It is in the frigid waters of the North Pacific, especially the Bering Sea, that America’s fast food restaurants do most of their fishing, dodging crab pots and "Deadliest Catch" film crews in their never ending quest for Alaskan pollock. A type of cod favored for its abundance, mild flavor and contributions to abstract expressionism, pollock is almost always what the quick service industry means by the word fish. Visited upon it are instruments of torture designed to filet, mince, bread and deep-fry away any resemblance to actual fish, living or dead. But Americans eat them on sandwiches by the millions anyway, particularly during the present Lenten season, when some Christians forgo eating warm-blooded animals in favor of cold-, which usually means fish, the reptilian options being few.
Not coincidentally, this is also the time for pescaterian premieres, and in 2021 there is no bigger fish in the season than Popeye’s, which earlier this month added a fish sandwich to its menu for the first time ever. Having created a chicken sandwich that caused the earth to careen wildly off its axis in 2019, inducing "Lord of the Flies"-level mayhem and scheming all over the land, it made sense for the Louisiana-based chain to target fish next. Fish sandwiches are the latchkey children of Fast Food Nation--neglected and mostly unloved by the industry’s titans and their empires built of cows and chickens. Except for the next few weeks, that is.
Popeye’s, ever the drive-thru dissident, cast its line in the direction of a different ocean fish—flounder—in hopes of reimagining the fish sandwich and perhaps leaving a few pollock for the polar bears. Would lightning strike twice for Popeye’s, I wondered, quite as if the question mattered. There was only one way to find out: by eating an entire school of fast food fried fish—say it three times fast—while maintaining my sanity.
At press time, I had accomplished one of those goals.
The roast beef behemoth wins the prize for most adorable name with its King’s Hawaiian Fish Deluxe ($3.99) which I—for one foolish, quixotic second—thought might mean mahi mahi instead of pollock pollock, or at the very least some cornball tiki Don Ho pineapple slices. Alas, no and no. The sandwich, available for a limited time, takes its name from the company behind the bun. At first, that makes about as much sense as the formidable sheet of Cheddar therein, whose main effect is to make you wonder again who it was that decided fish and cheese go together. Eventually it dawns on you that the sweet and seeded bread is the best part of this sandwich. Its rhomboid plank of fish is remarkable only for an oddly bitter taste to the breading accented by a few notes of high school cafeteria.The only word for a sandwich like this is aloha.
Having previously offered something called a Premium Cod Filet sandwich, and before that a North Pacific Cod Sandwich, the chain’s recent announcement of a new Lent-ready Crispy Panko number ($4.19) caused a frisson of excitement among the faithful. Enthusiasm turned to disillusion, however, when Wendy’s revealed that it had ditched cod in favor of, yes, Alaskan pollock, a fish whose main difference from Pacific cod is a narrower tail. Nonetheless, the sandwich does better with pollock than all the competition, its large, Arkansas-shaped patty both buttery and flaky enough to complement a crunchy exterior that, if not really panko, at least knows what panko is.
You never really appreciate tartar sauce until it’s gone, I discovered, upon biting into the Panko Breaded Fish Slider ($1.89), which is composed solely of pollock, cheese and the chain’s signature yo-yo-ish bun. Tartar’s contributions to flavor are debatable, it’s role as lubricant is not. As soon as any part of this sandwich enters the mouth, it heads straight for the roof, to which it bonds with remarkable strength. It’s tempting to blame the adhesive properties of panko, but if so, there is precious little to blame, White Castle having apparently decided that panko is not an actual thing but a fancy way of saying crunchy. The fish was no worse than elsewhere, but the cheese remained a mystery. Every time I pried the sandwich open—an oyster knife would have been handy—the breading came off with the bread, a thin layer of orange trapped between them.
This flame-broiled, grill-marked kingdom has an unfortunate weakness for hyperbole. The Whopper isn’t a particularly large hamburger and the Big Fish sandwich (2 for $5) is no biggie. Its filet, a breading event in which pollock has a cameo, is but three inches square and tastes like it looks—white. At a price of two sandwiches for five bucks, I suppose it’s value might be considered big, an important consideration in these lean times. Still, even at $2.50 a head, we deserve more from the King than a zinger magnet (the BF is nobody’s BFF, it’s unfit for a knave, etc.). As is, the Big Fish fades from memory almost before it’s eaten, and might disappear from consciousness entirely if not for the belching.
Which brings us at last to a Cajun Flounder sandwich ($4.49) that will likely not generate buzz on the level of Popeye’s chicken sensation, which is too bad because the former is actually more impressive, the rare fish sandwich that actually tastes like something. Cayenne and other spices bring real heat to a batter that’s crunchy, not soggy like so many of its rivals. The portion of flounder is notable too, especially given the price, its saltiness nicely balanced by a sweet brioche bun. Between that, Popeye’s quarter-inch pickle slices, creamy tartar, good sense to nix the cheese, and insulated foil bag, the Cajun Flounder sandwich is a worthy follow-up, a beacon of light in a sea of despond. The achievement might pale in comparison to Bigelow’s or any other true fish sandwich, but at least there’s one fewer pollock-oholic behind the Fryolater.
The arched juggernaut is also the birthplace of the modern fast food fish sandwich, and as such deserves its share of blame for all that came after it. And yet the Filet-O-Fish ($5.87) is also something of a marvel, at least in an "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" pod people sort of way. Between its steamed, smooth earmuff of a bun and perfectly Bicycle pack o’ pollock is a squirt of the finest tartar sauce in all of quick servia, a tarty tartar whose little Chiclets of dill pickle are more than a decorative element. That might not seem cause for celebration, but a flavorsome condiment really is crucial to the success of these sandwiches, which need all the flavor they can get. If you are wondering how Americans came to prefer fish sandwiches that neither taste nor appear like fish, look no further than McD, which has been extruding these clones since the early ’60s.
The standard bearer
First the caveats. At $17.50 a pop, the fried flounder sandwich at Bigelow’s (79 N. Long Beach Rd., Rockville Centre) is almost three times more expensive than a Filet-O-Fish, and nine times more than WC’s fish slider. And neither of those places ever claimed to be fish-focused, unlike this South Shore landmark, which has been breading and frying since long before Ray Kroc met the McDonald brothers. Still, this is a sandwich worth saving for, a sandwich that gets right what almost everyone else gets wrong, starting with the fish itself: two large filets that have somehow escaped long years in a freezer case. And praise be the batter, a proprietary blond breading that gets its crunch from corn meal and its light, clean taste from corn flour. And if all you’ve ever had is supermarket tartar sauce, Bigelow’s house-made version may well prove revelatory—sweet and thick with a strong but not overpowering pickle relish presence. A sandwich like this deserves a high-quality brioche bun, and Bigelow’s choice of a generic hamburger one is surprising, and not a little disappointing. But don’t let that stop you. Religious or not, this place will restore your faith in fried fish. (More info: 516-678-3878, bigelows-rvc.com)