Monday, April 2, 2012

Guest Post: March Madness + Lent = Fish Sandwich Bracketology

I love March. Many people say, “Now it’s cold and rainy.” I say, “Now it’s less cold and less snowy.” Most say, “Its name’s too short.” I say, “I can say it with food in my mouth and still be understood.” All but one say, “It’s the month that took Caesar from us.” I -- that one -- say, “That dude was responsible for George Clooney’s dumbest haircut.” In any event, I think it’s only right to send off another great March by celebrating her two most iconic features: brackets and Lent (apologies to Puke On the Sidewalk and Shamrock Stickers).

Every year I get caught unprepared on the first Fish Friday. I’ll pack a standard lunch of a plastic bag full of ham and turkey legs, and then remember. This probably wouldn’t be a problem, working downtown amidst lots of restaurants, but the fact is I just don’t really eat fish sandwiches at any other earth’s distance from the sun. So, where do I go? Which sandwich did I end up preferring by Easter of last year? I inevitably remember wrong and wind up reading Wikipedia entries to find out why exactly I’m allowed to eat this stupid animal on Fridays. Well, never again. Borrowing from the second biggest disappointment of my fourth-favorite month, I’ve pitted 8 accessible fastfood fish sandwiches against each other in a single-elimination tournament. Last one standing should be the go to. I’ve been getting some strange looks for even mentioning I would abstain from meat on Fridays. Rest assured, this is for the benefit of fish-sandwich lovers, Papist or not (even if I don’t know anyone who would eat a fish sandwich unless they were mired in some meatless Friday purgatory).

First, the rules. In a single weekend (so as not to rely on notes alone) I ate the flagship fish offering of 8 major fastfood chains. Some restaurants are more prevalent in the neighborhood I grew up in (Popeyes) and some are more prevalent where I currently live (Panera), but all should be driving distance for anyone (although Right Coasters might take more of a road trip than a “drive” for one; See the Midwest!). I will try to break down the components of the sandwich, but this is really just a good ol’ fashioned which is best. The seeding was done just as it is in college basketball: 1) Top seeds were given to the schools restaurants with the most money and consumer control who have their pick of everything always, 2) middle seeds were given to weird trendy restaurants who really should’ve been lower, 3) Bottom seeds went to hard workers who got no respect because nobody on the team had a rare learning disability that he overcame.

Enter the competitors...

McDonald’s (1) vs. Arby’s (8)
- Worldeater meets Good Mood

McDonald’s - The Filet-O-Fish, leads in hyphens and prestige. It’s hard to say whether my mind jumps to McDonald’s when I think of fish sandwich because the Filet-O-Fish is the standard, or just because McDonald’s has everything, and so I revert to it when I don’t know where to get a particular item (ask me where I’m going if I ever feel the need to grab a parfait...). In any case, everybody knows of the Filet-O-Fish, and it outsells everybody else by a mile. As an underdog rooter, I immediately got to work criticizing this beast.

But, once the whistle blows, the Filet-O-Fish is the real deal. The square shaped fish patty(?) tempts you to mock it, then delivers on every single bite. As a rule, it’s weird when fast food joints serve a food in a shape we’re not accustomed to. But, unlike the weird/delicious pressed chicken you’d find in a “nugget,” the Squarefish in the F-O-F flakes like fish should. I may be crazy, but I think McDonald’s might actually cut real fish into squares for a reason: it evens up the bites. There is no problem here with one bite being more fishy, the other more bread-y. And consistency is key. As you may know even though it’s not pictured, there is a slice of American cheese under the squarefish that’s about half the size. The result is a perfectly proportional cheese-to-Squarefish ratio. I don’t typically think cheese should go near fish, but there’s a reason this thing is celebrating its 50th birthday. The cheese does less to bring its own flavor than to just sort of perfect the fairly meaty squarefish. Tartar is excellent, not heavy or runny, but you may need to lift the bun to spread it out a little. And the bun is polished. Check out the picture, it actually looks polished. In addition, it holds up plenty and is substantial without being heavy. The only real weakness of the F-O-F is the coating on the fish. Unlike most of the other offerings on this list, there’s no crunch (a problem only compounded by the lack of lettuce).

