In 1962, Cincinnati, Ohio-based McDonald’s franchisee Lou Groen had a problem. His local clientele was close to 90% Roman Catholic, which was causing his restaurant to founder mightily on Fridays and during Lent, the 40-day period leading up to Easter during which Roman Catholics abstain from eating meat.
In those days, when your McDonald’s franchise was struggling, you didn’t noodle around with middle management. You got on the phone with old Ray Kroc, himself. Sympathetic to the struggles at Groen’s store, Kroc rather famously came up with a proposition. They would, as Groen had asked, begin testing a new fish sandwich to help the store get through those Friday rough patches. Kroc also insisted, however, that the restaurant also test his solution. Kroc thought the answer was to feed Catholics his “Hula Burger,” a slice of grilled pineapple with cheese on a cold bun, and demanded that both items be placed on the menu. Whichever sandwich sold best would be rolled out to the nationwide menu, and would become the first non-hamburger addition to the McDonald’s menu. Lou Groen’s Filet-O-Fish sandwich won in a landslide, saved his struggling franchise, and McDonald’s went on to sell approximately 300 million of the sandwiches per year.
I wasn’t brought up under any particular religious doctrine, and thus don’t have a very well-developed sense of “guilt” or “self-discipline,” which is partly what allows me to waste my prime income-generating years by writing a blog about sandwiches. This lack of religious meat-eating guidelines also kept me from really being forced to explore the width and breadth of the fast food fish sandwich market. Living in Maine, where the best fried haddock sandwich you’ve ever had in your life is available on the side of the road almost anywhere in the state during the Summer, usually for less than the price of a Happy Meal, I have sampled Lou Groen’s Filet-O-Fish perhaps a half a dozen times in my life, and have certainly never explored any of the fish sandwich offerings from any of the other chains.
Realizing this massive deficit in my fast food knowledge, and with the various fast food restaurants rolling out their annual fish sandwich promotions for Lent, I did what any reasonable person would do. I went and ate them all. Here’s what I observed, ranked from least to most delicious:
Name: BK BIG FISH® from Burger King
Price: $5.59 for a combo, including medium fries and a drink
The King says: “A crisp, golden breaded 4.3-ounce filet, tangy tartar sauce, and fresh lettuce all served on a corn-dusted bun. The BK BIG FISH® commands attention, and delivers satisfaction. Who are you to resist?”
Observations: If I’m being completely sincere, it’s hard to tell with absolute certainty if this was my least favorite of the fast food fish sandwiches due to any faults inherent in the sandwich itself, or if my low opinion was simply due to this being the fourth and final fish sandwich that I ate. There was plenty not to like about this sandwich: The hot iceberg lettuce that fell out in big, upholstery-staining clumps, the yellowish tartar sauce that looked like it had sat unrefrigerated for hours, and the oddly chewy butter-grilled potato (?) bun all helped this sandwich to earn low marks. The bright side of ordering fish sandwiches at fast food places is that they usually need to be made fresh, since no one ever, ever orders them. In this case, though, the square fish fillet was so hot that it exploded burning oil into my mouth on first bite, annihilating my tongue and making further analysis difficult. Burger King seems to make it a point not to disclose what type of fish they are using, so I am assuming it is a formed, pressed mishmash of pollock and whatever else is inexpensive during a given season. The fish itself was mushy, and overpowered by a very crispy coating that seemed synthetic, as though it were made from deep-fried packing peanuts.
Rating: 3 mouth-destroying fish-mash patties out of 10.
Name: Wendy’s Premium Cod Filet Sandwich
Price: $5.59 for a combo, including cheese, fries and a drink
Wendy says: “It’s hard to resist our Premium Cod Fillet. That’s because we use only 100% cod straight from the North Pacific. Battered in light, crispy Panko breading and topped with tartar sauce and fresh lettuce — all on a buttered, toasted bun. It’s quite a catch, but only for a limited time. Hurry in to Wendy’s today! ”
Observations: This was the fast food fish sandwich I was most looking forward to, thanks to some brilliant product photography clearly showing a thick, plump cod fillet, that looks like it just got done swimming up a Panko waterfall and leaped into place on my buttered bun. Unfortunately, it was one of the most disappointing. The sandwich came packaged as most Wendy’s items seem to nowadays, in an effort to mimic other, better chains with a white paper wrapper and half a cardboard box. The fish fillet itself had a somewhat natural shape, and the promised Panko breadcrumb coating did provide a greater crunch than the other sandwiches we tasted. The sandwich was served at slightly below room temperature, with a cold slice of unmelted, flavorless cheese hanging over the edges of the cod filet. This didn’t do the sandwich any favors, and almost makes it seem unfair to compare to fresher, hotter sandwiches we received elsewhere. A slightly stale, squashed, butter-toasted bun slathered in a liberal amount of appropriately tangy tartar sauce with a few anemic slices of iceberg did little to distract from the rather mushy, though pleasantly mild-flavored fish. Eating this sandwich made me wish that they had a “Spicy Crispy” version.
Rating: 5 bruised and battered North Pacific Cod out of 10.
Name: Arby’s Fish Sandwich
Price: TWO fish sandwiches OR a fish sandwich combo for $5.00
Weird Rodeo Hat says: “Made with light, flaky fish fillets, served with Arby’s delicious tartar sauce, fresh lettuce, and always made fresh when you order. The Fish Sandwich is back! Dive in!”
