Monday, April 25, 2016

Battle: Fish Sandwich! Hardee's vs Arby's , etc.

Main Street Cafe
902 N. Truman Blvd
Crystal City, Mo.

Well, several things happened this week related to the search for a decent fish sandwich. First and most important, Angel has seceded from the quest; "I want something decent to eat this weekend." was her declaration of rebellion.
As if that would stop me. Her loss. So this weekend I took her out to a place of her choice. (but only after she tried another fish sandwich, more on that later.)
One of my Facebook and IRL friends Anne and her husband Clarkson have been after me for years to try Main Street Cafe in Crystal City. I just never got around to it. Clarkson's last prod, in a comment to my Eat and Critique Update post about this majestic journey was something like "You need to try the Fish Sandwiches at Main Street Cafe. Anne sez they are pretty good." I was shocked, truly, truly stunned. Clarkson is a very, very smart guy, he's married to a writer and they are Methodists, surely he knows how to correctly spell the word 'says'.
That egregious error aside, he was right, I really did need to try a fish sandwich at some greasy fried chicken and breakfast place where all the high-haired waitresses smack gum and call you 'Hon'.
No seriously, he reminded me that I'd been promising to check this place out for a long time, It was the perfect thing to do. Especially if I was going to be alone.
So Saturday morning came and I'd lined up a series of Festus/Crystal City chores like Lowes, and Books Galore, a great, dare I say phenomenal, used book store. I can always find a stack of books there. I read a lot, I am constantly need of a fix.
So lunch it was. I'd still take Angel for her palate cleansing steak later in the evening at Bistro on The Square in Desoto.
The Place:
I pulled in promptly at 11. I opened the door to see a place that was literally (I don't actually mean that) twice the size on the inside as it was on the outside. It was also packed. I spotted only a couple of empty tables and one of those looked only recently vacated.
The hostess greeted me and asked if I was lonely. . . or something like that. I had fallen distractedly in love with her accent in just the few words she'd said.
I easily fall in love with certain accents. To hear familiar words with a foreign lilt and meter  is like music to me. Well, actually music doesn't do much for me, but it's like what I hear music is for most people.
She said little else, she didn't need to, I was a slave to her bidding, and she showed me to an empty four top that I immediately felt guilty for accepting since I was dining lonely. She left me there after asking me what drink she could slather all over me. . . or something. I answered "Unsweet tea." That seemed to please her but she actually punished me by saying no more.
I couldn't quite decipher the source of the accent. It sounded a little Eastern European, but not, It wasn't Italian or Spanish, I couldn't quite figure it out. She appeared to have some Mediterranean features, coal black hair, angular face. . but no, I couldn't really tell from that either.
Soon, another, older lady brought my tea and asked for my order, in that same haunting, enchanting accent.
I asked her about it after I'd ordered my food.
"Turkish." was the surprise answer. "I love it!" I stupidly replied.
This made her smile and she thanked me in that delightful accent.
I'd go back to this place, even if they poisoned me or worse, fed me broccoli, just to hear these ladies talk again.
The Food:
Okay, so I ordered my fish sandwich, noticing that Main Street's (Which curiously is not on Main
Street*) version cost only a little more than the crap-wiches we'd had at those fast food places.
I'd been told in the past, mostly by Clarkson, that they have great breakfasts there. Looking around that must have been true, more than half the people dining were still breakfasting, at 11 in the morning.
Before long, the older of the two ladies brought out my plate. I broke a tip off the fish, yeah, steaming, singeing hot on the inside, best to wait a few minutes. Breaded and fried fish is like that.
I poured a puddle of ketchup alongside the golden fries. Angel always squirts lines of the red sauce directly and unevenly on top of them. This is one of our irreconcilable differences that will certainly come to a head in the future, forever fracturing the family unit.
The fries were very good. Crispy and left in the fryer for a moment or two longer than most places would. It also insures that they are all cooked through.
The fillet was huge, it looked to be a full side of fish. It extended beyond the ends of the standard hoagie roll. The fit was good otherwise though. I pinched off another bit and decided it was starting to cool off enough as to not be dangerous anymore. I went ahead and cut the massive sandwich. This made two sandwiches each roughly the size as the full sandwiches we'd tried to date. I wasn't going to finish both, not with that massive pile of luscious fries laying there begging me to finish them off. I added the lettuce leaf, which was an option, not standard equipment, when ordered. I had noticed the tartar was quite chunky with relish, perhaps house made. There was plenty of it as well, served on the side in a sealed condiment container. My first bite into the sandwich (half) as a whole was very nice. I could taste a bit of corn meal in the batter, the fish itself was flaky, hot and very tender. It had flavor. Not as mighty as my beloved catfish, but quite satisfactory. Angel would be jealous, if she actually cared at all about accomplishing glorious feats.
The place did not empty out while I was there, in fact, a small waiting line formed at the entry. One party even sent in a scout. I watched the middle aged man come in tentatively and sort of take the measure of the dining area. He finally seemed satisfied and peeked out the front door and gestured as if to give the all clear. The man that eventually came in behind him was older, perhaps the first man's father. I recall him because the elder man reminded me very much of the older gentleman farmers that came to our church when I was a kid. This man had a full head of wavy silver hair and a matching full beard. Not a timid goatee, I'm talking full ZZ Top. He wore a tidy button down shirt, tucked neatly into his jeans which were held on this thin rail of a man by a leather belt, pulled up roughly to nipple level. I'm going to do exactly that once I'm old(er).
The crowd was eclectic, there were families, groups, couples and singles. Young, old, etc. The one thing they had in common was they all knew where to get a decent meal in this village.
I'm really sorry I haven't tried Main Street Cafe sooner. I would have gone more often, perhaps I will now. The food I had and the food I saw being served all seemed top notch. The staff was large, sufficient, attentive and productive. My Turkish ladies seemed professional, yet friendly and approachable.
As I said earlier, I only ate half of the sandwich and less than half of the fries. The portions were enormous. I can't eat an entire American diner style meal, there's just too much food for this minuscule nugget of a man. Frankly though, too much food is about the best kind of problem to have.
When I got home Angel was in her comfy chair, eating, believe it or not, some of the frozen fish sticks from that box I took the picture of a few weeks ago. I showed her the half sandwich and fries in the take-out box. She took it, she ate it. . . all. Every bit of the fish sandwich that she'd said she wanted no more of. Yes, she liked it.