Bottom line: Everybody was trying to recruit Squarefish out of high school, but his uncle/agent told him he needed to go where there’s the most exposure (then, I think his uncle went to jail for trying to get money from the school). The Filet-O-Fish just plain doesn’t get anything wrong.

Arby’s - What happens when you consistently perform below the fast food giants, and you can’t really do a whole lot more with your roast beef on an onion roll? You make...deli sandwiches. I have to confess, I’ve never had an Arby’s deli sandwich, but I hear they’re pretty good. So, naturally, they’ve come to dominate the menu. Yet, Arby’s continues to overreach. I need not remind Philadelphians of this. Is fried fish a retreat to mediocrity?

Short answer: yes. In an apparent effort to convince diners of the realness of their fish, Arby’s chose a weirdly shaped fish finger. It’s got to be real! I mean, that’s what fish (eels) look like, right? Despite its shape, the fish is pretty good. I just wish I could say the same for the breading. To use my brother-in-law’s description, it’s slimy. There is no crunch to this sandwich, especially not from the wilted lettuce shreds. Tartar is grocery store variety, and the bun is too stiff. Of all the sandwiches, this one seemed the most clearly developed to participate in March, and nothing else.

Bottom line: Somebody got a little too excited about the real fish, and forgot to perfect every other part of the sandwich. That said, this is the cheapest offering in the tournament.

WINNER: McDonald’s wasn’t even tested. Wire to wire.

Panera (4) vs. Long John Silver’s (5)
- The New Hip tries to outclass This-Is-What-We-Do

Panera - The Salmon Club Croissant (SCC) comes in like a team mostly recruited from Europe and Australia because the school is known more for academics, and so is a poor recruiter. And everybody loves them in this tournament. The SCC is the cool sandwich to mention around the watercooler so that people know you’re into the sandwich tournament, but you don’t just pick favorites. But, then you’re watching the news, and their best player was ruled ineligible!

Bacon lit up the sandwich world all year, but it’s not allowed on a Friday Fish sandwich! How did no one see this coming? So, not only do I have to eat the SCC without bacon, I have to purposely remove it. This is kind of like taking the money out of the wallet you just found and pocketing the leather. But, what about the parts I did eat? The sandwich fails on a bunch of levels, all magnified by the $8.50 pricetag for a half sandwich. The salmon is ice cold, instead of slightly below room temperature. The croissant is not at all tough enough to hold a frozen chunk of fish. The “zesty tomato aioli” was actually pretty delicious, but applied with an eyedropper. The tomatoes and lettuce were fresh in that Panera way, but nothing could overcome how wrong the fish was. It was cut filet style, which is all wrong for a sandwich. One bite was all croissant, the next was just a mouthful of snowfish. Don’t get me wrong, the ingredients were high quality, but the filet should’ve been sliced in half crosswise, and the aioli spread to let the flavors mix.

I still can’t get over the bacon. Like I said, anybody could just want a fish sandwich, so they can put as much bacon on as they want. But, if not to exploit guilty heathens why was it just re-released, and why is is set to go away again? There’s nothing about bacon that could ever offend me, but Panera just lost their best player to a technicality.

Note: I accidentally left one piece of bacon on, and my accidental bite was wayyyyy better.

Bottom line: Fish is freezing, mostly too thick, on a croissant that doesn’t hold a candle to Panera’s regular french bread; all for the low, low price of a 6 pack of decent beer. Choices?

Long John Silver’s - This has been one of my favorite fast food joints since I was a kid. My mom would bring home the little cardboard boxes full of fish that she and my sister would eat 3 total pieces of, while my dad and I would wipe out the rest of the 23-piece (or whatever it was). So, they’ve got my nostalgia vote. And they are like Fish University. They don’t do football, or lacrosse, or handball. They do fish. So, with my childhood and focus on their side, what could go wrong?

Most everything. So pissed off from their low seed, and so foolishly confident they would destroy that croissant joint, they mailed it in. Starting with a roll that you would be disappointed to buy for a dollar a dozen from the grocery store (seriously, this is one of those corndusted jokes that you cram processed turkey and generic American cheese on to torture yourself for spending too much on Home Improvement dvds instead of groceries), LJS follows with the floppiest lettuce shreds in the tournament, and a piece of fish that would never been seen in one of their delectable baskets. The only real beacon here is the tartar sauce which is always great.

