Foot Long Fish
Almost every town has its local specialties. When I first moved to Albany I knew that I wouldn’t necessarily be able to find the things I loved on the West Coast. But in my heart of hearts I knew there would be delicious things unique to the area.
I had a few strategies. The Best of Metroland section proved completely useless. But I did tap into Yelp, and there were a few Albany pioneers who were particularly invaluable – Megan W., Ryan H., Cynthia C., Lai-Yee Y., Jess X. and Ian W.
Plus I had another strategy as well. Look for full parking lots at old dilapidated restaurants that had stood the test of time. This was how I found Ralph’s. And Ralph’s was unique for me. There was nothing quite like it in the Bay Area. It is a great example of the Italian-American taverns that seem to be a fixture in the northeast.
But still, it is not unique to the area.
It did not take long before I noticed the fantastic neon sign on Central Avenue, one of Albany’s main arterials. In some ways it was reminiscent of the In-N-Out burger sign with the giant arrow of joy pointing you in the direction of good eats. But this sign read, Bob & Ron’s Fish Fry.
My first thought was who the hell are Bob and Ron. My second thought was where did they get that marvelous sign. Which brought me to my third thought. Maybe they stole it from some restaurant in a quaint seaside town.
Fish in Albany?* But it was old, and it had a full parking lot. Plus there is no way a place with a sign like that could survive if the food wasn’t solid.
Here is the deal. And it’s a bit convoluted, so try and stay with me. Fish Fry turns out not to be the same thing as fried fish. Yes, Fish Fry is fried. Yes, Fish Fry is fish. But Fish Fry has a very specific form that sets it apart.
It is a long narrow piece of fish, about a foot long. Bob & Ron have traditionally used cusk but are finding it difficult to source on a regular basis and sometimes substitute cod. It is breaded and fried. And then it is served on a white hotdog bun with the fish extending well beyond the boundaries of the bread.
There are three choices of sauce. Tartar, cocktail and chili sauce, which as far as I can tell is ketchup mixed with relish. Some places will let you add your own sauces, but at Ted’s you tell them what you want on your Fish Fry.
You may have had fried fish before, but if you haven’t been within a stone’s throw of Albany it is unlikely you have ever experienced Fish Fry.
And here, it is everywhere. There are the standalone Fish Fry restaurants. There are seasonal Fish Fry restaurants. You can get Fish Fry at the seasonal soft-serve ice-cream shacks. You can get Fish Fry at family restaurants. Ralph’s sometimes makes it as a special. You can even get Fish Fry at the bowling alley.
I have learned to stick to those places that specialize in the dish.
People who have grown up with this treat their whole lives swear by pairing the meal with a chocolate shake. It sounds disgusting. But I tried it once, and it was totally disgusting. Probably one of those things you have to be trained to like from birth – like Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray.
For me, it has become important to have good fried clams with my Fish Fry. Other people have other qualifiers: the French fries or the cole slaw.
But the form is truly a brilliant innovation. The skinniness of the fish allows it to cook super fast. It maximizes the amount of tasty crunchy fried bits. And allows it to nestle in the fold of a hotdog bun. Putting it in the bun does double duty of absorbing any excess grease and preventing the fried crust from steaming on a plate.
If you can believe it, I met people who had moved to Albany over eight years ago, and they have yet to try Fish Fry. It’s like moving to Miami and not eating at a Cuban cafeteria. Or living in Philadelphia and not having an Italian pork sandwich. Or not trying a hotdog in Chicago.
Speaking of hotdogs, we have our very own version of them here. Tune in next week to learn more.
*Possibly depressing historical footnote: The primary Albany food specialty from back in the day was called “Albany Beef” and it was sturgeon fished out of the Hudson River when it was still a viable fishery.