Crunchy Little Fishies

When one moves to the Wisconsin, it's a good idea to assimilate as much as possible. And, really, this isn't a disagreeable thing to do. The quirks that make Wisconsin unique are all very appealing things, such as good beer, cheese, butter, and fish fry. There are a few that are a bit more difficult to swallow - like ice fishing, for example - but, for the most part, the things that Wisconsinites love center around food, friends, and food.

When I moved to Madison in 1996, I'd never eaten a bratwurst. I'd had my share of Italian sausages (for obvious reasons) but the Germanic versions of sausage were off my radar. The first time I bit into a Johnsonville Beer and Brat (where there's beer INSIDE the sausage casing) I thought I'd died and gone to heaven. I quickly learned that proper bratwurst is to be pre-cooked in beer before they're put on the grill to crisp up. And, since I'm not a beer drinker, this was how I could participate in the Wisconsin passion for consuming the official state beverage*.

Of all the Wisconsin traditions, the one I've taken to heart the most is the Friday Fish Fry. Born of Catholic roots, the Friday Fish Fry is much more than just a meal out on a Friday night - it's a ritual of epic proportions. In the greater Madison area alone, there are hundreds of restaurants that serve some version of Friday Fish Fry. The standard fry includes:

  • Breaded or beer battered cod, perch, or walleye (or any combo of the three)
  • A potato of some sort
  • Cole slaw
  • Salad or soup for a nominal upcharge
There are as many variations on this theme as there are restaurants. And there are websites, blogs, Facebook pages, and even Twitter accounts (@MadisonFishFry) devoted to trying as many as possible and finding the best.

We all have our favorites for one reason or another. A true fan doesn't care much about the ambiance of a restaurant, just whether the fish is top-notch and how the sides stack up. Personally, I like perch (or blue gill if I can get it) breaded (not battered) with a baked potato on the side. New England clam chowder to start, if it's available, please. Along with your fish fry, a true Wisconsinite drinks an Old Fashioned, the Wisconsin way - with brandy, sweet. As an original east-coaster, I just can't bear how sweet a brandy Old Fashioned is so I have it with bourbon. This is a dead giveaway that I wasn't born and bred here.

A few years ago, I was introduced to a variation on the Friday Fish Fry theme - the smelt fry. For the uninitiated, smelt is a tiny little fish - about the size of an anchovy - and, in the Midwest, they are found in the Great Lakes. They're a "winter fish" meaning that they're normally fished during the cold months. And they're one of the few fish that are caught by netting.

So, when you cut off the heads and gut them, then dredge them in flour, salt and pepper and fry 'em up, you have, essentially, little fishy french fries. They're AWESOME.

I'm a loyalist. I only go to one place for smelt fry - the first place I ever went, about five years ago - the North Bristol Sportsmen's Club (NBSC). The NBSC is a shooting range that has an awesome clubhouse with a long bar and a dining room full of formica tables. Once a month, from January to April, the NBSC hosts a Saturday night all-you-can-eat smelt fry. To say the fish are perfect is an understatement. A friend who lived in the UK for years is fond of saying that the NBSC smelt is as good or better than any frito misto he's ever had, anywhere. And, as if perfect, crunchy, little fishies isn't enough, you can also have homemade cheesy potatoes (this is pure Wisconsin, baby), homemade potato pancakes, cole slaw, rolls, applesauce, and, if you don't want fish (traitors!) they also offer some pretty exquisite fried chicken.

For a great sense of the NBSC smelt fry, please read my friend Sean's Heavy Table review from last year, here.
From one of our regular smelters. So he knows of what he draws.

Over the years, I've taken a lot of my friends to the NBSC for smelt. We now have a pretty regular group that tries to attend as many of the four annual dinners as possible. It's become a ritual, nearly as epic as the year-round Friday Fish fry. Maybe more epic because it's limited and being forced to wait makes the smelt that much sweeter.

This past Saturday was the last NBSC smelt fry for 2012. It was bittersweet - a beautiful warm afternoon meant that we could wait for our table outside, serenaded by the blasts of shotguns. My cheap but ridiculously strong bourbon Old Fashioned meant that I had to stop after one because I was getting tipsy before we even sat down to eat. As I plowed through my overflowing plate of little fish and cheesy potatoes, and I watched my friends do the same, I got a slightly misty about the fact that I wouldn't be back to the NBSC until January of 2013.

At least I have next Friday's Fish Fry to look forward to.

- Alex

*I'm pretty sure I just made that up. If Wisconsin has a state beverage, it's probably milk but everyone I know here is obsessed with beer.


  1. LOL! Reading your post, I'm thinking about the small, mostly Norwegian, town I grew up in Northern Iowa where there were weekly Lutefisk suppers at church. This is white fish that has been soaked in lye before being cooked. Since I wasn't a native, nor Norwegian, I never tasted it, but could only "enjoy" it's smell! Stinky!

    Beer should be the official drink of WI!
    Smell the dairyair!

  2. I don't think I ever knew you're a fellow east-coaster! Neat. :) I'm not a huge fan of an old fashioned, but I can't imagine drinking anything else at a fish fry (or supper club, no matter what I'm eating).

  3. @Angela - There's a Sons of Norway meeting hall about one block from my house. I'm always willing to go to their bake sales but their dinners include Lutefisk and that's where I draw the line. LOL!

    @kat - I know! It seems sacrilegious to drink anything else. Honestly, I love an OF though. Especially if they're made the right way, by muddling the orange, cherry, and sugar. Yum!

    @pinkundine - So much fun. Wisconsin is a food lover's paradise (as long as you're not a health nut.)