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Best Fish Fry of Five

August 15, 2011

Yes, I know we should have gone to Harbor House in Clifton Park. However, all attendees of last Saturday’s Tour de Fish Fry agreed that a sixth stop would have been arduous.

But that’s about all we agreed upon.

At one place the fish was both praised and panned for being salty. At another the chili sauce was both elevated and diminished for its generous amount of relish. But while four of the five restaurants got at least one vote as someone’s favorite, there was one Fish Fry that was the favorite by majority opinion.

Over the course of the day, eleven people joined me as we tried to sample and evaluate some of the area’s best examples of this regional delight. We had Albany natives, transplants, and new arrivals. People came from near and far, stretching all the way south to Hyde Park and east to North Adams. Some had been eating Fish Fry for years and others were Fish Fry virgins. At the end of the tour, I had a belly full of fish and nine completed score sheets.

Here is the story they tell.

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For pictures and additional recaps, check out Under the Copper Tree and Albany Eats.
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We began the day at Gene’s. This was the only seasonal restaurant of the tour, and as such is the only one that consists entirely of outside tables under a large and shaded awning. Here they sell haddock, which from a sustainability standpoint is pretty good. You order through a window, and for $5.13 you’ve got your sandwich.

Sauces and condiments are off to the side for you to administer as you like. It’s the sauces that I think threw most people for a loop. Because here at Gene’s they are a little bit different (and inadequately labeled). The cocktail sauce was confused with chili sauce, since there was no horseradish present and the sauce contained some red pepper heat. The tartar sauce was a bit thinner and actually tart, with very little relish mixed in (although there was a bin of relish on the side should you like it a bit chunkier). The chili sauce was sweet and tasted strongly of ketchup.

I was the only one who thought this was the best of the bunch. In part that was because I was a big fan of their take on the tartar and cocktail sauces, especially given how well they went with the fish. If the sauce situation were different, Gene’s would have been a contender for the top spot overall. They were praised for a crisp light crust, with mild flaky fish. Some criticized the crust for being greasy and others noted the Fish Fry was a bit bland on its own. Regardless, we were off to a strong start.

Across the street from Gene’s is Off Shore Pier. There really should be a pedestrian bridge to get there, but alas, should you attempt this you’ll see how long it takes to drive the 60 feet to this combo fish market and restaurant.

If you want to sit outside, there are a few un-shaded tables in the parking lot. But most likely you’ll sit inside in the dark and cozy nautically themed dining room. It is here that for $4.75 you will be treated to a haddock Fish Fry that was the overwhelming favorite of the participants on the tour.

Well, four of the nine named Off Shore explicitly as their favorite. KB @ Home-Baked Happiness declared her ultimate position as a tie between Off Shore and Matt’s but since she actually scored Off Shore higher on four of the seven criteria, I’m placing her ballot in the Off Shore pile.

Off Shore got big points for its very crisp and not greasy cornmeal crust. This was the best seasoned of all the Fish Frys, although there was one complaint about it being too salty. Albany Jane said, “It tasted awesomely buttery & salty!!” And amanda_ny and her husband both agreed it had the “Best combination of fish and sauces.”

Their cocktail sauce was praised for having a lot of horseradish. In the case of the tartar sauce, “mayonnaisey” was used as both a blessing and a curse, but without a doubt that is a good way to describe Off Shore’s version of this sauce. For the most part the chili sauce was the weakest of their offerings.

N.B. There was tremendous variability in the size of the fish served at Off Shore. I had a monstrous piece that was clearly the anomaly. It was so big that it broke under its own weight, and most likely as a result of its size the fish was a bit tougher than the piece I enjoyed at Gene’s.

So, how did Bob & Ron’s do? After all, this is the big daddy of Fish Fry places. It’s in the heart of Albany on a major arterial, and has one of the most awesome old-school neon signs in the region. It’s synonymous with Fish Fry and we were in luck, because on Saturday they were serving cusk.

Cusk might not be the most sustainable fish, but it is the one upon which Bob & Ron’s built their reputation. It’s not always available, given the over-fishing of the species, but there are those who swear by it.

KB @ Home-Baked Happiness started off impressed, “Oh, the smells! Smells so good in here!” The Fish Fry cost $4.59 and many of the ones we were served came with two smaller pieces of fish, instead of one mega extra-long piece. In theory this could be good, because it provides the perception of value and a higher crust to fish ratio. But it can also cause some problems, especially when the crust is described as pale and bland.

