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American Roadhouse 

Catfish calling: Twelve years of down-home comforts and Southern surprises cause traffic jams at American Roadhouse

The catfish sandwich got my attention. The boneless, pond-raised meat was as sweet and fresh as spring water. Yet the shadow-flavor of the beast within was unmistakable. Far, far back in the corn-fed fish's pedigree lurked the evanescent suggestion of rivers and streams, of bottom-feeding muddiness, tamed but not erased.

The hand-battered fillet had been quickly fried in hot fat, nicely positioned on a split, grilled hoagie roll and garnished with jalapeno tartar sauce and shredded cabbage. Grabbing the cat by the tail, I slathered it with sauce, scattered the dry slaw over the hot fillet, covered the stack with the roll's top half, sliced the package crosswise -- the cat is definitely no minnow -- and pounced.

Meow. Purr. A record catch. American Roadhouse could as easily promote itself as American Fish House (yeah, yeah, Cat House would be pushing it). I easily finished the sandwich, plus a vegetable side dish included in the $6.95 price. My two-hand snack disappeared faster than the helpful waitress could refill a glass of Coke.

American Roadhouse opened 12 years ago, Tuesday, and it's been drawing crowds ever since. I figured I was lucky to get the sandwich without a wait. But then I wandered in on a weekday afternoon, an hour before rush hour. During weekend brunch hours and promotional weekday nights (all-you-can-eat crab legs on Thursdays, kids eat free on Monday and Tuesday evenings and so on), working your way down the waiting list may take a while.

It can be worth the wait. Catfish dinners are also a daily blue-plate special ($7.95 lunch, $10.95 dinner). Other daily and weekly specials range from jambalaya and potpie to pork chops and steak. Entrees include two vegetables and a pecan-topped corn muffin. The latter, an unusual if not unique combination of traditional Southern flavors, is reason enough to check out the Roadhouse.

American pie -- roast turkey breast with cornbread dressing, white gravy and cranberry sauce -- will suit folks not partial to fish ($7.95 lunch, $9.95 dinner). The meat is hand-carved, tender and moist. Maryland crab cakes, another flag-waver, excited me less. Lumps of fresh crab, promised by the menu, were few, far between and buried in Old Bay-flavored filler ($6.95 appetizer, $8.95 lunch, $11.95 dinner).

Drolly echoing the lead of upscale eateries that trumpet the names of organic farms where their chickens and greenery are grown, the American Roadhouse menu also lists brands, not only Old Bay but also Hormel bacon (yee-ha), roast chicken basted with Red Brick Ale and Marzetti Cole slaw.

The slaw reminds me of mayonnaise with lumps. But other sides -- particularly mac-and-cheese, crisp steamed broccoli with herb butter and honey-glazed carrots -- help explain why the vegetable plate is one of the restaurant's two most popular orders ($5.95, $7.95). A half-pound cheeseburger is the other top pop ($6.95). Co-owner Ed Udoff admits that his eponymous "Big Ed's Burger -- a 1-pound patty topped with sauteed onions -- also sells surprisingly well, especially to big guys.

When I ask Udoff and co-owner Martin Maslia to identify their biggest flop, they both laugh and answer in unison, "Dunwoody! Several years ago, they decided to expand, taking over a bankrupt steak house outside the Perimeter and opening a Roadhouse branch. "A flop to the tune of $400,000, Maslia says. "That's why we're still working shifts, Udoff adds.

Having the owners on hand during serving hours may be one reason American Roadhouse attracts repeat customers. Owners can fix problems on the spot. But that's not all. "We've renovated twice, Udoff says. "We went from a one-page menu to a six-page, more complex menu. We've matured as the community has grown up.

Six pages covers a lot of Americana. Consider the following choices: turkey-club omelet (filled with roast turkey, bacon, tomatoes and Cheddar), the tofu-cado burger (firm tofu, avocado and cheese), matzoh-ball soup, Buffalo-fried chicken salad, baby-back ribs, bacon-cheeseburger pizza and red-flannel hash.

Is everything perfect? Well, no. A $3.95 chocolate milkshake served last week tasted more like vanilla. The crab cakes were on the fishy side.

At the prices charged, and with the owners available to make instant corrections, I can live with it.

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