* It used to be on Main Street, but that location burned down a few years back.

123 Richardson Crossing
Arnold, Mo.
On the web

When I first posted 'Battle; Fish Sandwich! I received a comment on a Social Media posting that said
she preferred the fish sandwich at Culver's.
Culver's is a Wisconsin based chain of burger and frozen custard restaurants. There's a few of them scattered around St. Louis, a couple in Springfield, Mo, thirteen in Kentucky and none in Maryland.
We reviewed Culver's (Fenton) a few years back and thought pretty good of the experience.
This time though it was for Battle: Fish Sandwich!
     If you didn't catch the original Battle Post, you can find it below in its entirety.
The Place:
I don't like navigating Arnold, the roads there simply make no sense. We were meeting Adam at the store. Adam works nights at a large discount super-store in Arnold. He moved into his own apartment just north of there a couple of months ago. He wouldn't be having the fish, he doesn't like seafood, or most food for that matter.
Culver's colors are bright blue and white, a very clean looking combination.The inside sparkles with these colors. The young men behind the counter were wearing aprons and neckties. Culvers' likes to exude that wholesome, productive and clean living atmosphere.
The place was buzzing with people, more than one might expect for an early Sunday evening.
Angel ordered our fish baskets at the counter, Adam asked for a bacon butter burger. (Wisconsin, remember? All things dairy.
I found a booth that had just been cleaned up by a busy young lady.
We had our drinks, tea, sweet tea and some form of soda pop. I was quite impressed by the tea. For a 'fast food' type place it was quite fresh and dark.
The Food:

The baskets were brought out by another lady, we had a number, she found us without any trouble. I then recalled the crinkle fries.
Crinkle is a tough style of fry to get right. They are thick and this makes the deep fryer a risky option. It's very easy to cook them too high and not long enough. They come out starchy that way. But when they are done correctly, the taste/texture combination is delightful.
The first thing I noticed about the sandwich nearly sent me into a spontaneous standing ovation. The bun was roughly the same size and shape as the fish.
I opened it up for a quick examination. Shredded lettuce, shredded cheddar cheese (Wisconsin), tartar sauce as paste, and a light fried batter coating on a thick piece of cod. To the eye and to the things we've observed about various fish sandwiches, all good so far.
Angel yelped at her first bite, too hot. I held off and enjoyed the perfectly cooked crinkle fries for a few moments. It was still really hot when I did bite into it.
I had trouble forming an opinion. It was all right, the buttered bun the lettuce, the fish coating. . . about three or four bites in though, Angel stated her her mind:"Flaky and boring."
She was right, at least about the flaky part. Fish should flake off, this fillet was perfectly cooked. She was also disappointingly correct, there was virtually no flavor to the fish itself.
I tried and tried, but I could not get excited or happy about this beautiful thing. "There's not even enough salt on the fish." Angel added. Even the tartar sauce was nearly tasteless. The batter didn't even have much flavor. Not bad, the fish or the tartar sauce, but not really good either. It was like a boring movie following a fantastic theme song.
When Adam asked Angel to rate it  against the others, she shocked me. "It's better than Arby's."
Gulp! (Spoiler alert: Arby's was the worst of the previously reviewed sandwiches.)
She added that she still preferred McDonalds'.
Arrggh! This is going to be a lot tougher than I thought.
I can't agree that McDonalds is better than Culver's at making a fish sandwich. Well, I could, but I won't. The hardest thing to swallow about Culver's offering is that it cost 30% more than the other places. The extra $$$ bought us nothing really, at all.

