound cofounder Jim Leff as he crisscrosses North America on a monumental road trip in search of hyperdeliciousness. You never know where he might turn up...

Chattanooga, TN

North America Dispatch #26: Attempted Culinary Seclusion

Chattanooga, Tennessee, to Florence, Alabama

As I said in my last report, it was clearly time to quit while I was ahead and get out of Chattanooga (hear my Chattanooga wrap-up in this podcast: MP3).

But on my way out, I couldn’t pass up a tip about Riverside Catfish House (18039 Highway 41 North, Chattanooga, Tennessee; 423-821-9214), 12 miles outside Chattanooga. I had high-class catfish last night at Canyon Grill, but I still craved some plain old catfish-house catfish.

You immediately sense that Riverside is a great place. It’s full of that high-energy vibe that augurs deliciousness. Its big, informal dining room is perched on the unbelievably scenic banks of the Tennessee River.

I loved the sunny décor, with lots of down-home touches:

This place is anything but undiscovered, though the crowd seemed more local than tourist. But while they serve on a large scale, the hospitality’s still there. I enthused to the hostess about how much I’d been looking forward to my meal, having suffered for so long in my catfishless galaxy far, far away. She adopted me, taking time to explain that their catfish is especially good because it’s grain fed and comes from a special source in Mississippi.

I sat down at a long table and chose the homelier, harder-to-eat on-the-bone catfish rather than fillets.

The hostess noticed this, and was pleased by my courage. To ensure that I experienced the full spectrum, she brought me a few pieces of fillet to sample. (Obviously, I was anonymous here, per my strict policy. These people are just real nice!)

The difference was significant. Only the fillets had that familiar snowy, slightly soapy catfish flavor. The on-the-bone catfish was like a different animal, with a stronger, fishier taste. I loved both.

It was here that I had my first glass of truly tooth-scrapingly-sweet sweet tea of the trip. I wish I could plot on a graph the switchbacks and flavor digressions this incredible, challenging fluid took me through in the course of a sip.

For dessert, I worked through this slice of crazy-rich buttermilk pie, whose appreciation was entirely hijacked by the animal brain, which is, alas, unable to analyze, much less type.

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I passed the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama, and couldn’t resist stopping in for some freeze-dried ice cream.

They had a whole wall of it!

I also ambled through the museum, which was pretty lame. A lot of the exhibits were mere recreations. Space suits used “during training,” etc. But buried in a sleepy corner, sans fanfare and completely ignored was … a moon rock. A rock from the moon … you know, the celestial object that inspired the sonata. That’s it, quietly resting in the blah case at the center of the photo below. The kids are ignoring it, just like all the museumgoers I saw (the papier-mâché space shuttle drew a lot more attention).

This says something about human beings, and about food.

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I’d reserved a room in Florence, Alabama. Why Florence, Alabama? Four reasons:

1. It’s right near the legendary Natchez Trace Parkway, which I want to take up to Nashville.

2. I needed to stop eating remarkably for a few days. Behind in my reporting, I had to squirrel away somewhere and get up-to-date without accumulating yet more finds I’d feel compelled to report on. And a quick Web search indicated that Florence might be a dismal chow desert. Perfect!

3. The Marriott resort in Florence sounded pretty luxe, and I found a $130/night room on the concierge level (worth at least $300–$400).

4. The Marriott’s pool has a really cool water slide.

The plan: work down by the pool, work in my sumptuous room, work in the elite concierge lounge, and eat in the bland hotel restaurant, getting lots done and not backing myself up further with any new finds. I would not leave the hotel until I had made a dent in my workload. I would, above all, avoid deliciousness like the plague.

I’d found nothing but sprawl on my way into town, which fueled my jovial confidence re: the utter lack of nearby chow. As I turned into the Marriott, my eyes were assualted with the almost inconceivably grotesque Grille 360, a high-up revolving restaurant perched on a base of hideous concrete. My God.

I spent more time on the water slide—and sipping bourbon in the concierge lounge—than I should have. But some work did get done, and at dinnertime I peered into the hotel restaurant (the regular one at ground level, not the revolving monstrosity), which seemed dark, overpriced, and empty. Expecting the worst, I stoically marched in, grabbed a menu, and went immediately into SOM (Survival Ordering Mode), rejecting dish after prissy, overblown dish while scanning for edibility. Finally I came upon shrimp and (cheese) grits. The chef, I speculated, was probably some local kid, and this, unlike, say, salade niçoise, was probably an item he could personally get behind. So I ordered it, along with a glass of Riesling.

It was one of the very best things I’ve had on this trip thus far. Perhaps the best. And the Riesling tasted like it was born to accompany shrimp and grits. I was having the Perfect Meal.

It’s like being caught in the Beatles movie A Hard Day’s Night, only instead of being besieged by screaming teenagers, I’m plagued by throngs of sublime milkshakes and sprightly California rolls. Demoralized, I shlepped upstairs for my camera so that I could dutifully capture the moment. Look, below, at the angle of the fork, which eloquently expresses my dismay. That is by no means a perky fork angle. As feared, I spent the rest of the night writing this account rather than catching up.

Once again, as a food critic newly armed with digital camera, I shirk my obligation to describe flavor and simply ask you to stare at the photo until it’s spoken to you. And I ask my editors to provide an unprecedentedly large expanded view that will fill your browser window with the full brunt of this food’s unfortunate magnificence.

I do need to describe one aspect. Really fresh shrimp have a slightly grassy/floral, almost saffron aroma. So does really good pepper sauce when combined with a certain kind of cheese. This dish was redolent with saffron—though I’m quite certain none was added.