While there are plenty of great fish fries right here in Madison, outside the city limits the ritual takes on a whole new meaning. In small towns around the state the Friday tradition runs deep; the community comes together to dine, drink, laugh and live the fry life.
These fish fries demonstrate the greatness small towns have to offer, and all are within 30 minutes or so of Madison.
10992 Division St., Blue Mounds
The fish fry at Aunt Mary's Hooterville Inn is great for several reasons, but the main one is the fish. On Fridays Hooterville does cod, and cod only (well, it has shrimp, too, but that's not a "fish fry" in my book).
The cod here stands out thanks to the special beer batter recipe and the expert fry cook. The cook never overfries the fish, and the light coating doesn't bury, but instead enhances, the cod, producing an unrivaled flavor. The hash browns with cheese and onion are also skillfully done and add a unique element you don't normally find at a small-town bar.
Fitz's on the Lake
W11602 Cty. Rd. V, Lodi
Fitz's on the Lake features haddock on Friday, and while the fish is great, the best part is that it's served all-you-can-eat -- something that's been phased out at most places. Fitz's is actually located in the tiny village of Okee on the shores of Lake Wisconsin. It's an idyllic setting for a fish fry, and in the summer months you can even dine dockside with a big plate of haddock, a pile of hash browns and a brandy old fashioned sweet. That is heaven.
W6630 Cty. Rd. B, Lake Mills
The Aztalan Inn is that bar we all remember from our childhood. Maybe Grandma and Grandpa would load you up in the Chrysler and take you there on Friday nights for fish, but regardless of how you got there, you stayed. The bar is clean, the people are unabashedly friendly, and the fish fry...the fish fry is something special.
The Aztalan Inn features most of the usual suspects (cod, walleye, ocean perch and bluegill) accompanied by a true-blue salad bar stocked fresh just for Friday. The sides are no slouch, with three styles of fries to choose from and some of the thickest and creamiest tartar sauce you will ever find.
617 E. North St., Poynette
The fish fry at the Owl's Nest is no secret. The Poynette destination has long been known as one of the best within driving distance, and if you plan on showing up on Friday night make sure to bring some patience with you. You'll be rewarded with some of the best beer-battered cod you'll ever taste. The secret here is the batter -- light and flaky, with perfect flavor.
The Nest also features a lightly breaded version of the cod, which is a little less flavorful but delectable in its own way.
2167 Cty. Rd. W, Cambridge
Most great fish fries are found in supper clubs or upscale taverns, but once in a while a dive bar makes its mark. (Mitch's) Utica Bar is that place. While technically in Cambridge, the tiny bar is actually located at the crossroads of County Roads W and B in the town of Utica.
You won't find any cloth napkins or all-you-can-eat portions, but you will find some of the most flavorful cod anywhere. It's a simple, no-nonsense fish fry with great tartar and some of the area's best coleslaw. Get there early or get there late, put in your order at the bar, and be prepared to wait. The beer is cheap and the locals are just there to have a good time. That's good enough for me.
W6376 Cty. Hwy. A, Johnson Creek
Crawfish Junction is a nice, spacious bar just a short jaunt down I-94. It features fresh Lake Erie lake perch on Fridays (when available). You don't find fresh fish in fish fries very often, so when you do it's a must-get.
All the other elements are well represented, with real marble-rye bread (something you rarely see in 2013). This is the full-meal deal, and although it's not cheap, it's worth every one of your 1,500 pennies.
518 1st St., New Glarus
If you love great beer, you no doubt love New Glarus Brewing, and if you love great fish, you will no doubt love the Glarner Stube. The Stube is a special place with huge portions and one mean fish fry. It gets really busy on Friday nights, but for those willing to wait, the reward is sweet.
While the fish is excellent on its own, the star of the show is the roesti potatoes. These Swiss spuds are available for an additional $2, are loaded with Swiss cheese, and are served in a huge loaf that is more than any one person would dare consume in a single sitting.
Mike Seidel reviews fish fries at MadisonFishFry.com.