I grew up eating lake fish. Crappies, walleye and sunfish usually caught by my grandpa. Nearly every day he would go fishing, and if it was summer, chances were myself, one of my brothers or a couple of our cousins would go along for the ride.
There was plenty of fish to go around, and many nights in the summer — and at least every Friday during Lent — there was fried fish for dinner. The small, firm fillets were first dredged in a seasoned flour, then egg and finally crushed crackers before they hit a hot pan with a dab of margarine to fry up crisp and golden brown.
We’d cut up homemade garlic-heavy dill pickles and mix them with mayo and mustard for dipping sauce, nary a lemon in sight. It was a lot of fried fish, too much for some. My grandpa died nearly a decade before my grandma did and I don’t think she ate fried fish once after he died. I rarely ate it after I left home — and when I did, it was more likely to be a puffy battered slab of cod or halibut, served with chubby fries and dashes of malt vinegar.
But I’ve recently started dipping my toes back into the world of fried fish — this time without copious amounts of saltine crackers. From fluffy, crackly crisp catfish inside a Beacon Hill gas station to crunchy panko-dusted cod at a burger joint in Bellevue, here are the five best pieces of fried fish I’ve had around the Seattle area lately.
The Comfort Zone
12:30-7:20 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday; 5016 Rainier Ave. S., Seattle; 206-246-2800; thecomfortzonesoulfood.com
The magic of the macaroni and cheese at this Columbia City spot, owned by the mother and daughter team of Talya Miller and LaShon Lewis, is well-known lore, but a real sleeper hit at the Comfort Zone is the catfish. It comes as a plate with two sides, as a po’boy or as a sandwich and is fried until crisp with a light, cornmeal-heavy batter. I ordered the sandwich ($15), which featured one large fillet, halved and stacked on top of itself, plus a slice of tomato, a few slices of onion and two pickles on a squashy white bun. The fish is moist and firm; the breading crackly; and between the pickles and the onion, there was no need for extra sauce.
Beacon Hill Shell Station
Open 24 hours daily; 2424 Beacon Ave. S., Seattle; 206-322-7861
Yes, this unassuming gas station (is there any other kind?) on Beacon Hill does indeed have incredibly delicious fried catfish. There’s an entire steam table filled with fried goods of all kinds — gizzards, chicken wings, corn dogs, jo jo potatoes and more — but the real stunner is the delicate catfish ($8.99/pound). The breading is light and slightly crunchy, salty and well-seasoned. There are plenty of sauces to choose from, but truthfully I ate most of the three pieces I got straight from the bag in my car on the way home, without any sauce.
11 a.m.-8 p.m. Monday-Friday, 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday, closed Sunday; 2255 140th Ave. N.E., #B, Bellevue; 425-747-7818; wibbleys.com
Situated in a strip mall in Bellevue, the most obvious draw at Wibbley’s are the burgers, but the wild cod is a real winner. Hand-cut and coated in a panko breading, the three pieces of cod ($10.99 with fries) give an audible crunch that can be heard across a quiet room. The fish is moist, and it comes with a pickle-heavy tartar sauce for dipping. I also ordered a side of the Wibbley’s dressing, which is like a ketchup-mayo hybrid that works well with the fish.
Emerald City Fish & Chips
11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 3756 Rainier Ave. S., Seattle; 206-760-3474; emeraldcityfishandchips.com
My colleagues once named Stevie Allen’s pocket-size shop one of the best in the city and, after one bite of the halibut, I am compelled to agree. The breading was whisper thin and deeply flavored, the fillets of halibut were also thin and perfectly cooked. Unlike some of the other places on this list, the beauty of this fish wasn’t in its crunch factor, it was in that paper-thin coating that sealed in the moisture of the fish perfectly. There’s also the dipping sauce, with just enough sriracha to make it zing.
The Fish Box
4 p.m.-midnight Tuesday-Thursday, 4 p.m.-2 a.m. Friday and Saturday; 172 20th Ave., Seattle; 206-771-2510; thefishbox.net
You’re not missing a storefront; the Fish Box uses a commercial kitchen at Seattle Classical Christian School. Around the corner from the front door on 20th Avenue, you’ll find a small sign advertising the Fish Box and how to order — or if you order online, schedule a pickup and someone will meet you at the door with your grub. Unable to decide, I ordered the Sampler ($19.95), which came with halibut, salmon and catfish alongside three small hush puppies and a pile of fries. The breading was delicate and light on all three — I could almost see the pink salmon hue through the batter. The catfish, soaked in buttermilk, was tender without dissolving into the mush that can happen with catfish. The salmon had a breading heavy with smoked paprika while the halibut’s breading had notes of lemon. All three were distinct in letting the flavors sing, and the portion size was large enough to share.