Note: Burger Friday has given up hamburgers for Lent. For this Good Friday edition of Burger Friday, here’s a survey of a half-dozen fast-food fish sandwiches.
Discovering that Dairy Queen features a fish sandwich came as a total caveat emptor moment. Why didn’t I trust my skepticism at the prospect of deep-fried Alaskan cod at the House of Blizzard? Lesson learned. We go to DQ for dipped cones and Peanut Buster Parfaits, not for fish sandwiches. The cod was more than a little fishy, the (barely toasted) bun was a snooze, lettuce was a few measly iceberg leaves, the kitchen couldn’t even be bothered with tartar sauce (it was mayo, seemingly slathered with a trowel) and there wasn’t a pickle in sight. After a single bite I regretted buying it (but I did figure out what I'll be giving up for Lent next year: Dairy Queen fish sandwiches). My other regret? Not ordering that Grasshopper Mousse Pie Blizzard. $3.69 sandwich, $6.79 for a fries-drink combo.
The McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish Sandwich was a childhood favorite, but I’ll admit that it has been years – OK, decades – since I’ve indulged. Turns out, I haven’t been missing much. The fish – the smallest serving in my survey -- is billed as wild-caught Alaskan pollock, and it had clearly been sitting under a heat lamp (it arrived within less than a minute of ordering) because it was lukewarm, limp and very nearly flavorless. The sandwich’s other components were equally forgettable: a personality-free (and barely toasted bun), a measly half-slice of American cheese. The saving grace? The tartar sauce, which was packed with sweet pickle relish. The pollock is fried in canola oil, the same as the chain’s famous fries. Oh, those fries. They make up for everything (as did the super-friendly service). Each time I tasted one, I could hear the sage voice of a friend in my head. “If you don’t like McDonald’s fries, then there’s something wrong with you.” Agreed. $3.99 sandwich, $6.19 with fries.
Mirroring my DQ experience, I found myself questioning my decision to consume a deep-fried fish sandwich at Arby’s. Roast beef sandwiches and curly fries, yes. Deep-fried pollock? Not so much. The chain offers two varieties: a sort-of straight-up version, and something billed as King’s Hawaiian Fish Deluxe, an extravagance on a sweetened bun with tomatoes, cheese and leafy lettuce. I chose the latter, but the sleepwalking counter crew served me the former. It was a dud, reminiscent of something my high school cafeteria would have served, circa 1977: a drab, sesame-seed studded bun, shredded iceberg lettuce and a lifeless tartar sauce that could almost pass for mayo (well, a mayonnaise laced with high fructose corn syrup). As for the fish, well, not bad. It’s mild Alaskan pollock, fried to a gentle crispness. If size is a consideration, then this Grade-A portion was tops in its class. $3.99 sandwich, $5.99 fries-drink combo.
A cut above was the monster at Culver’s, where a generous slab of snowy white, mildly flavored North Atlantic cod is fried to order, giving the outer battered coating a quiet crispiness. The bun is a big-old hoagie, a tad dry but vigorously toasted in plenty of real butter, a fast-food rarity. Garnishes include shredded iceberg lettuce that’s tossed with shredded Cheddar cheese, a nice touch. As for the tartar sauce? Meh. It’s mostly mayo, with trace elements of olives, capers and sweet relish; shouldn’t it be the other way around? The crinkle fries were greasy, and cried out for more salt. Not that I was giving it the white-glove treatment or anything, but the dining room could have used some TLC. $5.09 sandwich, $8.19 for a fries-drink combo.
The biggest surprise – in a good way – was Wendy’s. “It’ll be three and a half minutes,” said the helpful guy behind the counter as he finished my order, and then the countdown began. “Two minutes,” he noted a little later. “Looks like about 30 seconds,” was his follow-up. Sure enough, he got the timing right. And it was worth the wait. The featured attraction was a wild-caught North Pacific cod filet, panko-crusted and fried so that the deeply golden exterior had a pronounced crunchiness, one that yielded to piping hot, flaky fish (so hot that, when I pulled it apart, there was steam rising from the fish), with a clean, oceanic flavor that somehow wasn’t obliterated in the deep-frying process. The bun was a winner – sturdy, but softly steamed – and unfortunately described as “bakery-style,” an eye-rolling morsel of corporate marketing-speak. Every other chain could take a lesson from the tartar sauce, which was humming with a lively dill flavor. A well-placed layer of iceberg lettuce kept the fish's crispiness from being impacted by the tartar sauce, and another layer of brightly acidic pickles cut through the deep-fried aura. Loved the skin-on fries, too. I’d go back, for sure. $3.59 sandwich, $5.99 for a fries-drink combo.
My favorite? My Burger. The Abdo family’s 12-year-old chain-in-the-making really does the fish sandwich proud. The square-cut cod filet is fried to order until the word “crunchy” applies, but underneath that delectably crackling exterior lies flaky, tantalizingly moist white fish, a heightened contrast that makes all the difference. The bun – clearly a best-in-show element -- gets a careful buttered-and-toasted treatment, and the garnishes are kept to a disciplined minimum, just a flurry of shredded iceberg lettuce and a melty slice of American cheese. The one weak link is the tartar sauce – it could use more oomph – but it’s not a dealbreaker. Even the price is right: $6.95 buys a sandwich and a heaping helping of crisp, golden, diet-defying fries. During Lent, the price drops a buck on Friday; today is the last day to take advantage of that price reduction. And yes, in case you’re wondering: You should order that malt. $6.95.
Do you have a favorite fast-food fish sandwich? Share your thoughts in the comments section.