The Crunkest Fish In Town
July 4, 2010
In Santa Fe, it’s the green chile sauce. Minnesota, the hot dish. In Texas, it’s all about the BBQ and what I imagine to be 48oz TBone steak eating contests around every corner, although I might be misinformed about the latter. In New York, the bagel is a must. As is the slice of pizza, the pastrami on rye. Or perhaps for the more adventurous eater, the boiled hot dog from a street vendor. Indiana, well, I’m not so sure what the food tradition is there. Same goes for Utah, although the word on the street is that Utah is all about their jello. Who knew? But I’m not sure that counts as a food tradition since jello is not exactly what one would call, food. It doesn’t seem fair to put it in the same category as say, a shrimp po’ boy. But I could be wrong.
Everywhere you go in this country, Indiana included I’m sure, there is some food or cooking method that makes that city or region unique. Or in the case of New York, many foods. And it seems especially prevalent here in the south where tradition runs rampant with so many recipes that date back to someones grandmas grandmas grandma who got it from her cousin. Although I am definitely one to enjoy some fine dining once in a while, I do find that the best food is usually the simplest. No frills or fuss. Just good food made the way it’s always been made.
In Nashville, the southern soul food staples are hot chicken and hot fish. There is even a Hot Chicken Festival on the Fourth of July that is nothing more than a field of grass lined with booth after booth after booth of vendors selling hot chicken. And one guy selling watermelon. Other than a contest for the best recipe, there are no gimics, no games in which to win a giant stuffed panda bear. You just buy your chicken and eat it and maybe wash it down with a beer or listen to some live music. It’s all about the chicken, like the name of the festival says.
From my understanding hot fish and hot chicken are prepared roughly the same way, battered and fried and rubbed with a spice paste. But don’t go asking people how they do it or what the special ingredient is because chances are they won’t tell you. Every place does it a bit differently, family recipes, secret spice blends and what not. So you find a place that suits your taste and suddenly you feel like you’ve been initiated into the south.
That was our experience at Eastside Fish last week, the place with ‘The Crunkest Fish In Town,’ according to the sign. We had been eyeing this hole-in-the-wall for a couple weeks, tucked unassumingly in the back corner of the parking lot next to our laundry mat. There’s no sign on the road mentioning the fact that this is THE place for hot fish. As with many good local spots, you just have to know.
When you walk in there is a skinny counter with a few stools to your right, to your left a soda cooler with a small TV on top tuned in to BET and straight ahead about 5 feet, is a small window where you place your order. Most orders are take out. The menu is simple with three types of fish, a few different sides, chicken wings (or as they’re called here ‘hoodwangs’) and burgers. But fish is their specialty. They were written up in Gourmet a few years ago but I got the feeling that even that wasn’t such a big deal with the article matted and framed hanging about 10 feet up the wall where no one could read it. They already know they’re that good.
Hot fish is nothing like the lightly breaded beer battered fish n’ chips that I was used to in the pacific northwest. It’s deeply crunchy, more reminiscent of fried chicken, with a delicious depth and heat to it. The perfect envelope for a light flaky fish. The feeling you get when eating it is similar to that of indulging in a plate of maccaroni and cheese. It is not the pinnacle of health necessarily, but it is the pinnacle of comfort food and that has to count for something, right?
And here is my favorite thing about it. It’s served with two pieces of plain old white bread, cheap yellow mustard, even cheaper hot sauce, pickles and onions. There’s no artisan bread here, no herb infused mustard or gourmet hot sauce. It just is what it is, what it’s meant to be. Simple, straightforward, down home cooking.