Fried Perch from Honey 1 BBQ
Bucktown's Honey 1 BBQ is in the upper echelon of Chicago barbecue, but occasional consistency problems combined with my fierce loyalty to the rib tip and hot link combo at Uncle John's usually keeps me away. However, their Fried Perch ($8.50 for 3 pieces and fries) might just make me a regular. The fish is expertly breaded in cornmeal and manages to be quite juicy in the middle while still picking up a nice crunch around the edges. It's served simply with hot sauce, but the friendly father and son team behind the counter didn't ask any questions when I broke out my own homemade tartar sauce. Consider that an invitation to do the same.
Fried Perch from Harold's Chicken Shack in Wicker Park
When I decided to reject pub-style fish and chips, the narrow gate led me to Harold's Chicken Shack in Wicker Park. Their fried chicken had already caused me to forsake all others, and I feel the same way about their Fried Perch ($6.25 for a small). The fish is succulent and juicy, contrasting nicely with the crispy, golden brown breading. Said breading is judiciously applied and well seasoned, which brings out the almost shrimpy taste of the perch. The vinegary, spicy hot sauce plays nicely with homemade tartar sauce, and the french fries ensure you leave plenty full. If you only get fried fish from one place this Lent, make it here.
Harold's Chicken Shack (Wicker Park), 1361 N Milwaukee Avenue, Chicago, IL 60622 (map); 773-252-2424
Fried Perch from Kingfish Seafood
Just a few blocks from Uncle John's BBQ is Kingfish Seafood, serving fried fish and shrimp to the greater Grand Crossing neighborhood since 1985. If you have the moral fortitude to abstain from the nearby smoked pork, you'll be rewarded with some of the most flavorful Fried Perch ($8.75) in Chicago. Although a brief stint in a styrofoam shell slightly mutes the crispness of the cornmeal-heavy breading, the strong lake perch flavor more than makes up for it. Small edible bones evoke the ones found in canned salmon (anybody brought up eating fried salmon patties will know why this is a good thing). While the side of straight-from-childhood spaghetti also triggers great memories, homemade tartar sauce accompanies the fish much better.
Fried Filet of Sole from Ceres Cafe
The Brokers Inn Famous Sole Sandwich from Ceres Cafe is Chicago history on a plate. But the Trib already went into all that. I wanted to know how the fish actually tastes. Ordering the behemoth pile of fried sole as a sandwich seemed like more of a dare than a lunch, so I opted for the Fried Filet of Sole ($9.95), which comes with a side. The sole filets, which are broken down from whole fish every other day or so, have a distinct fish flavor that is more aggressive than perch. The fish is plentiful and fried to a crisp, and the not-too-sweet tartar sauce works if you don't feel like schlepping your own downtown (I didn't). Unless you're planning on pairing your fish with a "1967 pour" cocktail, I'd suggest getting the less expensive version downstairs at Cellars Market.
Ceres Cafe, 141 W Jackson Boulevard, Chicago Board of Trade Building, Chicago, IL 60604 (map); 312-427-3443
Fried Lake Perch from Steve's Lounge
Man cannot live on fried fish alone, and sometimes the craving for Catholic fish fry atmosphere can't be remedied simply with a full belly. If you're willing to make the trek down to Hegewisch, the year-round Friday night fish fry at Steve's Lounge will sate in a way that DIY tartar sauce on its own never can. Getting out of the car was a homecoming. The adjacent parking lot and streets were filled to capacity with cars, as chimes of nearby church bells wafted through the air. Getting to the dining room required a weave through a packed bar where everybody knows your name—unless you're clearly a couple of foreigners from up north. The dining room was pure church basement: think plastic table cloths and red paper place mats. And the Fried Lake Perch Filet ($12.50)? Save for the telltale crunch, you'll almost forget the barely blonde breading is there, which means that the briny, perch flavor is front and center. For a true Catholic fish fry, Steve's Lounge is the real deal.
Fried Whitefish (Cod) from Club 81 Too
When a restaurant menu says "white fish" it usually means the actual whitefish species or some type of pollock. But apparently sometimes "white fish" can mean cod, too. While this type of betrayal usually has me casting out money changers and flipping tables, at Club 81 Too in Hegewisch, deceit has never tasted so good. The Fried Whitefish ($8.95) is honestly the best fried cod I've had in recent memory. Owned by the same family since 1945, Club 81 Too only serves its supper club style dinners on Wednesdays and Fridays. Although it was our first time coming, the friendly owner treated us like we had been coming there for years. And I'm proud to say that not only did she try my tartar sauce, but she liked it, too.
