We’re continuing our week-long look at Buffalo’s definitive foods…
You can get a fish fry in other places, but Western New York is the only place you can get a Buffalo Fish Fry.
What that usually means for most of us is a giant piece of haddock covered thick, golden and crispy beer batter, tartar sauce, a lemon wedge, french fries, and hopefully more than one salad like coleslaw or potato salad. And the best fish fries have a piece of seeded rye bread thrown in on top.
This Buffalo Friday night staple at VFW Halls, Holy Name Dinners, and neighborhood taverns has been evolving into our current expectation for generations and generations.
The first place Buffalo flocked to go out for a fish fry was Richie Roth’s fish house. He was the city’s renown expert fisherman, and he started frying it up in his ramshackle shed on the banks of the Erie Canal at the foot of Hudson Street sometime around 1900.
Today, the spot is covered by the baseball diamonds you can see from the 190 in LaSalle Park. That part of the 190 was built in the bed of the Erie Canal.
The shack which was condemned more than once still played host to politicians, musicians, and plain old working people. Those fishing boats were good for more than just bringing in fresh-caught Lake Erie fish– even during Prohibition, the beer flowed freely at Richie Roth’s.
Buffalo’s brewer Mayor Francis X. Schwab, who himself faced federal charges in the production of “near-beer” that was over the legal alcohol limit, lauded Roth after an inspection of his fish shack in 1922.
“This vice talk is all bunk,” Schwab told The Buffalo Commercial. “(Police Captain) Jimmy Higgins didn’t see a thing wrong. There’s no law against eating fish, I guess.” He called it “a nice place.”
The Courier-Express called Richie Roth’s “the best fish fry in the world.” He spent decades arguing with the city over his right to stay in the shack he’d worked out of for more than 40 years. He died in 1948.
Before 1960, any good fish fry was made with blue pike. Once the most ubiquitous and tasty fish of Lake Erie, the blue pike was over-fished and saw competition from invasive species such as rainbow smelt.
As the blue pike grew more rare, Buffalonians began to acquire a taste for the haddock fish fry, which is a good thing. By the 1970s, the blue pike was generally accepted as extinct.