In 1962, Cincinnati, Ohio-based McDonald's franchisee Lou Groen had a problem. His local clientele was close to 90% Roman Catholic, which was causing his restaurant to founder mightily on Fridays and during Lent, the 40-day period leading up to Easter during which Roman Catholics abstain from eating meat.
In those days, when your McDonald's franchise was struggling, you didn't noodle around with middle management. You got on the phone with old McDonald's founder Ray Kroc, himself. Sympathetic to the struggles at Groen's store, Kroc rather famously came up with a proposition. They would, as Groen had asked, begin testing a new fish sandwich to help the store get through those Friday rough patches.
Kroc also insisted, however, that the restaurant also test his solution. Kroc thought the answer was to feed Catholics his “Hula Burger,” a slice of grilled pineapple with cheese on a cold bun, and demanded that both items be placed on the menu. Whichever sandwich sold best would be rolled out to the nationwide menu, and would become the first non-hamburger addition to the McDonald's menu. Lou Groen's Filet-O-Fish sandwich won in a landslide, saved his struggling franchise, and McDonald's went on to sell approximately 300 million of the sandwiches per year.
Now that several various fast food restaurants are starting to roll out their annual fish sandwich promotions for Lent, we did what any reasonable person would do. We went and ate them all. Here's what we observed in the mysterious world of fried fish sandwiches, helpfully ranked here from least to most delicious.
Premium Alaskan Fish Sandwich from Burger King
Name: Premium Alaskan Fish Sandwich from Burger King
Price: $5.59 for a combo, including medium fries and a drink
The King says: “Our premium Alaskan Fish Sandwich is 100% White Alaskan Pollock, breaded with crispy panko breading and topped with sweet tartar sauce, tangy pickles, all on top of a toasted Artisan Style bun.”
Observations: If we're being completely sincere, it's hard to tell with absolute certainty if this was our least favorite of the fast food fish sandwiches due to any faults inherent in the sandwich itself, or if our low opinion was simply due to this being the fourth and final fish sandwich that we ate. There was plenty not to like about this sandwich: The hot iceberg lettuce that fell out in big, upholstery-staining clumps, the yellowish tartar sauce that looked like it had sat unrefrigerated for hours, and the oddly chewy butter-grilled potato (?) bun all helped this sandwich to earn low marks.
The bright side of ordering fish sandwiches at fast food places is that they usually need to be made fresh, since no one ever, ever orders them. In this case, though, the square fish fillet was so hot that it exploded burning oil into our mouths on first bite, annihilating tongues and making further analysis difficult. The fish itself was mushy, and overpowered by a very crispy coating that seemed synthetic, as though it were made from deep-fried packing peanuts.
Rating: 3 mouth-destroying fish-mash patties out of 10.
See also: 11 McDonald's Menu Hacks That Will Change Your Life
Wendy's Premium Cod Filet Sandwich
Name: Wendy's Premium Cod Filet Sandwich
Price: $5.59 for a combo, including cheese, fries and a drink
Wendy says: “Our premium sandwich is made using only 100% North Pacific Cod, hand-cut from a whole fillet so it's tender and deliciously flakey. It's then lightly coated in a crispy, panko breading and topped with a tangy, tartar sauce. Pair it with Natural Cut fries and a drink of your choice for a meal that's definitely the catch of the day.”
Observations: This was the fast food fish sandwich we were most looking forward to, thanks to some brilliant product photography clearly showing a thick, plump cod fillet, that looks like it just got done swimming up a Panko waterfall and leaped into place onto a buttered bun. Unfortunately, it was one of the most disappointing. The sandwich came packaged as most Wendy's items seem to nowadays, in an effort to mimic other, better chains with a white paper wrapper and half a cardboard box. The fish fillet itself had a somewhat natural shape, and the promised Panko breadcrumb coating did provide a greater crunch than the other sandwiches we tasted.
The sandwich was served at slightly below room temperature, with a cold slice of unmelted, flavorless cheese hanging over the edges of the cod filet. This didn't do the sandwich any favors, and almost makes it seem unfair to compare to fresher, hotter sandwiches we received elsewhere. A slightly stale, squashed, butter-toasted bun slathered in a liberal amount of appropriately tangy tartar sauce with a few anemic slices of iceberg did little to distract from the rather mushy, though pleasantly mild-flavored fish. Eating this sandwich made us wish that they had a “Spicy Crispy” version.
Rating: 5 bruised and battered North Pacific Cod out of 10.
Arby's “Reel Big Fillet” Fish Sandwich
Name: Arby's Reel Big Fillet
Price: TWO fish sandwiches OR a fish sandwich combo for $5.00
Weird Rodeo Hat says: “Arby's Reel Big Fillet. A meaty cut of Alaskan Pollock, caught-wild, and served hot. With tangy tartar sauce and iceberg lettuce on a delicious, toasted sesame bun.”