Bottom line: Heartbreak. I just can’t believe that a famous pirate would serve up the fish equivalent of a KFC Snacker with so much at stake.

WINNER: LJS ought to be grateful for their seed because they would’ve gotten smoked by literally everyone else.

Wendy’s (3) vs. Popeye’s (6)
- Rebuilders face the Cajun Workhorse

Wendy’s - You might’ve missed it if you read the news for things like presidential campaigns, international relations, or obituaries, but Wendy’s recently overtook Burger King as the number two hamburger chain in the country. And they did it through a pretty top-to-bottom rebranding. Fries now come with pretentious sea salt and brown tips to simulate real potato skin. The Classic Double, newly features premium vegetables, and a buttered bun. All this amounted to killing the delicious greasyness of one of the best standard double burgers around, but it made Wendy’s take off. Everyone knows: leaving potato skin on fights obesity. Even though sales and rank on prestigious burger lists would disagree with me, I couldn’t help but feel Wendy’s had sold its heart for a sea[sal]t at the Cool Kids’ Table. But, the new Premium North Pacific Cod (PNPC) changed my mind a little.

The PNPC is as no-frills as the New Wendy’s (rumored to be considering a name change to Olivia’s or Ava’s) gets. It’s a medium-sized cod fillet, battered in panko (with a heavy-ish hand), topped with tartar and lettuce. This thing’s greatest strength is it’s crunch. I know we’re talking about fast food fish sandwiches here, but there’s a freshness you expect from fish that just isn’t realized without a good crunch. And the fillet is reasonably good. Slightly better than something you’d buy in the freezer section of the grocery store. The PNPC falls flat in the same place that the new Classic Double does: the bun. Yeah, it’s pretty buttery. Sure, it’s shapely. But it completely swallows the ingredients with almost every bite. and there’s just not enough tartar to overcome the dryness. The lettuce tries to cleanly “snap” and remind you of the cold winds of the Aleutian coast. But, then an army of flour and yeast pirate your boat. If this were a competition of just the fillet, Wendy’s is pretty well prepared. But, it ain’t. This is a TEAM sport.

Bottom Line: New uniforms and mascot only detract from some good work being done on player (i.e., fish) development.

Popeye's - My cousin has this friend (whom I’ve never met) who has made unhealthy sums of money opening Popeyes restaurants in impoverished areas. The guy literally won’t open one in a neighborhood where people have buzzers on their apartments. So, even at the franchise level, people seem to have a bad perception of the Louisiana Kitchen. But, if you would ever deign to eat a fast food chicken strip, and you don’t consider their spicy strips, you’re lost. This is your NC State. The team that has workmanlike traditions and a superstar, but people still sleep on ‘em. Do so at your peril.

There are four only’s that make Popeyes’ Catfish Po’ Boy impressive. They’re the only restaurant to use a good hoagie roll. Not the caliber that a real sandwichsseur would demand, but way better than I’d ever expect from a major chain. It’s almost doughy, but keeps it light. It’s also the only sandwich to use catfish. I like cod, but catfish brings its own flavor. Sticking with fish, Popeyes is also the only entrant to actually spice its breading. And finally, that superstar I mentioned earlier: pickles. I’m not talking about the flecks in the tartar; I mean real, honest pickles. Everyone should take note the way people did with Chik-Fil-a, and start recognizing the power of a well placed pickle slice. I just can’t quantify how happy I got when I tasted that first one pop against the well-spiced bottom feeder.

Bottom line: Popeye's used what they needed to from the big guys’ recipes: lettuce and rectangular fish. Everything else is theirs alone, and its boderline heavenly.

WINNER: Wendy’s used the recruiting scraps from McDonald’s and BK, and they wound up uninspired wondering if they’d ever even get noticed to play pro. Popeyes’ creativity was much too much.

Burger King (2) vs. Steak n’ Shake (7)
- A Would-be Heir takes on Well-Meaning Country Folk

Burger King - As you read earlier, BK took a tumble from its crown prince spot, but it wasn’t for lack of effort. Their drive-thru menu is about as crowded as Minimalism Sale at a Boulder zen clock shop (bam.). The sad thing is, for all the creepiness they injected into the world with their The King commercials, they seem largely to have just tried to follow McDonald’s. And not done it well. But, let’s not forget that BK is no D III, liberal arts restaurant. They have recruiting power, too. And they got Squarefish’s cousin.

