Fried seafood in the United States comes in many forms, from bite-sized fried clams to breaded calamari rings with hot peppers, and the history of fried seafood spans decades and geography. In the Bahamas, the fish fry can be traced back to pre-Columbian times. In the Midwest, fish fries became a staple among European immigrants who came to the region in the 1800s; they were particularly popular among European Catholics who abstained from eating meat on Fridays during Lent. In the American South, the fish fry tradition comes from enslaved Africans; the events were “one of the few meals that slaves got to enjoy on their own time with one another,” according to writer Korsha Wilson. That tradition expanded as emancipated individuals migrated across the country, bringing fried fish with them.
From this vast universe of fried seafood, the fried fish sandwich, in particular, is having a moment. Hot fried fish sandwiches have long been staples at some Southern restaurants — “hot” referring to either the temperature of the fried fish, or the seasoning used to make it spicy, which could include cayenne, paprika, pepper, garlic, and other spices. But in recent years, the specifically spicy variety has popped up in restaurants from New Orleans to Boston to California. (The dish closely follows the wave of hot chicken, which grew from a longstanding Southern tradition to sweep the country to the point of what author Timothy Charles Davis calls “hotchickenfrication” — removed from its cultural roots.)
In 2017, the Voltaggio brothers opened a fast-casual sandwich shop completely dedicated to fish sandwiches; their hot version features beer-battered cod and hot spice. Denver’s location of the Budlong, a Chicago-based, Nashville-style hot chicken restaurant, added a fish version to its menu earlier this year. And at her new Portland fried chicken spot Yonder, Eater Young Gun Maya Lovelace (’16) offered a hot fried catfish sandwich as a “secret menu” item soon after her March opening. “Fried seafood sandwiches have a huge place in my heart,” she says. “I became a pescatarian in high school, and have fond — if a little dorky — memories of the whole drama crew running to grab fast food before play rehearsals, and always getting a fried fish sandwich from Burger King.”
Many people were introduced to the temperature-hot fish sandwich through fast food — most likely, the Filet-O-Fish. In 1962, McDonald’s franchise owner Lou Groen determined his Cincinnati location was losing business during Lent. He proposed adding a fish sandwich to the menu to attract his observant Roman Catholic customers, but the higher ups at McDonald’s — including founder Ray Kroc — were dubious. Ultimately, Groen and Kroc held a bit of a sandwich battle that pitted Groen’s fried fish sandwich against Kroc’s proposed “Hula Burger,” which consisted of grilled pineapple and cheese on a bun. Sales of Groen’s fish sandwich on Good Friday in 1962 outnumbered that of the Hula Burger 350 to six, and over time the Filet-O-Fish became a regular item on the menu at McDonald’s, even in land-locked states. Competing chains like Burger King and Big Boy would follow suit.
At Yonder, Lovelace serves her fried fish two ways: either “crispy” (with salt, sumac, cayenne, and bourbon barrel-smoked paprika) or “hot” (with red-hot infused lard and extra spice). The hot version is inspired in part by Bolton’s Spicy Chicken & Fish in East Nashville, which Lovelace calls “the spot. All these years later, opening my own place, it made a lot of sense to have some kind of fried fish or seafood sandwich on the menu.”
Lovelace eventually hopes to expand her seafood sandwich offerings, including shrimp, oysters, and more. Meanwhile, across the country, chefs are coming at hot fish sandwiches with their own interpretations, carrying on the tradition of breaded and fried fish on a bun. Here are some prime examples — both new and old:
Bolton’s Spicy Chicken & Fish
Bolton Matthews inherited a hot chicken recipe from his uncle and namesake Bolton Polk, opening Bolton’s Spicy Chicken & Fish in the late ’90s. Matthews and his family run two locations in Nashville, serving a menu chock full of hot chicken and hot fish sandwiches. There are four varieties of fish sandwiches on the menu (whiting, catfish, grouper, and tilapia) with five possible spice levels.
Providence, Rhode Island
Chef Ashley Faulkner built the menu at Bucktown from family recipes passed through generations. The fried fish sandwich is simple and straightforward, according to partner Adam Mir, who says, “it’s about the fish itself and how well it’s seasoned.” Filets are dredged in a buttermilk and hot sauce mixture and fried to crispiness, served on a Martin’s roll with tartar sauce.
Best known for its Nashville hot chicken sandwiches, the Budlong (which also has a location in Chicago) recently expanded to include fish with a hot fish sandwich at its Denver restaurant, and only as a special. Made with a similar seasoning process as the Budlong’s chicken, the sandwich is available while supplies last.
New Orleans, Louisiana
A hot catfish sandwich at District Donuts debuted on the menu in February, with fried catfish seasoned in a sauce dubbed “so hot, you want more,” plus bread and butter pickles and tarragon slaw. The fish comes on a buttered and griddled bun made in house.
Hawthorne Coffee Roasters
Though the shop itself focuses on coffee, whiskey, and cocktails, it regularly hosts a pop-up called Fox Fire, with hot fried sandwiches, including fish options, served breaded and fried on a toasted bun with tartar sauce, fries, lemon, and coleslaw.
Santa Monica, California
Bryan and Michael Voltaggio, two Top Chef alums and brothers, run several restaurants around the country, including Strfsh in Santa Monica, which focuses on fast-casual seafood. Customers choose a fish, seasoning, condiments and toppings, and the brothers’ “Santa Monica” version of the hot fish sandwich features beer-battered cod with hot spice, lettuce, and tartar sauce.