Sunday, February 22, 2009

Guilty Pleasures: Fast Food Fish Fillets

As a shameless foodwhore, I have many guilty pleasures, many of which I'm not actually that guilty about. I just know I should be. As a food writer, it's assumed that I'm all uptight and and will only let Michelin-approved cuisine pass my lips -- but that's simply not true. I'm more a gourmand than a gourmet, and my insatiable appetite dictates that I just can't be that insanely picky because a) I'm a writer, so I'm really too poor to be that discerning all the time; b) I can turn on and off my food-writer-tastebuds at will and lower my expectations appropriately, to properly enjoy the benefits of pure junk food; c) sometimes, crap is delicious. 'Nuff said.

Many people are sketched out by the idea of eating fish from a fast food restaurant, which is completely understandable. Seafood as a whole needs to be of a certain standard to even be edible without getting you sick, and "fish" is such a generic term that you can't be entirely sure what you're getting. I only eat them because I grew up doing so, and for a long while, I would hide the fact that I really, really loved a good ol' fried fish sandwich from my friends. After all, it was Long Island, and in lower-middle class Suffolk County, you just didn't eat that. Regardless of living on an island shaped like a fish surrounded by fish, Lawng Islanders just didn't eat the stuff, which is more the shame.

The funny thing about all of this is that since eating fish was considered "gross" and taboo by my peers, I stopped eating real fresh fish for many years, and would only eat the processed fast food fish fillets. Ironic, isn't it? But still, they beat the hell out of any fish sticks my mom would massacre. (The cooking gene passed from my chef grandparents right to me and my siblings, fortified by my dad's abilities, skipping right over my poor stove-challenged mom.)

Since it was a low-volume food item, even back in the day -- before fast food was all about making it fresh and mostly about pre-preparedness -- the fish fillets always came out nice and crispy. A light, crumbly crust coats the fish itself, and breaks easily at the bite with a satisfying medium crunch. The fish is always a mild white variety, dense of flesh, flaky but firm, and slightly sweet as opposed to the harsher and more apparently sea-derived flavors of fish like salmon, or the neutral and relatively tasteless quality of mahi-mahi. Served on soft, warmed buns and coated with a tart and tangy tartar sauce, I like the fillet hot and the tartar squishing out of the sandwich. But that's not saying a whole lot, since I ask for my mayonnaise "disgusting" to get the proper amount of ooziness.

The big three for fish sandwiches are the big three for fast food: McDonald's, Burger King, and Wendy's (photo from Wendys.com). Rally's, known in other regions as Checkers, offers a fish sandwich, too, but seafood for under or around a buck or two is hard for me to trust. Low-rent is hardly how you want your fish categorized, and if the buns are any indication of the quality of what's within, well ... you know.

Here's my rundown on facts you should know about each of your options before you chow down:
  • McDonald's: The buns at McDonald's are much more superior than their competitors. Slightly sweet, their bread is always light and fluffy from being warmed, and although you can't really tell due to the softness, toasted. This does indeed make a difference, since that sweetness lends itself to enhance the flavor of the fish fillet itself and provides a lovely contrast to the creamy, chunky tartar sauce, which is nicely reinforced with a good amount of pickled relish blended in for bite. Their tartar sauce is also one of the best I've had since the flavor balances and texture is dead-on to the point that I could very well eat a tartar sauce and cheese sandwich ... often necessary due to the unequal rectangular size of the fish fillet. The fish itself is consistently hot and crispy, firm and sweet, and of a pretty good thickness. Topped with melted cheese, that additional luxury complements all of the other flavors very, very well, and balances out the chunkiness of the tartar sauce with smooth, ooey goodness. The award-winning fries are a perfect accompaniment to the Filet-o-Fish, the salty golden shoestrings providing a contrast to the sweetness of the sandwich. This fillet weighs in at 470 calories.
  • Burger King: (logo courtesy of britishblogs.co.uk) By a span of several centimeters, this is the biggest of the fish sandwich offerings, with a diameter that surpasses that of its smaller counterparts, dwarfing McDonald's offering, even with the Filet-o-Fish's expansion a few years ago. However, although the BK Big Fish has its competitors beat in size, its quality is proportionately lower and the fillet is thinner. The corn-dusted bun is an improvement over their supermarket-variety toasted but still a little soggy sesame-seed buns. One of the only fast food chains that still premakes some of their menu items, their sandwiches are pretty inconsistent, meaning you can get a piping hot, crispy fish fillet one day and a sloppy, heat-drawer steamed hot mess the next. The dark meat is more interspersed than the mostly-white and vein-free goodness of Mickey D's and Wendy's, indicating a lower quality in my opinion (I like all of my meat and meat products clear and unblemished, and won't even eat veiny chicken). It's still nice and mild, but not as subtly flavored as the others. The tartar sauce is more sweet than what's found at the other two chains mentioned, but the crisp, cool iceberg lettuce is refreshing and provides a little more of that sweeter note. A heavyweight at 640 calories and not as succulent as the others, you may want to rethink your choice if you shoot for this one.
  • Wendy's: Founded on a premise that fast food could still be good food, Wendy's makes their fish sandwich no exception. With sandwiches made to order, the toppings taste fresh and the sanwiches are consistently tasty. The Premium Fish Fillet is the thickest, meatiest, and juiciest of the three fast food giants, and also the most flavorful. Made with North Pacific cod, as they proudly advertise, this is no mystery meat, which is obviously always a plus. The panko breading is light and fries up well, crumbling in small granules and satisfyingly crisp. I have yet to have a fish fillet here that's suffered from being kept in a warming drawer, whereas the crispy chicken sandwiches like the Spicy and Classic are never a sure thing for textural satisfaction, much like their crapshoot fries, which are either undercooked, overcooled, improperly drained, under- or over-salted, or a combination of those things in one batch. But going back to the fish, their use of a warmed (not toasted) sweet "Kaiser" corn-dusted bun is a smart choice, and they model their sandwich's composition after Burger King's formula, but improves it by dint of quality. A more chunky than creamy smooth tangy tartar tops it all off, and a cold full leaf of iceberg lettuce is a welcome blast of coolness. Ask them to top this one off with a slice of American cheese and we have ourselves a winner! Unfortunately, this one is purely seasonal. 470 calories is what this one will cost you around your wasteline.
Conclusions and Findings:

Wendy's wins this comparison for best fish fillet sandwich, but for the whole meal package, go for the Golden Arches, whose fries go best with their sandwich. Best case scenario? Get your sandwich at Wendy's and head to McDonald's (Filet-o-Fish pictured right) for your side. Burger King's selling point is in its size, but it becomes a classic case of quality versus quantity, and the breaded fries, great on their own when done well, don't necessarily mesh with the flavors of the sandwich.

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