The Beginning:
That's right, two fast food joints. The very sort of establishment that I've repeatedly said I was going to stop going to. But this was special, it was also Angel's idea.
We've both been seeing signs and ads from these two places in particular about 'new' fish sandwiches. I used to like Burger King's version until a few years ago when they changed something. I don't recall what exactly, but I didn't like it. I don't like McDonald's fish, because. . . McDonalds. Well, that and they put a slice of cheese on theirs. Any novice gourmand will tell you, fish and cheese do not go together, even if the squished fish patty on the bun is made pretty much the same way particle board is, and the cheese is actually 'pasteurized, prepared cheese product'.
But Hardee's and Arby's are about a third of a notch better, all around, than McDonalds.

The Place: Hardee's, Hillsboro, Mo.
I don't have to be more specific about the location. Drive into Hillsboro, it's on the corner. I shouldn't have to describe it either, if you don't know what a Hardee's (or Carl's Junior in the south and southwest) looks like, then you are simply not doing America correctly.
The Hillsboro franchise is pretty much a local institution. As it is near the courthouse, which is pretty much the only industry in town, which means at any time of day you could come across lawyers, politicians, bureaucrats, realtors, deputies, bail bondsmen, jurors and folks preparing for trial.
It's very visible location also makes it a great place to meet someone from out of town or an exchange place, be it kids, or dogs.
Angel does that quite often, she'll meet people driving up from the shelter she works with and trades out foster dogs, or picks up dogs to be delivered further up the road. Hardee's doesn't seem to mind all this other stuff going on in their more than ample and easily accessible parking lot.
We don't go to Hardee's much any more. Not since we started eating better food anyhow. They have good coffee and free Wifi though.
The Food.
Fish sandwich combo, regular fries and drink. We both opted for tea. Angel ordered and paid, I filled
up three ketchup tubs. There was no one else in the place (this didn't change either) so we had our choice of seats. Angel picked one near the back, apparently arbitrarily.
Shortly, a young lady brought out our order of fish tacos and tortilla chips.
Yeah, the only customers, eating the same thing, and they misfired.
The lady was very apologetic even though we weren't really that bothered about the mistake. When we ordered, there was a clinger, a middle aged man just chatting up the lady at the register, going on and on about fish tacos. . .  easy enough to make a mistake.
Shortly the lady returned with our sandwiches and a fresh new batch of apologies.
We assured her that no one was killed or maimed because of her much less than egregious error, so it was no big deal. It really wasn't.
I looked down at my basket, then up to the poster in the window, then back again. "One of these things is not like the other."  I mean, look at that poster. A thick golden patty with dark green lettuce peeking out and thick, oozy tartar sauce slathered on.
The one in front of me looked tiny, pale and flaccid to me. (no jokes please)  The bun was much thinner than the one on the poster, it was already deflating under its own lack of heft. The lettuce was pale, nearly transparent and tasted exactly like the paper wrapper provided. It also was the stupidest component of the sandwich. It added no taste, not very much nutrition at all, and a very meek texture as well. Worse, it acted as a built-in Slip 'N Slide* for the fish. I eventually had to yank the puny, limp greenery out of the sandwich just to be able to finish the meal. The tartar sauce was also puny. I barely noticed it was
Actual  Hardee's print ad.
Notice a difference?
there at all. It sure wasn't chunky like the stuff on the poster. The sandwich, even without the lettuce, was designed by a committee, as the saying goes. The bun was round, the filet was sharply triangular. The fish stuck out a lot on both ends and there was quite a bit of bun with nothing between it. The bun itself was fragile, it nearly disintegrated just trying to do its one job. I don't like big thick, heavy buns, but I do prefer something adequate for the job at hand. The fish itself was pretty good, not great, and the breading, advertised as 'beer batter' had no real taste at all, especially of beer. The fries were decent, dirty-style (un-peeled) which I like. Too much salt though. Most fast food places salt their fries way too much. After all there's a shaker on every table if someone wants more.
Angel's assessment: "Not my favorite fish sandwich." And "It's the wrong shape."

