Wait, They Can Do Fish?
Arby's Hushpuppy Breaded Fish Strips
Fast food fish is generally the province of spring (i.e., Lent, in the lead up to Easter). During that time of year, every fast food joint has to put out their version of a Fish Sandwich. This is, of course, because there's that pesky rule that certain people about not eating meat on certain days and so forth, but fish is "safe" (this ignores the fact that not eating meat was supposed to be, really, not "indulging" and eating fast food, even fast food fish, is still "indulging", but we're not here to debate religion). Thus, fish offerings come all the time in the Spring.
Which is what makes it weird that Arby's just introduced Hushpuppy Breaded Fish Strips. It's the dead of Summer, a time of year not traditionally associated with fast food fish. There is an argument to be made that Summer is a great time for fish as it's a lighter meat that don't weigh down the stomach and make the eater feel gross meat sweats. I actually think (religion notwithstanding) Summer is a great time for fish eating so, in that regard, the new offering from Arby's is a fantastic idea.
The fact is, though, that this is Arby's. The company has done a solid job reinventing themselves over the last decade-plus as, at one point, they felt like the lesser fast food joint. "Come for our roast beef because we can't cook good burgers." That wasn't their motto but it's what many of my friends thought and, anecdotally, it did seem like most people dismissed Arby's as trash (the running gag on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart is a prime example). But the company worked hard to change their image and go from "shit sandwiches" to "we have the meats," and now they are, frankly, one of the better joints out there. Still... fish? Would you trust Arby's to make you fish? This was a question I pondered as I went to an Arby's on a long Saturday drive, ready to sample the fish strips as I drove across the state under the afternoon sun.
Arby's describes the fish strips and fries (an obvious play on fish and chips) as "premium Pollock strips, battered in a crispy hushpuppy breading and deep fried." It's a limited time offering so, for now, don't expect to get these once the season is over. If you're feeling the desire for fish and want to see what Arby's has, don't expect these to be around for Lent as, who knows, this may or may not make a return by then. I don't particularly care bout religion, or seasoning foods. I do like fish and chips, however, so (along with a jalapeno roast beef slider) I grabs this combo as a lunch on the road. The easy pieces, I reasoned, would be simply to eat on my drive. And, thankfully, they were.
For the record, whatever else Arby's gets right with this meal, the fish strips smell like fish. I didn't notice when I opened the box, but I like to put my face in my food when I'm doing reviews, just to see if the food smells as good (or as bad) as it tastes. In this case, the fish smells exactly like the smell you expect from fast food pollock. As it: bad. It smells like old fish, not rancid but there's that fish fragrance that will put some people off. If you're getting these for someone picky about fish, they'll immediately smell it and say "no." Trust me on that.
With that said, the smell is the only part of the meal that's bad. The flavor, on the other hand, was fantastic. The first bite was probably the blandest, I'll note, because the flavor takes time to build. The strips have a nice crunch to them, something I noticed on that first bite, and immediately I tasted salt and white fish. It wasn't bad, but it didn't stand out. However, as I chewed that first bite the flavor of the hushpuppy mix started to come through. More salt, a bit of corn, and light seasoning. It was very good at that point.
More impressive, though, was the lingering flavor. Whatever blend of herbs and spices Arby's uses in the hushpuppy mix -- I'm guessing at least black pepper -- comes through on the back end. I swallowed that first bite but the happy flavors continued to build. The salt, the pepper, the other flavors all lingered and added a nice symphony to my mouth. It was, quite frankly, delicious. I snacked my way through the three-piece meal I got and was pleasantly surprised the whole way through. Honestly I enjoyed the fish more than the roast beef I had as well.
I think what struck me the most was the fact that the fish was moist without dripping, crispy but not greasy. Some of that might be down to the cooks working the line at the store I visited, as they did a good job preparing this fish offering fresh (I ended up waiting a few minutes for the fish to get cooked to order), but I think the credit is also due to the food designers at the Arby's labs (or whatever they call their main kitchens -- Beefstop? Beefapalooza? The Big Moo-ple?). They engineered breading that doesn't suck up grease. The fish was light and tasty but protected from being overly oily.
My main comparison is Long John Silvers, the big name in fast food fish. I've eaten at Long John's a couple of times and I have to say that every time I get their food it's absolutely dripping in grease. Their fish strips and their chicken planks are the worst, with grease oozing out of their thick, gross breading. Arby's avoided that with the hushpuppy coating, and the cut of fish they've used, and it works brilliantly. I hate going to Long John's at this point, but I would get the Arby's fish strips again.
Now, do note that the store I was at didn't offer any kind of tartar sauce or other dips for the fish, and since they didn't offer I didn't ask. The images of the meal show it served not just with fries (of which I got their crinkle-cut because I don't like the seasoning on their curly fries) and tartar sauce. I wanted a pure offering so if the restaurant is supposed to give you tartar and they didn't, that's on the place I went to. However, the strips absolutely didn't need it so I don't feel like I missed out. If you're the kind that has to have tarter sauce, though, make sure to ask for it when you go to Arby's.
And, honestly, the fries were the least interesting part of the meal. Yes, fish and chips needs the chips, so I don't begrudge their inclusion. With that said, I could absolutely just snack on a three-piece of strips on their own and I'd be happy. These, plus a couple of other a la carte items from the menu (a buffalo slider, a jamoca shake) would be my perfect combo. I like to pick and choose my fast food snacks and this would be a great addition to the selection there.
If this is a test run before the fish becomes a permanent offering on the menu, the Arby's nailed it. Hopefully more people try these fishy bits so Arby's is encouraged to bring them back. Whether as a Summer offering, a return for Lent, or just something Arby's always has around, these strips proved themselves to be a winner. They get my personal endorsement, and I would encourage you to try them, if you like fish, before these strips disappear from the menu.