Review: Alabama Fish Bar

(Guest blog by The Boyfriend)

The most venerable and beloved dish for any native Southerner (That’s me…Hi.) HAS to be catfish and hushpuppies. Well, unless you count barbecue. Authentic, slow-hickory-smoked barbecue is the best.

But I digress. That’s another story for another posting.

Fried chicken, country ham, grits, biscuits, and cornbread would have to be near the top of the list, too. Oh…and banana pudding…I love banana pudding. And peach cobbler.

Again, I digress. My Southern genes come out with a vengeance when I talk about food.

But catfish and hushpuppies would definitely be number one on the list. I think. (And for what it’s worth, “FRIED catfish and hushpuppies” is a redundancy. How else would one cook them? And down South, anything worth eating is worth frying.)

So when I drove past the Alabama Fish Bar (located at the corner of Race and Liberty in Over-the-Rhine) for the first time several months ago, I knew I would be eating there sooner or later. As a native-born Alabamian who spent the first thirty-nine years of his life there, how could I NOT? A few days ago, I was craving catfish and hushpuppies and decided to do a late lunch at AFB.

I arrived around 1:20, well after peak lunchtime, and the line still extended out the door. This is a good sign.

When I finally muscled my way inside the door, the first thing I noticed about the chalkboard menu was that it included neither catfish nor hushpuppies.

ALABAMA Fish Bar? With no catfish or hushpuppies? Excuse me?

(At this point, the reader should disregard everything that appears in the first and fifth paragraphs of this posting.)

Despite my self-righteous indignation, I decided to stay and order.

The menu offers three kinds of fish: cod, whiting, and perch. All the fish are fried. So the place does have at least a passing link to the South, after all. Dinners include six or seven (you read that correctly) fish filets, fries, and two slices of bread. Coleslaw is available as a side dish.

All of the people in line ahead of me seemed to be regulars and to know the protocol of ordering. They all looked at me, and I could read their minds: “New guy.” There’s nothing worse than being a newbie among veterans. I was trying to make up my mind when the guy behind the counter yelled “NEXT IN LINE! STEP UP AND PLACE YOUR ORDER!” Two other people in line immediately said “That’s you.” I hate pressure. But at AFB, they apparently move people in and out quickly and efficiently…probably why people don’t mind lining up out the door. If you’re a customer, it’s get out of the way or get run over.

I settled quickly on the perch dinner. Of course, as soon as the guy totaled the order, I remembered that I hadn’t ordered coleslaw. I asked meekly if I could add a side to the order. (For a fleeting moment, I felt like George Costanza, reliving “The Soup Nazi” episode of Seinfeld…”NO FISH FOR YOU!”) He obliged, but I could read the look on his face (and the faces of the other customers): “New guy.”

I spent most of the next four minutes studying the tops of my shoes and trying to appear invisible. I did notice out the corner of my eye, however, that as most customers received their orders, they covered their food with one or more of the three sauces that sat in squeeze bottles on the counter. (I’m not exactly sure what the sauces were, but I suspect that they were ketchup, mustard, and hot sauce.) Customers then received a packet of sauteed peppers and onions before the whole order was wrapped and bagged.

Since I wasn’t exactly sure of what was in the squeeze bottles and was too embarrassed to inquire (not to mention that I needed to photograph the order before eating), I asked for tartar sauce in a container. When the whole order was wrapped and bagged, I headed out the door for home.

My earlier umbrage about the catfish was quickly replaced with total satisfaction. The perch filets were perfectly cooked…dredged in a cornmeal breading and fried to golden brown perfection. (The cod and whiting appeared to be dredged in a flour-based batter.) The perch were well seasoned, crispy on the outside, and light and fluffy on the inside. The fries were OK, but nothing more. The coleslaw was creamy and very sweet. I didn’t touch the two slices of white bread.

I did take a couple of bites from the pepper/onion packet. To say that the peppers were “hot” would be akin to describing the Empire State Building as “tallish”. My eyes watered, and my tongue burned for a good fifteen minutes.

Usually, if I haven’t eaten fried foods in a while and then make an entire meal of fried stuff, I’ll end up chewing half a Costco-sized bottle of Tums. But I was pleasantly surprised to find that the meal was not at all greasy. They use the right kind of batter and have the fryer set to the perfect temperature. I was tempted to finish all seven filets, but thought better of it. No need to tempt fate. Besides, fried fish (like fried chicken) makes a terrific cold snack. (Ed. note: I found them in my fridge when I got home. Yum!)

The people at Alabama Fish Bar fry fish for a living, and they do a terrific job. I forgive them for the catfish issue. I’ll be back soon. And I hope this time not to embarrass myself.Alabama Fish Bar on Urbanspoon

  • JKNEPFLE

    There’s a similar place…Louisianna fish bar over on Queen City on the West Side. Don’t bother…it’s a mere shadow of its former glory. (It used to be a stand-alone restaurant and now it’s part of the bar called Wings)

  • Julie Niesen

    That’s too bad– I remember driving past there often, noticing long lines and people coming out with already grease-soaked brown paper bags.

    My favorite catfish is Aunt Flora’s. Terry says it’s so authentic that he tends to skip catfish when we go to Alabama– quite a compliment.

  • WestEnder

    I have been to AFB probably 50 times. I’m a regular. Very exciting that you went there.

    Filet #: Are you sure you got 7? I’m pretty sure the perch & whiting are 5 filets and the cod is 6. Maybe they like the new guy!

    Greasy: Yes indeed, the fish are always perfectly fried. They do one thing and they do it well. I still blot them with a paper towel (for the self-delusion of healthierness) but I’ve seen worse.

    Sauces: mustard, ketchup, hot sauce, malt vinegar.

    Peppers: Very spicy, very greasy.

    Fries: I stick them under the broiler for a few minutes to make them crispy.

    Spare a quarter?: You didn’t mention whether anyone asked you for change. This is often part of the experience.

  • Julie Niesen

    Westender, I think he’s been hanging out in OTR long enough that being asked for change doesn’t phase him. :)

  • The Boyfriend

    Westender: I might have gotten the numbers wrong, but all of the dinners had a ridiculous amount of fish piled on top.

    I wasn’t panhandled on the way out, but as Julie says, I’ve been hanging out in OTR long enough now that it doesn’t phase me anyway.

  • Toddy-O

    If I’m remembering correctly, doesn’t Richie’s on Linn (and off the Lateral on Reading) have a killer fried fish too? (am dating myself by almost 20 years)

    Always heard about Louisiana Fish…never got to experience its hey day.

  • Mikki

    You guys sure have the city covered! The little ones and I were in OTR for the boy’s final dress at Music Hall and we drove past AFB and I thought,” I wonder when Julie will make it down here. I have always been curious about this place.” Ask and ye shall receive.

  • Julie Niesen

    Mikki– bring the kiddies by so they can play with the cats. ;) They need some exercise! The cats. Not the kids. How is the opera going?

  • Anonymous

    Hi – I’ve just discovered your blog and was happy to discover others with an Alabama connection.I’m also from Alabama. I’m Terry and I have OUTSIDE, an outdoor living shop in The Gateway Quarter of OTR
    (next to the Art Academy). Next time you’re by this way, stop in and we’ll ‘visit’ about our Alabama backgrounds and talk a little food too.

  • Mark

    I just had my first experience with this place today for lunch. OMG! Yummy!

  • Dwayne

    abf….good fish from the start….wish i could make it at home…no complaints only no more birthday dinners…no seating……only one restuarant…..never been let down……oh yeah don’t let it get cold….Dwayne