By Jane and Michael Stern
Originally Published 2004 Gourmet Magazine
Imagine a vast triangle with points in Buffalo, Cincinnati, and Grand Forks, North Dakota. This is the fish-fry zone. In city taverns, American Legion halls, and woodland supper clubs throughout the central Northland, Friday night is all about fish and beer.
The exact fish that’s fried can be common Atlantic cod or prized freshwater bluegill. Some places do no more than put it between two pieces of white bread (with tartar sauce an option), but most make fish the hub of a meal with a constellation of side dishes. Indigenous accompaniments run the gamut from wild rice to Tater Tots.
Not all who enjoy the weekly custom are Catholic, although the old religious proscription against meat on Fridays is certainly how this tradition got started. Fish-fry culture thrives in cities with large Catholic communities and those that maintain a strong European ethnic identity. Foremost among them is Milwaukee, where the ritual is so much a part of life that a restaurant that does not dedicate Friday night to fried fish is hard to find.
The august downtown institution Karl Ratzsch’s adds fried haddock to a Teutonic menu known for crackling pork hocks and roast goose; Taqueria Azteca offers perch tacos and Mexican beer; even local KFCs do fried fish during Lent. Fish fries are featured every week in countless shot-and-a-beer bars and storefront cafés, as well as in such culturally diverse places as the Italian Community Center, The Bavarian Inn, Greek Village, Tres Hermanos, Benji’s Deli, Silver Spur Texas Smokehouse BBQ, Fox & Hounds, and the Bya wi se nek Buffet at the Potawatomi Bingo Casino.
Serb Hall is the largest fish-fry joint in the United States, serving over two tons of fish with 73 gallons of tartar sauce on an average Good Friday. The chandelier-crowned eating stadium seats 950 people, and what is usually called ambiance is here a din like a mess hall at summer camp as tables 200 yards away break into cheers of celebration for birthdays and anniversaries. By 6 P.M., the South Side banquet hall is filled; the line of people waiting outside stretches for blocks. Most come to eat thin-crusted hunks of soft, white Icelandic cod served with french fries, tart coleslaw, and rye bread on the side. Beer-battered cod is frequently available, its hopsy coat holding in an abundance of cream-rich fish juices. When we inquire about Serb Hall’s hours, our very busy waitress takes the time to carefully explain that the in door closes precisely at 8 P.M., but customers already seated by then are allowed to finish eating and drinking.
McBob’s Pub & Grill is a West Side bar that attracts an especially boisterous Thank-God-it’s-Friday crowd. Other days of the week the big draw, aside from drinks, is corned beef sandwiches: smoky red brisket on rye with horseradish mustard or in a Reuben with sauerkraut and Swiss cheese. Cod is not part of McBob’s fish fry—the options are perch, walleye, and grouper, or a combination of the three. Hot from the fry kettle, the fish have a fine, brightly seasoned crust; they are served on top of velvety, onion-laced potato pancakes. Compared to the meatier Atlantic fish, these are elegant fillets—especially the milk-white walleye.
The preferred upscale fish to fry in Milwaukee is perch, a snowy lake denizen known for its freshwater sweetness. All the swankier fish-fry places offer it. At Pandl’s in Bayside, otherwise celebrated as a daily source of broiled Lake Superior whitefish and the Austrian meringue called Schaumtorte for dessert (by special request), Friday’s perch come three to a plate, each one split into a pair of connected fillets. Crisp potato pancakes harmonize nicely with the fish’s golden crust.
The dime-thin, lace-edged potato pancakes at Polonez pack a sour-cream wallop that makes the perch seem all the sweeter. Good as that meal is, even on Friday it would be a shame to visit this immaculate old-world eating hall and miss the butter-glistening pierogies and the hunter’s stew known as bigos, packed with ham and sausage.
Our buddies Jessica Zierten and Brad Warsh, both lifelong Milwaukeeans, insist that any significant exploration of the city’s fish fries needs to include a visit to their favorite tavern in the Riverwest neighborhood, Klinger’s East. This is a shadowy bar that we daresay no stranger in search of a good meal would likely feel obliged to enter. The swinging door opens onto concrete stairs that lead up and inside, where it is so dim that we see nothing other than a few neon window signs; the light at our table under a corner television seems to go from noon-bright to twilight and back again as the TV flickers light and dark.
Even though half of Klinger’s East is a pool hall and the bleak décor includes a sickly green rug and tables covered with matching green oilcloth, it’s still a cozy place to eat, even for out-of-towners like us. Customers include wholesome-looking families you’d never see dining in a similar establishment in other parts of the country. But in Milwaukee, taverns aren’t just for drinkers—they are community centers.
And the fish fry at Klinger’s East is brilliant. Cod is on the menu, sheathed in a crunchy coat of beer batter, but you can also get smelt, which Brad informs us is properly pronounced “shmelt” hereabouts. It is a fish lover’s fish with vivid, oily character—a heap of two-inch sprats well accompanied by a short stack of flannel-thin potato pancakes.
On one visit, the potato-slicing machine is broken, so fresh-cut french fries are unavailable (the machine has since been disposed of altogether). Bartender Tammy Galioto apologizes for their absence but wants to know if we agree that the fish is fantastic. “People say it should be patented!” she exclaims. When we ask how she likes to be referred to, she ponders a moment and says, “How about ’An East Side Sicilian icon?’” But she doesn’t kid around when we ask her to describe Klinger’s East. “You are in a neighborhood tavern,” she declares. “This is what makes the city of Milwaukee what it is.”
Pandl’s in Bayside (permanently closed)
8825 North Lake Drive