The big difference with the Big Fish is that it’s substantially bigger (truth in naming), and is more panko than shake-n-bake. The roll is different than anyone else’s and borders on a pretzel texture. It has a healthy dollop of tartar, and the same size piece of lettuce as Wendy’s, but that makes it the perfect size here. The first bite (a corner piece) hit me as too fishy, and I thought BK had once again missed the mark, but working your way into the sandwich, you quickly get a balance of chewy bread, remarkably snappy lettuce and just enough tartar to keep things from drying up without hiding what’s really a good piece of fish.

Bottom line: The BK Big Fish is a killer sandwich. Its density could make for difficulty finishing, but you will definitely enjoy what you can finish. This is how you make a fish sandwich different, without making it garbage. (I’m looking at you, Panera.)

Steak n’ Shake - For those who don’t know, Steak n’ Shake started in beautiful Normal, Illinois, and has offered delicious diner food to travelers across the country. One just recently opened south of Denver and people were lined up around the block to get a mouthful of Americana. Known for their Steakburgers and milkshakes, the Fish Sandwich flys under the radar. So far, in fact, that it’s not even on the standard menu. But, as always, ask for glory, and glory shall be yours.

The Fish Sandwich is definitely greater than the sum of its parts. Starting with lightly battered cod, the bottom of the pretty standard burger bun is smeared with tartar and fluffed up with the more wilted end of butter lettuce. Putting the tartar on the bottom half is a neat trick that ensures its contrast reaches your tongue, instead of just living on the top of your mouth while the fish disappears. The tartar itself is a little disappointing, more mayo than anything interesting. But, every bite was so crispy and balanced that I almost ordered seconds. The real unexplainable misstep here is that the fish is really two smaller fillets. It does nothing to the taste, but there were at least two bites that resulted in me having to pick up the fallen fish and reinsert it in the sandwich. I swore I would not mention any sides, but their cheese fries are so good, and pair so well, that it’s impossible to divorce them.

Bottom Line: The Fish Sandwich covers up its flaws nicely. There are ways to beat it, but it leans on its strengths when the going gets tough. Driving distance could be this brilliant offering’s undoing.

WINNER: Damn it. I was rooting hard for the underdog here, and not just because of my Midwest roots. The Steak n’ Shake fish sandwich is a great little package. I even was about to call Steak n’ Shake the winner before even trying the Big Fish because I thought it couldn’t possibly lose. But, the Big Fish divides the dual fillet and conquers. Not to mention that Big Fish bun just got me real worried that some other favorites are going to fall.

McDonald’s (1) vs. Long John Silver’s (5)

WINNER: You could accuse McDonald’s of resting on their laurels a bit, but at least they brought their laurels. LJS might as well’ve been watching.

Popeye's (6) vs. Burger King (2)

WINNER: BK seems ready to finally take McDonald’s down at something. But, looking too far ahead can cause you to miss a pickle flying down the lane. And that pickle just dropped a floater over Squarefish’s cousin to win the game.

McDonald’s (1) vs. Popeyes (6)

CHAMPION: I couldn’t have predicted how well these sandwiches would match up. They’re really diametrically opposed. The classic versus the upstart. The big guy versus the little. They’re so different, I was almost inclined to say that it’s just whatever type suits you. Whitefish or cat-. Cheese or no. But, in all fairness, Popeye's ought to be the choice for anybody. Over the course of 8 fish sandwiches in 3 days, I realized that fish sandwiches are almost always kind of bland. Satisfying, but never crave-worthy.

But, I would get this Catfish Po’ Boy again. Even outside of March.

If I intended to ever eat another fish sandwich for the rest of my life.


Sherm said...

The BK Big Fish will never enter my fast-food repertoire again. Once, in college, having eaten everything else afforded me on my "flex cash" food plan, I broke down and got one. The most politically correct way to define the flavor of the first bite was "fishy." There are a few more graphic descriptions I could offer, most relating to an unappetizing smell/taste one most often associates with less-than-hygienic females. Needless to say, I will never again eat one. *throws up just thinking about it*

Anonymous said...

I gotta get to a Popeye's this Friday! Great post!