Options for when you want fish, fast

We're more than halfway through the 40-day Lenten period, which means you've probably eaten more than a few fried-fish sandwiches in the last couple of weeks, even if you're not deliberately trying to go meatless on Fridays.

Fish is everywhere this time of year.

We know. Your church serves the best battered cod this side of the Alleghenies. Mine does, too.

But what if you're tired of standing in line with hundreds of other congregants in a crowded parish hall, waiting, waiting, waiting for that deep-fried platter of goodness? Or simply feel like eating seafood at 2 p.m. on a Tuesday?

There is other fish to fry (and eat) in the weeks leading up to Easter.

Below, we give the skinny on three new fish sandwiches that have made a swimming debut in the Pittsburgh area in recent weeks, plus a fast-food favorite. Who knows, you might want to reel one in, too.

Drive-thru fish

If like me, you grew up on McDonald's mushy, oddly square fish sandwiches -- they're made with ground Alaskan pollock mixed with wheat and milk-- you might think it's best to steer clear of fast-food fish sandwiches. But not all drive-thru eats are the same.

Wendy's new Sriracha Cod Sandwich is but one example. Lightly breaded in Japanese panko, the North Pacific cod fillet ($4.09) comes on a soft white bun with a big piece of iceberg lettuce and dollop of tartar sauce. The portion was substantial and not at all greasy, as we've come to expect with fast food. The mild-tasting fish also was surprisingly flaky -- I guess this company isn't fudging when it says it's hand-cut from a "whole fillet."

I'd assumed the hot chili sauce the sammie is named for would be mixed into the tartar sauce or even better, used to spice up the breading. But no, it was unimaginatively squirted on top like a thick layer of ketchup. Still, it was a good first bite, even if the anemic iceberg-lettuce leaf didn't do the sandwich any favors and a promised slice of pepper jack cheese got lost in the shuffle.

Did it look like the picture on the menu board? Nope. But for less than 5 bucks, it wasn't a bad lunch.

All in the family

Unwilling to stand in line and not particularly impressed by Pittsburgh's growing foodie culture, my parents are tough to get out of the house for dinner. So I was delighted to learn about the new Cod Pretzel Roll Sliders at King's Family Restaurant. The dish sounded just fancy enough to merit a trip in the car on busy a Friday night, but not so much as to be intimidating for folks who only want to eat "normal" food.

The entree, which costs $8.99 and includes a huge side of fries, didn't disappoint. Made with hand-breaded, lightly fried cod, the trio of sandwiches come topped with a bit of spring mix salad, sliced tomato and a tasty lemon-dill sauce. The pretzel-bun rolls, part of one of the hottest food trends of 2013, looked like they were going to be chewy but actually were warm and soft, making the toothpicked sandwich easy to eat for elderly customers. I can't imagine the total amount of fish was very great -- the sliders are about the size of hockey pucks -- but two of the sandwiches ended up being more than enough for both my mom's and my appetite. My husband was more than happy to eat the leftovers.

Fill up at Sheetz

The Sheetz chain of convenience stores is increasingly becoming the to-go place for hungry folks in a hurry. That's right, you can now fuel your body along with your car 24/7 at more than 466 locations from Pennsylvania to North Carolina.

"Gas-station food!" my oldest son, Dan, scoffed, when I told him I was going to eat there.

My teenaged daughters, though, are Sheetz freakz who swear by the chain's Made-To-Order menu, which includes everything from burgerz, pizza and snack wrapz (everything's got a "z" on the end) to seven varieties of "shwingz" and one twin's personal fave, deep-fried mac-n-cheese bites.

"Everyone likes it," Catherine tells me. "It's actually a hangout." When I shoot her a quizzical look, she adds, "I've never even gotten gas there."

What drew me, a grown-up, to its big, shiny-red location on Mount Nebo Road was a billboard advertising its new MTO Beer Battered Alaskan Pollock Sandwich. Hungry on my drive home from work, it sounded like just the ticket.

Like everything else on the menu, the fish sub ($3) is built from scratch. Want it with cheddar, which costs 80 cents extra, and a pile of free shredded lettuce? Simply check off those options on the touchscreen food-ordering system. Then step back and wait, because it takes a few minutes to fry this sandwich, and longer when there's a line. (P.S. There's always a line.)

The result is not unlike the fish sandwiches I grew up eating (and loving) at Long John Silver's -- slightly sweet and crispy-crunchy but also just the tiniest bit greasy, with more deep-fried beer batter than actual fish. In an attempt to recreate the ad, I'd ordered it on a white sub roll with tomato, lettuce, cheese and a tangy, mayo-based tartar sauce. Let's just say, there was a lot more bread than seafood.

But the filet stuffed inside the breading was actual fish -- two small pieces totalling about 3 ounces of pollock -- with real flakes. For $3.80, it wasn't too bad a meal, if you're not counting calories (it has about 500).

Sheetz's Lenten offering never will hold a candle to, say, the breaded English cod sandwich at Penn Avenue Fish Co. in the Strip, which I consider to be one of the best fish sandwiches in the city. But for someone on the go, it's perfectly acceptable.

Golden standard

It's not new. But among fast-food lovers, Arby's Reel Big Fillet fish sandwich ($2.99, or two for $5) consistently receives rave reviews. So of course we had to check it out.

Arby's claims you need two hands to eat this large, meaty piece of wild Alaskan pollock and indeed, it actually is a plump piece of fish that's too big for the soft sesame-seed bun that holds it. I also enjoyed how the lightly breaded fillet (it has a mild flavor and snow-white flesh) flakes when you bite into it. Another plus was the shredded iceberg lettuce -- enough green to give the sandwich a little crunch, but not so much as to make it soggy. The breading could have been a little thicker, but it was nice and crunchy; next time, I'll tell them to hold back a little on the tartar sauce, which was a little too thick.

Would I eat a second of any of the above sandwiches? You bet, and not just during Lent.

Sure, none of the fast-food fish included in this roundup qualifies as fine dining. And I'm pretty sure church workers are calling out "blasphemy" as we speak. But no matter where or if you worship, we can all agree that we're one nation under cod from Mardi Gras 'til Easter. The more options, the better.

Gretchen McKay: gmckay@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1419 or on Twitter @gtmckay.


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