In the Midwest when we talk about our fish sandwiches or the Lenten fish fry, we rarely refer to how great the fish is. We gush about how good the tarter sauce is. And usually you have to slather it on in heaping portions to cover the taste of the fish. That’s because being in the center of the country most of our fried fish is freezer to fryer, not freshly breaded, so it has anything but a nice fresh fish taste. It’s probably the reason a lot of Midwesterners don’t like fish. They’re used to frozen fish sticks from Mrs. Paul’s, or the infamous Cincinnati Fish Log, that you might find at Lake Nina’s on the Northwest side of Cincinnati.
Fish weren’t meant to be molded into unnatural log shapes, breaded, frozen, and THEN deep fried.
The Cincinnati Lenten fish fry is funny. Unlike barbecue, where it’s all about the meat, and the sides are subpar, with the fish fry, it’s less about the supposed star of the meal, and definitely more about the sides. And each of the over 50 local churches who sponsor a fish fry during Lent are trying to one-up each other with their sides. St. Bart’s on Winton Road in Finneytown, have become famous for their fried pickles. St. Frank Desales in Walnut Hills has made a name for their plethora of homemade pies. Others are famous for their mac and cheese, or even their crab cakes like Guardian Angels in Mt. Washington. Our Lady of the Rosary in Greenhills is famous for the salted rye they use in the sandwich. But very few are actually known for the quality of their fish.
It’s funny that we think Icelandic Cod means good quality. How long does it take for fish caught in Iceland to be brought to the U.S., processed, frozen and then served during Lent? Not that I think selling Fresh Ohio River fish would be any more appetizing, but we can certainly do better than using industrial molded and frozen fish.
I have only found two Churches who actually freshly bread their unmolded fish filets on site. One is St. Frank Seraph in Over-the-Rhine, who hosts their amazing fish fry at the Moerlein Tap Room on Moore Street. Their homemade mac and cheese is amazing too. Franciscan Brother Timothy can typically be seen here presiding over and supervising the frying. You know it’s good because you do have to wait for your fish to be made to order. But while you wait you can guzzle a Moerlein micro brew from the tap room. Good local beer and freshly breaded fish – what a treat!
The other freshly breaded location is at Prince of Peace Montessori on Pike Street in Covington, Kentucky.
Even one of the oldest of our famous fish sandwiches, from Frisch’s, is just another frozen deep fried fish log. You hear more about how good the rye bun is, or how displaced Cincinnatians have Frisch’s tarter sauce shipped hundreds of miles. They’ve actually probably sold more volume of their tartar sauce than they have of the fish sandwich! You can tell Frisch’s fish log sandwich has been frozen because a lot of times a bite brings a gush of hot liquid, from the defrosted water trapped inside the breading during a quick pressure fry. And that’s a terrible experience!
But you do have to give credit to the Frisch’s fish sandwich for one thing. It was this fish sandwich that motivated McDonald’s franchisee Lou Groen to create the iconic Filet-O-Fish sandwich to compete with the Catholic Friday abstaining crowd in Cincinnati, who were all going to Frisch’s. But the McDonald’s fish sandwich, even with its smart addition of melted cheddar cheese and lots of tartar sauce is typically mushy after being held too long in a warming drawer.
Thank God the elevated taco trend has brought fish tacos into the mix with our local fish fry. At least there, you’ll have some interesting flavors, rather than the tartar sauce soaked fish log sandwich.
So we still have a long way to go to make our local Lenten fish fry a tourist attraction. Maybe if we just market our delicious Cincinnati Tarter Sauce Rye Sandwiches, we’d have more luck.