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Four Stars: Get hooked on batter-fried fish

Roughly 2,000 years ago, when the Early Church Fathers worked out the rules for Lent, they came up with a menu that turned into what we know as the Friday-night fish fry.

Good choice. If eating beer-battered fish is penance, hopefully that means in Heaven there's some beer, too.

Southeast Minnesota, which has more than its share of Friday fish in church basements and VFW clubs at this time of year, has plenty of batter-fried fish options year-round, of course, and I went fishing for the best. I'm here to report that you can't go wrong in any corner of the region, from the Olde Tyme Cafe in Chatfield to Frank-N-Stein in Byron, and from Beetle's Bar & Grill in Rochester to Slippery's in Wabasha.

And honestly, wherever there's a Culver's, there's a great, cheap walleye dinner at this time of year. I know, it's hard to resist the triple-cheese Butter Burger, but I'm a big fan of Culver's seasonal walleye, which for the price is hard to beat.

Last year for Lent, I picked the Four Stars of walleye sandwiches — Beetle's in Rochester, Tilly's in Oronoco, Daniel's restaurant in Kasson and Saints on Second in Rochester. Assuming they have just-as-good fish dinners, I went elsewhere to find four more winners, and it wasn't hard at all.

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Among the winners: Zumbrota's Covered Bridge Restaurant and Sports Bar, which was packed the Friday night my wife and I were there. Owner Jon Stee, who at age 60 has lots of Friday fish frys under his belt — metaphorically — says it's quality ingredients and "employees I have faith in" who make the difference.

"We don't skimp," says Jon, a Zumbrota native and long-time manager at the late-great Sandy Point Supper Club who's owned the Zumbrota restaurant for just a year. "We use good ingredients and I have a good crew of chefs" who put it all together.

What makes bravura batter-fried fish? Preferably it's walleye, in this part of the world, light and flaky, with just a hint of what my wife would call fishiness. Some walleye is almost flavorless; the best still tastes like a shore lunch. The batter should be light, not greasy, and it clings to the fish, rather than falling off in unappetizing chunks.

The Covered Bridge, Liberty's in Red Wing, Fisherman's Inn in Oronoco and the always-dependable Canadian Honker in Rochester easily met the test. I'm hooked on all of them.

Agree or disagree? Send a note and tell me what you think. Next week I'll run another column with your tips on where to find the best batter-fried fish. (Later this year, we'll pick the Four Stars of batter-less fish -- the freshest fish with the freshest preparations in area restaurants.

Next month, just in time for Mother's Day, we'll pick the Four Stars of Sunday brunch. Tell me some of your favorites for glorious brunch buffets and we'll check them out. Those stars will be awarded on Tuesday, May 3.

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