09 August 2007

Lost City: Wisconsin Edition: Find a Fish and Fry It

Fish plays a big role in Wisconsin's culinary (if I may use that hoity-toity word) traditions. In Door County—the bucolic, touristy peninsula that juts into Lake Michigan, and ranks as a sort of Midwestern Cape Cod—the Fish Boil reigns supreme. A ritual since the 1940s, it involves a heap of fish, new potatoes and onions dumped into a cauldron of boiling water fueled by gasoline until the flames reach 30 feet in the air and the water rolls over the sides of the pot. It's then served on paper plates with coleslaw and a slice of cherry pie, and is quiet excellent. Also, very healthy—a rare thing in Wisconsin dining.

But the seafood tradition that blankets the state in general if the Fish Fry. Generally a Friday night tradition, you can find a good one in almost every small town in Wisconsin. A few pieces of lightly breaded, deep-fried lake fish (Perch is best), a side of fries, coleslaw, and you're there. For decades, the Fish Fry represented fine dining in Wisconsin. There was no need for anything fancier.

So, for a first timer, how do you know you're at a good Fish Fry place? Well, here are a few tips. If the restaurant looks too done out, too slick, you're in the wrong place. Fish Fry purveyors don't care about decor. Great places generally look like somebody's house. There's a sign outside, provided by a beer distributor, but little else. Inside, the seating should be functional. Square tables with plastic tablecloths, lackluster chairs. If there's anything on the walls, it's a few old photographs or mirrored beer signs or something having to do with the Green Bay Packers.

On the table will be a plastic basket filled with nothing-special dinner rolls and a smaller dish of squares of individually wrapped butter. You see, it's the Fry that matters. That's why people come. They know it's special. To do anything to point out that it's special would just be too embarrassing for modest Wisconsinites.

A legendary Door County Fish Fry that meets all of the above standards in the Sister Bay Bowl, in Sister Bay, Wisconsin. As the name indicates, the place does not even advertise itself as a restaurant—a classic sign that you're in a good place. Anyone who drove by the place, which sit on top of a hill overlooking Sister Bay, would think it a bowling alley. And it is that, as well as a bar. The dining hall (and it is just that, a spare, ugly dining hall, like you might find at a Lion's Club) is through a door at the left as you enter. Though large, it is regularly packed.

On Tuesdays and Fridays, the Fish Fry is offered. There is a version with Walleye and Shrimp, but as the waitress told me, "It's the perch you want." The perch I got and the perch I ate, moist yet firm and absolutely perfect. Hokey crinkle-cut fries on the side; only in Wisconsin are crinkle-cut fries still popular and "fun."

I talked briefly with the daughter of the Bowl's founder. She said, when dad bought the place in 1950, there was no restaurant, just the bar and a very popular dance hall in the back. Hotel rooms were available on the second floor. In 1958, he tore down the dance hall and built a six-lane bowling alley, which is still there. Six years later, the restaurant opened in a space that used to be where the Willems family lived. The 1964 menu featured roughly five dinner choices, including prime rib. So the set-up has remained ever since.

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