Now maybe our palates were tainted by the juicy flakiness of the haddock enjoyed at the first two stops. But the cusk got no love from our group. It was firm to the point of being hard. And by that I mean it wouldn’t easily break between my fingers. Dano declared his piece to be “chewy and tough.” Lilithny described hers as “waterlogged,” and this sentiment was backed up by Albany Jane who called the fish “watery and mealy.”

On the upside, most found their sauces to be solid and I personally have a soft spot for what they do with clam strips. Bob and Ron’s is such an institution that it’s hard to imagine anything knocking them off their pedestal as the most popular Fish Fry in the region. After all, where else are Albanians going to spend their Friday lunch hour during Lent?

But the hard truth is that seven of the nine participants rated Bob & Ron’s the lowest of the bunch.

Would Ted’s fare any better? We were off to find out. And on Saturday they were serving cod and slinging the lowest priced Fish Fry of the day at $4.54. Hey, if you save those nickels before you know it you’ll have saved some dimes.

According to the woman behind the counter Ted’s usually serves pollock, but has been serving cod for a while. We were also hoping to sample some of their fried oysters, which are rumored to be magnificent. Regrettably they were out. However, to me that’s a really good sign that they keep things fresh. For the record, oysters come in on Tuesday.

The story of Ted’s breaks my heart. Not so much in the final analysis. Ted’s fell squarely in the middle, which is about where one might expect a regional chain with five locations. But I was dismayed that the majority of participants were less than thrilled with Ted’s chili sauce.

At Ted’s the default dressing on the Fish Fry is chili sauce. And here it is a sweet affair, dressed up with an abundance of sweet relish. Is it unusual? Sure. But I think it works. Among this group, I held the minority opinion.

The upside of Ted’s is that it had great fish scores. It took top honors from four participants in that category. It was praised for being flakey, moist and really tasty. As opposed to Bob & Ron’s, there wasn’t anything really wrong with Ted’s. Overall, it did well, and lost by inches not yards.

And lest you think we were fading, let me tell you about the last stop of the tour, Matt’s.

Matt’s doesn’t make it easy. On Saturday they don’t open until 3 p.m. So we were some of their first customers of the day. They were selling a haddock fish fry for $4.59. Like Off Shore, this too has an attached fish market. And like Off Shore, Matt’s received more than its fair share of votes. Not quite as many, but enough to secure a place as number two in the tour.

One of the things that really set Matt’s apart was its tartar sauce. Dig this: they use chopped dill pickles, so it is more savory than sweet. And it was great. I also liked the little bit of added heat that is packed in their chili sauce, differentiating it from the sweeter chili sauces we tasted everywhere else.

Matt’s was Albany John’s favorite. He noted that “The fish was meaty…and it was well fried (not soggy or oily).” KB @ Home-Baked Happiness cited their, “good, flaky fish” and “crisp coating.” This coating was also found to contain cornmeal, but wasn’t quite as crunchy as Off Shore’s.

Are you still here?

This was an epic tour, and I’m looking forward to dialing it back to cider donuts come fall. But here’s the bottom line. If you like Bob & Ron’s for fish fry, chances are you will love Off Shore even more. And don’t count Gene’s out either. A full third of us gave them higher scores for crust and fish combined than Off Shore. In this close contest it was their tasty if unorthodox sauces that held them back.

All of these places are special in their own unique way. They are each a quintessential part of a local tradition. Hopefully in time, you too will find a way to make the rounds, and choose a favorite for yourself.

16 Comments leave one →
  1. Tonia permalink
    August 15, 2011 9:42 am

    I too have a soft spot for Bob and Ron’s clam roll. I never order fish fry there. Never had Offshore Pier. Will have to check it out.

  2. August 15, 2011 10:23 am

    So proud of my hometown Off Shore Pier. Thanks for braving the bridges and their trolls to make the trip!

  3. Mr. Sunshine permalink
    August 15, 2011 10:46 am

    Nowhere do you say if skin was on or off. That makes all the difference for me.

  4. August 15, 2011 11:02 am

    If there was skin, it wasn’t noticeable — I didn’t notice any.

  5. Rochelle permalink
    August 15, 2011 11:26 am

    No skin, but there was that white silvery membrane you swe on skinless fish sometimes.

    You would think I’d be fish fried out, but I could totally go for one now.

