If you are considering a Lenten fish fry pilgrimage in 2015 – take note of these three very distinct events as you map your course. The deep-friers will start heating up again on Friday, February 20, 2015. (Also see the first part of our Lenten roundup.)
Lebanese Food at Holy Family Maronite Church
The flyer at Holy Family sets the tone for the dinner: “Come for the fish. Stay for the garlic.” There’s a touch of levity and some real truth-telling in that phrase. Garlic is the loving kiss of flavor that permeates the food at Holy Family. “Skip the fish. Go for the side dishes. You can get fish anywhere. But you can’t get Lebanese food like this!” says Carolyn Marker, who grew up in Holy Family. It would be a shame to pass on the fish, which is fried perfectly, but Marker is absolutely right about the side dishes. This is Lebanese home cooking, done with pride.
The lubia is the heart of this meal. Green beans are cooked with tomatoes, garlic, and seasonings and served with buttered rice. The flavors are rich and subtle, and the green beans have a satisfying al dente quality to them. The dressing on the crisp lettuce (there’s no shortage of textures at this dinner) is garlic, olive oil, lemon juice, and “a handful of dried mint to make it marvelous,” says Marker. Small cups of garlic sauce await guests at the end of the buffet line. It’s best used on everything. Generously.
Different people in the congregation take responsibility for different aspects of the dinner, and they bring their family recipes with them. Marker thinks this is one of the reasons the food is so good. “We cook as we would if we were at home. Our own people come to this. We can’t shortchange or cut corners on anything we make. There is a great deal of pride in our food. We truly care that you have had a good experience when you come here,” she says.
The current generation in the Holy Family kitchen is mentoring the upcoming one. “We respect and nurture our youth. These kids are cooks already,” she says. This bodes very well for Holy Family and for anyone who likes Lebanese food.
Holy Family Maronite Church
1960 Lexington Ave S
Mendota Heights, MN 55118
Baked Tilapia and Cheddar Mashed Potatoes at St. Albert the Great Catholic Church
The Church of St. Albert the Great receives a lot of attention for their fish fry, and deservedly so. It’s more of a fall festival than a Lenten event, but nobody seems to mind. The tone is set with their poster, which assures you that they serve tilapia and not lutefisk (Take that, you Lutherans!). Live music and bingo entertain you while you wait. Once you’re in the dining hall, there’s a buffet line with baked and fried tilapia, cole slaw, cheddar mashed potatoes, and meatless spaghetti, and a room filled with a cast of thousands cooking, serving, clearing tables, serving desserts, and selling raffle tickets. The volume precludes much conversation as a thousand-plus people come through the line and raffle winners are continually announced. So enjoy focusing on the food.
The baked tilapia has a crust with almonds, and it is well worth getting seconds, which you can. The recipe originated with the church custodian who was a fisherman and “North Country guy,” says Erin Sim, St. Albert office manager and long-time parish member. “It was his shore lunch recipe,” she says. All the recipes are originally from parish members and all become works in progress. “We are constantly looking to improve what we do, without changing people’s experience so much they won’t return,” says Sim. The “cole slaw ladies” come in the Thursday before the dinner to make the slaw dressing. St. Albert’s used to serve a carrot slaw, but sadly the parishioner in charge of it passed away without writing down the recipe. “We just couldn’t recreate the flavor, so we had to give up serving it. Now we have a manual and record the recipes,” says Sim. That’s good, because the cheddar mashed potatoes really should be preserved for future generations.
St. Albert the Great Catholic Church
2836 33rd Ave S
Minneapolis, MN 55406
All-You-Can-Eat at St. Pascal Baylon Catholic Church
St. Pascal Baylon’s fish fry is one of the smaller events in the area, averaging 600 people an evening. That’s fine by Rich Hoffman, the chair of the fish fry. “We want this to be a good experience for people and for them to come back. We have a crew of 40 to 50 people who do their job almost to perfection and we have just the right-sized crowd,” he says. The line moves quickly in the spacious, sunny dining room with large tables set well apart from one another, making it easy to navigate with family members in strollers or wheelchairs.
The food is basic Midwestern fare, with enough choices that you can probably get a picky eater to join you for dinner: baked and fried fish, macaroni and cheese, au gratin and seasoned fried potatoes, steamed vegetables and cole slaw, tartar sauce and cocktail sauce. Coffee, caffeinated and decaffeinated. It’s a bit of a surprise to find only one dessert – pudding. But since it’s all-you-can-eat, quantity can make up for variety.
The cooks prepare a solid dinner and you leave hungry only if you want to. The real selling point of St. Pascal Baylon’s is just how pleasant the overall experience is. Even when the dining room is at full capacity, the room’s buzz is gentle and it’s easy to talk to the people at your table. In our case, the friendly diners who joined us were Sister Marjorie, along with a St. Pascal’s teacher and her two teenaged children. All were ready to share their thoughts about the dinner (all positive), to suggest other good fish fries, and to listen attentively to our tales of making the Lenten dinner circuit. When you find two teenagers who are willing to sit and talk food with you, you know you’re someplace special.
St. Pascal Baylon Catholic Church
1757 Conway St
St. Paul, MN 55106