The Place:
690 S. Truman Blvd.
Festus, Mo.

We were going to go to both places in one weekend. However, that Sunday happened to fall on Easter, which is apparently a holiday. We had to wait a week.
It's at the intersection of Truman and Veterans boulevards. Head to Walmart, you'll see it.
   This Arby's won a past contest, the roast beef sandwich comparison with Lion's Choice. This was a very unpopular victory, at least as seen in the comments, the family friendly ones that I allowed to be posted anyhow. That contest has been, by far, my most popular blog entry to date. Lion's choice is a regional favorite, Arby's is an international fast food giant. Sorry locals, Arby's simply won that battle.
How about this time?  The level of difficulty is the same as for Hardee's. Fish sandwiches are not their flagship. It's even kind of difficult to find it on the menu boards. At Arby's we even had to ask if they had it.
We ordered the same thing, regular combos, medium fries and drink. One difference, Arby's has seasoned curly fries.
Inside, the interior looked less like a Burger King or McD's and more like a Panera. Not so plastic and rigid in layout. Really kind of nice. High ceilings, wooden chairs, textured ceramic tile, with plenty of room between the tables. We placed our order and picked one near the back.
As with Hardee's the previous Saturday, we were the only customers when we went in. The staff stayed busy though sweeping the dining area, etc. One young man behind the counter had set up a small step ladder and was pouring goop into the ice cream machine.
The Food:
It didn't take long, they called Angel's name and she fetched the tray. The curly fries looked very tempting. I like seasoned curly fries pretty well, except for the ones that got all tangled together and came out of the fryer as a wad more than a curl.
The sandwiches were wrapped in paper, which we quickly disposed of.
Immediately noticeable was the higher quality bun. Sesame seeded, a little larger and thicker than the generic/bargain bun at Hardee's However, the 'fillet' looked identical, that odd narrow, isosceles triangle shape. Which of course meant it did not fit well on the round bun either. It was prettier though. I popped the top to see what was there. Tartar sauce, check. Lettuce, shredded. Hmm, that's a better way to do it, I thought inside my head. The Hardee's Slip 'N Slide lettuce method was a complete fail.
This lettuce was sort of bound together with the Tartar, and pasted to the bun. There wasn't a lot of lettuce, but they had a winning technique. There was no slippage with this sandwich.
But the accolades stop there. I decided that my first bite would be the tiny exposed point of the triangle, just fish.
A breaded, fried flip-flop. 'Rubbery' was the exact word that popped quietly into my head. Well, this was the tiny end, it always cooks faster, the whispering other voice in my head said to me. Not the shrieking one, I don't really pay much attention to that one, this was the slow, calm Canadian accented voice that I listen too most often.
So I took a bite of the fat end. No better. The word 'flaky did not enter my brain as it should when eating fish. Dry, rubbery, no good. A nicer bun, a prettier sandwich, better lettuce technique just don't matter if the fish is wrong, wrong, wrong.
I waited for Angel's assessment. I tried to read her face as she ate but she hates it when I stare at her when she's eating. . . or sleeping. . . or watching TV. . . okay, she always hates it when I stare at her. I can't read expressions well anyhow, so I waited for words.
"Dry, they've been sitting. It's like they cooked them yesterday then nuked them today."
Her sandwich, like mine, went largely unfinished. "I'm not going to waste calories eating something that just isn't any good. This just means I can have a doughnut with my coffee later."  (I refer to this  as Angel's Law of Compensatory Nutritional Math.**  Her theories on food also include gems like "Anything eaten while drinking wine doesn't count." and  "I need to finish this bag of cookies/cake/candy today else I'll be snacking on it all week.")
The next day we were still going on abut how bad it was. "Angel offered: "I don't think the word flaky could possibly be used when describing it, and 'flaky is exactly the thing fish should be."
Then she said something that stirred the demons in me: "Even McDonalds squished fish patty on a bun is a lot better than Arby's."
I made growling, rumbling noises, spat out a toxic curse or two, contemplated violence against small animals, vegetables and minerals.
"When's the last time you had one from McD's?" she dared ask.
Gauntlet thrown.

Bonus review! No extra charge!
The Place:

Hillsboro Mo.

