There’s a scent that arises in the city at the start of Lent, mixing with the distinctive “Milwaukee smell” of hops from the breweries, wafting over the city thanks to the lakeshore winds. It’s the smell of deep-fried, golden-y goodness fried fish, soaked in oil and cooked to crisp perfection. Throw it on a plate with some coleslaw and French fries, and you’ve got yourself one of Milwaukee’s most cherish and distinctive traditions: the fish fry.
The fish fry dates back to the 1800s when German and Polish immigrants settled in the Brew City. Because they had little money, the immigrants took advantage of the abundance of fish in Lake Michigan, cooking it as a cheap meal.
When the Prohibition era began, the fish fry tradition grew stronger. In order to stay in business, breweries started to make fries, which became wildly popular. The pungent aromas of frying fish overwhelmed the smell of alcohol production, allowing covert speakeasies to operate, and bootleggers offered fish to customers who consumed their product. The tradition of fish and chips in Milwaukee was born. With Milwaukee’s large Catholic population—thanks to those German and Polish immigrants—fish fries became a Lenten tradition as well.
“Milwaukee’s big breweries helped make beer-infused batter a popular thing. Plenty of people who aren’t Catholic eat fish fries,” says Ann Christenson, Milwaukee Magazine’s resident food critic who has covered Milwaukee’s dining since 1997. “So here’s another reason for its continued popularity: Fish fries are cheap. And Milwaukee is a very frugal town. People here love cheap food!”
According to Christenson, there are more average-quality fish fries than there are great ones. “It’s the nature of the beast,” she says. To make the jump from average to great, hand-breaded fish is the way to go, as is homemade coleslaw and tartar sauce If nothing else, the fish itself is what makes a good fried fish.
“It should be more fish than breading or batter. The fish shouldn’t be saturated in grease, but it shouldn’t be dry either. The fish should be moist. And the breading should be golden and crisp,” Christenson says. “I also think it all needs to taste fresh – with no residue of old grease and other foods that might have been cooked in the oil.”
Although that fried fish smell appears to become more apparent during Lent, you can find a good fish fry any time of year, even at a seemingly incongruous place like a Mexican restaurant. “There’s universality to the fry that transcends religion and ethnicity,” Christenson says.
There are countless fish fries all over the city and surrounding suburbs, so you won’t have difficulty finding a place. Finding a good place, however, might take some trial and error. Here’s where Christenson recommends.
2499 North Bartlett Avenue
Milwaukee, WI, 53211
Hours: Sunday, Tuesday-Thursday, 5pm-9pm; Friday and Saturday, 5pm-10pm, Closed Mondays
St. Paul Fish Company
400 North Water Street (in the Public Market)
Milwaukee, WI, 53202
Hours: Monday-Friday 10am-8pm; Saturday 8am-7pm; Sunday 10am-6pm (Kitchen opens at 11 am)
1712 W. Pierce Street
Milwaukee, WI, 53204
Hours: Monday-Wednesday 11am-12am; Thursday-Saturday 11am-2am; Sunday 11am-10pm