Okay, guys. We got over the awkward, painful Valentine’s Day hurdle. We partied our way through Mardi Gras, and St. Patrick’s Day seems ages away. So what do we celebrate now? For Christians, it’s time for the long Lenten track to Easter. If you’re not, but really love fish, it’s still a magical, magical time of year: fish fry season.
Every Friday from now until April 8, restaurants, bars and Legions everywhere are firing up their deep fryers and serving up heaping mounds of golden, flaky white fish to the masses. Going to a Friday Fish Fry is a bustling, loud, delicious, time-honored experience — an experience The Avenue Bar (1128 E. Washington Ave.) has down pat.
From the outside, the 2009 winner of Madison’s favorite fish fry by Isthmus readers is an unassuming, neon-lit hut couched between a Jiffy Lube and a car repair shop. Inside, the early 20th century telephones, German steins and ceramic cows that cover the wood-paneled walls evoke your typical 1950s rambler (or your grandma’s living room).
The first thing you notice about The Avenue Bar is the thick, succulent smell of frying fish. The second thing you notice is how crowded it is. Despite two very large dining rooms, this place is crammed with families and couples talking and fiercely enjoying their food with the intensity that comes from a week of restraint. So, first tip: if you’re planning to eat at Avenue on Friday night, make a reservation. If you don’t, you could find yourself waiting 30 to 45 minutes, even with a small group.
The upside to having to wait, however, is going to the bar to enjoy an excellent Old Fashioned or Bloody Mary, served up by Avenue’s harried but friendly bartenders. You might have to dodge to avoid black-clad waitresses and children while you stand and sip your drink, but the spicy, smoky Bloody Mary and the perfectly balanced sweet and sour of the Old Fashioned make it worth it. Like in a moshpit, you will be in everybody’s way, but nobody will hold it against you. The bartenders’ mood sets the tone for the entire waitstaff — unbelievable busy but friendly, attentive and accommodating through it all.
Being low on cash, I did not splurge for the $18.95 lake perch, which my friend told me was superior to the standard $13.95 Icelandic cod. However, cod is probably the fare furnished by your standard hometown fish fry, so I consoled myself with the knowledge that I was getting the true church basement experience.
As for the food itself, it’s your standard fish fry -— meaning crispy, warm and comforting. The outer shell was crispy and golden, and the fish inside was white and flaky, which is pretty much all you can ask of a great fish fry. Second tip: Don’t ignore the lemon wedge — spritz that stuff all over! It is definitely worth it. The bright lemon provides a bright accent that brings out the deep, warm flavor of the fish more completely.
As for the sides, the hash browns are wonderful, especially if you say yes to the optional onions and cheese. The french fries (or thicker American fries) are also well done — and I highly recommend dipping them in the tartar sauce. Finally, the clam chowder that is their standard Friday night special is phenomenal; don’t pass it up.
That was my first Friday of Lent. Here are the Madison fish fry havens I plan on hitting up for the next six Fridays (and their corresponding Yelp commendations):
The Old Fashioned (23 N. Pickney St.) “They have one of the better Friday fish fries in town, especially the walleye.” — Eric O., Madison
Brocach Irish Pub (7 W. Main St.) “Holy Fish Fry, Pacman! We both had the all you can eat fried haddock. It was very, very good!!! Nice flakey breading, and the tender juicy meat inside cooked perfectly.” — John L., Chicago, Ill.
Graze (1 S. Pickney St.) “The fish fry was spectacular: enormous, fresh, delicate, greasy, everything one looks for with a fish fry. The accompanying tartar sauce was light and airy; good stuff.” — Timmy T., Fountain Valley, Calif.
JJ Fish & Chicken (2835 E. Washington Ave.) “There’s fried fish like Long John Silver’s, and then there’s places like JJ’s” — Michael L., Madison
Wando’s (602 University Ave.) “The Friday Fish Fry is to die for! Absolutely fantastic food; VERY highly recommend if you’re in Madison!” -— Matthew K., Dallas, Tex.
Jordan’s Big Ten Pub (1330 Regent St.) “The Friday Fish Fry is wildly popular with families and the community; one of the best fish fries I’ve ever had — and I’m a life long Wisconsinite.” — Kim V., Madison
Sam Stepp is a senior majoring in journalism. Comments, questions, recipes, suggestions? Email her at [email protected]