Caleb Westphal hasn’t missed a Friday fish fry since 2013. Follow his never-ending adventures—sponsored by Miller High LifeHERE. This week, fish fry #544: Oh Dennis! Saloon & Charcoal House in Racine, Wisconsin.

When my car door swung open in the parking lot of Oh Dennis! Saloon & Charcoal House last Friday (4301 Douglas Ave.; 262-681-1715), it was not the sweet smell of fried fish that hit me, but that of barbecued ribs. Now, I’m not opposed to this smell. In fact, I generally like it. I just am more welcoming of it on days that don’t start with “Fri.” When it hit me, I knew I was going into a different type of place. I was not about to join a bunch of fellow fish fry diners, but people who spend their Fridays in a way completely alien to me. I’m no fighter and I have no enemies, but was this what they call heading into enemy territory?

Located on Douglas Avenue on the border of Caledonia and Racine (the Caledonia city limit sign graces the edge of the parking lot), Oh Dennis! has been open since 1987. It was run by Dennis DeMark until January 2012, when he died of a heart attack inside the restaurant shortly after chatting with his beloved customers. Like any good thing, it doesn’t die with the person who creates it, but carries on with those around them. On Dennis! remains in the family today, and is still owned by Dennis’s widow JoAnn. It is now referred to as “the house that Dennis built.”

The entrance to Oh Dennis! is on the building’s backside, and I walked through it at just after 5 p.m. The restaurant was already at full tilt, with ribs cooking behind the bar to my left and scarcely an empty table in the dining area ahead. Oh Dennis! opens their bar at 4 p.m. on Fridays, with dinner service starting at 5. While I had anticipated arriving at the start of dinner service and getting a seat without much of a wait, it quickly occurred to me that this was the type of place that many people arrive at as soon as the doors open so they can get their name in, and that that was what I should have done.

I walked up to the host and asked for a table for one and how long the wait would be. After I was told it would be 45 minutes, I asked if they had fish—which seemed like an important detail to confirm if I was about to start waiting.

She paused, as if this was a question that wasn’t frequently asked. “Yeah, fish fry Friday.”

I asked if I could eat at the bar and was told that only appetizers could be eaten there. But, waiting for a table didn’t sound too bad to me, so I put my name in, took a seat at the bar, and ordered an Old Fashioned. Topped with two cherries, it was exceptionally smooth, with a low bubble. It went down easy, although I did my best to take it down slow, to make it last all of my wait.

Except for in the bar area, Oh Dennis! is illuminated only by neon signs that line the walls, which make an otherwise dim room glow with pops of rainbow-colored light. A CD jukebox sits between the bar and dining area, and it periodically kicked into gear as I waited. “We Can Work It Out” was followed by “No Woman, No Cry.” Then came “Free Bird.” By that time I had been waiting awhile. Now this outta get me to fish time, I thought. At 5:33 I turned around and looked at the list, and saw there were still six parties ahead of me. “Suspicious Minds,” “Fast Car,” and some Dave Matthews song followed as the 6:00 hour approached. Shortly after 6, about an hour after I had arrived, my table was ready. I decided the long wait was on account of people ordering ribs instead of fish.

The seafood section of the menu at Oh Dennis! has three fish options, but their “fish fry,” which is haddock ($16.95), is only available on Fridays. They also offer lake perch ($22.95), listed as 8–10 ounces of jumbo breaded perch, and walleye pike ($29.95), listed as 12-14 ounces. Shrimp options are also available. Each comes with a choice of baked potato, garlic mashed potatoes, or seasoned fries, as well as a lettuce salad or homemade coleslaw. While I had been planning on getting the haddock, after the hour wait I decided I had earned the perch. I ordered it with fries and coleslaw.

The wait time between when I sat down to when I got my fish was much shorter, being not much more than 15 minutes. A well-buttered and sandwiched slice of marbled rye started the meal off well like so many before it. The coleslaw cup was packed with a density of cabbage, carrot, and dressing rarely matched, with a juicy-sweet flavor profile that held court throughout the whole cup. The fries were on the softer end, but were no wet noodles. The skin of the potato remained, offering its distinct essence to the fries, and the fries were loaded with seasoned salt and Parmesan cheese, which drove away any remnants of blandness.

The meal came with three large pieces of perch. The fish itself was clean and had a considerable amount of recognizable perch flavor. There was just the right amount of coating, which was mellow in flavor, had a light crispness, and sat well on the fish. Together they presented a perch package that, although not off the charts, was pretty good for a rib joint. The tartar was likely cut from the same salad dressing cloth as the coleslaw. It was thick and tangy, with a small amount of relish, and added to the fish that preceded it.

In less than 20 minutes it was all over, but like every week, it was worth the wait, just for a little taste of heaven. After last week’s high profile fish fry and riding around on the Hop the week before, a 25-minute drive to a dimly lit restaurant where I could blend into the room was welcomed. While Oh Dennis! is well regarded for their ribs, their fish fry doesn’t disappoint, either. It turns out the smell I found when I pulled into the parking lot wasn’t from enemy territory, but from a place that makes room for fish frys even if their main focus is something else. Should I have added a side of ribs to my fish fry for $14.95? Likely yes, but I didn’t, so I guess I’ll just have to go back for them on another day—probably on a day that isn’t Friday, so I can experience them fully. But then again, maybe I’ll just go back on a Friday for the haddock.

Takeaways: High-density slaw, seasoned salt and Parmesan cheese covered skin-on fries; clean perch with a light crispness; thick and tangy tartar; arrive at 4 and get your name in right away to prevent a long wait; put a song on the jukebox.

Note: I’m taking a few weeks off from writing. I’ll be at Walleye Weekend tonight and my experience will be exactly the same as it is every other year. See you soon.

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About The Author

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Originally hailing from Fond du Lac, Wisconsin—home of Walleye Weekend, the self-professed "World's Largest Walleye Fish Fry"—Caleb Westphal has not missed a Friday night fish fry since sometime in 2013. He plays saxophone with the surf-punk-garage outfit Devils Teeth. He also spins classic 45s and would love to do so at your roller skating party, car show, or 50th high school reunion.