One little drop of falling rain
One little chance to try again
One little bird that makes it every now and then
One little piece of endless sky
One little taste of cherry pie
One little week in paradise and I start thinkin’
There’s gotta be a song left to sing
Cause everybody can’t have thought of everything
One little note that ain’t been used
One little word ain’t been abused a thousand times
In a thousand rhymes
Over the past few months, as I contemplated bringing back the fish fry column, Gillian Welch’s “One Little Song”—from her nearly flawless 2003 album Soul Journey—regularly looped in my mind. If there was “one little taste of cherry pie,” there must be more fried fish—and potato pancakes, slaw, and chowder to go with it. If there was “a song left to sing,” if “everybody can’t have thought of everything,” and if there was “one little word that ain’t been abused a thousand times,” then maybe, just maybe, there was a column left to write, a fresh enough way to write it, and a way to describe tartar sauce differently than how I’ve done it over 150 times before. I can’t be sure, but as with everything in life, if the feeling is right, and you have a little faith, it’s time to take the leap again.
Although the front and back parking lots of Joey’s West (9825 Kraut Rd., Franksville, 262-456-0105) had spilled into the street—to where I had to park, even though it wasn’t yet 5 p.m.—there were a few seats inside that weren’t taken. (Besides bar seating, Joey’s has approximately seven tables of varying sizes and heights in both its main and back rooms.) I spotted a solitary chair set around a small, short circular table, about halfway to the back of the main room, near the wall and gambling machines, and asked a bartender if I could take it, and if I could bring a menu with me.
Joey and Anna LeGath opened Joey’s West in 2016, in the location of what had most recently been Everette’s Pub. Joey had a long history as a Racine bar proprietor before opening it, having owned bars such as the now-closed Joey’s On Lathrop, Joey’s On 6th, and Joey’s On Taylor, his first bar, which he took over in 1990 when his dad couldn’t run it anymore, which also was the spot he later met Anna. But Joey’s West became Joey and Anna’s first venture to offer a fish fry. Along with Joey’s Yardram—a Racine staple the couple took over in 2019—Joey’s West was awarded the 2023 Best of Racine County Fish Fry by The Journal Times—and it’s won this honor multiple years. Not bad for a place that “had no recipe” for batter and “had to figure it out” before opening.
As I sat and scanned the menu, energy swirled around me. Not just a bar, but not exactly a restaurant, Joey’s West bustled with families, with the young and old, and with a few burly boys drinking Busch and Miller. On Wednesdays and Fridays, Joey’s offers cod ($12), walleye ($16), perch ($16), and shrimp ($16). The dinners come with french fries and the other usual fish fry suspects. The menu almost made me want it to be Wednesday, because they also offer their Captain’s Platter then ($21), a four-pronged assault of three shrimp, two pieces of cod, two pieces of perch, and one piece of walleye. Char-grilled or Cajun shrimp, walleye, cod, and salmon are also available every day of the week. I ordered a Brandy Old Fashioned Sweet, the perch fish fry, and clam chowder, which I found listed on the chalkboard with the rest of the day’s seafood specials.
Around the time my Old Fashioned ($8) arrived, Gordon Lightfoot’s “The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald” started playing overhead. As J. Bavet brandy busted up against the rocks in my glass, Lightfoot sang of “when the gales of November came slashin'”on Gitche Gumme; I worked my way through the drink as the song played, the synergy even more palpable when I looked towards the bar and saw the Great Lakes emblazoned on the back of a woman’s sweatshirt. While Superior “never gives up her dead,” it wasn’t hard to find cherries mildly muddled in the depths of the Old Fashioned glass, with an orange chunk tossed in like a life preserver and stemmed cherries drawn across the top. Bright, balanced, and sweet, the Old Fashioned was gone not much long after the song.
“No,” I jerkingly replied to the waiter, who had jolted me out of my brandy-soaked trance.
“Oh, is it chowder?” I called as he walked away. “Yeah that is me.”
I wasn’t merely thrown off by the name “soup,” or because I was coming out of a vision backed by one of the longest hit singles of the 1970s, but by the second dish in the waiter’s hand, which at first glance looked to be a sandwich. It turned out to essentially be Texas toast: thick, buttered, and toasted bread that tasted like some of the best grilled cheese sandwiches I (or you, probably) remember having as a kid, except there wasn’t even any cheese. Flavorful yet mild, the bowl of clam chowder ($5) was filled out by a trifecta of clam, potato, and carrot, like a new form of mirepoix or the holy trinity where clam had pushed aside a vegetable. Its crowning jewel was a centerpiece adornment of crisp bacon coupled with fresh bits of cilantro.
Moments after I cleared the bread and chowder, the fish fry arrived. Crisp and light, the coleslaw was primarily a green cabbage display, with some red cabbage and carrots sprinkled in. The small amount of juices that were needed to flavor it did so, and the rest were remnants at the cup’s bottom. The LeGath’s got the recipe from a friend, and it’s apparently the same legendary slaw that was served at the long-gone Kilbourn Gardens near Sturtevant. The marble rye was thick, airy, and light, and made more of an obligatory appearance than an innovative statement, perhaps jealous of its Texas-inspired cousins for their character and devotion to flavor. The LeGath’s have said they get their rye from Paielli’s Bakery, and it’s more than likely the other bread came from there too, although I didn’t investigate this minutia. The french fries were…french fries! You’ve had ’em! Not too soft and not too hard, not too salty and not too bland, they were just alright with me.
The four pieces of perch were crisp without being crunchy, with a rugged coating, and were salty in the best possible way, making them perfect for chasing with a gulp of beer or dipping into the big ol’ cup of thick, mayo-tang and sweet relish-heavy tartar. The batter didn’t swallow up the flavor of the perch, with enough of the fish coming through to create a powerhouse triad of perch, batter, and tartar. With a dash of lemon squirted on top for an extra zing, it was enough to make the angels sing.
Adding in a non-cash fee and tip, the meal came to over $40. Still, the rather short drive from Milwaukee to Joey’s West was absolutely worth it for me—as I’m sure it would be for you. While seeing Joey’s top the list of Racine County fish frys almost causes me to shed a tear for Cliff’s Boathouse Cafe (RIP), it holds its own and deserves recognition. It wasn’t a bad way to kick off this reimagined and rebooted fish fry column either. It’s good to be back!
Takeaways: Exemplary bright and balanced Old Fashioned; memorable toast; bacon and cilantro augmented chowder; good slaw never dies—and it doesn’t fade away—it ends up on the menu at Joey’s West; well textured and flavored perch; prime dunkin’ tartar; let’s get that Captain’s Platter on the Friday menu.