Outside of the skewered Southern favorite, I’ve never felt any real attachment to Penn’s Fish House. Sure, come fair time, people will stand in line for what seems like hours on end just to get a chicken on a stick from Penn’s, but I’ve never been one of those people. I'm actually much more content to avoid the fair altogether. So, with this preface of ambivalence, it begs the question, "why was I eating lunch at Penn's?"
Pulling into the Lakeland Drive location, you can't miss the large sign with Penn's and their catfish mascot. It makes sense that Penn’s Fish House has a cartoon catfish as their logo, after all, the name is Penn's Fish House. Yet no one ever seems to talks about their catfish. I vividly remember being at a event catered by Penn’s and seeing the legions of disappointed faces when they found out the Penn’s trailer was just serving catfish. I suppose it’s a subconscious dedication to fried white meat chicken on a skewer that lead me to the Penn’s Restaurant on Lakeland Drive, because it sure wasn’t the idea of fried catfish.
Inside, the air is tinged with the smell of frying oil, as if everything in the restaurant is covered with a near invisible layer of grease. For lunch, there is the option of a buffet but who goes to Penn’s looking for pork chops, green beans, or other meat and three staples?
Despite my mild dislike for the bottom feeder, I figured the best place to start at Penn’s would be with the catfish.
In the past year or so, I’ve been spoiled when it comes to catfish. It may be hackneyed, but some of the best I have eaten came from Taylor Grocery. Seeing this measly order of catfish strips made me want to hit I-55 immediately.
There’s more breading than actual fish here, certainly much more salt than necessary. With a tiny amount of pepper to play foil to the salt, these are poor examples of the breed. There is a good amount of crispiness to each filet but it’s overall very underwhelming.
The other plate held the reason I paid Penn’s a visit, that plate full of chicken on a stick.
Chunks of white meat chicken, pickles, and onions, all covered in pepper flecked batter and deep fried.
Even the skewer is battered and fried.
Of course, with so many things on one skewer and everything so clumped together, it’s all an overcooked mess.
It’s being generous to say the onions are heavily caramelized; the truth is they’ve been cooked to death.
Those thick clumps of meat and vegetables and heavy batter mean things are still gummy inside. Sure the chicken might be a little juicy, but where’s the fun in picking off the soggy uncooked batter from your fried chicken?
What about that side of hush puppies?
Like the chicken on a stick batter, these hush puppies are dense and quite doughy.
On the plus side, they actually have a nice texture and a taste reminiscent of corn.
Well, there you have it. Penn’s raison d’etre, the chicken on a stick, broken down. It’s a lesson in poor planning. If you want even cooking on your skewers, you don’t mix things of different sizes and densities together on one skewer, much less clump them together in one mass. I imagine people would be quite perplexed to see their chicken on a stick come in three separate parts, but with one stick for chicken, one for pickles, and one for onions, at least everything would be properly cooked. That being said, for all my hemming and hawing, there’s still nothing quite like a Penn’s chicken on a stick to give you that salty, savory satisfaction. Sure, it will lead to regret, guilt, and maybe a visit to your cardiologist, but it’s still damn satisfying to eat.