Lent has its grip on the nation’s midsection, and the midsection reacts the only way it knows: by eating. What ostensibly began as an act of penance and contrition – not eating meat on Fridays – is now a reason to eat more than usual. Sure, the main course is fish, a “lighter” meat, but done up the way the Midwest does it … hmmm, not so much.
However, eating a Lenten Friday fish fry isn’t just about eating fish. It’s a communal act that binds you to the people around you and the place you are. And that’s true whether you eat fish in a church basement or a supper club.
With that in mind, consider traveling the Midwest between now and Easter. If it’s Friday, no matter where you happen to find yourself, ask some locals where they go for fish. Chances are they’ll name places like these:
The Owl’s Nest, Poynette, Wis.: There are countless places around Wisconsin to sample the quintessential Wisconsin supper-club fish fry, and this iconic small-town hotspot north of Madison is as good as any of ‘em. The atmosphere is timeless, right down to the partially functioning neon sign out front, the beer-battered cod is perfectly cooked, and the batter is more than a nuisance you have to chisel through to get to the fish. Sides include meaty fries, coleslaw, baked beans, and lots of good dark rye bread. For a couple more bucks you can pile on the salad bar and more fish, but why mess with perfection?
Wegner’s St. Martins Inn, Franklin, Wis.: A tad more upscale than the Owl’s Nest, Wegner’s swaps out Lake Michigan yellow perch for the cod, panko coating for beer batter, German potato salad for the fries, and even upscales the tartar sauce by adding capers and a touch of horseradish, yet with all the deviations from the original formula the intent is still the same, and the taste is still phenomenal. Once inside the historic old stone building, the atmosphere is classic supper-club, too. Grab a brandy old-fashioned sweet before dinner, gab with the bartender, and you’ll get a real feel for the tradition.
St. Patrick’s Hall, Neola, Iowa: To understand the totality of the Lenten fish experience you need to go to a couple of small-town church basements. Start in this hamlet of 842 northeast of Council Bluffs. St. Patrick’s is in the heart of town; you can’t miss it. They serve from 5:30 to 7:30, but you’ll want to get there on the early side to get your share of the all-you-can-eat fish, baked potatoes, relishes, and homemade desserts. After a fish dinner at St. Patrick’s you’ll have a full stomach and more new friends than you can count.
St. Mary’s Catholic Church, Lincoln, Neb: Another can’t-miss Catholic-church-basement fish fry. Actually, the basement might be hard to miss but the church certainly isn’t: Eyeball your way to the state capitol – the largest structure in Lincoln that doesn’t contain grain – and then look to the left. There’s St. Mary’s. Talk about your embarrassment of riches: Not only does St. Mary’s offer fried pollack and baked cod, but it trots out tuna casserole, homemade macaroni and cheese, twice-baked potatoes, and hash-brown casserole. It’s like the best of a potluck and a fish fry in one delectable swoop. Not only that, but you can feed the entire family for $30. Try finding another place that lets you do that – and feeds you hash-brown casserole besides.
Excelsior American Legion, Excelsior, Minn.: Not only do you have to hit a few church basements to get the full fish-fry experience, but you have to hit a few American Legion and VFW halls, too. While the connection between Lenten fish and veterans’ clubs is pretty tenuous, you can’t deny that the fish that Clarence Cofer Post 259 serves in this lakeside suburb-of-a-suburb on the western edge of the Twin Cities is fresh, delicious, and perfectly prepared. Pair four good-sized pieces of fried fish with a foil-wrapped baked potato, a wedge of lemon and a few sides and you’re there. You need nothing else to be content. (Unless it’s a bunch of 80-year-olds playing Hank Williams, which was a key part of the last American Legion fish fry we had.) Serving starts at 5. Get there early.
Pleasant House Bakery, Chicago: This new creation of Chef Art Jackson (formerly the chef of Bijan’s Bistro) and his wife, Chelsea Kalberloh Jackson, specializes in British comfort food with an American twist. In this case, it’s fish-and-chips, and the twists include fresh fish from Lake Michigan and tartar sauce made from preserved Meyer lemons. The sauce (ask for extra) also pairs beautiful with the British-style chips – better than malt vinegar, even. It’s still inexpensive by Chicago standards, and if it’s not exactly a traditional supper-club fish fry, you’ll still find friendly faces to commune with. And in the end, in the Midwest, during Lent, that’s what it’s all about.
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