Fat Tuesday and all its indulgences have come and gone again this year. This means goodbye to pancakes and paczki, king cake and Mardi Gras beads, and hello to Lent, that time of year when many Catholics, like myself, abstain from eating meat on Fridays. Instead, Fridays during Lent mean one thing: the fish fry. Not only do local restaurants host them, but many Catholic churches do as well.
Long before I was a Serious Eater, I was a fish fry connoisseur; I ate fried fish without prejudice from the local truck stop and concrete company mess hall alike, I had strong opinions on the sweetness level of tartar sauce, and I followed a local fish fry catering legend from one church to the next like some sort of crazed Dave Matthews Band fan.
Unfortunately, the Lenten fish fry isn't much of a "thing" here in Chicago. Rumor has it that it still thrives, especially in the suburbs. But a quick phone call to a highly recommended VFW Hall in nearby Skokie revealed that their fish fry was discontinued over 7 years ago due to a lack of demand. That about sums up the present state of the Chicago fish fry.
But all is not lost. After weeks of painstaking internet and field research, we present the Serious Eats Chicago Lenten Fried Fish Survival Guide. Armed with this guide, you'll be able to find fried fish that meets all your Lenten wants and needs in all corners of the city. But here's the thing—whether you're observing Lent or not, fried fish is delicious, and everyone could use to get more of it in their lives. This guide can help.
Before we get to the fish, let's take a look at just what sort of fried fish we're talking about here.
The Rules of the Fish Fry
- The fish fry is an inexpensive, filling, crowd-pleasing dinner. Ergo, we're looking for large quantities of inexpensive fried fish.
- Local fish is obviously preferable, and around here, perch is one of the best options. The best perch is lake perch (it has the perchiest flavor of all, so to speak). Lake perch became our gold standard, but we sought out other species, like whitefish and pollock, whenever it was offered.
- Not all fried fish counts. There's no shortage of excellent fried fish in Chicago. However, this guide focuses on the type of fish you'd typically find at a fish fry (with a few exceptions that we just couldn't pass up). While we didn't adhere to any hard and fast rules, the basic kind of fish we were after featured small fillets.
- The fish are most often breaded, not battered (and if battered, then with a subdued, non-bubbly exterior). With one glaring exception, this meant no fish and chips. A number of places around the city do a respectable version, but that's a different story. This guide is about diving deep into a whole different genre of fried fish.
On the Side: Tartar Sauce
There's one last thing that's absolutely essential for a proper Lenten fish fry experience: tartar sauce. I don't know what it is, but something about the trinity of fried fish, mayo, and dill pickle raises the experience upward. But most simply don't serve it (hot sauce is served instead), and those that do have it serve a version that is too cloying—probably due to the use of sweet pickle relish. No thanks.
The solution? Make your own and bring it along. If Jerry Seinfeld can do it with maple syrup, there's no reason we can't with tartar sauce. This recipe is quick and simple and ensures that the fried fish remains the star of the show. And best of all, it only requires four ingredients: 1/2 cup Hellmann's Mayonnaise, 3 tablespoons minced Claussen Refrigerated Kosher Dill Sandwich Slices (dried well between paper towels before mincing), 3/4 teaspoon white vinegar, and a few cranks of fresh black pepper. Mix everything together in a bowl, transfer to a travel-friendly container, and chill it in the refrigerator for at least an hour to allow the flavors to meld.
View Chicago Lenten Fried Fish Survival Guide in a larger map
Once you rule out fish and chips, fried fish availability is drastically reduced. Enter Chicago's shrimp houses, bbq stands, and fried chicken joints. These places invariably have a deep fryer, and they consistently put out excellent fried fish. But a couple of other places beyond these cornerstones put out destination-worthy fried fish, too.
So without further ado, let's get to the guide. Click through the slide show to see which places made the list. And let us know your favorite picks and any that we missed in the comments. But please, no fish and chips, ok?