Sunday, April 10, 2011

Lenten Project II: Week 5, Part 2 and Conclusion

Ah, gentle reader. It's been a slippery slope of mediocre to poorly fried fish, mostly commercially-available pierogi and less than stellar macaroni and cheese. Of course, Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church did do its best to elevate the humble Lenten fish fry and honestly, while not exceptional, did an above average job across the board. That being said, I still had one final stop on my culinary Sisyphean journey; one final chance to discover fried fish and homemade pierogi redemption: the Polish American Club of Akron, Ohio.

Now, I knew ahead of time that the pierogi would be homemade. And that little beacon of hope was enough to sustain me through the weeks of eating the same monotonous pierogi that I can get EVERY SINGLE DAY at Giant Eagle or Acme. And just like pizza, even bad homemade pierogi are better than the mass-produced and marketed commercially-made frozen ones that are designed to appeal to all demographics. The question in my mind tonight as I pulled off of Route 8 onto Glenwood Avenue was whether the rest of the dinner would live up to those little potato dumplings.

According the to the U.S. Post Office, the Polish American Club was located at 472 East Glenwood Avenue, Akron, OH 44310 and questions about the Lenten fish fries can be directed to 330-253-0496. For the purposes of successfully getting you this fish fry, I have to tell you that the Polish American Club was not visible from the road as I turned onto Glenwood from Route 8. What you need to do is go to the very first intersection east of the exit (Dan Street) and make a right. Almost immediately on your right you will see this roadside sign:

Sign for Polish American Club
Pull into the driveway packed with cars (this was a good sign that the food coming out of the kitchen might be fresher, but a bad sign that there might be a wait), find a spot, and walk to the rear entrance of the club:

Entrance To Fish Fry
Once inside, if it was as packed with people as it was on Friday night at 6:30 PM, you'll need to give your name and the number in your party to the person working the entrance. Fortunately, the Polish American Club was running like a finely tuned machine and within fifteen minutes, a table had opened up right in front of the kitchen and I took my seat anticipating what this final meal held.

The Polish American Club had quite the extensive menu and I quickly (and I thought discreetly) pulled out my camera and began snapping photos:

Lenten Fish Menu Left Side
Lenten Fish Menu Right Side
Apparently, my server saw the tail end of my less-than-nefarious photodocumentation and questioned me.

"Are you taking pictures of the menu?"
"Yes." (My standard answer which is usually enough to discourage further questions.)
After a slight pause, she said, "WHY are you taking pictures of the menu?"
At this point, I decided not to lie, but also not to give up too much information, too. "I'm a food writer and I'm covering local fish fries. This will be my last of nine locations."
"So do you work at the Beacon?"
"No, I'm an independent food writer."

She actually seemed excited that a food writer was sitting at her table. While I knew that giving away too much information might compromise the review (meaning in this case, receiving preferential treatment), at this point of the project, I was absolutely through with crappy fried fish. If this ensured that I got a pristine piece of fried fish, then so be it. I didn't specifically ask for it, so I honestly don't feel especially guilty about my revelation. Plus, that meant I didn't have to hide the camera to capture pictures of my meal. A trade-off, I suppose.

After careful consideration, I decided to go with the regular size Foster Lager Battered Cod Dinner and picked Coleslaw and Macaroni and Cheese as my two included sides. I also ordered an extra side of the homemade Potato Pierogi. Within a few minutes, bread and butter arrived at my table:

Bread and Butter
There wasn't anything special about this bread, but it was fresh and soft and I appreciated that.

Along with my bread came the Coleslaw:

While I didn't verify if this was homemade or not, the cabbage had been shredded quite finely and was different from the other coleslaws I had eaten prior to this one. It had a nice flavor to it, but it was nothing out of the ordinary.

A few minutes later, my Potato Pierogi came out of the kitchen:

Homemade Potato Pierogi with Fried Onions
These were large, obviously homemade, and HOT! My first bite was filled with the heat that had come from being fried on the flattop before being plated. I loved the fact that the outside was crispy (without being tough, which had been one of Our Lady of Guadalupe's issues) and the filling was pillowy and soft. The onions could have been caramelized a touch more, but the seasoning was decent. It wasn't until I isolated a bite of just the filling that I realized it was a touch underseasoned. Not as badly as the homemade pieorgi at St. Nicholas, but it definitely needed a touch more salt. To verify this assumption, I took a bite of the filling and sprinkled a bit of the salt on it from the shaker already on the table. Yep ... that fixed it.

I originally thought that the pierogi had made it to my table so hot and quickly because my server had said something to the kitchen staff. However, given that the wait for my fried fish and macaroni and cheese took just as long for me to get it as others around, I questioned that notion. However, while waiting for my main meal to arrive, the kitchen manager, who had obviously been tipped off by my server, came out to my table, introduced himself, and shook my hand. I won't go much into our conversation as it was quite similar to the original one I had with my server.

A few minutes after this impromptu conversation, the remainder of my meal finally arrived:

Fried Fish Dinner with Macaroni and Cheese
The "regular" dinner comes with four fish fillets. Had I known this ahead of time, I probably would've gotten the small, not so much to save money, but because this was my second dinner of the evening. Ah, well, I knew that they had take out containers.

I started with the Foster Lager Battered Cod:

Fried Fish
All hopes of finishing out the Lenten Project on a high note vanished with the first touch of the coating: greasy. The kind of greasy where it didn't look greasy sitting on the plate, but the minute you put any pressure on the fish to cut it with your fork, the wet sheen of oil suddenly appears. After cutting into it, I took a picture of the interior flesh:

Fried Fish Interior
While this wasn't as dry as the previous meal of the evening had been, it also wasn't that juicy, lush, moist fish for which I had been pining since the beginning of the fish fry season. The seasoning was decent and I had confirmed with my server that both the fried catfish and the fried cod were being fried from frozen. That certainly isn't a death sentence, but it does mean you have to pay attention to making sure that the fish is properly fried. My guess is that with how greasy the fish was, either the kitchen had tried to fry too many pieces at once (thus lowering the temperature of the oil in the fryer) or the oil wasn't at the proper temperature to start with.

