Wednesday, April 2, 2003

Fish fries soothe the soul

Fellowship mingles with flavor at these gatherings - so we offer a 'Fine Nine' of the many around town

By Chuck Martin
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[photo] Volunteer Bob Considine holds a plate of fish and fries prepared by our No. 1 fish fry, Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in Anderson Township.
(Ernest Coleman photos)
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This time of year, the Friday night fish fry is our feel-good gathering place. The communal meals are a tradition in churches, schools and other non-profit organizations during the Lenten season, but they don't ask for religious affiliation at the door.

Anyone can eat fish almost anywhere on Friday.

The food is simple, the price modest and the company gracious. The air in the basement cafeterias, firehouses and lodges is filled with the smell of sizzling cod and cheesy macaroni and the laughter of children. Fish fries mark not only the end of the work week, but the end of winter. If only for an hour or so, they offer solace.

Perhaps this year, in these uncertain, violent times, we need to gather to eat fish more than ever.

Every two years, since 1999, it has been our tradition to select the best Friday-night fish fries. Today, we present our "Fine Nine" of 2003, and rank them based on food, service, atmosphere and menu variety.

[photo] Trish Yards assembles a tray of food for a guest at Immaculate Heart of Mary.
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But these are by no means the only fish fries that offer good food and fellowship. Search your neighborhood for roadside signs and sniff the April breeze for bubbling oil. Go, bite into a pearly white fillet, say hello to an old friend and shake hands with a new one.

You'll feel better.

1. Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish (90 points)

820 Beechmont Ave., Anderson Township


5-7 p.m. Friday through April 11

Fish dinner: $6 ($5 seniors; $4 children)

Proceeds benefit school athletic program

This is the first time Immaculate Heart of Mary has made our top fish fry list, but, obviously, they've known how to host a great one for a while. The crisp beer-battered cod is the best we tasted, and the homemade coleslaw - coarse, tart-sweet and seasoned generously with celery seed - is by far the best. Service is more attentive than many restaurants: A smiling host directs you to a table, eager students take your order and bring the food from the kitchen. They'll even clean the table after you leave. Menu also features baked fish, shrimp Caesar salad and cheese pizza. Vanilla ice cream is included in price of meal.

2. Kolping Society of Cincinnati (87 points)

10235 Mill Road, New Burlington

851-7959 or 851-7951

5:30-8 p.m. Friday through April 11

Fish dinner: $6

Proceeds benefit Kolping Society programs

Another newcomer to our Fine Nine, these Germans are well-organized. The fast-moving food line is staffed by a mix of courteous seniors and young students. Thin, right-out-of-the-fryer cod fillets are well-seasoned, and the bright orange macaroni and cheese is the best we tasted - rich and extra-cheddar-sharp. The cavernous, brass-chandeliered dining room is imposing, but the crowd is friendly.

3. Mary, Queen of Heaven Church and School (86 points)

1130 Donaldson Highway, Erlanger

(859) 371-5727

4-8 p.m. Friday through April 11

Fish dinner: $5.25

Proceeds benefit school's general fund.

Our 1999 fish fry champion is still solid. The line moves efficiently and students bring the piping hot food to your table within minutes. If you're looking for something besides fish for Lent, this is the place. The menu also features crab cakes and an "adult" grilled cheese sandwich (Texas toast and spicy relish). The basic fried cod is among the best we tasted. On the minus side, mac & cheese costs $1.25 extra. But a plus is that the fresh-cut fries that come with the fish dinner are irresistible. Call phone number above for take-out orders.

4. St. Francis DeSales (83 points)

1602 Madison Road, Walnut Hills

961-1953, Ext. 0

5:30-8 p.m. Friday through April 11

Fish dinner: $5 with fries; $5.50 with mac & cheese

Proceeds benefit school

The guy who takes your money is happy, the men and women who cook the food and bring it to you are happy, which means everyone who's eating around you is happy. This is different fish - crispy, cornmeal-coated whiting fillets, which are well-seasoned but not as mild-flavored as basic cod. The cheesy macaroni and cheese is a serious contender for "best" in the category, and the sweet potato pie, buttercream cakes and other homemade desserts ($1) look tempting. Baked fish and pizza also available.

5. St. Margaret of Cortona (78 points)

4100 Simpson Ave., Madisonville

271-0856 or 271-8288

5:30-7:30 p.m. Friday through April 11

Fish dinner: $5.50

Proceeds benefit Prince of Peace School scholarship fund

The line can look long but it moves quickly, and many people standing there are just trying to decide what they want besides fish - shrimp, pizza, cheese sticks and tossed salad are options. Macaroni and cheese isn't available, but the fried onion rings are tender and sweet. Parish priest, the Rev. Len Fecko, makes the baked fish three ways: lemon-pepper, Parmesan-brie and ginger-sesame.

6. Crescent Springs Volunteer Fire Department (74 points)

777 Overlook Drive, Crescent Springs

(859) 341-3840

4-8 p.m. Friday through April 18

Fish dinner: $5

The fire guys serve you in precision-like fashion: One takes your order, another takes your money, then an assembly line builds your plate. Of course, they're ready for any emergency, say if someone collapses from slurping too much of that homemade potato soup. There's more besides fish: fried shrimp, tuna salad sandwiches and a table crowded with homemade desserts.

7. Nativity Parish and School (73 points)

5936 Ridge Ave., Pleasant Ridge


5:30-8 p.m. Friday through April 11

Fish dinner: $7

The thick-cut fried fish is extremely moist and fresh-tasting, perhaps because the cooks pass it from outside through a basement window directly to the serving line. At prime dinner time, the line can move slowly. But then a jovial man wanders down with a pitcher of suds, selling the beer by the cup. Now that's consideration. During the last two weeks of Lent, Nativity also is serving fried shrimp dinners.

8. St. Teresa of Avila Boy Scout Troop 271 (72 points)

1175 Overlook Ave., West Price Hill


3:30-7:30 p.m. Friday through April 18

Fish dinner: $3.75

Proceeds benefit troop equipment purchases

The place for early-bird Friday fish eaters. Varied menu includes fried scallops, shrimp, oysters, clam chowder and fish nuggets kids' meal. (A combo meal featuring fish, scallops, oysters and shrimp costs $6.) The highlight is the service provided by the young men in school uniform, who bring meals out and politely wish you a good day. (Do you salute or tip them?) Girl Scouts pitch in with brownies and other homemade desserts, that some say are far better than the cookies.

9. Newport Elks Club Lodge 273 (71 points)

3704 Alexandria Pike, Cold Spring

(859) 441-1273

4:45-8 p.m. Friday year-round

Fish dinner: $6

Proceeds benefit club scholarships.

Don't try to figure out why this "Newport" lodge is in Cold Spring. But understand the place rocks with hungry fish eaters on Friday nights. Steak and hamburgers are available for non-Lent observers. Ordering can be a little confusing (no one's clear about where to wait for pick-up food). And the loudspeaker announcements overhead can be jarring. But the mac & cheese packs a snappy bite. Two other pluses: big-screen TVs and plenty of adult beverages.

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