Yummy fried fish is no penance

St. Augustine's fish dinner
St. Augustine’s Catholic Church is well known for its Friday fish fries during Lent. The fish is good – you can choose baked cod, fried cod (above), whiting or buffalo – and some of the sides are excellent. Try the cheese grits, which sub pimento cheese for cheddar. Photos by Robin Garr.

LEO’s Eat ‘n’ Blog with Louisville HotBytes
(St. Augustine’s fish fry, Stan’s Fish Sandwich, KFC Fish Snacker)

It’s Lent again, the liturgical season when many people undertake modest symbolic sacrifices such as eating fish on Fridays. Crunchy, golden-brown, delicious, sizzling fried fish: You call that penance?

In Louisville, we don’t reserve fish for Lent. Most of us are crazy for seafood at any time of year, and that’s been so for generations, way back to the postwar era – post-Civil War, that is – when L&N express trains would rush fresh oysters on ice up from the Gulf to oyster bars like the still-extant Mazzoni’s.

What’s not to like? Fish is healthy food, high in protein and relatively low in calories. Even fatty fish like tuna and salmon are rich in the omega-3 fatty acids that – like red wine – seem to be beneficial to heart health.

So it didn’t take much encouragement for LEO’s Eat ‘N’ Blog to celebrate the season by checking out a few fish fries. We’ve dined at one of the Metro’s most popular Catholic parish Friday fish fries and soul-food fests, St. Augustine’s in the West End; enjoyed fried cod on rye at Stan’s Fish Sandwich, a top spot for first-rate fried fish; and pardon-the-expression bottom-fed at Kentucky Fried Fish, er, Chicken, sampling the Colonel’s latest innovation: the fried fish Snacker, 99 cents cheap.

Fish on Friday at St. Augustine

On Ash Wednesday and for lunch on Fridays in Lent (through March 30 this year), St. Augustine Catholic Church probably lures more Louisvillians to the West End than any institution since Philip Morris closed the cigarette factory. Festivities begin at 11 a.m. Fridays, and knowing that by noon the lines extend out the doors and all the way down to the street, we arrived on the stroke of 11 and found a line already forming, but not a horribly long one.

As it turned out, early arrival is prudent, because the process is administered in a joyously disorganized fashion that can make for a long lunch hour. Pick up an order sheet and find the end of a long line that snakes around the tables; fill in your order and wait. And wait and wait and wait. Eventually you’ll work your way to the front of the line to pay, where one person handles all the money. No credit cards, no cash register, just a cigar-box-style till. She’ll check your order, carefully recording your main course, sides, bread, dessert, and painstakingly adding it up. (You’d think they’d use a calculator.)

When you’re finally turned loose, order stamped “PAID,” you move on to another line. One window for take-out, another for eat-in. Bear in mind that this, like most parish fish fries, is run by volunteers who only do this a few Fridays per year, so be patient: The food is worth the wait. Eventually you’ll receive your lunch in a Styrofoam box. Get your napkins and plastic fork, and then find a place in the community seating at long folding tables. It took us a little over an hour to get from the front door through the lines to sit down and eat, and there couldn’t have been more than about 20 people in front of us when we came in. I don’t even want to think about what it was like at noon, but if you have only an hour for lunch and a strict boss, you might want to save St. Augustine for the next time you have a Friday off during Lent.

The fish was pretty good. Some of the side orders were great. You can choose among fried cod, catfish, whiting or buffalo (the fish, not the bison) or baked cod, for $8 for dinner including two sides, or $5 for a sandwich, with sides a la carte for $1.75 each. Side-dish choices are baked beans, fried potatoes and onions, green beans, cheese grits, mac ‘n’ cheese, mixed greens, potato salad or a boiled egg (25 cents extra). Choose rye, wheat or white bread, or corn bread. You can get blackberry cobbler, lemon pie, sweet potato pie, caramel cake or bread pudding with bourbon sauce for $2, and a Coke or iced tea (sweet only, of course) for 85 cents.

The cod was sweet and flavorful, with a crisp, well-seasoned breading, but it came broken up in chunks, which made it tough to turn into a sandwich on sliced rye, and wasn’t very hot by the time we got to our table. Green beans came straight from the can. My wife ordered whiting and corn bread, but they were out of both, so she ended up with cod on rye, too. Her cooked greens were well-made in the long-simmered country style, and seemed to have been simmered with fatback, even if it was a Friday in Lent. Cheese grits were amazingly good: Thick, hot and rich, not made with the usual mild cheddar but pimento cheese. What a great idea! A filling lunch (including a piece of moist, rich caramel cake to take home) totaled about $20 for two. A gourmet-style experience it was not, and I probably wouldn’t go more than once a year. But it’s a memorable seasonal experience, and all in all a decent lunch.

St. Augustine Fish Fry
1310 W. Broadway
(Orders may be faxed to 581-0893 but must arrive before 11 a.m.)

Fried fish ‘shootout’

From Clarksville Seafood (a direct descendant of the old Cape Codder that long-time locals knew and loved) to the Kentucky Green River-style fried fish at The Fish House at Barret and Winter and the lovable Hill Street Fish Fry in Old Louisville, our metro area is deliciously over-endowed with fried-fish options. That goes double for St. Matthews, where a fish lover could fashion a delicious if not-too-varied progressive fish dinner in a quick hike between Seafood Connection, Carolina Shrimp & Seafood, The Fishery and Stan’s Fish Sandwich. Not to mention Long John Silver’s, if you insist on the corporate option; and now even Kentucky Fried Fish, er, Chicken has gotten into the act, with the fried-fish “Snacker,” a new product out just in time for Lent.

Seeking to pin down the culinary extremes of the genre, I recently sampled the fried cod at Stan’s, and also treated myself to a couple of KFC Snackers from the St. Matthews branch.

KFC Fish Snacker
Marketing genius or sacrilege? KFC’s new “Snacker” isn’t awful.

Frankly, the KFC fish sandwich wasn’t awful, although Col. Harland Sanders may be spinning in his grave at the very idea. You can buy ’em by the sack in a combo with two Snackers, an order of fried potato wedges and a drink, or have a single Snacker a la carte for $1.05 including tax. A cottony, rectangular white bun about the size of a playing card is assembled with a block of breaded-and-fried fish cut square to fit the bun, glued down with a thin coat of bland tartar sauce. I tried it twice and batted .500: One sandwich was pretty good, freshly fried, crisply golden-brown and sizzling hot. The other came out at room temperature, dry and chewy and lacking flavor, suggesting that anything fried is best fresh from the fryer.

Stan’s namesake fish sandwich comes on a multigrain hero roll unless you request an alternative; I always ask for rye bread, the natural base for fried fish. It’s an oversize, fresh boneless fillet of cod, sweet and flaky and fresh, steaming snow-white fish cloaked in a crunchy golden-brown breading. You can apply your own homemade cocktail sauce, thick tartar sauce or Old Bay seasoning at the table.

The Stan’s fish sandwich was yummy. The KFC fish was … OK. The Stan’s cost $5.25. The KFC cost 99 cents. I’m still trying to figure out how to process this information. It would be easy if the KFC fish was just plain horrible, but I can’t honestly say that. I’d eat three in a pinch. But Stan’s was much better. At $5.25, it’s five times as pricey as a KFC Snacker. But Stan’s is three times as big and twice as good, so the numbers work. See you at Stan’s!

Stan’s Fish Sandwich
3723 Lexington Road