When on the road in Oklahoma, small town eateries are almost always a sure-fire bet for some good old-fashioned cooking—hopefully from an elderly woman, natch—that you usually can’t find in the hard and cold city anymore. But, on those rare occasions, sometimes that side-of-the-road eatery is just another travel-weary ruse, delivering a much-promised handcrafted meal that’s about as homemade as warming up a TV dinner in the microwave.
For example, take the Pauls Valley favorite—I’m guessing—Punkin’s at 1911 W. Grant Ave.; I’m sure you’ve seen their enticing Elvis-laden signage pelvically shimmying down the highway, advertising enough good eats to get anyone and everyone in your party all shook up at the idea of stopping for some fried fish and barbeque, if they can just hold on for a few minutes and make it a couple of miles to Exit 72.
When I finally got to the place, the plates of abundant fried catfish were swimming out at a steady pace and no one was throwing them back—that seemed like a good-enough sign. As my waitress hurriedly brought some town’s unfamiliar water to me, I went ahead and ordered the 2 Piece Catfish Fillet ($12.00) dinner, which seemed like a reasonably tasty backwoods Oklahoma meal, especially after such a long drive.
For an appetizer though, the Fried Green Tomatoes ($6.00) seemed to be just the thing to munch on as I waited for my delicate fish. As soon as I bit into the first greasy tomato slice however, I noticed it had an obviously refrigerated flavor that just didn’t sit right with this wannabe denizen of Atlantis. I asked the waitress if they were homemade and she admitted, with a slight sigh, that they came pre-made, coating and all, in a plastic bag.
Like a rotten landlubber, I pushed them away, the novelty of small-town fried green tomatoes best left to my old VHS copy and those utterly pervasive memories that are seemingly gone for good.
That’s okay, I mutually reassured myself, because my 2 Piece Catfish Fillet dinner flopped right onto my table, ready for tarter-sauced digestion; those two sturdily dusted-with-cornmeal pieces of catfish with a pair of still-glistening hush-puppies waiting on top, as well as the requisite sides of steaming fried okra and piled-on cole slaw, were such a beautiful thing that night—I was definitely not going to throw this fried delicacy back in the lake.
Then I took a bite of my sides.
After asking my waitress again about my food, turns out the okra isn’t made fresh at all and, even worse, the cole slaw had an acidic off-taste that gave me a rousing feeling of sea-sickness. Still, my catfish was quite the treat, a devoted couple of flavor-blasted planks that teased their fresh-water divinity; slightly flaky and judiciously textured, it really made up for most of the ill-advised sides and other diversions.
The real star of the show, for me at least, were the devout hushpuppies; a definite creation of the Punkin’s family and no one else, I truly considered sending my meal back and just requesting a small trashbag of those tasty cornmeal balls to snack on for the rest of the drive home. But, of course, I didn’t. That would’ve been crazy…right?
Thinking back on it now, I don’t think neither Elvis nor I probably would eat here again. While the catfish and hush puppies were swimmingly fine for a slim meal, just about everything else was mostly leftover chum that I’d be happy to feed to my guppies, if I owned any. But, to be unequivocally fair, it did seem like the most popular place in Pauls Valley, so maybe they know something I don’t. Cómpralo eh.