Ocean Perch Fish Chips from Calumet Fisheries
"Ocean perch" is fried fish code for "cheap and inferior to lake perch while still getting to be called perch," which meant that my expectations were low for the Fish Chips ($8.50 for a full order) at Calumet Fisheries. Imagine my shock when I bit into some of the best executed fried fish I've had yet. Fried to a textbook golden brown, the fish was juicy and flavorful on its own, while the breading had a buttery Ritz Cracker taste to it. The slightly sweet hot sauce paired wonderfully with my homemade tartar sauce. Getting a quick Lenten dinner off I-90 on the way out of town just got easier.
Fried Alaskan White Fish (Pollock) and Lake Perch from Troha's Chicken & Shrimp House
Troha's Chicken & Shrimp House in Little Village has the distinction of being the oldest surviving Chicago shrimp house, so you know they're doing something right. While I can't speak to either namesake, the fried fish is solid. The Alaskan White Fish ($7.75 per pound), a.k.a. pollock, was buttery and flaky, with a pleasant mineral aftertaste. Even better was the subtly-flavored skin-on Lake Perch ($9.25 per pound). The tangy, dried dill based tartar sauce wasn't overly sweet, so it will work if you accidentally leave your stash at home. The cornmeal based breading on the fish lacked seasoning, and some additional salt would have put the fish over the top. As a side note, if you're not actually abstaining from meat, a trip across the street for a bacon wrapped Mexican hot dog at Delicias Mexicanas would make for a truly decadent dessert.
Pollock Fish Chips from Hagen's Fish Market
Hagen's Fish Market in Portage Park is an old fashioned fish house of the highest order. They carry a wide selection of smoked and fried fish, and their sign proudly proclaims that you can "bring in your catch for us to smoke." If you're nearby and a Lenten craving hits, their Fish Chips ($8.40 per pound) will certainly hit the spot. In keeping with standard fish house procedure, pre-battered and breaded chunks of pollock wait patiently behind the counter before being fried to order. While fish flavor is definitely in the forefront, it's slightly obscured by the very crisp batter. Tartar sauce is overly sweet and an up-charge, so be sure to bring your own.
Dry Chili Fish Filet from Lao Hunan
Nick has already expounded on the joys of the Dry Chili Fish Filet ($14.95) at Lao Hunan. And over on LTHForum, Rene G deftly observed that "this is how every tilapia dreams of ending up." But you know what puts Lao Hunan's dreamy, spicy fried fish over the top? Tartar sauce. For a less traditional way to abstain this Lent, order the dish to go and enjoy the fish with some homemade tartar sauce. The subdued batter sticks to the fish like a fried glove and is both pillowy soft and slightly crunchy. The richness of the mayo and acidity of the vinegar in the tartar sauce perfectly foil the salty-spicy chili oil that coats the rich fish. A slightly odd combo, maybe, but I won't tell Tony Hu if you don't.
Cod, Perch, and Pollock Fish & Chips from BIG & little's
By now, it's common knowledge that the epic Fish & Chips ($15.00) at BIG & little's is among the best in the city. The big, flaky cod filet is cooked just long enough to allow the batter to set and develop a golden crust. The aroma of the lager-based batter fills your nose with each bite, creating a hoppy contrast to the buttery, rich fish. Served with an exceptional tartar sauce—great dill flavor, but no pickles to speak of—and paired with some of the best fries I've ever had, I had no qualms polishing off a whole order. But it left me wondering: could BIG & little's possibly strike lightning again with other types of fish? "Anything's possible," was Chef Tony D'Alessandro's response, and he delivered in spades.
Special ordering perch and pollock only required a day's notice and ran the same price each as BIG & little's standard cod fish and chips. The mild perch could have benefitted from a little more salt and was sort of swallowed up by the industrious, effervescent batter. But the pollock was the best of the three: the huge, tender filets ensured a perfect fish to batter ratio. A light squeeze of lemon elevated it to the next level. Next time, I'll be more than happy ordering the cod version, but it's great knowing that a custom order of pollock is only a phone call away.
BIG & little's, 860 N Orleans Street, Chicago, IL 60610 (map); 312-943-0000