Our cheap eating experiences were leading us to believe that the plate-spilling, platter-filling beer-battered fish fry Western New York knows and loves was on its way out.
Restaurants seem to be reluctant to break the $10 price for a fish fry, and we understand that. But even the $9.99 ones we were being served were not the jumbo fish of years past. An inch shorter, an inch narrower, even a half-inch thinner, we were seeing the shrinkage of the mighty fish fry.
The good news: There's a place you can get the fondly remembered fish fry. The bad news is that it's not that big a place, and it serves dinner only on Fridays.
So go prepared to wait in line, or grab a table on the roped-off section of the sidewalk in front of the Towpath Cafe. You can't miss the place. There's diagonal parking on this section of Main Street in the City of Tonawanda, and a big sign in the window says, "The Erie Canal was built by Irish manpower -- Thank You Very Much!"
Those old-time, strong-backed Irish shovel-slingers might feel at home in this place. There are dozens of old photos of the Erie Canal and surrounding areas, as well as drawings and paintings by local artist Ron Stein. Best of all, each table has a small painted sculpture of a canal boat to hold the jelly packets.
But enough ambience. The Friday night menu here is mostly about fish. We saw a burger at a nearby table, and the price of $4.75 seemed an amazing bargain for what was served, but we stuck with the fish.
Dinner includes a cup of soup or salad, and Dan and I enjoyed a mild and hearty cup of the New England chowder, while Ruth and John pronounced their iceberg salads fine and the dressings nicely spiced.
On to the fish. Dan was excited about the Yellow Perch, offered deep fried or broiled for $9, and was not disappointed. The fish was utterly fresh, firm and sweet. "They bring it hot," he said as steam rose from the fillet when he broke it open.
"For seven and a quarter, that's an enormous piece of fish," John said of his beer-battered haddock, $7.25. The potato choices included the usuals as well as Potatoes O'Brien, chunks of spuds cooked in butter and a mild garlic. They were crispy and delicious.
Ruth's Santa Fe Haddock, $7.75, was an unusual preparation, with a spicy salsa under a cheesy layer. She called it good and "spicy hot."
My Italian haddock ($8) was downright delicious. The flaky, skinless haddock was dressed in a sauce of diced tomatoes, onions and green peppers that accented its delicate flavor.
With food this good, we'll be back to try the breakfast menu.
-- Anne Neville
11 Main St., Tonawanda
Review: 3 stars (Out of 4)
The Towpath Cafe is open from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday; from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday; from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday; and from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday. It is handicapped-accessible.