TOWN OF NIAGARA – Back in the day, they used to say that to find an area’s best home-cooked meals, you just had to follow the trucks. The drivers of the big rigs know the best places to chow down.
That advice pays when it comes to weekly fish fries, especially during Lent.
So, seeing a bunch of cars parked in an outlying, snow-covered lot one recent Friday evening, we decided to check out what all the fuss was about. What we found could quite fairly be described as Niagara’s biggest fishy secret.
The scene: a remote lot at the back entrance to the Fashion Outlets of Niagara Falls … aka, the Factory Outlet Mall. That rather nondescript building located there? The Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks Lodge #346, the home of Drew’s Famous Fish Fry.
The time: 6 p.m. Despite the swirling snow and icy conditions, the parking lot is bumper-to-bumper.
It’s high tide for the weekly, open-to-the-public fish fry put on by Drew’s Catering.
Inside, the bar area is packed, and the large seating area nears capacity. Still others are taking their selections out.
One glance at the menu tells you all you need to know. It’s the holy grail of fish, featuring varieties of baked, battered and breaded heretofore unknown to these parts. Sure, there’s the run-of-the-mill breaded and beer-battered style, but there’s also Japanese panko-breaded.
Granted, you can find plain and Cajun-baked in most joints these days. But what about Mexican? Or Mediterranean? Where can you find those choices?
But it’s not just about selection; the portion sizes are remarkable. And the sides? Too numerous to count. It’s like they’re taking value to a whole new level.
At just under $12, the fish dinners at first glance might seem a little prohibitive. But like I said, the portions are more than generous, and they don’t just scoop on some fries and call it dinner. You can have fries, if you choose, or you can have a baked potato, or you can have German potato salad.
Each meal comes with coleslaw, as well as a scoop of macaroni salad and potato salad, and a nice, fresh roll. Now that is a deal!
The only complaints we had were that they were kind of light on the seasonings, and that goes for the main dish as well as the sides. But the good thing is that you can salt and pepper to individual taste.
The baked fish was flaky and tender; the Cajun variety was lightly spiced, certainly not to the point of injecting any lightning, but OK. The Mediterranean was topped with red and green peppers, feta cheese and olives. Unfortunately, the Mexican variety was not offered during our two visits.
The beer-batter flavoring came through nicely, which is not always the case. You could definitely detect the hops and malt in the light batter.
The panko was nicely done, as well, crispy and crunchy without being overcooked. The opaque, flaky fish inside was the perfect complement to the more brittle panko.
A consensus vote gave “favorite side” honors to the coleslaw, which was in between the creamy and vinegary varieties commonly found in local fish fries. I also enjoyed the macaroni salad, once a little salt was added, as well as the “American” potato. We never did sample its German counterpart.
If fish isn’t your dish, Drew’s also offers fried-, coconut- and stuffed-shrimp dinners, along with scallops and a seafood platter. On our latest visit, a penne primavera dish was also being offered, along with other decidedly non-Lenten selections such as beef on weck, chicken fingers, shaved steak and various soups and salads.
Most of the dinner-type offerings ran in the $7-10 range. They also offer half-order fish dinners at $8.50 to $9 and a small kids menu ($5-6). Drinks were reasonably priced, with a bar tab kept separately from the food bill.
Drew’s offers an extensive catering menu at this location and appears to offer food on weeknights for club members. The Friday fish fry is open to everyone, however, and is offered from 3 to 8 p.m.
Judging from the turnouts, the word is already out. If you haven’t yet had the pleasure, it’s worth a try.