Lent may mainly be about giving things up, but its arrival also brings abundance in the form of one of the Midwest’s finest feasting traditions: the fish fry.
Typically a communal meal of beer-battered cod, perch, bluegill, catfish, or walleye accompanied by tartar sauce, potatoes (usually either french fries or German-style potato pancakes), coleslaw, and rye bread, the Midwestern fish fry is a legacy of the region’s early German Catholic settlers, whose religion prohibited them from eating meat on Fridays. With Great Lakes fish plentiful and cheap, the settlers made a party of it.
Chicago native Jenny Pfäfflin became smitten with the Friday tradition while attending the University of Wisconsin—fish fries being nothing short of sacred in that state. When she returned to Illinois, she had trouble finding a critical mass of Chicagoans who observed the custom with the same gusto. So in 2011, she formed the Chicago Lenten Fish Fry Club in an effort to spark some interest in the city’s fish fries and track down the best on each Friday of Lent. What Pfäfflin admits began mostly as “a feeble attempt to lure my friends out in the dead of winter” has gained steam, with the club now up to about 80 Facebook members. There’s a schedule of planned stops on its Facebook page, and newcomers are always welcome.
Of course, all fish fries are not created equal, but Pfäfflin and her fellow club members have done the footwork for you. Here are four they say never disappoint.
Irish American Heritage Center
Through March 30
Whether you’re Irish, Catholic, both, or neither, you’ll feel welcome at this fish fry. Served in the center’s own 200-seat pub, the fried fish meal ($14) comes with a virtuous side of vegetables. “The space is warm and cozy and, unlike the churches, offers a proper bar,” Pfäfflin says, noting the selection of Irish beers and ciders on tap. After the meal, tables are cleared to make way for live music and performances from the Trinity Irish Dancers.
4626 N. Knox Ave., Irving Park
Millie’s Supper Club
This cabin-like restaurant pays homage to Wisconsin’s supper clubs year-round, and it offers an all-you-can-eat fish fry ($17) on Fridays even outside of Lent: beer-battered fish (left), fries, slaw, and rye bread, perfect with a brandy old-fashioned ($11). “It’s like being north of the Cheddar Curtain again,” Pfäfflin says.
2438 N. Lincoln Ave., Lincoln Park
St. Andrew Parish
February 16 and March 23 only
Pfäfflin says the fish at this BYOB shindig ($12 a person, 5 to 8 p.m.) reigns supreme: It’s fried to order, which can result in a long line snaking through the church’s gymnasium, but that means yours comes sizzling and supercrisp. (As an added bonus, the meal concludes with a slice of cake from Dinkel’s Bakery.)
1658 W. Addison St., Lake View
St. Ferdinand Catholic Church
Through March 23
For authenticity and kitsch, church basements can’t be beat, Pfäfflin says. She singles out St. Ferd’s for its music-themed fish fries ($10), where live acts often croon tributes to the Rat Pack or Elvis. On the menu: five different types of fish, all the proper fixings, and cans of cheap Polish beer. Now in its 25th year, this well-oiled machine also offers call-ahead ordering, and, for the observant Catholic on the go, a drive-through.
3131 N. Mason Ave., Belmont Cragin