The Best Fish Sticks

Last time Patrick’s Grandma Pat was in town, I made some of my yummy shrimp-and-rice bake. It took her one bite to detect the chicken stock — oops! “Just make me a fish stick next time,” she said. “Like what you give the kids.” So, for this next visit, Patrick and I went looking for the best.

Van de Kamp’s Extra Large Crunchy Fish Sticks (23 oz., $6.49 at Vons). The crunchy, not-too-greasy texture of the coating was a big hit, as was the slightly sweet taste. We thought the fish inside was a bit mushy, but there was so little of it that it didn’t really matter.

Fisher Boy Fish Sticks (24 oz., $5.99 at Vons). I actually spit mine out. “The texture is like little hairs made out of fish!” I cried. “It’s like chemical warfare in my mouth!” said Patrick. And the batter was dry. No child would ever want to eat fish after growing up on these.

Gorton’s Crunchy Breaded Fish Sticks (11.4 oz., $5.99 at Vons). They weren’t kidding when they said “crunchy.” I could feel the slightly sweet coating crack in my mouth. The fish inside was a bit mealy, however, and light on flavor. “But does it really matter?” asked Patrick. “They’re just vehicles for ketchup, anyway.”

Trader Joe’s Reduced-Fat Fish Sticks (16 oz., $4.99 at Trader Joe’s). These wore an armor of crisp batter that, while ungreasy, proved too heavy for Patrick. The fish texture was good — somewhere between mealy and flaky — but it was without flavor. “Good for kids,” he opined.

Ian’s Panko-Crusted Fish Sticks (8 oz., $5.69 at Whole Foods). Patrick thought the breadcrumb crust was “aggressive.” He added, “The fish was too rich for me. Heavy. I wouldn’t need a lot. I can’t believe it’s pollock.” But I liked it — the substantial fish stood up to the coating and made the sticks feel like a meal instead of a snack.

Trident Ultimate Fish Sticks (15 oz., $6.99 at Henry’s). The batter was crisp but crumbly and not at all greasy. A touch of black-pepper spice lingered in the mouth and made the stick seem grown up, without obscuring the fresh-fish flavor. Inside, everything was juicy and tender — pollock like it oughta be.

Captain Jac Fish & Chips (26 oz., $7.99 at Vons). Swathed in the thickest batter of the bunch, these provided a good, crisp bite. They were greasy, but yummy-greasy. Still, we could see it getting heavy after one or two. The fish was substantial, but the dry fillets broke apart without tenderness, and an unpleasant aftertaste lingered in their wake.

Van de Kamp’s Crispy Fish Tenders (18.1 oz., $6.49 at Vons). Several stuck to the pan when we tried to flip them, so we lost some of the batter and fish. Like its fish-stick counterpart of the same brand, it was more batter than fish. Happily, what fish there was proved to be a proper moist filet that separated gently when bitten.

Gorton’s Pub-Style Beer-Batter Tenders (17.3 oz., $7.99 at Vons). We liked the mid-range thickness of the batter, and the flavor of it was so light — almost airy! Just enough mild fish flavor.

Earth’s Best Fish-Shaped Nuggets (8 oz., $4.99 at Whole Foods). The shape delighted the kids, but everyone was distressed by the heavy, grainy batter that went pebbly when chewed. “Maybe cornmeal doesn’t freeze well,” guessed Patrick. The fish inside was tasteless. “It’s reconstituted mush!” said our oldest.

Trader Joe’s Fish Nuggets (16 oz., $3.99 at Trader Joe’s). Nice rectangular, squat nugget. Beer-battered smell. Chunky fish with thinnest layer of batter yet — wafer-thin, like a wrapper. Fish was identifiably fish-flavored without being fishy. Good for kids, good for grown-ups — an easy favorite.

Our verdict: I liked the Trident fish sticks best because of their sophistication, followed by the rich Ian’s fish sticks and the Trader Joe’s nuggets. Patrick also gave top nod to the T.J. nuggets — also the clear winner on value — followed by the Trident sticks and the Gorton nuggets. We’re ready for Grandma Pat.

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Yuck. I will not eat fish sticks. Not after a consulting gig in Dutch Harbor, Alaska. A company named UNISEA bottom trawls (think underwater strip mining) the seas of the northern Pacific Ocean. In the process, they kill tens of thousands of “by-catch” (things they don’t want), octopus, birds, and many other animals that they just throw back.

Pollock is what they are seeking. It used to be considered a “trash” fish, but it is not what you find in most fast-food fish sandwiches and fish tacos as Rubio’s or El Pollo Loco. It is made into a product called “surimi” that is used to make fake crab, or “Krab” products. 90% of American surimi is exported to Japan.

Fish sticks are not filet of fish, but the product of scraps that are swept from the floors of the processing ships and the scraps left over from punching out Pollock filets and the fish mulch from surimi. It is the ground beef of the fish world. Just worse.

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