When it comes to Kentucky and fast food, chicken gets all the glory. Folks can be forgiven—at Long John Silver's, it's nowhere in the name as it is at that other fried food haven. But the 48-year-old chain did spring to life in Lexington, Kentucky.
But this story really starts in Greenwich, Connecticut in the late 1980s. That's when the only Long John Silver's for vast miles closed shop (it was briefly replaced by a Popeye's, then a series of Chinese-Japanese fusion restaurants), leaving a very young me with nothing but battered-and-fried memories. But the fond recollections remained, of the life-size effigy of the eponymous pirate by the door, of the batter, of the enveloping odor of frying fish.
I returned to a Long John Silver's for the first time in almost 30 years on Sunday, and like an old friend, it was as if no time had passed. The aroma was the same, like a beer batter that likely included no beer. To quote Proust would be cheap and obvious, but I was plunged back into the '80s so intensely, I could almost see the Willow movie posters surrounding me. Service was relaxed at best, in fact, I had to wait several moments for someone to come to the counter at all. Apparently, this was somehow the fault of Tanisha, whom other employees who did show up to work that day loudly defamed throughout my meal.
Dinner and a show? I was basically in fast food heaven. I had thought for decades about what I would order when the captain and I were finally reunited. It would be Chicken Planks, my favorite as a kid, not fish, because fast food fish...ew. But there was a combo that included both, so I took the plunge. The last time I was similarly excited about a meal, it came with a Michelin star.
My vision may be blurred by nostalgia, but this was quality fast food. First, I was surprised to find the fish itself to be neither overcooked nor slimy as I'd feared. Both it and the chicken were in a jacket of malty, heavily seasoned batter thick enough to be simultaneously crunchy and chewy but not doughy. The hushpuppies had an oddly vegetal taste that I didn't appreciate, but if I wanted to eat plain dough, I was in luck. Maiden shards of batter were piled so high they almost appeared to be rice. I sprinkled them over the buttery corn, sadly not on the cob as it was when I was a kid.
But I was particularly surprised by the quality of the mac 'n' cheese. Since leaving Vermont, I've found most versions of the dish to be bland. But the cheddar in the admittedly mushy mac at Long John Silver's was surprisingly sharp. And nostalgia can't create that.
Fast Firsts is an occasional series in which our New England-born food critic tries Texas-favorite fast food for the first time. Have suggestions? Let us know at [email protected]