A Fish by Any Other Name . . .
Going Angling for Great Lake Trout
Some time ago a fellow by the name of Steve Jones, who works on the city's west side, requested an article on lake trout, the ubiquitous Baltimore phenomenon. Thus began for me a delightful odyssey and the pleasure of some damn fine fish.
The fish we know by that name is not a lake trout. There is such a thing: Salvelinus namaycush, one of the largest fresh-water fish (generally 15 to 20 inches long), is caught in the cold-water lakes of the northern United States and Canada. But the fish we call lake trout is really whiting, or Atlantic whiting; it's found in the waters between the Gulf of St. Lawrence and Virginia.
Rob Kasper, writing in this paper some time back, suggested that the name lake trout caught on because it was a more appealing moniker than whiting. But I prefer the story told by John Shields in his book Chesapeake Bay Cooking. Shields conjures the image of the last fishing boat of the day making for shore. As the crew nears the dock, a worker sings out, "Late trout! Late trout." The buyers, unfamiliar with the Chesapeake Bay accent, hear, "Lake trout! Lake trout!" Pick a story or make up your own.
Whatever its origins, there are a few cardinal rules to identifying great lake trout. It must be fried on the spot -- it can't sit wilting under warming lights. You must get a lot for a little. You must be served two slices of white bread, to soak up the grease and construct a sandwich. The fish should be big and meaty -- but it shouldn't be too moist. The coating must enhance, not overwhelm. Bones should be minimal. The fish should be fresh and tasty, although what it should taste of, or like, is a somewhat personal matter. Lake-trout enthusiasts are a picky lot.
If a lake-trout excursion can be said to begin anywhere, that place is the Roost . Talk about a booming business -- consider the hours this carry-out keeps: 7 A.M.-3 A.M. most days. When you come to the Roost, you're coming for fish, not ambiance. And don't expect fast service -- the line for lake trout is routinely long. On my visit, on a Monday mid-afternoon, I waited 20 minutes -- and as Roost waits go, that's pretty good. Here, people stand in line patiently, almost reverently, as if they're waiting to view a loved leader lying in state. My sandwich ($4.95), when it comes, consists of five smallish fish piled atop two slices of white bread, all wrapped tightly in a foil cornucopia. The coating is golden, if a bit greasy, and the center bone lifts right out, exposing moist ("too moist; it's wet," my friend Michele says) white flesh. The flavor is fresh and mild. This is great fish, to my way of thinking. It doesn't taste like fish -- not fishy, that is -- and I want to tear off hunks that are still too hot to handle. I understand that in its heyday, the Roost sent folks away with foil-wrapped sandwiches the size of baseball bats. The package is smaller these days, but the price of fish is way up, and the price of this sandwich is still way down. Some consider this carry-out the king of lake-trout joints; I'm not sure I'm in the presence of a king, but this fish is definitely royalty.
The Roost's nearest competitor -- speaking geographically -- is Micah's Cafeteria . Here, the single fish dinner with two half sides, bread, and a beverage goes for $5.99. Single, it turns out, means three small trout. Unfortunately, we are out of the cafeteria line, seated, eating, and well on our way to finishing said sides, bread, and beverage before someone emerges from the kitchen with our fish. There's no crispy coating -- no detectable coating at all, in fact, but the fish is tasty, if too bony.
We have another unsatisfying lake-trout encounter at Friendly. We are able to snag one of four picnic tables in the place, but there our luck runs out. For $4.99, we get two small trout with a choice of two sides. Again, the fish is filled with bones, and the taste is bland. Each table sports a shaker of salt-and-pepper mix, a bottle of ketchup, and another of hot sauce, so perhaps we are meant to enliven the trout to our taste. It doesn't work for me, though I do like Friendly's slightly charred, smoky sweet potatoes.
Michele and I, on the recommendation of our mutual friend Charles, try the Corner Carry-out. Like the Roost, this joint is strictly pay and go. $4.49 nets me a medium order of the finned ones, three big, thick specimens, beautifully brown and crisp. Alas, the oil used to fry the fish is not fresh, and this kills the dish completely, giving the trout a spoiled taste. Charles says this happens from time to time and he urges us to give the Corner another try.
My odyssey ends in West Baltimore,at the Lake Trout , the Edmondson Village carry-out that Steve Jones touted in his letter. By now, I am so used to waiting for my lake trout that I'm shocked when my regular-size order ($4.60) emerges within three or four minutes. I'm even more pleased to find four fish -- two medium ones and two small fellows -- wrapped in foil, with the obligatory twin slices of white bread encased in their own plastic wrapper. The batter is light and crunchy, the fish very hot and fresh. The trout could be meatier, but the single long bone is easily removed, which makes the eating carefree. The accompanying macaroni salad (80 cents) is too heavy on the mayo, but a medium lemonade (90 cents) hits the spot. In fact, I'd recommend lemonade as the beverage of choice for any lake-trout encounter. Its tartness makes a good contrast to the deep fry. Kudos to you, Steve.
One final note about lake-trout aficionados. They are a loyal bunch, always ready to sing the virtues of their personal fave. If the mood strikes you, make a few calls to your fish-loving friends, get a few tips, then take to the open road. The world may not be your oyster, but Baltimore can definitely be your lake trout.