No matter your religion, if you live in Milwaukee, it's tough to deny Catholicism's most delicious contribution to a shared culinary experience: the fish fry.
The creators of this dish used Jesus' wish that his people not eat meat on Fridays during Lent as an excuse to make incredible recipes for perch, haddock, bluegill, and walleye that both the secular and God-fearing have continued to push into their faces for years, lenten season or not.
Agreement over who does it perfectly is about as nonexistent as hard evidence showing it was really bishops in cahoots with the fishing industry—and not God's will—that brought the tradition to life. But it's tough to find a place that fries fish better than Fritz's Pub on the city's Southwest side, where Steve Djuric and his extended family have been feeding people for nearly 40 years.
Fritz's menu originally included only a few plates: burgers, steak sandwiches, brats, as well as dishes tied to their Serbian roots like kebab and burek. But Djuric's father, Dragoslav was known for cooking the occasional Serbian feast when the place first opened, so word got out fast about the food.
The restaurant squats amid a collection of factories, on the only green block between I-43 and St. Luke's Medical Center—excluding the nearby cemetery. On a Friday afternoon, the smell of fryer oil venting from its kitchen erases the hint of sulfur in the air emanating from the variety of steel-related enterprise fading around it. If it's sunny out, the place looks like it was built for the sole and joyous purpose of serving the victors and those they have defeated leaving the baseball fields behind its parking lot. But when the weather's grey, it's more like a lighthouse beckoning you to safety in the middle of industrial depression. The lone descriptor on its sign, "Char-Broiled Food," probably isn't enough to distinguish it from the hundreds of other bars that seem to occupy every other corner in Milwaukee.
Sometime in the mid 1990s, Steve tried his hand at cooking fish—having acquired his father's business in partnership with his brother and sister—using a recipe he made up himself and perfected over the following few years with his family. He wasn't picky about the protein: Djuric says they've gone back and forth between haddock and cod, never skimping on quality, but never jumping to "really nice stuff, like Icelandic. I don't need that. We're not trained, we go according to our taste."
Fish selection's been more or less the same since the 1990s there, either cod or haddock. Prices have gone up a bit, but the tradition's been more or less the same. Sustainability's never been a factor in why they order the product they do.
"When I first had a fish fry in here, I was experimenting with it, what would taste better," he says. "I put this in, and that in, and we kept tweaking it until it was just right. My sister makes our rye bread because we couldn't find any decent bread at the time we started this; same thing with the coleslaw dressing. We're like perfectionists. If you're going to cook something and eat it, why not put some flavor in it?"
He maintains that their recipe has become so popular because of its humble origin. The batter's made with basic ingredients in a secret ratio designed for ultimate crispiness. The tartar sauce is sweeter, thinner, and spiced differently than your standard mix of mayo and relish, which Djuric will tell you "tastes like crap."
He doesn't drop his fish in the fryer: He hangs it on a steel rack Dragoslav welded together himself before passing away, lowering huge, separated pieces of cod into the oil to keep them from sticking to one another.
When I ask him what he can tell me about his recipe for his batter and his tartar, his answer's curt: "Not a lot."
"We're open only two days. We do the fish every Friday, and then use Saturday to clean up," Djuric says. "We paid the place off a long time ago. Most of us in the family are semi-retired. My mother, who was an extreme saver, died three days after her 93rd birthday last year, 45 minutes into the next month. She just wanted to squeeze in one more social security check—the fish fry pays for the place's remaining expenses."
Today, Fritz's is only open 12 hours a week, 1 PM through 9 PM on Fridays, and noon until 4 PM on Saturdays—down from the hundred hours a week it ran in the 1980s and 1990s. But you can bet it packs up during the first eight.
"We keep doing it because it keeps us in touch with our roots," Djuric says. "If you don't remember where you came from, you don't know where you're going. That's what my dad always told us."