Cleveland; a city that on any given block in the area you are within walking distance to a Fish Fry during the Catholic Season of Lent. It’s a fact. Growing up the Cleveland Friday Magazine was loaded with ads and suggestions of the best Fish Fry for Lent. The local church would have one (my church St. Raphael’s never did one). Parma? Yeah, every single corner for the most part. Pierogies and Fish are the staple of the Polish Catholic Friday diet. I remember, for the most part, we would go to the cheap joints like Arthur Treacher’s over in Rocky River but occasionally we would find a church to hit up. We were after all devout Catholics growing up and meat was a complete no-no.
I think everyone has written a piece on the Cleveland Fish Fry since the dawn of the printing press. So, I battled with becoming a cliche, and then decided yep, that’s me. On the other hand, El Carnicero is known for amazing Mod-Mex so why not go to a place I would rather get tacos over perch? To El Carnicero’s credit though they have quite a few dishes that are vegan, vegetarian or just outright fish. So it’s not like I had to get the fish fry, and to be completely honest I’m not really Catholic either so truth be told I could have gotten anything on the menu. For me the Fish Fry is more on a nostalgia thing more than anything anyhow. It’s not about my relationship with my lord and savior. It’s more about that fresh Lake Erie Perch and thinking about my traditions growing up.
So we started out with the Guacamole Sampler. Three large portions of freshly prepared avocado goodness. guacamole | goat cheese + tomato + chile poblano, guacamole | jicama + pineapple + mint | chile habanero, guacamole | smoked trout + bacon | chile poblano. The sampler runs $19.50, and honestly it’s a meal for two. By the time I was done eating it, never mind forgetting there was bacon in the one (mortal sin), I started feeling Catholic guilt much like when I ditched the 4pm Saturday Mass to go make out with high school chicks on the playground. It’s all good, this wasn’t last week (fucking pervs). I swear I was in high school too. I just grabbed a bulletin like it was a concert program to prove I actually went to my mom and dad. Back to the Guac though. Spectacular flavors. The Goat cheese was smooth, fresh and creamy. The Pineapple balances out sweet and heat like no other, and the smoked trout bacon is just loaded with salty, smokey chunks of love. The fresh chips, were crisp and lightly salty and served warm.
The fish fry was great, even though I didn’t even want to eat it I was so damn full. It’s Lake Erie Perch. Fresh, Lake Erie Perch. When the 40+ pounds of perch runs out it is 86’ed until the next week. I have seen so many other places advertising “FRESH LAKE ERIE PERCH” and they are blasphemers. You can tell FRESH LAKE ERIE PERCH from frozen perch. It’s tender with a light flake to it. Frozen is flaky. There is absolutely 100% a difference when it comes to fresh and frozen perch. Sure, there are some places that still do fresh perch, but Chef Williams does it really good. Batter dipped and fried to golden perfection and served with Slim Jim fries drizzled with chimichurri sauce and a light dusting of Cotija Cheese. Maybe it is because I am a purist, or it could be the fact I am an ungrateful dick, but they serve it with Chipotle tartar sauce. It was fine. It was actually really good, but fuck me I love old fashioned tartar sauce. That part of the meal killed a small part of my childhood, but I am already over it.
El Carnicero is great food. It’s bold flavors. It’s not your normal Mexican joint. It’s not heating lamp sloppy Chi Chi’s giant plates of bland nothingness. It is great food, reasonably priced, with normal portions. It’s about creative and fresh flavors. There is absolutely nothing wrong with Don Pablo, or El Rodeo, or Cozumel, or El Jalapeno, or Si Senor. I get that those restaurants, for some, are the measuring stick for fine Mexican chow in Cleveland, but they aren’t truly 5 star. What they really are is sadly interchangeable. Williams with Momocho and El Carnicero are pretty damn close to that 5 Star though and super unique.
Yelp Reviewer “Jared H” from Canton (with one and only review) said “Won’t be back for sure. First Mexican restaurant I had to pay for the salsa.” Well, Jared, you pay for that Salsa at the other places too but it’s built into the $12.00 tacos you are eating that are worth about $3.00. Meghan D said “Really disappointing trip! We ordered empanadas to split and mine had a huge dark hair baked into it.” It’s actually called Corn Silk, and it’s on fresh corn, that they use in the kitchen, when it doesn’t come from a can.
Janine D. on Zomato wins hands down though with her review which is absolutely the perfect example of the person El Carnicero does not cater to: “Waited an hour for a table that we had called in and reserved (Well, seeing how they don’t take reservations that is interesting). They don’t give you chips and salsa (cheap hillbilly) and their margaritas couldn’t get a fish drunk (lush) they are so small (standard 8 ounce highball glass, not the giant high class shushie ones she is used to). I ordered chicken tacos and they gave me a chunk of meat and some sides and some tortillas. Excuse me I didn’t come to a restaurant to make my own food especially not for those prices (Go back to Taco Bell sweetie)! They don’t even have queso on their menus (There is a $2.00 corkage fee for you to bring your fucking Cheez Whiz with you next time, just ask to use the microwave to heat it up) 😳 Not for a person who loves traditional Mexican food (Chi Chi’s).