Since we are about four weeks into Lent, I’m sure that many Catholics reading this have already consumed their fair share of Filet-O-Fish as penance during no-meat Fridays. But did you know about church fish fries? Although a common Lenten event in Southeastern states, where they’re just as ubiquitous as fried fish—they aren’t as widespread here, but they do exist. And with two non-fasting Fridays remaining in Lent—March 19 and 26—here are four options.
The Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal organization that organizes fish fries at parishes throughout the country, hosts one at Holy Spirit Catholic Church in Fountain Valley. But in a bid for health-consciousness, the banner tied between two trees announces that this is a “Fish Bake.”
In a multipurpose room, round tables are decorated with little more than red paper placemats. Bored-looking teenagers sell bottled water and sodas out of Igloos while a balding, bespectacled man plunks out tunes on a Yamaha synthesizer to a pre-programmed backing track.
Fried fish will be the first thing you see in chafing trays manned by volunteers who are undoubtedly someone’s doting grandparents. They’ll insist you want some squares of baked halibut, a few more fries, extra onion rings, pasta and, of course, veggies. By the end of the line, your flimsy plate will nearly buckle under the weight of it all, but not before you get a healthy scoop of what’s proudly labeled “John’s Coleslaw.” Doled out from a punch bowl wide enough to bathe in, its tiny cubes of apples mix with chopped red cabbage—the fruity sweetness almost as pronounced as the salad’s purpleness. Another surprise: a homemade fish soup that has the refreshing bite and aroma of lemongrass. Holy Spirit Catholic Church, Doyle Hall, 17270 Ward St., Fountain Valley, (714) 963-1811; www.hsccfv.org. Fri., 5-7 p.m. $8; children 6-12, $5; kids under 5, free.
A few blocks to the north is Santa Ana’s St. Barbara Elementary School, where picnic tables are lined up end-to-end and covered with white paper cloth. A weary Vietnamese mom tends to a cash box at the gymnasium entrance while others toil in the cafeteria’s kitchen, frying and plating the food.
Hungry parishioners are served by students. With their hands in white gloves, the pint-sized waiters walk slowly but deliberately, trying not to spill or drop the plates. Adults look on nervously, and once the delivery is made, everyone breathes a sigh of relief.
The main dish is no-frills: Diamond-shaped pieces of pre-breaded fish are accompanied by fries, coleslaw, and thimbles of ketchup and tartar sauce. St. Barbara also offers fish tacos, which use the same fried frozen fillets as the traditional plates, just chopped up into chunks and served atop two flour tortillas, with shredded cabbage, a lime wedge, salsa and chips. St. Barbara Elementary School, gymnasium, 5306 W. McFadden Ave., Santa Ana, (714) 775-9477. Fri., 5:30-7:30 p.m. $6; children, $5.
Similar pre-breaded specimens can be found at Annunciation Catholic School. But opt for the one that looks like it came from a whole fish, possibly whiting. Dusted in seasoned flour with a sneaky Cajun spiciness and fried to a golden crisp, it’s a benchmark to which even some seafood restaurants can only aspire. Slather it with their tartar sauce, which has been amped up with diced serrano chiles and cilantro.
Saddling up to the open window looking into the kitchen, I passed on a soggy-looking pile of veggies. Seeing this, a deacon playfully chided, “Does your mother know you’re not eating your vegetables?” Annunciation Catholic School, St. Philip Benizi Parish Hall, 235 S. Pine Dr., Fullerton, (714) 871-6121; www.annunciationcs.org. Fri., 5-8 p.m. $7; seniors, $6; children, $4.
St. Kilian Catholic Church boasts what may be the most expensive option, but it’s also the merriest. The banner outside festively proclaims, “It’s Fish Fry Time!” The room is decorated according to that week’s theme, and each table is supplied with party favors, lemons, butter and colored balloons.
A busy crew of volunteers crowds the kitchen, where deep-fat fryers brown beer-battered boulders of fish and ovens produce baked salmon that’s still moist and buttery. Dine-in orders are segregated from the to-gos by an efficient process using color-coded system of tickets.
But even more impressive is the dessert section, which claims the entire back wall of the room. Two kinds of bread pudding are baked in trays that each might as well be an acre, portioned out in giant blocks that aren’t complete until a prodigious amount of warm lemon sauce is ladled on. There are also cookies of every stripe, cakes groaning under the weight of their frosting and chocolate pudding in flutes.
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Everyone you talk to encourages you to have more dessert than you actually need. “Please take more than one [cookie],” a lady said to me. And so I did. Even if it is Lent, I don’t ever pass on an offer of more dessert. St. Kilian Catholic Church, 26872 Estanciero Dr., Mission Viejo, (949) 586-4440; www.stkilianchurch.org. Fri., 4:45-7 p.m. $12; children, $5.
This article appeared in print as "Deep-Fried Fellowship: Smiles and piles of food at the meatless meet-and-greets that are OC’s Lenten fish fries."