I realized the other day that Ash Wednesday and Lent are coming up, so this is the season when Louisville food writers are supposed to talk about fried fish … and all the Friday fish fries at Catholic (and a few Episcopal) churches around town.
Wednesday was also National Pizza Day!
This was a challenge. Like just about everyone in Louisville, I love fried fish. But I love pizza too. Could I do both?
Luckily, one of my favorite neighborhood pubs, Sal’s Pizza Pub in Lyndon, has both good old-school pizza and one of the best fried-cod sandwiches around.
Before we get to that, though, what’s up with the Lenten fish fries in this pandemic year? Like the rest of the restaurant scene, things look different. “Parishes are having fish fries, but they’re almost all carry out or order ahead, and in some cases the menu may be more limited,” said Cecelia Price, chief communications officer at the Archdiocese of Louisville. I suggest you try calling the church of your choice for details if you’re not sure.
Despite our inland location, Louisville loves seafood all year ‘round, and that’s been so for generations, all the way back to the late 1800s, when L&N express trains would rush fresh fish and oysters on ice up from the Gulf to a hungry public. A lot of that hunger was driven by German and Irish Catholic immigrants who chose fish on Fridays, especially during Lent; and the tradition endures to this day.
I count more than 20 local eateries serving seafood and fish, and virtually all of them feature mild white fish, often cod, fried in a crunchy coating. It may be served on a bun or bland white bread, but deep Louisville tradition calls for rye bread – perhaps in a nod to the German share of our immigrant heritage.
I’d be hard pressed to name a local favorite, but I keep coming back for Sal’s fish sandwich. Pizza may be the eatery’s middle name, but that cod sandwich, which they not so shyly call “Our Famous Fish,” is as good as I ever ate.
Sal’s fish sandwich is $9.99 with two pieces of Icelandic cod, a bag of potato chips, and a pickle; as a platter with cole slaw, hushpuppies and fries. it’s $15.99 with white, wheat, or rye bread. I recommend the rye.
Unadorned pizzas are $9.99 for a 10-inch pie, $13.99 for the 13-inch model, and $17.99 for a hulking 17-incher. Each additional topping from a list of 13 standards is $1.59, $1.99, or $2.59, respectively. A half-dozen specialty pies range in price, depending on toppings, from $13.99 (for a small margherita pizza or vegetarian garden special) to $25.99 (for a large meat special, BBQ chicken, or Sal’s Hot Brown pizza).
Nine hot sandwiches, many of them subs, cover a close range of prices from $7.99 to $9.99. Italian-style entrees include spaghetti with Sal’s family Italian marinara ($8.99), spaghetti with meatballs ($9.99), and chicken parmigiana ($8.99).
Assorted appetizers, excellent bar-food bites, include a variety of bread sticks, ($7.99-$9.99), jalapeño cheese balls ($7.99), and Sal’s popular boneless wings ($8.99) as well as a couple of salads.
There’s a kids’ menu, a $30 pizza for families that will feed eight to ten, and, of course, Sal’s cozy neighborhood bar stocked with liquor, beer and wine.
I called in our order and picked up dinner just after Sal’s 3 p.m. weekday opening time, pleased to note that someone had cut a thoughtful notch in the paper bag to let out steam that might otherwise turn that crisp breading mushy.
The fried fish sandwich ($9.99), pictured at the top of the page, was moist and flaky with steam still rising from the fish after the trip home. It came with two large slices of dark rye and two boneless cod fillets even bigger than the bread. The fish was coated with a crisp, golden cornmeal crust that was a bit on the salty side but not enough to complain about. The cod was pure, flaky, and delicious, mild as cod should be with a good, clean fish flavor. The rye was thick-sliced, dark brown, and seedless, with just a touch of sweetness and that good, robust rye flavor that goes so well with fish.
After all that talk about fish, I hate to give the pizza short shrift. It’s a good, simple pie, nothing artisanal or elevated about it, just a good, old-school Louisville thin-crust pizza that shows its family-Italian roots. I added mushrooms to a 10-inch pizza ($9.99 plus $1.59 for the topping). The crust was thin and cracker-crisp, adding a light char to its wheaty goodness from the pizza oven. The tomato sauce was lightly applied, as it should be, rough-textured with a deep tomato flavor and just enough peppery spice to give it a little kick. The mushroom bits were tiny and tender – canned, perhaps, but good – completely covered by a thick blanket of stretchy mozzarella.
A side order of Sal’s slaw ($1.99) was well-made and appetizing: Chopped crisp cabbage with bits of carrot julienne and green onion tossed in a thick, creamy slaw dressing.
A filling meal with plenty of leftovers came to a very reasonable $24.97, plus a $7 tip.