Driving north on Canal Street near Chinatown, one is instinctively drawn to a towering sign that gleams yellow in the pale orange sky. It is not a pair of golden arches, but a rectangular display advertising Lawrence’s Fisheries, a beacon of light and a hub of activity in an otherwise deserted part of town on a Thursday night.
Lawrence’s Fisheries is a fast food restaurant, but one decidedly worth patronizing, especially at this time of year. (Two signs outside read “CHICAGO’S BEST SHRIMP & SEAFOOD SINCE 1950!!” and “LENT GOOD TIME FOR FISH.”) When Lawrence and Eila Schweig founded Schweig Smoked Fish and Lawrence’s Fisheries in 1950, the restaurant occupied a small storefront at its current location. Today, the restaurant has been built up above a large parking lot, like Noah’s Ark or a Sri Lankan stilt house (a conscious reference to fish?), and is accessible only by a steep set of stairs or a series of winding ramps.
Once inside, you are greeted by the smell of frying fish batter cut by astringent citrus Lysol. The clientele is varied–a family dressed in their Maundy Thursday best, a UPS driver, and a couple celebrating their 13th wedding anniversary–but everyone looks happy to be at Lawrence’s. People are lined up along a stretch of countertop between two ordering stations, not quite drooling in anticipation of grabbing the steaming brown bag of freshly fried fish.
While waiting for your order to be called, zone out by watching frogs’ legs bounce around in the hand-cranked breading machine behind the counter. If the wait is marginally longer than at most joints serving unhealthy food, you at least have the satisfaction of bearing witness to the preparation. What distinguishes Lawrence’s from other fried seafood I’ve had, even in cities much closer to the sea, is the crunchy batter coating that is far from the greasy mess of past experiences. In fish frying, as in most things in life, there are tradeoffs that need to be reckoned with. Too thick a batter and the self-important simple carbohydrates threaten to outdo the fish; too thin and the fish is not adequately protected from the boiling oil.
After nearly 60 years of experience, Lawrence’s ought to pride itself on having struck a fine balance. Our fish was well cooked and flavorful without tasting like it had been swimming in Lake Michigan just a few minutes before. If you’ve never had frogs’ legs before and aren’t planning a trip to France in the near future, you might consider ordering a half-pound at Lawrence’s (the smallest amount available–about six pieces). These cuisses de grenouille are decidedly simpler than their continental cousins, but at $6 for a half-pound, they are a low-cost way to expose your palate to foods you didn’t think could be found on the South Side of Chicago. (One customer seemed equally bemused. When I asked him where the frogs’ legs came from, he laughed and shouted, “Frogs!” as if scolding me for asking a silly question. When I clarified that I meant to ask where he thought the frogs came from, he thought for a second and with a smile confessed, “Honestly, I couldn’t tell you.”)
A word of caution about the oysters: they are truly flavor bombs in the style of Grant Achatz. Be careful when biting into one not to squirt hot oyster juice in the face of the person opposite you. Of course, depending on who that person is, it might be to your advantage to forget clemency in favor of a potentially hilarious situation.
At Lawrence’s, it is scary-easy to eat an entire meal consisting of battered, fried food. We ordered fried button mushrooms to accompany our fried catfish, frogs’ legs, and oysters. But don’t let health concerns make you avoid Lawrence’s with a heavy heart. The restaurant, like the Obama administration, seems to have made transparency its number one policy; yet another sign outside advertises “GREAT TASTE & 0% TRANS FAT PER SERVING.” At least if you’re clogging your arteries, you’ll be doing it 100 percent legally at Lawrence’s. And that’s more than can be said for some establishments.
Lawrence’s Fisheries, 2120 S. Canal St. Open 24 hours every day. (312)225-2113 lawrencesfisheries.com