Lesson one if you’re going to a fish market: Don’t be the girl in the linen dress, heels and oh-so-cute dark-rimmed glasses. Because you’re going to stand out like a sore thumb.
I had run over to Johnny’s Fish Market after a meeting to have lunch with my friend Paige. Paige was a little late, so I stood awkwardly to one side while the regulars gave me the eye and briskly stepped up to order fresh and fried orders of seafood to go.
I don’t know why there are so many fish markets in the South Augusta area. Growing up, that’s always where my family would go to order whole fried catfish, bone in, brought home in Styrofoam boxes. We kids would be in heaven – it was something my family never cooked at home, and we would pick at the fish with our fingers to get every bit of delicious meat off those bones.
Johnny’s, which is on Peach Orchard Road, is both a restaurant and a fish market, where you can order meals, plus fresh seafood and meats cooked to order – fried or steamed. It’s an unusual combination of the seafood you might expect, along with unexpected meats like frog legs and alligator. They also offer Chinese fried chicken wings and several varieties of fried rice.
The combination seems to work. On this Friday at lunchtime, the market was hopping. The two men working the register were taking order after order, and handing out slips of paper with numbers. Ladies were peering down at the ice in the huge display case to examine fresh whole fish and point out their choices to an array of young men, who then slapped the fish on trays, in readiness to be scaled and cleaned before heading to the fryer or steamer. And happy customers were walking out with bags full of Styrofoam cartons, or like us, finding a seat in the small dining area.
Johnny’s offers a lunch special until 4 p.m. that features fried fish with either fries and cole slaw or shrimp fried rice for only $5.59 (plus tea!). Fish available that day included perch, flounder, whiting, catfish, tilapia, mullet, bream and croaker, both with or without bones.
Other lunch specials, with different types of fish were also available, for about a dollar more. Meals and house specials include shrimp, oysters, scallops, frog legs, wings or chicken strips, available with the same side options. Another special that day that caught my eye – a box of garlic butter crab legs for only $11.99.
Once Paige arrived (she was smart, and wore jeans), we had a quick discussion and both decided to go for the classic lunch special: Paige ordered the flounder, and I decided to try the tilapia, bone in.
“It’s better with the bones,” the cashier said with a nod. We both ordered the fries and slaw as well.
Taking our teas, we grabbed the very last table available, a tiny thing flush against the wall, with two chairs side by side, facing the wall. A bit awkward, but soon one of the booths vacated and we quickly moved over to that.
We gabbed away for the 15 minutes or so it took for our food to be prepared (the market was loud with sounds of chopping, rinsing, scraping and frying) and then the cashier called out our numbers over the loudspeaker, first mine, then Paige’s a couple of moments later.
When we popped open our Styrofoam boxes, they were filled side to side with hot, fat fries, topped by the fried fish, with small cups of cole slaw and tartar sauce tucked next to them. It was a huge amount of food …the fries alone would equal nearly triple an order of fries from your typical fast food restaurant.
Paige gave me a small fillet and I picked off a nice tail piece for her to try. Then we dug in.
I hate how in some fish places, you can taste the oil in the food (and the many other meals that have been cooked in the same oil). This had none of that taste, just good, fresh fish, with a moist and flavorful fried coating of seasoned cornmeal/flour.
The bone-in tilapia was good, but I admit, pretty hard to eat, with just a thin coating of meat before you hit bone. But I loved Paige’s flounder, all firm, white meat, brightened by the thin white tartar sauce. The cole slaw was just the usual, and the fries were slightly crisp on the outside and soft on the inside, just the way I like them.
I finished the fish, but barely made a dent in the fries before I was done.
As we rolled on out, business was still brisk, and no wonder. Johnny’s has a great business model – good, fresh food, cooked to order, and large quantities of it. I already had my next meal mapped out – fried fish, fillet this time, and I definitely wanted to try some of their fried rice. But next time, it would be jeans all the way.