By Kevin Costa
I ate a hamburger on Good Friday, 1981.
It was a warm afternoon and, as I recall, the clouds didn’t appear between noon and three to remind us (my friend, Alan, and me) of the day, and we discovered his father’s grill on the porch, clean and well-seasoned. We fell to it like determined acolytes, proud of our adult know-how.
We ate two hamburgers apiece.
Well, almost two. Somewhere in the dawning afterglow of a half pound of savagely devoured beef, I had the sensation that I had forgotten something: a dog-eared copy of Playboy on my dresser? An unmowed lawn? Did I leave the seat up?
No. I ate meat. Cow’s meat. The most bestial of the meats!
Oh, God. How could I have done this? On this most solemn of days; one of the six in the year when you’re allowed to eat anything but meat. I had done the deed, and now I would burn.
To some, this story probably doesn’t mean a whole lot, but if you grew up Catholic, as I did, you winced at least once, I know it. For Catholics, eating meat on Good Friday takes its place right alongside “Murder-1.” I’m not the most observant of my denomination, but I still keep religiously away from meat on Fridays during Lent, and that particular Friday, nearly a quarter of a century ago, played no small part in my training; and in my love for fish and chips.
In my home town of Bristol, Rhode Island, which is made up largely of Portuguese, Italian, and Irish people, “fish and chips” is a way of life on Friday nights. We saw this meal as our right (no, our duty) …a thing as natural as going to confession. Once in a while, my father would phone out and bring home three orders, but the Styrofoam container inevitably took the crunch out of the crust (that wonderful airtight cocoon that envelopes the tender cod or haddock) and the snap out of the chips. But most often, we ate out on Fridays, and I still count those evenings at “The Bucket” or “The Egg Basket” (two of our local haunts in those days) as some of the fondest and earliest memories I have with my parents. Ironically, I opted mostly for hamburgers back then (hence my predisposition on that Friday in ’81) but I remember those plates, heaped with the golds, browns, and yellows of fried fish and potatoes being set before my parents in those years during the early 1970s.
As I got older, I too discovered the wonders of fish and chips (such a simple, satisfying meal) a wonder made more intense if only because its unabashed “friedness” makes it prohibitively bad for you. So I don’t like to waste those rare Fridays now when I’ve decided it’s been long enough and think: “time for a fish fry.”
When I moved to Buffalo ten years ago, I resisted calling it a “fish fry.” In fact, I resisted eating fish and chips here at all because I couldn’t imagine Buffalo could match those rustic eateries flanking the bays back in the Ocean State. But I also hadn’t discovered Sterling Place, Hemmingways, or Papa Jake’s. The first difference I noticed between my experiences in Rhode Island and those here in Buffalo were the “sides,” an oft-commented upon element in the Buffalo recipe. “Do you want all the sides?” asked Judy over at Sterling Place, a great little bar and grill in the center of Hertel Avenue. I nodded approvingly but asked, as offhandedly as I could, lest I disclose my ignorance, “what are they?” “Fries, macaroni salad, cole slaw, potato salad, and tartar sauce,” Judy reminded me. “Sounds great.” My brow wrinkled, and I turned to my wife, Renee, and exclaimed: “fries and potato salad?” Before she could answer, Judy was back with a plate of rye bread. Rye bread! You see, I had been released from my tendency towards double and triple starches as a child when my mother absolutely refused to let me have fries or mashed potatoes with spaghetti. But I didn’t spend my childhood in Buffalo.
I won’t name the “best” fish fry in Buffalo because that would be folly. So here’s a short list: a few places to get you started. When I get randy for a fish fry, I most often head to Sterling Place, located at 1487 Hertel Avenue. The simple, clean decor is the perfect setting for fresh, delicious fish. And John serves the best variety of beer on tap anywhere in the city, so this place is a must. For an equally satisfying dinner, head over to Meister’s, located at 426 Hertel. If I’m feeling too Hertel-bound, I’ll head over to Hemmingways on 492 Pearl Street. This Buffalo landmark, with its warm, tasteful, and inviting setting, offers one of the biggest, tastiest fish fries that I’ve ever had. But, if you’re on the northwest side of the city, then Papa Jake’s, located at 1672 Elmwood Avenue, is not to be missed. Huge portions are only one reason to try this Buffalo favorite; the ambience is just as important. This restaurant and bar is anything but pretentious, but it’s not trying to not be; it’s just a good clean, well-lighted place. If you’re a little further north in Riverside, treat yourself to an excellent, lighter fish fry at Fortunato’s Restaurant, located where Nuchereno’s used to be, at 1083 Tonawanda Street. This old-world Buffalo establishment is perfect for families, first dates, and those going solo. For a delicious downtown fish fry, check out Ulrich’s Tavern at 674 Ellicott Street at Virginia.
No discussion of the fish fry would be complete without mention of South Buffalo hot-spots. I polled my “So-Bo” friends, and they named The BlackThorn (2134 Seneca Street), Connor’s (3465 Seneca Street), and Charlie O’Brien’s (865 Elk Street) as three destinations for a first rate Friday night meal.
I haven’t put a dent in this subject, to be sure, but I couldn’t possibly name them all. What I can identify in each of these places is that wonderful quality I cherish of those days when I hopped into my booster seat alongside my parents. I don’t know if it’s the captain’s chairs and ceiling fans at Connor’s, the gentle sound of ice in glasses in Papa Jake’s, or the bumble of voices at Sterling Place that trigger so many memories and feelings, but it’s these feelings, I think, that explain why the fish fry phenomenon is so ubiquitous and durable. These real places, full of Buffalo’s good neighbors, brim with the ingredients that make memories.
It’s just another of Buffalo’s gifts; the food itself makes it all the better.
Where do you get your favorite fish fry? Comment and tell us!