Caleb Westphal hasn’t missed a Friday fish fry since 2013. Follow his never-ending adventures—sponsored by Miller High Life—HERE. This week: fish fry #522, the Blue Heron Supper Club in Big Bend, Wisconsin.
Set back from Highway 164, past trees, a pond, and a winding, pockmarked driveway, the Blue Heron Supper Club in Big Bend (W229 S8300 Highway 164, 262-662-9985) cuts an imposing two-story figure. It’s been there since the 1960s, and has been offering a triple-threat Friday night special of all-you-can-eat fried cod, baked cod, and fried chicken for at least the last 30 years—with a regular fish fry going back decades more. When I walked in 27 minutes after they opened last Friday—to close out my 10th year of eating a Friday fish fry each week—Friday night was already in full swing, and looked like it had been for hours, with the large barroom being packed with people waiting for a seat at one of the 20 or so tables in the dining area. Who needed New Year’s Eve—this was the real party.
I danced my way towards the dining area, where I gave my name to a lady who jotted it down in a notebook and told me it would be about a 45-minute wait. I pushed on, shimmying my way over to the bar. The charming-but-hasn’t-been-updated decor and large rectangle windows behind the bar reminded me of my time waiting for fish at Country Squire Supper Club (RIP) a few years back. The pleasant memory lingered, but I was in the present, in an equally entrancing environment, and I had business to take care of.
I ordered a Brandy Old Fashioned Sweet. Brandy was poured first, then a liquid from an unlabeled, dark green 750 ml bottle—surely a secret Old Fashioned mix. The bartender topped the glass with a splash of soda, threw in a stemmed cherry and quarter of an orange slice, and told me it was six dollars. I opened a tab, and was told to make sure to close it before having dinner.
The Old Fashioned was balanced: not too sweet, not too boozy (although definitely with a good amount of brandy), and just about perfect. More than half the drinks in the room seemed to be Old Fashioneds. At one point a small group put in a drink order and the bartender set down four Old Fashioneds and three tall Kiddie Cocktails for them to pick up. The Blue Heron makes so many Old Fashioneds that they have it down to a science, which in turn keeps people coming back for more, presumably creating a cycle. Are the Old Fashioneds great because so many people order them, or do so many people order them because they are great?
As I had the drink, I meandered about awkwardly amongst a sea of people, which was swelling to what I guessed numbered as many as 50 or 70. By this point the barroom/waiting area was so full that people seated at the bar were passing drinks and money between the bartenders and the people standing behind them, in effect becoming deputized bartenders, exhibiting a true display of humanity in a swirl of seeming anarchy.
Eventually, I made the call to do something I rarely do: order a second Old Fashioned before dinner. I closed out my tab and a guy seated at the bar passed me my drink and receipt. I crawled my way through the crowd until I found a flat surface near the check-in area and dining room, where I signed the receipt and snapped a photo of Old Fashioned #2. While I had been told that my first Old Fashioned was $6, I was only charged $5 a drink. At 5:03 p.m., “Caleb, party of one” rang out over the PA system. And you know what? Even though I was just one person, it was a party, because I was about to have some fish.
Upon being seated, I was asked if I was going to be having the fish and chicken special. Although I was all but sure I would be, I asked to see the menu the server was holding. The Blue Heron has a one-page Friday menu, and while other items besides the special are listed—like haystack onion rings ($6), hot potato chips ($6), and a shrimp fry ($19.99)—at its top are the two-piece fish or chicken ($12) and the all-you-can-eat fish and chicken ($17). The former comes with either fish or chicken or a piece of each, while the latter can be any combination of baked cod, fried cod, or fried chicken.
“A little bit of everything? Fried, baked, and chicken?” I was asked after picking the all-you-can-eat option.
“I’ll take one piece of baked fish, one piece of chicken, and the rest fried fish,” I specified.
Although clam chowder was nowhere to be found on the menu, I asked if they had it, and they did, so I ordered a cup ($3). It came out steaming hot a few minutes later. It had one of the most memorably smooth textures, and along with potatoes, celery, and clams, had a distinct flavor that I couldn’t quite pinpoint, but which had me coming back for more until it was gone.
A plate holding tartar, bread, and coleslaw wasn’t too far behind the chowder. The slaw was fresh and crunchy, and every morsel seemed to be covered in a coating—perhaps a mix of vinegar with some oil—that clung to it and didn’t puddle at the bottom of the cup. Although I assume it came out of a giant tub whipped up hours earlier, it had the appearance as if it had been tossed moments before. The rye? It was a soft, thick, half piece, not unlike so many others that step up to get the job done every week.
“He gave you an extra piece of chicken—I hope that’s okay,” my server said as they set down the meal.
Last week it was chicken strips, and this week instead of just having a drumstick as a side for my fish, a huge breast came with it. What the hell is up with everyone trying to give me extra chicken on Friday? I kid, I really didn’t care. I just wasn’t planning on eating it if it got in the way of any of the fish.
The french fries were thin and square cut, like the kind you’d get at a fast food restaurant, but less loaded with salt. The chicken leg was pleasant, but I didn’t spend much time pondering this non-finned meat. The cod—of which I was given three fried pieces and one baked piece—didn’t have much flavor, which was to be expected, but the batter that covered the fried pieces didn’t have much either. The meat was chunky and thick, but not particularly moist. Both the flavor and texture of the baked cod was enhanced by a dish of drawn butter. A great tartar could have lifted the fried fish, and while it was adequate, it didn’t quite bring the cod to new heights.
There were so many elements of my experience at the Blue Heron Supper Club that were right where they needed to be. The Old Fashioneds were fantastic; the operation moved like a well-oiled machine, with quick, friendly service, despite the overwhelming amount of people; the tradition-steeped ambience was endearing; the all-you-can-eat option (with chicken) spoke for itself; and the chowder, slaw, bread, and fries were all pleasing, too. Together they formed a big windup that portended glorious fish. But the fish—the part that counts most—ended up being somewhere between, okay, decent, and good, being a bit of a letdown. Still, with all things considered, the Blue Heron Supper Club provided me with an extremely enjoyable dining experience—even if I was only a party of one—with good food, and it was a fine way to finish out another year of eating Friday fish.
Takeaways: Get there right at 4, they pack up; AYCE fish and chicken special—I haven’t seen this since The Schwabenhof (RIP); great non-muddled Old Fashioneds with a secret mix; smooth and mysterious chowder; fresh, crunchy, and well-coated slaw; the windup was so big I expected more with the fish, but it was somewhere between okay, decent, and good; fish fry also available on Wednesdays; I counted seven blue heron pictures hanging on the walls, can you find more?