Here in St. Louis, our Roman Catholic churches raise money during Lent by hosting Fish Fries for their parishioners and the public is welcome, too. Parish volunteers cook and serve the dinners, which are priced low enough to be appealing to families but still make a tidy profit for the churches. A lot of the parishes also sell beer at their fish fries – I mean, seriously, this is St. Louis, home of A-B In-Bev, where Beer is a food group in and of itself.
The most popular fish fry, and arguably the best in town, is at St. Cecilia’s Catholic Church in South St. Louis, located in a predominantly Spanish-speaking neighborhood near Highway 55 and Bates. The St. Cecilia’s Original Mexican Fish Fry is more than a parish event; it’s a destination. I had the pleasure of attending last Friday. It was my first time and an experience I won’t soon forget.
St. Cecilia’s opens at 4:30pm on Fridays during Lent but the line forms early in the afternoon. The Fish Fry continues to serve until around 9pm, but the line closes closer to 6:30pm. I got there with my daughter, Meg, and her friend, Victoria, just before six. We got in line in time but it wasn’t long before the official “end of the line” sign appeared behind us. The line snaked around the parking lot and onto the sidewalk alongside the school and sanctuary.
Our St. Cecilia’s Original Mexican Fish Fry experience began on the sidewalk where upper-school students rolled carts loaded with bottled water and soft drinks down the line, selling them to thirsty patrons. Another group sold cheese tamales from a steam cart on the parking lot. These were warm, spicy and delectable and went a long way to stave off hunger pangs while waiting for more than two hours in line. During the month of March, the parish’s Girl Scouts and Brownies also sell cookies outside the building and, last Friday, they sold out by 7pm.
Everyone knows about the long wait and the conventional wisdom is, “It’s worth the wait.” The crowd was genial – people tend to mix and mingle in line. Kids chase each other on the parking lot. Folks are kind to the elderly and infirm and let them move ahead, especially in less-than-ideal weather. But last Friday, the weather was warm and a party atmosphere prevailed.
As hte queue crept forward, one of the cooks came down the line with samples of their fried shrimp and the verdict was unanimous – delicious! We finally made it inside the cafeteria by a few minutes to eight, but once inside found that the line circumnavigated the tables. We had several more minutes to wait until we could place our order. But the party was underway even as we waited. Adult volunteers were selling Mexican beers, by the can or by the pitcher. Chips and salsa were also available to those in line. There was a photographer in one corner who, for a donation to the school fund, would take your photo with sombreros and maracas. In the center of the room were a small wooden stage and a troupe of young girls dressed in traditional Mexican costumes performing folk dances. A Mariachi band also played for the crowd.
We ordered our dinners and found a place at one of the long cafeteria tables. Dinners included two entrees and two side dishes for $11.00. The entrée choices included fried cod, jack salmon, fried shrimp, chile rellenos, bean tostadas, and cheese quesadillas; the side dishes we chose from were Spanish rice, refried beans, French fries, macaroni and cheese, and coleslaw. Tea and lemonade were complimentary with our meals.
As we sat down to wait for our food, a group at the next table prepared to leave. They’d brought along bottles of Margaritas but hadn’t finished their last bottle. They gave it to us as they left and we happily accepted. Meg, Victoria and I mixed up our entrees and sides so we could try all of them. No one was disappointed. Each item was as good as or better than the one before and the portions were generous. My favorite was the refritos – the texture was velvety and the succulent flavor lingered on my tongue.
This parish was founded in 1906 and the original church was dedicated in 1908, when this neighborhood was primarily Dutch. The beautiful sanctuary that is the current church building laid its cornerstone in 1926. But as the Scrubby Dutch moved west, the church went into decline. It was nearly closed in the 1990’s due to low membership. But in 2005, it was designated as the “personal parish for Hispanics” by the then-Archbishop of St. Louis. Now, both the school and the church enjoy strong support from their Spanish-speaking parishioners.
Any visit to St. Louis would not be complete without a tour of the amazing St. Cecilia’s.