Every time we write about fried seafood or lobster rolls here on From Away, we count the minutes until someone responds with something along the lines of, “Sure, those lobster rolls at The Lobster Shack at Two Lights or at the “Bite Into Maine” cart are fine, with their ocean spray and their scenery and their sunshine, but you haven’t had good seafood until you’ve visited Susan’s Fish & Chips.”
We’ve resisted the recommendation until now, mainly because we’ve never been able to imagine a ton of overlap between the terms “Outer Forest Avenue” and “Fresh Seafood.” In spite of the numerous recommendations we received from readers, we just couldn’t imagine choosing to eat a fried clam roll while bathing in carbon monoxide exhaust and listening to trucks downshift, when Maine has so many miles of rocky coastline, lighthouses, and seaside lobster pounds scattered around where we can enjoy our favorite Summertime fare outside.
Jillian: Forest Ave is a peculiar place for a fish shack, I thought, sifting through my expectations. “I’m not sure I want to go in there,” was my first thought. “That’s not the kind of eater, the kind of person I want to be,” was the thought that immediately followed. I do want to be adventurous and open-minded though, wherever I am, especially in my own backyard.
Sandwiched between an enormous car wash and a radiator repair shop, Susan’s doesn’t exude the kind of charm that visitors from out-of-state necessarily picture, when they imagine a vacation in Maine. Built in a converted garage, Susan’s Fish & Chips blends in beautifully with the other hardscrabble businesses on Forest Avenue, if not other restaurants in town. A washed out, faded, Pepsi-branded plastic sign announces the business, and there are a few parking spaces in front of the building, the facade hand-painted with fish.
Step through the front door, and the restaurant opens up into a huge room with a bit of a warehouse vibe; a long counter and food prep area makes up the left third of the restaurant, with the rest of the space given over to a few blue-painted, somewhat sticky outdoor picnic tables. The counter is lined with fluorescent yellow and pink posterboard signs, hand-lettered in black magic marker with seasonal specialties, and the walls and steel-beamed ceiling are decorated with with old oars, a rowboat, fishing nets, and buoys. The overall effect is that of standing in the middle of a shipwreck-in-progress, presided over by a life-size stuffed monkey wearing rubber boots.
Susan’s Fish & Chips has a distinct “locals only” atmosphere, where you would expect to be treated with only the barest courtesy by the staff. Instead, the counterperson patiently waited while I read my order off the giant menu board, and delivered our order to our picnic table with a smile. A smile, and a quart-sized mason jar filled with tartar sauce.
Jillian: Susan’s is a locals-only joint, where framed puzzles forming pictures of ships, stained glass, hanging tin mermaids, and other seaworthy flotsam keeps the diner from feeling like you’re in the middle of a rush hour intersection. Sunlight filters in, hovering above the few tables and open kitchen.
We started with a “small” size portion of Susan’s “Award Winning” (the award itself is not specified) Clam Chowder ($2.99). It’s delicious, though pretty standard-issue stuff: Served in a styrofoam cup with a package of oyster crackers, featuring a cream-and-clam-stock broth that is almost too thick, that almost rounds the corner into gumminess. The chowder, served at a temperature greater than any other food I have ever encountered, is packed with clams and chunks of cubed potatoes, which I was happy to see were not overcooked and mushy. That’s no small feat when you are cooking clam chowder in the quantities being prepared at Susan’s, and at under three bucks, was a real bargain.
Jillian: I think it’s safe to say that nobody likes a watery chowder. If I wanted a fish soup that was thin and brothy, I’d move to Rhode Island. The New England clam chowder at Susan’s is way, way at the other end of the chowder spectrum. This stuff is thick, viscous and creamy. It was hot and slow like lava – delicious, briny lava. Now that I write that sentence, I realize I don’t know if lava is slow. Maybe it’s fleet and mean as it looks, or maybe, like zombies, it can go either way. Don’t take my word on any of this, and please, do your own research before venturing into volcano, or zombie territory.
So, the chowder. You can stand your spoon straight up in the cup, even before you add crackers. Crushed up oyster crackers are key in the chowder biz, at least around these parts, adding another dimension of texture to contrast and complement the cream. Susan’s gets points for perfectly cooked cubes of potato and bits of clam that in no way resemble pencil erasers. They impart great flavor, and nothing more. It was easy like Sunday afternoon, a really nice example of classic New England fare.
We also tried a fried clam strip “Dinnah” ($9.99), served with french fries and coleslaw in a cardboard basket. The clams were expertly fried, with the lightest crumb coating clinging to the outside of each strip, adding the perfect amount of crunch and texture to the sweet, briny clams. The french fries were excellent, as well, fried shoestrings that were crispy on the outside, while staying soft and fluffy on the inside. I dipped everything in spoonful after spoonful of Susan’s tartar sauce, which was perfectly tangy and studded with plenty of sweet pickles. Susan’s serves its tartar sauce by the jarful, which I am thankful for, as it prevents me from having to sheepishly ask for more mayonnaise to slather onto my seafood.
We also ordered a basket of fried haddock, served with french fries and coleslaw for $9.99. Jillian and I didn’t see eye-to-eye on this fried seafood basket at all; I loved the huge hand-breaded haddock fillet, cooked until just barely, perfectly opaque, and coated in a light, crispy batter. She kept mentioning again and again the strong margarine flavor in the dredge, which I didn’t get quite so hung up on. It was an ideal vehicle for more of the house tartar sauce, though the fish would have been improved by a squeeze of fresh lemon.
Jillian: I get it; I get this place now. If we found it on our way down south, if we turned off the highway and drove through town, away from the fast food chains of crowns and arches, if this was a lunch stop on a cross country road trip, we’d love it here, and reminisce about its folksy flavor, fresh food, friendly people, and handmade signage all afternoon, already nostalgic for the time gone by.
Overall, if you don’t live or work nearby, it’s easy to imagine overlooking Susan’s Fish & Chips. Unless you have some sort of pressing gasoline or windshield-repair business to attend to, there’s doesn’t seem any reason to battle through Forest Avenue’s absurd levels of late-afternoon traffic to eat seafood in an old warehouse. Sure, it’s a little grimy, with about as much ambiance as you’d find if you decided to eat a seafood dinner in the back of a bus station. Where Susan’s surprises, however, is in its expertly-fried seafood and chowder which has no reason to be as fresh and expertly prepared as it is, served at a price point that seems like a holdover from the 1980s. I’ve paid easily twice as much for a fried clam or haddock dinner at other, perhaps more scenic establishments, and been much, much less pleased with the overall experience than I was with the food served at Susan’s Fish & Chips.