  6. August 15, 2011 2:00 pm

    But I grew up in Albany, why would I go anywhere but Bob and Ron’s? I concede that fish fry in Troy, or Renns., or Timbuktu might be better according to selected objective criteria, but who cares? If you are saying that I should travel out of my traditional habitat to sample an incrementally (or even much) better fish fry, then I say that you are wasting my gas. The sandwiches at the outlying Fish Fry joint would have to be enormously majestic and divine to tempt me to travel.

    I do not have issue with your methodology for deciding on a winner, nor do I mistrust the taste or opinions of your judges. I am simply wondering about the “so what” of the whole thing. You mentioned that two of the locations are across the street from each other, i.e. they are both someone’s “neighborhood” joint. I see the value in comparing and contrasting these places (I think) as they are both lunch break/Friday night dinner with the kids/fish fry craving spot accessible for the same set of individuals.

    Perhaps I have belabored this point in comments to your tours, but I always will hold that you go with what you got. You eat what you grow up on even if it is kind of shitty. I don’t taste cornmeal crust or the relative spice of the chili sauce, I taste my childhood in an unbroken chain of fried sea creatures extending back into my murky past. This is good enough for me and I don’t care what other fish fry tastes like. To use an analogy that I beat to death (for this and for minidogs and any other number of my childhood foods), fish fries are my Madeleines.

    Why must Mr. Dave quote Proust and ramble on for 4 paragraphs in response to a blog post on Fish Fry you ask? Because I think this wanderlust for the tastiest possible thing available is one of the fundamental issues with food in America. Fish fry is probably an awful analogue, but it speaks to the fact that the urge to treasure your hometown gem, your regional treasure is often lacking in our culinary decision making process. You heard that your local potatoes aren’t as good as the neighboring towns? Get in your giant car and drive twenty miles to get the better ones, or just have them airlifted to your local mega-grocer… I say be happy with the potato (or fish fry) you have. Treasure it for it what is, because should you find yourself in the land of the most delicious possible potatoes you will find that it is the crappy hometown tuber that you will the most.

    • August 15, 2011 2:05 pm

      that you will miss the most…

    • beck permalink
      August 15, 2011 8:21 pm

      But for those of us, like me, and like Daniel B., who didn’t grow up in this area, we don’t have a favorite that we grew up on. It doesn’t seem so strange to me to explore your local area(s) to try to find a favorite, as a transplant to this region.

      • August 15, 2011 9:02 pm

        Find the one near your adopted home, go to it, discuss it with your neighbor. “Local Area” to me means 15-20 miles away without crossing a significant terrain feature (river, mountain) so going between Albany and Troy doesn’t mesh with that concept… I have a persnickety philosophy when it comes to these sorts of things, I apologize.

    • August 16, 2011 8:23 am

      Mr. Dave. Thank you for this. Your feelings are well known and this comes as no surprise. But would you believe it if I told you that I’m on your side?

  7. Mr. Sunshine permalink
    August 15, 2011 8:38 pm

    Mr. Dave, absolutely brilliant disquisition on food, neighborhood, and nostalgia. Bravo.

    • Tonia permalink
      August 17, 2011 10:18 am

      I agree. Nicely put. Bob and Ron’s is that place for me. Although I’ve had fish in many places and other restaurants, none compares to those coated fries, Hawaiian punch, slaw, and clam roll. When I go there I’m reminded of my grandparents. It’s a step back in time.

  8. llcwine permalink
    August 15, 2011 9:12 pm

    never had the fish fry at Matt’s, but it is my go to place to buy raw clams…best prices in the area and the freshest…I spoke with the owner and he personally travels to Rhode Island a few times a week to pick up product…he is incredibly nice and really cares that his customers have what is not only fresh, but also at the best prices for the consumer. This guarantees that the consumer will return, as excellent prices plus service makes me want to return for certain.

  9. Dano permalink
    August 17, 2011 12:52 pm

    So now I’m craving fish fry again. We’ll have to see how Pedrin’s in North Adams stacks up…

  10. Dougie permalink
    May 25, 2012 11:47 am

    I just had Gene’s a few days ago and I have been to Off Shore several times. I think the “judges” got it right! Now I have to try Matt’s seeing that it’s about a mile from my house and I’ve never been!

  11. MattsLover permalink
    July 11, 2013 1:08 pm

    Fun Fact: the owner of matts fish fry in cohoes has run his own wholesale seafood business for over 20 years, going straight to the pier in Boston 3-5 times a week to pick up fresh seafood for capital region restaurants. Every restaurant listed above actually gets their fresh fish supply from him. So I think matts wins!

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