I called ahead. It was 5:50 pm and I figured I’d arrive at Popeye’s with my party of six sometime just after 6. I learned many weeks ago not to take off-season dinner seating for granted, so I called Popeye’s and a woman answered. I asked if I needed a reservation for dinner. She said, “honey, we seat 600.” But then she proceeded to tell me that a reservation wouldn’t be a terrible idea and she took my name. I asked if they had fish fry, a question asked with an answer already known. Honey, we have the best fish fry in Southeastern Wisconsin.
It’s difficult to be a big restaurant in the biggest location in the biggest resort town in the Midwest. While I imagine it’s nice to have seating for 600, and that premium location will never go out of style, if you would have asked Andre, he’d agree. It’s not easy being a giant. When I suggested Popeye’s for fish fry my friend immediately replied, “Is the food good or is it just a cheesy tourist trap?”
The parking meters are no longer free. We learned this after parking and noticing the meter maid waltzing along the lakeside street, after 6 pm. I insisted to the meter maid that assuredly parking had to be free after 6 pm, at least in March, right? 7 pm, the maid replied. I fed my credit card into the machine and felt certain that had it been 7 pm his answer would have been 8 pm. Slightly irritated by the gall of the Lake Geneva Parking Policies, we entered Popeyes and were led to our seats in the elevated dining room to the East of the entry and bar. In the event that you didn’t know, Popeye’s Lake Geneva is not affiliated with the fast food restaurant that shares their name.
Our water glasses were quickly filled and my typical question about the fish fry posed. $14.99, all you can eat fried or broiled cod, with a choice of potato pancake or fries, hush puppies and a few of the usual sides. The waitress moved quickly through the dining room, quickly to our table, quickly from our table. Quickly. The evening rush was on and this large restaurant was filling up nicely. We ordered the fish and a half rack of ribs as a pregame to our fishy meal.
The ribs arrived quickly, and were fine. Nothing special. It’s a shame really, since there’s a charcoal spit roasting chickens outside at nearly all times. I’d make a custom basket for the ribs and twirl those over the charcoal along with the chicken. But that’s just me, and I like tasty food. The menu says the ribs are smoked, which they may very well be, but I couldn’t detect a whiff of smoke in these ribs. Within 10 minutes our dinner was served.
A huge tray of food was placed on an elevated platform in the middle of our table. It was like a pizza platform, but filled with fried and broiled fish, potato pancakes, and hushpuppies. A few lemon wedges dressed up the edges. The french fries came in their own basket. It was a feast. I must say that I don’t like family style servings. It cheapens the food. That’s the reason shrimp cocktail is usually served with five or six or eight shrimp tails. Throw 100 shrimp tails on a platter and smear some cocktail sauce in the middle and the special treat has turned into a free for all.
I grabbed a few pieces of fried cod, one piece of broiled cod, a potato pancake and a hushpuppy. The hushpuppy was nicely crisped, tender in the middle. It tasted of crab. It may have had some crab in it, but I didn’t check the menu to see if it really did. The pancake was quite good. My grandmother was a terrible cook, but she did whip up a fine dish of Tetrazzini with bits of pimento peppers. These pancakes had pimento peppers, and I enjoyed the nostalgic flavor quite a bit. The potato was shredded, as it should be, the exterior crisped but not greasy. These were delicious potato pancakes, and for the first time this tour, I was offered a dollop of sour cream for my pancakes. I liked the effort.
The fried cod was shaped more like an extravagant fish stick. The pieces were slender and narrow, like fingers. But there was some variation in the sizing, and I like variation in my fish filets. The batter was light and airy, the first of its kind on this winter tour. The fish was tender, well seasoned, and quite delicious. I was impressed. The broiled cod was your basic square of cod, needing salt and lacking any particular dimension. The french fries were delicious, slightly spicy, and memorable. I place them in a tie with Gordy’s for finest traditional french fry in the area.
The sides were a disappointment. I have long adored the dinner rolls at Popeyes, and used to eat one with a bowl of clam chowder long ago when I ate semi-frequent lunches there. This fish feast, not that it needed it, didn’t include any bread. No dinner roll. No loaf of bread. No slice of intolerable Rye. I suppose I’d rather have no bread than be blindsided by Rye, but still. With no bread there was no butter, no judging. The applesauce was bland and smooth, and sadly served in a small plastic take out container.
The tartar sauce was apparently rather sweet, but not terrible, also served in a take out container. There was no coleslaw. Had there been coleslaw, it would have been served in one of those take out containers, the sort you’d pump ketchup into at a Culver’s. We finished most of the mountain of food and the waitress quickly cleared our table. There was some leftover fish and at least one potato pancake, but the food was unceremoniously taken from the table. The menu warns that leftovers will not be taken home.
Popeyes very well might be a cheesy tourist restaurant. There is so much flair here, you’d be forgiven for mistaking it for Chotchkie’s. It’s an undeniably large, loud space. The prime seats are the two tops nearest the window, even on a dark March night. While this Lake Geneva institution won’t win any awards for excellence in design, Popeyes manages to be both cheesy tourist trap and purveyor of above average fare. On this Friday night, I left impressed by the fish fry. Sure, I bemoaned the lack of bread, coleslaw (the menu says it’s included), and softened butter. And I felt ill over the plastic cup my flavorless, smooth applesauce was served in. But the lightly fried cod was delicate and well seasoned, the potato pancake with pimento rather divine, and that’s all it takes to win my affection.
Popeye’s Fish Fry 8/10
Cod, All You Can Eat, $14.99
811 Wrigley Drive, Lake Geneva