Deprivation. Reflection. Penance. Those are the hallmarks of the Lenten season. That, and fried fish.
For the best fish fry, hit a church or tavern on Friday during Lent. On Ash Wednesday, the taverns tend to stay out of the holy fish biz. Even Donna's Phil's Bar and Grill in Wood River, Illinois, refrains, even though it's listed on another St. Louis media website's big fish fry map. They save the fish specials for Friday, leaving their usual Salisbury steak on the special board.
Not that fish sandwiches aren't available from the regular menu. They are, along with all-you-can-eat biscuits and gravy for three bucks. Pair that with bottles of PBR, and Lenten resolutions go straight to Hell.
Crappie's hard to find, unless you're an angler (or know a generous one). Donna's Phil's has it, and it's cornmeal-encrusted perfection. Tender, white and flaky, it's not overfried, which keeps the flesh juicy without making the breading soggy. Even piled on rye bread with pickles, raw onions and tartar sauce, the fish's mild flavor comes through.
While the sandwich doesn't come with the fish fry's traditional slaw and hush-puppy partners, it does merit homemade potato chips. Also a bit on the undercooked side, there's a light crispness to their outsides, and a fluffy interior.
Ash Wednesday's quiet. A woman plays nickel slots in the corner. The bartender serves Donna a big bowl of spicy chicken soup to help her with a bout of sinus congestion. They all watch the noon news and laugh at Ellen's opening monologue. No one drinks alcohol, although there's plenty available. Perhaps that's the penance. Or maybe day drinking isn't that popular in Wood River. More likely, it's an Illinois thing. On the east side of the river, the old idea of the tavern as a family-friendly meeting place beyond getting sloshed lives.
You might want to keep the kiddos out of the ladies room, though. Above one stall hangs a framed black and white poster of a man, bare-assed and clad in nothing but a pair of white socks.
Consider it a Lenten test of temptation.
Donna's Phil's Bar and Grill 225 East Edwardsville Road Wood River, Illinois 618-259-9778