EVEN WITH a worn-out facility and slightly dim feel, Catfish Corner continues to dish out dependable and satisfying Southern-style cooking. With Southern farm-raised catfish as the showcased item, the food's quality remains consistently high, while prices hover at bargain levels. A nice serving of fries runs 75¢; cornbread muffins are a steal for a mere quarter. One of the most fun things about CC is the little picture book of various menu items stationed handily by the cashier, allowing eaters a brief glimpse into their immediate futures.

The usual Southern sides dot the predictable menu; we chose the collard greens, and found them far less salty and buttery than on previous visits. To us this represents a maturing kitchen, and marks CC's ability to adapt to customers' changing culinary expectations. Maybe Grandma liked 'em swimming in butter and salt, but that's because everything Grandma ate was like that. CC's modernized greens demonstrate a heart-smart approach to menu adaptation, and just makes sense. (At the same time, we can't help but wonder if the increasingly white complexion of the surrounding neighborhood has forced establishments like CC to "white-down" their food in order to please the palate of a neighborhood in transition.)

The Catfish Fillet dinner ($8.25) features a long, wide, and flattened piece of mild catfish, slightly resembling a shrunken beaver-tail. Its crisp cornmeal jacket stays moist without nasty fish-and-chips-type greasiness, and actually seals in the mild flavor of the catfish, resting gently under the coating. The nice thing about catfish is its versatility and reserved nature (particularly when it's dead), making it a perfect training-fish for the "I don't like seafood" crowd. CC never burns it, but always gives it to ya crunchy. Count on it.

Ditto with the Red Snapper dinner ($7.75), which comes in chunks too large to qualify as "bits," but smaller than the serving of catfish. Like the catfish, the snapper's relatively undistinguished flavor left us wishing that CC would explore the world of grilling, rather than tediously frying all the fish exactly the same way. They have grills in the South, don't they?

All dinners at CC come with beans and rice, a cornbread muffin, and your choice of potato salad (yay!) or cole slaw (boo!). Slow-cooked pinto beans evoke the aged tradition of patiently prepared Southern-style beans with their mellow, mild flavor. Under CC's beans hides a bed of white rice, unfortunately harkening back to my grandma's cooking. She, like CC, was fond of Uncle Ben's-style rice, where every kernel is absolutely separate and distinguishable from all others. She used instant, which will forever raise the unanswerable wonderment of why Midwestern and Southern home cookin' has such a low regard for real rice. Maybe CC doesn't use instant rice, but it might as well. Still, even the irrelevant rice can't undermine the sweet and nutty mellowness of the perfect beans.

Catfish Corner (CC) has been at this location near Garfield High School for years, and it's beginning to show the wear. The windowed room looks a little rough around the edges, giving the space a slightly dispirited feel. Furthering the moderately blue mood of the establishment is the almost uniform joylessness of the staff, all of whom looked like they weren't feeling very well. Maybe they'd all be happier if they hadn't been screwed out of a new home by the good-neighbor folks at Starbucks. In 1997, CC nearly succeeded in securing a new spot at 23rd and Jackson in a brand new development, only to be swatted away by the always community-minded coffee behemoth. As it stands, CC treads water; they undeniably continue to offer sturdy and dependable Southern-style food, but appear greatly in need of a corporate anti-depressant. Perhaps this could be in the form of a cosmetic makeover, or the addition of a few new menu items, or even a new space altogether. Eating at CC feels like visiting a depressed but kitchen-savvy friend. You want to offer them encouragement and you love their cooking, but you hope some spark returns.

Catfish Corner, 2726 East Cherry St, 323-4330. Mon-Fri 11 am-10 pm, Sat noon-10 pm, closed Sun. No booze; cash only. $

"Where to Eat" Price Scale (per entrée)

$ = $10 and under; $$ = $10-20; $$$ = $20 and up

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