Additionally, and I will give the Polish American Club a pass on this one, the fish was a little warmer than lukewarm, not screaming hot like the pierogi had been. While I admit that it took a minute or two to photograph the fish and macaroni and cheese, it is possible that the cooled fish might be a result of my delay in tasting it. Thus, my final grade on the fish takes this into account.

After so many poor renditions of Macaroni and Cheese, I came upon my final version for the Lenten Project:

Macaroni and Cheese
About fifteen minutes after placing my order with the server, the table behind me got re-sat and when the couple tried to place an order for macaroni and cheese, the server apologetically told them that they had run out for the evening. Apparently, I was one of the last few patrons to receive a portion. Having a seat so close to the kitchen, I could see that the kitchen staff was dishing up the macaroni and cheese out of a chafing dish being heated by Sterno. Knowing how poorly macaroni and cheese can hold up when served in such a manner, I wasn't entirely shocked to see the contents in the bowl that came with my fish dinner.

The sauce had been absorbed into the pasta and as a result was somewhat dried out on the outside. The texture of the pasta wasn't complete mush, but it also didn't have the nice toothy bite that both Annunciation and Slovak J's versions did. The cheese flavor was decent, but in a surprising twist, the pasta was slightly underseasoned. Just to make sure, I cleansed my palate several times with the water from my glass and re-tasted, just to be sure. Each time I came to the same conclusion. It wasn't wholly unsalted, but it still needed just a bit more. Who knows? Perhaps the same people who made the pierogi filling also made the macaroni and cheese.

My meal now at an end, I asked my server for a to-go box and proceeded to put the remaining food into it for a late snack last night (it certainly was edible and I wasn't about to throw out a pound and a half of leftovers). When my server dropped off my check, the total with tax had come to roughly $10.65. After giving her the cash for the check (plus tip, of course), I left one of my blog business cards with her and told her to look for the review on Sunday morning. I have no doubt that someone from the Polish American Club will read this review and I hope they take what I have to say, both positive and negative, in the light in which it was meant: constructive criticism. I suppose like most restaurant reviews, the people in charge can be upset with me for saying something negative, or they can take it, learn from it, and improve for next year.

Before I finish off with the final ratings for the 2011 Lenten Project, I will finish this review by saying that if you are looking for excellent homemade pierogi in the Akron area, the Polish American Club is the place to go. Which, knowing that pierogi are Polish in origin, I would rather hope and expect.

Here are the final rankings from best overall to worst overall as well as an individual grade for each of the major elements on the plate. Note that second and third place was incredibly close this year and I actually thought about having them tie for second place, but the inclusion of a very tasty dessert that was included in the price of the meal put St. Andrew at just a slight advantage over the Polish American Club.

1. Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church (Akron): Fish, B+; Macaroni and Cheese, B; Coleslaw, C; Roasted Potatoes, B; Baklava, A-
2. St. Andrew Ukranian Catholic Church (Parma): Fish, C; Macaroni and Cheese, C; Coleslaw, B; Pierogi, A; Honey Cake, B
3. Polish American Club (Akron): Fish, C; Pierogi, A-; Macaroni and Cheese, C+; Coleslaw, B
4. St. Nicholas Orthodox Church (Mogadore): Fish, C+; Jo Jo's, B; Pierogi, B-; Coleslaw, C+; Punchki, B+
5. Slovak J Club/Jednota (Akron) : Fish, D; Macaroni and Cheese, B-; Coleslaw, C; Hot Rice, B; French Fries, B-
6. St. George Catholic Church (North Canton): Fish, C-; Macaroni and Cheese, C-; Coleslaw, C+; Mamaliga, C
7. Queen of Heaven Catholic Church (Green): Fish, C+; Macaroni and Cheese, D; Roasted Potatoes, C; Pierogi, C; Coleslaw, B-
8. Our Lady of Guadalupe (Macedonia): Fish, B-; Pierogi, D+; French Fries, C; Coleslaw, C
9. St. Mary Church (Hudson): Fish, D+; Pierogi, C-; French Fries, B


Mahala said...

Tom, you must be so relieved that the Project is over. So much mediocre food for weeks on end is a challenge. I'll bet you can't wait to get back to restaurant reviews. Your results convinced me not to try any of the church fish fries this year. For me it's a caloric thing. If I am going to eat something fried it better be worth the calories! I kept waiting for an A rated fish to appear. Looking forward to hearing about more great area restaruants!

GadgetGeek said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
GadgetGeek said...

I want to compliment you for taking one for the team and going through that seemingly mediocre weekly ritual. Your reporting was good, your pictures (now don't get a big head), were way better and perhaps, just perhaps you can expand your search next year to include a few churches that are KNOWN for their lenten meals? I am here in Atlanta, and cannot give you any guidance, but reading your weekly postings were enlightening and from an Ohio Ex-Pat pretty predicable. I hate it that they were somewhat ruining cod, a fish that is so easy to cook if just a few things are kept in mind, and cooking it from frozen, goodness knows that's not the way to my heart at least. Thanks for the good reporting Tom.

Tino said...

Thanks, guys, for the kind words. I am ready to get back into the normal groove of things. My criteria for selecting fish fries worked well last year, not so much this year. I think next year I will be adopting a much stricter policy on which fish fries I go to in the hopes that I can find some stellar places to go instead of reporting on eight mediocre to bad ones and only 1 better than average one.

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