There are few things as quintessentially Wisconsin as a Friday night fish fry. When German Catholics settled Wisconsin, sauerkraut and wienerschnitzel were not their only contributions to the newly developing culinary scene. Being good Catholics, they also observed meatless Fridays.
It is important to note, however, that “meatless” means an entirely different thing to a Catholic than it does to a vegetarian. The original religious doctrine that required abstaining from meat (one of the Canon laws in its more recent form) was written, like all religious documents of its time, in Latin. This doctrine used the Latin word “carne” for meat, the technical definition of which is the flesh of a warm-blooded animal that walks the earth.
Because fish doesn’t fulfill either of these requirements, it was left off the list of taboo items to eat on Fridays — thank God! Over the years, eating fish on Fridays has become a way of life, with nearly every restaurant and bar in Wisconsin offering some variety of fried fish special every Friday. As with anything, some people do fish fries well, and others do them not so well.
There are five constants in fish fries: Fish, potatoes, coleslaw, bread and tartar sauce. Some might even count beer, too. Some of these items are found in different incarnations, but they are always present in one form or another.
So what differentiates a good fish fry from a bad one? Frying things well is an art form, and the key is in the details. Is the fish tender and flaky or is it overdone and chewy? Is the batter light and crispy, or is it soggy and heavy? What about the sides? What potato options do they offer? Is the coleslaw creative or is it bland? Is the tartar sauce homemade? How is the bread?
With these things in mind, I wanted to highlight a few of the fish fries I have attended recently. Hopefully, this will help fish lovers everywhere better navigate the endless array of fish specials available to them on Fridays.
Jordan’s Big 10 Pub
Located on Regent Street in downtown Madison, the Big 10 Pub offers the best fish fry I have had in a while. The portions were sizable and well-prepared. They also had a larger than normal selection of fish, including bluegill and a rotating catch of the week — when I went it was a salmon fillet.
The batter on the fish was light and extra crunchy when fried, and the fish — I got the cod — fell apart when I bit into it. Jordan’s gets extra props for offering potato pancakes, served with applesauce as well as fries. The Big 10 also features an impressive selection of fish sandwiches, from a catfish po’ boy to a breaded butterfly shrimp sandwich. Someone who is looking for a great fish fry must look no further. If you go, however, be prepared for a wait.
The Alchemy Café is a trendy spot located on Atwood Avenue just off Willy Street. The Alchemy is friendly to picky eaters, snobby eaters, vegetarians and even vegans. This is because it takes simple dishes and does them with a twist, like its stuffed grilled cheese — stuffed with onion, pepper, spinach and a cilantro pesto — or its bourbon cocoa buffalo wings. And although it only offers one fish fry option, fried cod, it is done well. The cod was fresh and flaky, and the crust was the right crispiness.
The coleslaw was mostly purple cabbage and was lighter than most, which was refreshing. Finished with a dinner roll and a pile of wedge potato fries, you are guaranteed not to go hungry getting the fish here.
Quivey’s Grove is my new favorite fish fry spot in Madison. Quivey’s is located off Country Road PD on Nesbitt Road. Quivey’s features two separate restaurants, the Stone House for a little class, and the Stable Grill for a rustic feel; both offer the same fish fry.
The fish fry was outstanding. Quivey’s features four different options: fried cod, baked cod, fried perch and a combo featuring all three.
Quivey’s tops it off with house-made tartar sauce, sourdough bread, coleslaw and a choice between parmesan potato or fries — be sure to get the parmesan potato! The crust on the fried cod was crispy and juicy, and the fish was flaky and fell apart when I bit into it. The perch had a pretzel crust and was served in thinner pieces than the cod. The crust was a little thicker, but it worked well with the fish.
The two fried fish were my favorites, but the baked cod was great too, topped with herbs and butter. People ordering the baked cod for a lighter meal might want to ask for less butter. The house made tartar sauce tied everything together. It wasn’t thick and chunky like most tartar sauces, but light and creamy. It was also tangy enough to balance the heaviness of the rest of the meal.
Be prepared for a wait at Quivey’s, too.
Hopefully, this narrows down the Friday night dining options a little bit for my readers. I am always looking for good fish fries, so whether you are abstaining from meat or just like fish, try a local fish fry this weekend.
And let me know how it was. … Questions? Comments? Concerns? Got a favorite fish fry of your own? Let me know at: email@example.com.