Hush puppies aren't the reason you bought the fried fish platter, but they're maybe what you enjoy most. Once you irrigate your breaded whiting pieces with liberal splashes of hot sauce and tuck them between a few porous slices of tartar-laden bread, these humble balls of fryer-blasted cornmeal dough remain, usually nestled under the fish, or sequestered in their own grease-spotted paper sack. The best need no ketchup. They are salty, the color of walnuts. They cave in when you bite, releasing a little gasp of steam and revealing a yellow, fluffy interior flecked with minced green onion.
For this edition, we bought an order of hush puppies from two you-buy-we-fry establishments nestled into the sides of strip malls on either side of Fairfax Ave: Penguin Fish & Chips and Charlie's Fish & Chips. To keep the contest fair, we supplemented neither order with catfish, oysters, sole, shrimp, orange roughy, snapper, buffalo, sand dabs, perch, trout, or salmon — nor did we anoint the fried pups with any condiment that might cloud our senses.
Proud of its commitment to trans fat-free cottonseed oil, Charlie's Fish & Chips sells six hush puppies for $1.75. In the picture there are five because we ate one before we could get the bag home. Reminiscent of the frozen, bagged specimens we fried in our high school days at a local fish joint, these hush puppies were slightly peppery, enlivened with bits of jalapeno as well as onion in slightly larger pieces. The outer crust was golden, the middle fairly well-seasoned, but somewhere between grain and mush in texture.
Next we moved on to the Penguin's, sold individually for 20 cents apiece. We bought six — and again munched one on our way out of the parking lot. As we waited to hang a left on to Fairfax, our mouth brimming with cornmeal, our mind floating off to a cold beer back at the house, maybe a movie, the last pirated episode of Game of Thrones, John McPhee on Alaska — a horn behind us blared. We were still chewing, we realized, and not thinking about turning. As we did, waving out the window apologetically, we came to a sudden, unsurprising conclusion. The hush puppy from Penguin Fish & Chips tasted exactly the same as the hush puppy from Charlie's Fish & Chips. The latter was somewhat darker on the outside, but the flavors were identical. An utter draw.
It was appropriate, we decided. The restaurants have similar preparations, and it shouldn't have been surprising they might source from the same hush puppy distributor. Both have cute mascots: Penguin, a penguin with a baseball cap and a dead fish squeezed under one flipper, and Charlie's, a beaming catfish with a baseball cap and one large, upraised thumb. If the hours and prices weren't so different (Penguin is open later; Charlie's is slightly cheaper) we'd have guessed they shared an owner. In the style department, however, Penguin reigns supreme. A little motto positioned directly above the logo on the front of the menu reads: “If you know fashion, you know taste, if you know taste, you know. . .”
You'd think a Ferrari were for sale, not fried dough.