Here we are, gentle reader, on the fourth Friday of Lent. So far this season, I haven't had a whole lot of success finding really solid Lenten fish fries. Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church came close during week two, but other than that, it's been nothing but off-smelling and poorly fried fish, midland to awful macaroni and cheese, and nothing but a sea of Mrs. T's frozen pierogi, even those at times not executed well. While I wasn't sure about the rest of tonight's dinner, I did know one thing for sure: the pierogi at my dining destination would be homemade. Clearly a beacon of hope on my foggy culinary coastline.
As I pulled into the parking lot of St. Nicholas Orthodox Church at 755 South Cleveland Avenue, Mogadore, OH 44312, I found myself already greatly anticipating tonight's meal. Should you have questions about the fish fry at St. Nicholas, you can call 330-628-1333. Parking was in an ample lot just outside of the banquet facility (which is just north of and next to the church).
Here was a shot of the outside of the Banquet Hall:
Once inside, I was handed a paper menu for tonight's meal, but this larger-than-life cardboard copy also told the story of what I would find to eat at the service line:
Even at 5 PM, a line had already formed consisting of the fish fry early birds. As I stood in line waiting for my chance to approach the service line, I began to study the menu in my hand a bit more intensely so that I could figure out the best way to get the maximum number of tastes for the minimum price. I liked the fact that you could get the small fried fish dinner for $7 which included two pieces of fried cod or one piece of baked cod. I decided the easiest way to get the pierogi was to add a side for $3. Unfortunately, what I found a bit disconcerting about St. Nicholas's menu tonight was that beyond the basic dinner, everything else was extra. Dinner roll and butter? Extra $1, please. Sour cream for your pierogi? Extra $0.50, please.
It's not that I am above paying for these items, but the pay-as-you-eat plan just felt a little too like flying the "friendly" skies where you pay for the basic item and then any additional services cost you more and more. On top of that, my thinking was that if I ordered a side of pierogi, the sour cream should be included. I mean, where else in a fried fish dinner would you even use it?
Okay, okay, I'll get off my soapbox now. After making my way through the service line and paying for my meal (total of $10), I stopped to pick up a cup of water and found an empty table where I could spread out. Here was a shot of my dinner tonight at St. Nicolas:
Almost as soon as I pulled out my new camera (did I mention I bought a new camera, gentle reader?), one of the bussers approached me and asked me if I worked for the Akron Beacon Journal. I responded with a simple, "No." I figured he was looking for a more thorough response, but apparently didn't want to discuss it further as he moved on to another table. Ah well, I thought, question asked, question answered.
I turned my attention first to the Fried Cod:
Here was a shot of the interior of the fillet:
The fish was okay. While the coating was crispy, it was also a little bit greasy. However, this really wasn't the major offense. Even though the doors had opened only minutes prior, the fish was somewhat dried out. It wasn't the fish jerky I had experienced at St. Mary during my very first Lenten fish fry visit, but it also wasn't bursting with moisture either. On the plus side, there was no off fishy smell and otherwise, it was a decent-enough piece of fried fish.
One item that no other church in the Akron-Canton area had offered yet was Jo Jo's:
Jo Jo's, for the uninitiated, are potato wedges that are either dredged in seasoned flour (or not) and then fried (or baked). They seem to be a northeast Ohio specialty item and are often paired with fried chicken instead of fried fish. Tonight's version at St. Nicholas were decent enough, the wedges crispy on the outside while soft and creamy on the inside, with just enough spice to keep my taste buds entertained.
Next up was the moment I had been waiting for, the Homemade Potato and Cheese Pierogi:
I ended up eating these "naked," served only in the butter in which they sat in the chafing dish. One look at their irregular shape and I could tell that they were homemade. As I cut into the first doughy pillow, the slightly orange-ish hue of the filling told me that these were made with cheddar cheese and potatoes. I took my first bite and was rewarded with a wonderful texture from the dough wrapper. What didn't really please me, however, was the somewhat serious lack of seasoning in the filling. While one would normally think that adding cheese to the filling would take care of the seasoning issues, sadly, the filling of these pierogi lacked some necessary salt. Still, I would take these over Mrs. T's any day.
Next up on my plate was the Coleslaw:
As I was making my way through the service line, I stopped and asked the woman dishing up this all-too-common side dish if it was homemade. She paused for a moment, carefully considering her response, and finally said, "No. We just couldn't make that much coleslaw for these dinners. But, this is really good coleslaw. I'm a coleslaw person and I really like it." While I've heard this response more times than I can count, I have to question the validity of this answer. Seriously, what are you going to say to that question ... "Yeah, it's food service coleslaw and it does kind of suck."?
Fortunately for St. Nicholas, it didn't suck. In fact, it wasn't half bad. I enjoyed the bit of semi-spicy kick to it (almost like a mild horseradish had been added to it). Since the coleslaw already came with the meal, there was no reason not to get it should you decide to stop at St. Nicholas and have a meal.
In a surprise twist, fresh Punchki were being offered to anyone who purchased a meal:
While it seemed that two come per order, I only opted to have one of these sugar-covered fried donuts for my dessert. Punchki (this is the way it would be pronounced ... not the way it is properly spelled) are traditionally Fat Tuesday fodder, but I certainly appreciated the nod to this Lenten treat that stemmed from Eastern European tradition. I did note that tonight's version was unfilled, whereas most punchki contain a filling of fruit or custard. That said, the fried dough was done reasonably well and wasn't greasy at all. This was a nice way to end the meal.
As with most of the other churches I've visited so far during the Lenten Project II, St. Nicholas was a mixed bag. While there were several items off of their menu that I really liked, other staples like the fried fish were only so-so. The pierogi were definitely homemade, a big plus, but the filling needed more seasoning. Finally, a sweet treat that was included as part of the experience left me ready to recommend this dinner to others.
Here are the current rankings so far from best overall to worst overall as well as an individual grade for each of the major elements on the plate.
1. Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church (Akron): Fish, B+; Macaroni and Cheese, B; Coleslaw, C; Roasted Potatoes, B; Baklava, A-
2. St. Nicholas Orthodox Church (Mogadore): Fish, C+; Jo Jo's, B; Pierogi, B-; Coleslaw, C+; Punchki, B+
3. St. George Catholic Church (North Canton): Fish, C-; Macaroni and Cheese, C-; Coleslaw, C+; Mamaliga, C
4. Queen of Heaven Catholic Church (Green): Fish, C+; Macaroni and Cheese, D; Roasted Potatoes, C; Pierogi, C; Coleslaw, B-
5. Our Lady of Guadalupe (Macedonia): Fish, B-; Pierogi, D+; French Fries, C; Coleslaw, C
6. St. Mary Church (Hudson): Fish, D+; Pierogi, C-; French Fries, B