It was one of those Fridays where I still had no idea where I was going to end up for a fish fry. What I did know is I had a hankering for having it while sitting on a barstool in a tavern. With no mention of a fish fry on their Facebook for over six months, I wasn’t sure if Thirsty’s (500 Madison Ave., 414-301-4295) still had one, so I decided to give them a call. They eagerly answered my question in the affirmative, and I was then able to focus on the other things I needed to accomplish for the next five hours before it was time to eat.
A corner bar in South Milwaukee, Thirsty’s has been open since April 2021, in a location that was previously home to bars like Carini’s, Bickler’s Coachlight Inn, and Bottoms Up South. (While the Bottoms Up logo is still displayed on the bar counter, I saw no evidence of their dance pole). When I walked in at just after 5:15, there were only two or three other patrons, one of whom was eating a fish fry. With a wide-open array of barstools in front of me, it seemed likely my tavern fish fry dream for the week was about to be fulfilled.
When ordering my Brandy Old Fashioned Sweet ($7), I was asked what type of brandy I wanted. I asked what they had and the bartender mentioned rail and Korbel, but didn’t have any other options come to mind off the top of her head. But Korbel sounded fine to me, so I went with that. The cocktail was muddled with cherries and oranges, and garnished with three small stemmed cherries and an orange slice. Bright and bubbly, and particularly sweet—but not saccharine—it was one of the best Old Fashioneds I’ve had before a fish fry in some time. Was it the Korbel? The drink was reminiscent of the Old Fashioneds I make at home, which I pride myself on and usually make with Korbel. While the Korbel might have played a role, there was so much else going for the drink that it couldn’t have just been it.
I looked at the fish fry menu, which in true small-town Wisconsin tavern form consisted of only one type of fish: beer battered cod ($13). It came with three pieces and an extra piece could be added for two dollars, so naturally that’s what I did. While the menu gave a choice of waffle fries or tots, I was informed that straight-cut fries had replaced the waffle variety, and I went with those too.
Since I was the only person waiting for food, the wait time was short. This was no ordinary week with compulsory rye bread. No, Thirsty’s skips the rye bread and presents their fish fry with homemade corn fritters. The Milwaukee-area corn fritter beat is best left to someone else, but I can say these were soft, warm, and melted in my mouth like cotton candy at a county fair. They were sweet in their own right, and even more so when the honey butter that was provided joined them. The slaw was of the creamy deli-style variety with a robust, pungent flavor, while the fries were rather neutral, but leaned towards the greasier side of the road. Or maybe they just seemed to because they had just come out of the fryer.
“Always add the extra piece of fish” is a fair rule of thumb, and it applied here, not because three pieces would have been lacking, but because when you have a good thing, it’s usually better to have a little bit more of it. The cod was chunky, meaty, and flaky white. It was covered with a soft but gently-crisp beer batter, and wasn’t greasy except for a little bit on the bottom of the final piece. The tartar was an example of how to make a fair amount happen without having much. A base of thin mayonnaise, a smattering of relish, and a lemon-evoking tang coalesced and provided a simple foil for the fish. It was as if Uncle Sam himself had pointed at this tartar and told it to “Be All You Can Be” and it heeded the call. I wiped the first cup clean and asked for another.
I had walked in hoping for an open barstool from where to find a brandy-mixed, deep-fried respite, and I’m happy to report Thirsty’s pulled through. While I could nitpick about what could be improved upon, I don’t want to waste my breath—the mouth is much better put to use by simply eating more fish. If you are looking for a tavern-style fish fry where you can stroll up to the bar and easily get an order of well-sourced cod with a golden beer batter and sides with enough character to prop up the meal—and want a hell of an Old Fashioned to boot—look no further than Thirsty’s.
Takeaways: Stellar muddled Old Fashioned; chunky and meaty cod with a gently-crisp beer batter and a be-all-you-can-be tartar; move over rye, here are some homemade corn fritters.