Maine is a fried seafood lover’s paradise, and I encourage all paradise seekers to venture beyond the traditional seaside locales – because, although less aesthetically pleasing, Susan’s Fish-n-Chips delivers some of the tastiest fried food in southern Maine.
Open since 1989, Susan’s has achieved a sort of local cult status. Happily, it stands up to its reputation. Stuffed into a traffic-heavy asphalt cluster of outer Forest Avenue in Portland – next door to an auto repair shop – Susan’s iconic blue awning and Pepsi sign welcome diners.
With a tangle of old buoys outside and a walk-up counter, old carpet and large garbage bins along a wall inside, the whole space initially feels a little grungy. Add the hot oil fryers, hand scrawled signage, walls covered haphazardly with items that straddle a fine line between kitsch and junk, and expectations must be managed.
Haute cuisine, this is not. However, the staff is friendly, and there’s free coffee. Also free? Ice cream, for any kid (under 12) showing a good report card. Picnic tables are big enough to stretch upon, and the wooden booths in the back are cozy, even if a little sticky. The multi-paneled garage door-cum-window is interesting, and the corny signs bring smiles.
If you crave fried seafood, I cannot think of any place in the state that does it better.
I will discuss the menu, but this is a study in fried food, so I did not expect batter from an iSi Whip – I just hoped for crisp and not soggy. I wanted to taste distinct fish and batter flavors, not just oil and salt. I wanted to pop a piece of tender, not dry, seafood in my mouth without needing to sponge grease from my fingers.
The eponymous fish and chips are fresh haddock filets, and the fries are hand-cut. A “dinnah” that includes the fries and choice of potato or pasta salad and coleslaw costs $8.99. Or go for the fried fish nuggets solo ($4.99 a pint and $8.99 a quart).
Susan’s makes a point to use fresh haddock, and this effort shows in the result. Also, this is not a light, airy, tempura-style batter. Crunchy and substantial, this batter makes a solid crust for the steamy, delicate flakes inside.
For $5, the Susan’s crew will custom-fry any cleaned catch that you bring in. (“You catch it, you clean it, we’ll cook it,” reads the website.)
Smelt is on the menu. People seem to love or hate these tiny whole fish. (Ever been smelt fishing? File this for next winter’s activity list: maine.gov/dmr/recreational/smeltcamps.)
Personally, I love the smelt’s slightly gamy mineral taste, but find the bone texture off-putting. But Susan’s breaded nine of them in my generous pint ($7.99), and if smelt is your thing, there’s not a lot of room for disappointment.
Winning the best novelty category is fried lobster tail on a stick, available on Fridays and Saturdays for $4.25. As a lover of lobster in all forms, I can verify that the frying process does little to detract from the lobster’s unique and delicate taste. Rather, tipping this sort of adult lollipop fondue-style into a plastic cup of drawn butter seems like a very civilized manner of consumption. Again, lobster tails are steamy underneath their golden coating.
Susan’s offers clams as strips or whole bellies, and the pint portions are generous. Quarts, even more so. The strips are, predictably but not unhappily, chewy, while the whole bellies add a creamy texture to the experience – both versions are encased in a medium golden batter that tastes clean and crisp.
Likewise, the fried oysters are the softer, smoother version, with focus on the bivalve’s salinity. They are equally hot, fresh and crispy on the outside and silky on the inside.
Lobster rolls (at Susan’s, “lobstah rolls”) are one of those foods where preparation is wholly subjective, from the bun (top or side loader?) to the lettuce (crisp addition or needless distraction?). Mayo’s presence as a dollop, binder, on the side or not at all? Knuckle, tail or claw meat? Whole pieces or chopped for convenient biting?
All I can note is how Susan’s does it: A straight-up, white top-loader hot dog bun, grilled and stuffed to overflowing with an array of lobster pieces atop a thin layer of mayo and iceberg lettuce leaf. The price is right at $11.99 with fries.
My table divided on the tartar sauce presentation. Susan’s serves the sauce in a cold Mason jar with a spoon for the table, but my friend requested individual packets. The server was happy to oblige, and the encounter sparked a debate about bacteria, aesthetics and socially appropriate portions of tartar sauce. I had no idea this was a potential hot button. I like the Mason jar.
I also ordered the fried veggie boat ($7.99). While it’s a great effort and I appreciate its presence, I suspect vegetarians might be disappointed with the result. My platter included a variety of veggies, but the process just did not seem to translate, and the result was a sort of overcooked, mealy combination of good intentions. Not bad, but the fried seafood is so much better.
The exception, however, are the onion rings, which are as big and perfect as a hand-breaded onion ring could ever hope to be.
Ever try a fried banana split? Imagine a traditional boat-style lineup of ice cream and toppings circled by a ring of battered, deep-fried banana slices. It offers that caramel Bananas Foster-y sugar flavor against the cool ice cream, but with a buttery-tasting coating. There’s enough to share, and I recommend saving room.
Note that while Susan’s accepts credit cards, there is no space to add a tip on the receipt, so remember to bring cash for the jar at the counter.
When jostling the in-town summer seaside crowd is too much, drive up Forest Avenue for deep-fried fun. Susan’s will fix you right up for a good price, and my guess is that you’ll leave the space feeling local in all the best ways.
Shonna Milliken Humphrey is a Maine freelance writer and author of the novel “Show Me Good Land.”