OK, so everybody knows what to get if they ever visit Baltimore—crab cakes, steamed crabs, crab soup, crab pretzel, just something with some crab in it please. But for those of us who actually live here in the city—and by us I mean working shlubs, the 99 percent if you will—crab cakes are simply not a part of our daily existence. For people who know from good crab cakes, they’re just too expensive to eat very often. But this is supposed to be a seafood town—we are situated right on one of the greatest bays on the continent, after all. Thing is, at least within the confines of the more touristy areas of the city, Baltimore is dominated by chain or big, sit-down type restaurants. Where are the small, mom-and-pop joints that will fix you some simple, straight-up fish then? Well, they’re here, you just gotta know where to look, preferably by having someone willing to set aside any concern for their own regularity and cardiovascular well-being do the legwork. So here you go, and just in time for Lent—or for the less pious among us, the glorious 40 days every year when the Filet O’ FishTM, undisputed king of fast-food fish sandwiches, is on sale.
Enough has been written about the subject for it not to be news anymore, but in case you didn’t know, the “other” dominant seafood dish in Baltimore is something called lake trout. Basically, the term “lake trout” refers to a fish called whiting, which is fried and served with sliced white bread and hot sauce. Much has been made of the provenance of lake trout, mostly stemming from the specific type of fish used for the dish. Multiple species may have been used in the past, but from what I can gather, the current fish of choice is whiting, and to a lesser extent, a smaller but very similar fish interchangeably called “oyster trout” or “ling.” And no, neither are from a lake (number of natural lakes in Maryland: zero), nor are they a type of trout. They are both saltwater fish related to cod, as is a fish called hake, which when cut into crosswise slabs is the animal most always used for the mysteriously named “steakfish.”
Both whiting and oyster trout/ling are narrow and quite bony, making them prime candidates for being cooked whole. Indeed one of the joys of a properly prepared lake trout is when the fins and outermost pinbones get the life fried out of them, so that they become crispy, crunch-ity built-in fishy chips. As for maneuvering around the bones within the flesh, the best technique I’ve come up with so far is simply patience and careful chewing. I think it must be a rite of passage in Baltimore to have a needle-y lake trout bone pierce you between your tooth and gum line. Shudder. You can get it boneless too, of course, and in this case it’s often called “whiting,” so just remember, most of the time “lake trout” = bone in, “whiting” = boneless.
When a boneless filet is placed on a roll instead of open-faced on white bread, it becomes a more recognizable fish sandwich. Here in Baltimore, the default fish for such a sandwich is likely to be a piece of pre-formed pollack instead of whiting, and is often topped with American cheese—a “cheese fish sandwich.” A friend who moved to the West Coast told me he tried to order a cheese fish sandwich in San Francisco, whereupon he was informed that they had flounder, salmon, and orange roughy but did not carry “cheese fish.” Silly hippies.
There are lots of places where lake trout is the only seafood, where fried chicken gets first or equal billing. But then there are the truly seafood-oriented places at which lake trout is just one of the many fishes that can be had, fried, steamed, grilled, or what have you. The main differences between fish from a lake trout/chicken place and from a fishmonger usually come down to the coating, and the texture of the fish itself. The former will tend to use a highly seasoned Southern-style cornmeal coating, which is reliably crunchy but perhaps lacking in subtlety, while the latter usually gravitates toward a more floury, batter-style casing. Also, as one insider informed me, fish and chicken joints tend to salt their fish up to a day ahead of time, not only for flavor, but to firm the flesh up and make it less prone to breakage in the fryer. More committed seafood operations tend to season their fish very lightly, presumably to showcase its freshness, and indeed both the flavor and texture of these two stripes of lake trout are pretty distinct.
And then there is a third, even less prominent, but equally treasured Baltimore seafood institution: the coddie. A coddie is salt cod that has been reconstituted in either water or milk, shredded or chopped, and mixed with some sort of filler, usually mashed potatoes. Time was when you could find coddies practically everywhere—supermarkets, delis, I’ve even seen them for sale in gas stations and convenience stores. At these places though, the coddies will almost certainly be the same shape and size as a hockey puck, and will have been reheated from a premade frozen package. They aren’t all that bad really, but they pale in comparison to a real homemade coddie. In fact, if a seafood place happens to sell both types, they will often distinguish the processed hockey pucks from their homemade coddies by calling them “fishcakes.” Moreover, if you’re familiar mostly with the hockey pucks, aside from the superior quality, the sheer variety of homemade coddie recipes out there will astound you, and possibly restore your faith in Baltimore’s rep as a seafood town, as it did mine in compiling the following non-crab cake seafood eater’s guide to Baltimore.
Hit the menu at upper left for a fish rundown, a glossary of terms, a guide to places that fry up fish, and a coddie recipe and fish-frying tips.