It's that time of year again -- the smelt are running. If you're from Wisconsin, you know it's pronounced shmelt, not smelt. Once upon a time, smelt fries were found almost everywhere this time of year, from the VFW to the Eagles to the supper clubs, and they brought people out en masse. Those who've never ventured into smelt-filled waters should know that the fish are small and have a stronger-than-average fishy flavor (not unlike a sardine). They're usually served with the head, tail and guts removed, but since they are so small, and their bones so fine, they're usually not filleted. The firm-textured meat holds together well, allowing them to be eaten like a french fry, even after they've exited the deep fryer.
In recent years the popularity of smelt has waned. That could be in part because the catches have been smaller since the mid-1980s, according to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. Luckily there are still a few great ones out there, if you know where to look.
The area's smelt fry of record is currently at the North Bristol Sportsman's Club, northeast of Sun Prairie. It recalls the heyday of smelt. First and foremost, it's all you can eat (or at least, all you can fit on your plate on two trips through the buffet line). The smelt are lightly breaded and delicious, and there are a ton of amazing sides to choose from. The cheesy potatoes, scooped right out of a giant foil tray, are brilliant -- rich and gooey with a cornflake topping that evokes memories of high school athletic banquets. The potato pancakes are perfect, and the coleslaw is creamy. On the table sits a bottle of tartar sauce and one of shrimp sauce for those looking for a change of pace. Bread and coffee are also available, and some crispy fried chicken is on hand for those wary of smelt.
However, there's only one smelt fry left at the North Bristol Sportsman's Club this season -- Saturday, April 12. Doors open at 4 p.m.; serving starts at 5 p.m. Get out there if you want to sample the best the area has to offer.
While smelt season is winding down in North Bristol, it's just kicking off at the Owl's Nest in Poynette. Here, the smelt is all-you-can-eat but comes with limited coleslaw, baked beans, french fries and rye bread. The slaw, beans, bread and tartar will hit the table first. Be sure to establish a base for the smelt that is to come. And come it will. The Owl's Nest holds nothing back when it comes to smelt, and the plates come stacked high with golden fried goodness.
As in Bristol, the smelt are lightly breaded in a well-seasoned mixture that takes some of the edge off the fish without stealing their thunder. It's not unusual to put away 20 to 30 of the tiny divers, especially when they're interspersed with some of the supper club's french fries. The smelt menu is served Sundays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays through April 17.
Dexter's Pub has established itself as one of Madison's preeminent fish fry joints. It recently kicked off a Wednesday night smelt fry. While it's not all-you-can-eat (diners get around 12 fish), it's still a good deal.
Dexter's puts in some serious prep work. Not only are the heads and tails chopped off and the guts cleaned out, but the kitchen goes the extra mile to fillet each and every one of them. From there, the fish are coated in Dexter's signature light breading and fried to golden-brown perfection. The filleting causes the smelt to lie totally flat, which for some reason also causes them to be totally delicious. Dexter's also does due diligence with the sides and offers a slice of rye to top things off.
While most places serve smelt only for a certain period in the spring, there are still a few restaurants that offer it every day, year-round. The Beach House in McFarland is one. The smelt there are lightly dusted with a superb seasoned breading. These are some of the best smelt you'll find in the area, and they come with the standard sides. It's a great option for those who don't want to (or simply can't) wait for the spring smelt season.
Mike Seidel reviews fish fries at MadisonFishFry.com.