Observations: First off, is there any sentence in the English language that sounds sweeter to those of us accustomed to eating in our cars than, “If you could just pull up to the curb, your order is going to be a few more minutes?” Sure, the extra wait is initially disappointing, but as soon as you realize that whatever you just ordered had to be made fresh and will be arriving piping hot, it becomes a thrill. Arby’s does, indeed, seem to cook each fish sandwich to order, ensuring that, already, it is going to outscore some competitor’s sandwiches. I was also tickled to see our friends at Grub Grade have their review name-dropped on the Arby’s marketing material. A chain that is serving fresh food AND paying attention to food blogs? Heavenly!
My expectations for this sandwich were low, due mostly to my generally low, lingering opinion of Arby’s that is based on their 1970’s-era grey, wet roast beef sandwiches, and has almost nothing to do with the mostly delicious food the chain is producing nowadays. I was delighted to open the bag, unwrap my sandwich, and be greeted with a piping hot sandwich that looked an awful lot like the picture on the menu. The sandwich is served on a bulky sesame seed bun, with tangy Miracle Whip-style dressing on both sides, that was fresh and stood up to the large fish fillet overhanging the edges of the sandwich. The hot iceberg lettuce is a bit of a bummer. The fish fillet itself, an Alaskan pollock, unusually shaped to resemble a real fish, rather than the pieces of thousands of other fish, smushed together, has a wonderful crunchy coating, with flaky fish inside. The more I ate of the sandwich, the more it started to lose me. The tangy sauce, was a bit overpowering, and every third bite of sandwich seemed to taste intensely, overly fishy. The texture of the fish itself took on almost a minced quality, that I didn’t particularly care for.
Rating: 5.5 oddly-shaped fishy minced fillets out of 10.
Name: McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish
Price: TWO Filet-O-Fish sandwiches for $3.33
Ronald McDonald says: “It’s the fish that catches people! Dive right in. Don’t hesitate, cuz it’s made with light, flaky filet of white fish from the deep, cold waters of the Pacific Ocean and the Bering, Baltic and North Seas. Topped with tangy tartar sauce in a lightly steamed bun. Down you go! ”
Observations: Look, I’m not any happier about this than you are. The sandwich that started it all, the sandwich that summarily trounced Ray Kroc’s Hula Burger way back in 1962, the sandwich that most people cite as the reason NOT to eat fast food fried fish and cheese sandwiches, was our favorite of the bunch, by quite a wide margin. What sets this sandwich apart? A few things. Though the fish fillet itself, a fairly unremarkable mixture of pollack and hoki, is tasty, it’s not doing anything that is, in itself, better than the other chains. The fish is mild, with nice, big flakes of fillet. The half-slice of American cheese is a bit of a puzzle, in that it melts in the areas where it is directly in contact with the fish, and stays solid elsewhere. And the tartar sauce is absolutely heaped on, making the mayonnaise and dill pickle mixture perhaps a tad overwhelming for some. What makes this sandwich better than all the others we tasted, however, is the steamed bun, which melts and gives way immediately, making this sandwich seem like the seafaring equivalent of the best drive-in steamed cheeseburger, with no pesky, flavorless hot lettuce to get in the way. All of the ingredients fuse into a puffy, steamy little bite of the sea that was stunningly tasty, in spite of my preconceptions to the contrary.
Rating: 7 fluffy clouds of deep-sea deliciousness out of 10.
How can this be? How can McDonald’s sandwich, made with a reconstituted fish patty that bears little resemblance to real food, outperform Wendy’s fish sandwich, which uses an actual, honest-to-goodness cod fillet? The answer is twofold.
First, McDonald’s succeeded as it always does in creating an entirely new food. In the same way that a McDonald’s cheeseburger can’t reasonably be compared to a cheeseburger fresh from your grill at home, but still manages to be delicious, the Filet-O-Fish really can’t be evaluated as a “fish sandwich.” Here in Maine, there are plenty of “fish sandwiches” around, made with crunchy, golden-fried haddock, served with a touch of tartar sauce on a fresh potato bun. This, quite simply, ain’t that. The Filet-O-Fish manages to be something else entirely, a tiny taste of crispy fried fish served with a quart of warm tartar sauce on the softest whisper of steamed bun, the only sandwich in the McDonald’s lineup that isn’t served on a griddled bun. It may not win any prizes for purity of ingredients, but if you can score a freshly made, piping hot Filet-O-Fish, its power is hard to deny.
More important, though, is that the Filet-O-Fish hasn’t forgotten what it most essentially is. It’s fast food that remembers what fast food is supposed to be. It’s not competing for your chain restaurant dollars, it’s not hoping to convince you that a yellow rainslicker-wearing fisherman caught the fish in your sandwich anywhere nearby (or even within thousands of miles), and it’s not trying to make you think that eating a fried fish sandwich in your car is the same thing as eating a fried fish sandwich in a restaurant. With the Filet-O-Fish, the pendulum sings the other way altogether. On special, these diminutive little sandwiches set you back about a buck and a half a piece. For that price, it’s hard to imagine a convenience food that delivers more completely as a satisfying snack except for, I dunno, fruit. The Filet-O-Fish doesn’t apologize. It delights. And, if I am somehow ever capable of ever ordering a fast food fish sandwich ever again after all of this, it is the Filet-O-Fish that I will be returning for.