Burger Friday is taking a peek at the fast-food version of the fish fry: the fish sandwich. Here’s a rundown on nine iterations, all available in the Twin Cites metro area (that's the one to beat, pictured, above, from My Burger).
Sure, it’s an improvement over DQ’s previous iteration. And yet, I can’t. The main event is a giant, Mrs. Paul’s-like slab (billed as “wild-caught Alaskan pollock,” a white, flaky, mildly flavored fish) that hangs over the bun’s edges. It’s hot, but the over-breaded coating doesn’t get anywhere near “crisp,” and the only flavor that made itself known was “past its prime.” The bun, while toasted, was deadly dull. Lettuce was browned and wilted. On a positive note, the all-important tartar sauce, served in sloppy abundance, faintly resembles the real deal, a rarity in fast-food fish sandwich-land. $3.89, 410 calories
It’s another massive, fish stick-like slab that cantilevers itself out of the bun’s boundaries. The outer coating sported a decent crunch – certainly enough to live up to its “Crispy Fish Sandwich” name -- but the Alaskan pollock had a thoroughly, vexingly, school cafeteria-like flavorlessness. (OK, if I had to zero in on a flavor attribute, I’d go with fried). Shredded iceberg and a double-swipe of a pallid, so-called "tartar” sauce (both the top and bottom bun get the treatment) are the sole garnishes. The sesame-studded bun was toasted but lingering near room temperature. In short: filling but forgettable. $3.29 (or two for $5), 570 calories
Not bad. Not great, either. It certainly looked promising, with a rectangle of Alaskan pollock that’s lightly breaded and fried to a nicely browned, crisped-up crunch; demerits for the slightly off-putting fishy flavor (insert “Big Fishy” for the sandwich’s “Big Fish” name). Full marks for the bun, which was soft, warm, toasted and tasty. Garnishes consist of a condiment that could have been taken for mayonnaise or the world’s most tepid tartar sauce, lifeless (and nearly colorless) shredded iceberg lettuce and three of the most basic pickles I’ve encountered in ages; why are fast-food pickles so forgettable? $4.29 sandwich, 510 calories
A previous excursion into Filet-O-Fish waters left me underwhelmed, a major disappointment for a McD’s staple that I’d loved as a kid. This time around, it was as if Mayor McCheese himself had prepared my order. The pollock actually tasted as if it had originated from a creature of the sea -- yet avoided that unpleasantly fast-food fishy curse – and it was fried so that the coating demonstrated an appealing crunch, slight but distinct. McDonald’s wisely slips a slice of American cheese between the fish and the bottom bun, and it’s a flavor that tends to dominate, although not disagreeably. The bun? Soft and warm and, let’s face it, somewhat vacuous. Again, lousy pickles, and the saddest tartar sauce, ever. Come on, McDonald’s, you’re a bazillion-dollar global behemoth; you can afford to perk up your garnishes. $4.19 (or two for $5), 410 calories
Greasy, yes (the survey’s biggest gutbomb, by a mile), but also could be filed under G for guilty pleasure. The fish sandwich as slider is genius move, because its four-bite scale is pretty much all that anyone should be consuming, deep-fried-wise. The lightly breaded pollock was crispy on the outside, and tender, flaky and piping hot on the inside. The bun is that no-frills White Castle bun. Like McDonald’s, there’s American cheese to boost texture and flavor quotients. A mistake is serving tartar sauce in a package, displaying the ingredients for the world to see. Not that anyone should expect a Whole Foods-level of integrity at White Castle, but when the fourth ingredient on the label (after soybean oil, water and sweet pickle relish) is “high fructose corn syrup,” you have to wonder what’s in the rest of the food. $1.69, 340 calories
Here’s what happens when a fast-food fish sandwich is actually cooked to order: after a three-minute wait, the (unidentified, but flaky and white) fish in this “beer-battered fish sandwich” (the beer is credited to Seattle’s Redhook Ale Brewery) was so hot that, when I lifted the top bun, steam was rising from the fish. So far, so good. It’s a bit of a stretch to call the battered coating “tempura-like,” but there’s a slight (and welcome) resemblance. The bun was toasted and warm, an honest-to-goodness lettuce leaf made an appearance and the (too-sweet) tartar sauce was packed with chopped pickles. What’s not to like? $4.09 (or two for $5), 620 calories
This one wins the Best Presentation award. The generous portion of North Atlantic cod in no way resembles a factory-pressed patty, and had a pleasing crunchy-outside/tender-inside balance. The kitchen's shredder goes into overdrive with this one, making quick work of (cool, juicy) iceberg lettuce and (rich) Cheddar cheese, and plenty of both. It’s tough to determine whether the bun was swiped with mayonnaise or tartar sauce (if it’s the latter, that’s not a good sign), and the other downside is with the (lightly toasted, with actual butter, hurrah) hoagie-style bun; it’s too big, too bready. Still, a worthy effort. $5.09, 600 calories
More cod, this time from the Pacific, a generous portion in a lightly coated (and nicely crunchy) panko breading. The soft, toasted bun is a major plus. Ditto the lettuce, big leaves of notably fresh iceberg. Three cheers for the tartar sauce, which is packed with fragrant dill. Even the pickles are a cut above. Everyone should definitely spring (50 cents) for cheese. $3.99, 450 calories
Still the best fast-food fish sandwich in town. The goodness starts with a well-made bun, one that gets the buttered-and-toasted treatment. The type of fish isn’t specified, but it’s a substantial portion that’s snowy-white and flaky on the inside, surrounded by a crisp, notably crunchy coating, landing My Burger's effort in primo fish sandwich territory. Garnishes are straightforward, just chopped iceberg lettuce, and plenty of it, along with a (so-so, it must be said) tartar sauce. Again, I’d splurge (50 cents) and add cheese. As for the price, it’s higher than the others because it includes a heaping handful of French fries. Get this: on Fridays (through Lent), the price is dropped to $6.45. $7.45, approximately 500 calories
OK, I’m cheating a bit here. For a crack at a superior specimen – one that’s far outside the fast-food orbit, however -- consider investing in the brilliant “Filet-O-Fish” idealization (pictured, above) that chef Dennis Leaf-Smith fashions to perfection at Eastside. (Also remarkable: the $12 Filet-O-Fish homage that’s a staple of the Sea Change lunch menu). Find it on the restaurant’s lunch menu, and read all about it in this love letter I penned in 2016. Sure, at $14 (that includes house-made, can't-eat-just-one potato chips), it’s roughly four times the price of the average fast-food versions. But the mathematics are definitely working in its favor, because this beauty is also roughly 40 times better.