My friend Stephanie has “fish fry” broken down into three experiences:
- Church Dining Hall Fish Fries
- VFW-Bar Fish Fries
- Restaurant Fish Fries
As you can imagine, each experience has its charms. I have been to plenty of restaurants during Lent boasting about their $15 all-you-can-eat fish fry, but, I had not experienced the church fish fry scene until recently.
Typically, the reason people eat fish during Lent is rooted in the Christian tradition, particularly Catholcism. The Catholic Church teaches that all people are obliged by God to perform some penance for their sins. A religious fast is a form of penance. Fasting is said to create spiritual focus and self-discipline as a way to atone for your sins with God. Whatever the reason, people give things up during Lent, including meat on Fridays, thus the fish fry tradition was born.
I went to St. Matthew’s and Holy Family Maronite Catholic Church for their annual fish fry. It turns out fish fry is much more about the community, the camaraderie with your neighbor and that community and the experience of eating in the church with neighbors than the quality of the food itself. Neither were awful, but what did I expect for $12 to $15 in a church basement? I think my expectations were too lofty.
The dinner at St. Matthew’s started by us buying our $12 ticket. From there we headed to our table, which was the equivalent of a school lunch table complete with paper placemats, and waited for our food to be delivered. We were able to choose between broiled or fried fish or a mixture of both, which is what I decided. The plate was adorned with a foil-wrapped baked potato and a succotash made with green beans, carrots, and peas. Tartar sauce, sour cream and puffy white rolls with golden foil pats of butter were located in the middle of the room with water glasses and condiments. This church offered beer and wine for an additional charge.
Overall the food was exactly what you would expect. The company, though, was sweet. Our neighbors immediately started chatting us up. They used to belong to the church until they moved farther away, but they always came back for the annual fish fry. At some point, an 84-year-old lady came by singing and playing the accordion. Our table mates were quick to inform us that it was sister Mary, a nun who had taught music at the school for many years and always brings the squeezebox out for fish fry. Before we left we ate a brownie because it wouldn’t be a church event in Minnesota without bars after all. The brownie was delicious.
The second Fish Fry of the evening was at Holy Family Maronite Catholic Church in Mendota Heights. This church is based in the Eastern Catholic tradition and was of Lebanese descent. When we pulled up parking was scarce, and there were lines out the door. We waited about 30 minutes to get our $15 ticket and headed into the community room where long tables were set up for dinner. As people finished and left the dining room, more folks were let in and somehow it all worked, and everyone had a seat. This meal was a bit different with buttered brown rice as a base for the green beans that apparently are the stuff of legends. Take a can of green beans and stew it with tomatoes and potentially some onions and you get a very flavorful vegetable dish to be served en masse for fish fry! Also, there was braised cabbage, a garlic salad, the fish baked or fried and flatbread and a very delicious though unusual garlic sauce which was unlike anything I had had before. It was emulsified to a mayonnaise-like consistency, but from what I could glean there was no dairy in it. The sauce was delicious as was the carrot cake bar with cream cheese frosting and the homemade cookies (By Carolyn apparently who has been making them for years). Again, this meal, which was better quality than the first, was also about the guests at our table who come to fish fry every year. There were a few fish fry aficionados at this one who make the fish fry circuit on Fridays in the Twin Cities and recognized me from the radio show, they were quick to point out this was one of the best fish fries in town, so I was glad I made it this year.
All in all, while I had a great time, I must admit I am more partial to the restaurant-style fish fry. Once I got past the kitschy part of eating in a church basement, I longed for the crispy fish and chips and frankly an alcoholic beverage. So, with that said, here are my top 5 fish fry spots that you can regularly find me at on a Friday night.
The Top Five Twin Cities Fish Fry
Seventh Street Social — St. Paul
I love this Fish Fry, and it is an excellent value at $9 for perfectly lightly battered fish and fresh cut fries all delivered on a sheet pan. The ambiance here is gastro pub chic, and it’s an excellent place for families as well. Their brunch Chicken and Waffles is also not to be missed.
(Note: Sadly, they have closed their doors. I am now in the market for another great fish fry)
Mac’s Fish and Chips — Multiple locations
While technically fast casual, this fish stop has very high-quality batter-fried halibut, walleye, shrimp and clam strips. This is a family owned Twin Cities business with three locations, and they really do a great job of delivering on the fast part while still maintaining the quality of the fried fish experience. Don’t’ miss the homemade salt water taffy treats.
Red Cow — Multiple locations
While known as a burger spot, do not overlook the fish and chips at Red Cow. The chips are crisp and light and the fries are served with their house-made berry ketchup, which is a tad elevated. If you want to split the fish basket, the kitchen will do that for you and your dining companion, resulting in the perfect portion.
The Anchor Fish & Chips —Northeast Minneapolis
The traditionalists will love the large pieces of Alaskan Cod and hand cut fries served with a side of mushy peas, curry gravy or malt vinegar at this loosely Irish pub. If there are burger lovers in your group, they will be at home here too.
Birch’s on The Lake — Wayzata
Birch’s on the Lake has modeled itself after the famous Wisconsin super clubs, therefore, fish fry is always on the menu. For $18 you get beer battered Lake Superior whitefish, hand cut fries and house made coleslaw. Toss back their fish with any of their house brewed beers or an Old Fashioned and your right back to your Wisconsin roots.