Observations: First off, is there any sentence in the English language that sounds sweeter to those of us accustomed to eating in our cars than, “If you could just pull up to the curb, your order is going to be a few more minutes?” Sure, the extra wait is initially disappointing, but as soon as you realize that whatever you just ordered had to be made fresh and will be arriving piping hot, it becomes a thrill. Arby's does, indeed, seem to cook each fish sandwich to order, ensuring that, already, it is going to outscore some competitor's sandwiches.
Our expectations for this sandwich were low, due mostly to our generally low, lingering opinion of Arby's that is based on their 1970's-era grey, wet roast beef sandwiches, and has almost nothing to do with the mostly delicious food the chain is producing nowadays. We were delighted to open the bag, unwrap the sandwich, and be greeted with a piping hot meal that looked an awful lot like the picture on the menu. The sandwich is served on a bulky sesame seed bun, with tangy Miracle Whip-style dressing on both sides, that was fresh and stood up to the large fish fillet overhanging the edges of the sandwich.
The hot iceberg lettuce is a bit of a bummer. The fish fillet itself, an Alaskan pollock, unusually shaped to resemble a real fish, rather than the pieces of thousands of other fish, smushed together, has a wonderful crunchy coating, with flaky fish inside. The tangy sauce was a bit overpowering, and every third bite of sandwich seemed to taste intensely, overly fishy. The texture of the fish itself took on almost a minced quality, that we didn't particularly care for.
Rating: 5.5 oddly-shaped fishy minced fillets out of 10.
And now, for our conclusion …
Name: McDonald's Filet-O-Fish
Price: TWO Filet-O-Fish sandwiches for $3.33
Ronald McDonald says: “Dive right in and enjoy our wild-caught fish from our sustainable fishery, topped with melty American cheese, creamy tartar sauce and served on a soft, steamed bun. “
Observations: Look, we're not any happier about this than you are. The sandwich that started it all, the sandwich that summarily trounced Ray Kroc's Hula Burger way back in 1962, the sandwich that most people cite as the reason NOT to eat fast food fried fish and cheese sandwiches, was our favorite of the bunch, by quite a wide margin.
What sets this sandwich apart? A few things. Though the fish fillet itself, a fairly unremarkable mixture of pollack and hoki, is tasty, it's not doing anything that is, in itself, better than the other chains. The fish is mild, with nice, big flakes of fillet. The half-slice of American cheese is a bit of a puzzle, in that it melts in the areas where it is directly in contact with the fish, and stays solid elsewhere. And the tartar sauce is absolutely heaped on, making the mayonnaise and dill pickle mixture perhaps a tad overwhelming for some.
What makes this sandwich better than all the others we tasted, however, is the steamed bun, which melts and gives way immediately, making this sandwich seem like the seafaring equivalent of the best drive-in steamed cheeseburger, with no pesky, flavorless hot lettuce to get in the way. All of the ingredients fuse into a puffy, steamy little bite of the sea that's stunningly tasty, in spite of any preconceptions to the contrary.
Rating: 7 fluffy clouds of deep-sea deliciousness out of 10.
See also: 11 McDonald's Menu Hacks That Will Change Your Life
How can this be? How can McDonald's sandwich, made with a reconstituted fish patty that bears little resemblance to real food, outperform Wendy's fish sandwich, which uses an actual, honest-to-goodness cod fillet? The answer is twofold.
First, McDonald's succeeded as it always does in creating an entirely new food. In the same way that a McDonald's cheeseburger can't reasonably be compared to a cheeseburger fresh from your grill at home, but still manages to be delicious, the Filet-O-Fish really can't be evaluated as a “fish sandwich.” Many “fast casual” restaurants serve “fish sandwiches,” made with crunchy, golden-fried cod or haddock, served with a touch of tartar sauce on a fresh potato bun.
This, quite simply, ain't that. The Filet-O-Fish manages to be something else entirely, a tiny taste of crispy fried fish served with a quart of warm tartar sauce on the softest whisper of steamed bun, the only sandwich in the McDonald's lineup that isn't served on a griddled bun. It may not win any prizes for purity of ingredients, but if you can score a freshly made, piping hot Filet-O-Fish, its power is hard to deny.
More important, though, is that the Filet-O-Fish hasn't forgotten what it most essentially is. It's fast food that remembers what fast food is supposed to be. It's not competing for your chain restaurant dollars; it's not hoping to convince you that a yellow rainslicker-wearing fisherman caught the fish in your sandwich anywhere nearby (or even within thousands of miles); and it's not trying to make you think that eating a fried fish sandwich in your car is the same thing as eating a fried fish sandwich in a restaurant.
With the Filet-O-Fish, the pendulum sings the other way altogether. On special, these diminutive little sandwiches set you back about a buck and a half a piece. For that price, it's hard to imagine a convenience food that delivers more completely as a satisfying snack – except for nearly-worthless fruit.
The Filet-O-Fish doesn't apologize. It delights. And, if we are somehow capable of ever ordering a fast food fish sandwich again after all of this, it is the Filet-O-Fish that we will be returning for.
Malcolm Bedell blogs about cooking and food weirdness at From Away and Spork & Barrel. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. Want more Squid Ink? Follow us on Twitter or like us on Facebook.