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Tasty, fun and cheap: It's easy to see why Wisconsin is hooked on Friday fish fries

Jay Jones, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Travel News

In America's Dairyland, folks have about as much love for their Friday fish fries as they do for the Packers, cheese and beer. And leading the cheering squad -- for the fish, not the football -- is a Milwaukee guy named Caleb Westphal.

"I have eaten a fish fry every Friday night for at least 279 weeks," Westphal said in an email in mid-May, meaning the number of consecutive weeks has likely grown by a few. He started keeping track in early 2014 but said that his streak actually extends back to the summer of 2013.

"That would make the number a bit higher," noted the 33-year-old Westphal, who writes about his weekly "fishing" trips for the Milwaukee Record website.

To the uninitiated, Westphal's feat may be jaw-dropping. But in Wisconsin, fish fries are a Friday night ritual that became popular during Prohibition, when both fish and illegal booze were coming out of the kitchen.

"If there was intoxicating liquor being consumed, the smell of the fish fry would cover it up," said Jim Klisch, co-founder of Milwaukee's Lakefront Brewery.

Each Friday, thousands patiently wait for tables at taverns, restaurants and bowling alleys to get their fish-fry fix. Within a couple of hours or so of Chicago, there are seemingly endless eateries at which people fill their bellies at bargain prices. At the more popular places, the wait can be as much as two hours, especially on a summer evening.

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"It's a rite of passage," said Joe Burbach, the kitchen manager at Dexter's Pub in Madison.

Dexter's is one of those popular places where the line often stretches onto the sidewalk outside the corner bar, located in a working-class neighborhood about 3 miles northeast of the state capital.

"It's more about the experience than just the wait," Burbach said. "You make a night of it."

The lure of the fish is as intoxicating as the ever-changing list of 24 craft beers on tap and dozens more in bottles and cans. Each Friday in the tiny, steamy kitchen, fry master Evan Christiansen uses a different brew in the batter for the wild-caught Bering Sea cod ($13.99).

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