Yeah, I know, but I had to see for myself. I had to be objective.
I won't describe it much, it's a McD's. Complete with elderly people drinking cheap, but decent coffee, at all times of the day. On this day there was a couple of senior ladies sipping coffee and playing Skip-Bo. Angel ordered two 'number 8's.' Fish sandwich, medium fries, medium drinks.
The Food:
We waited several minutes before a young man brought the tray out and delivered it to a baffled couple of senior ladies playing Skip-Bo. I waved my hand hand and called out something. . . I don't recall what. He handed it over to us.
"Oh goody, it Monopoly time again!" Angel shrieked. We peeled stickers, I won a free burger of some kind. I slid it over to Angel.
The fries were McD's traditional, which I've never been as big a fan of as many people. They tasted freezer burned to me.
The sandwich at least looked like the images in the ads. The bun looked artificial, almost too perfect in brown-ness and shape.  There was also the tell-tale sign of McD's fish sandwich, the American cheese.  To my satisfaction the fish patty was square and roughly the same size as the bun. Points! However, in assembly, my patty was offset a bit and sealed into that position by melted pasteurized processed cheese product.  I opened it up to take stock. yup, fish, cheese and a lot of Tartar-like sauce. No lettuce, not a
problem because I'd noted that lettuce added little to the fish sandwich experience. But that cheese. I can't imagine why they want to put cheese on a fish sandwich. Aside from a clash of tastes, it disrupted my sandwich mechanically.
As for taste, it was nostalgic. It reminded me of every school cafeteria fish sandwich I'd ever had. It was not awful, it was. . . generic.
"I like them because they are not very big." Angel quipped. A valid point. In this age of mile high, nearly-a-pound burgers, a smaller, lighter choice is a very good thing. Sure, it's not an actual fillet, and I'm pretty sure no sea life you've ever heard of was harmed making this thing, but it was closer to my fish sandwich memories than either of the other places.

The price at all three places differed by only fifty cents, around twelve dollars. McD's was actually the most pricey. Arby's and Hardee's were using a higher quality seafood, they should be able to beat McD's hands down,  with their eyes closed. But they didn't. Arby's completely ruined it. They should revoke Arby's license to cook fish or fish byproducts completely.
Hardee's offering was at best after-thought-ish. They could bring this thing to the front row of the menu with just a tweak or two,  but they won't ever do it, no one ever listens to me. Meanwhile, McD's squished fish patty of unknown origin on a fake looking bun, served the same as it has been served for decades, actually seemed good in comparison.
"I like it because I know it will always be the same, hot and smothered with Tartar sauce."
Is that important? Consistency over quality? Well, that is actually the apparent McDonalds business model, cheap food, exactly the same wherever you are. Being as they are the biggest, most successful fast food company, I guess they know the customer.
Overall though, I'd like a better fish sandwich. But what would make a better fish sandwich?
I'm glad you asked. You'd be surprised how low my standards actually are.

So what should a fish sandwich be?
Well, let me tell you about the fish sandwich of my younger days. I don't recall having fish very often at all, of any kind, during my childhood. Fish might have meant frozen fish sticks or patties, like they served in the school cafeteria. Later, when my own family was starting to grow, and money and time were both luxuries, I'm certain there were fish sticks. They were relatively inexpensive, easy to prepare, and kids liked them. I recall having them fairly often when Adam was a baby. That is when I
perfected the poor man's fish sandwich. Five fish sticks laid out on a slice of white bread as shown in the photo. It fit perfectly, unlike the awkward, triangular 'filet' vs. round bun situation I described earlier. And yes, I squeezed ketchup on the sticks. Tartar sauce, being something of a single-tasker, just never made it to the already too expensive shopping cart. Sometimes we had a bottle of malt vinegar laying around, that would fancy it up a lot. But mostly it was ketchup, five sticks, two slices of white bread. I haven't had that in a while, but I may real soon. While at Walmart earlier I picked up some fish sticks, for the first time in many, many years. A craving? Nostalgia? No. . . . I wanted to take that picture for this part of the review. Yeah, I'm that serious about my work. That's the extent to which I am willing to go to please you, my loyal fans. Heck, for you folks, I'd even go to McDonalds.
So fans, I simply want a good, reliable fish sandwich. Something just a little better than what was sampled here, or even the five-stick version I once made for myself.
Please, somebody, how hard can it be?

*Slip'N Slide is a trademark of Wham-O Toys, a California company founded in 1948 by two frustrated USC graduates, Richard Knerr and Arthur 'Spuds' Melin. 

** A reference to Alice's Law of Compensatory Cash Flow: "Money not spent on a luxury one considered even briefly is the equivalent of windfall income and should be spent accordingly."  Calvin Trillin, 'Alice, Let's Eat' (1978)

Hardee's Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato 

McDonald's Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato 

Arby's Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato 
Culver's Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato 
Main Street Cafe Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato