Sunday, March 9, 2014
By SHONNA MILLIKEN HUMPHREY
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.
The atmosphere is casual, but Susan’s Fish-n-Chips in Portland is serious about fresh seafood fried well.
Staff file photos by John Patriquin
Susan's makes a point of using fresh haddock for fish and chips.
SUSAN'S FISH-N-CHIPS, 1135 Forest Ave., Portland, 878-3240; susansfishnchips.com
HOURS: 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily
PRICES: $1.99 to $18.99, with dinners in the $10 range. A particularly good deal is the fried fish sandwich special at two for $2.50 on Mondays and Tuesdays.
CREDIT CARDS: Yes, but bring cash for the tip jar.
KIDS: Yes; children's menu
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes
BOTTOM LINE: Susan's Fish-n-Chips is a local treasure on outer Forest Avenue. The lack of ambience becomes a sort of meta/alt-ambience. Go to Susan's for the fried fresh seafood. The staff is friendly and welcoming, portions are great, and the price is right.
Ratings follow this scale and take into consideration food, atmosphere, service and value: ★ Poor ★★ Fair ★★★ Good ★★★★ Excellent ★★★★★ Extraordinary. The Maine Sunday Telegram visits an establishment twice if the first dining experience was unsatisfactory. The reviewer dines anonymously.
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.
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