It was the sign that first drew my attention. In all capital letters, against a glorious, glowing-yellow background, the Long John Silver’s near my house announced its most spectacular promotion yet:
ALL YOU CAN EAT
I’ve always had a special place in my rapidly calcifying heart for Long John Silver’s. Where I grew up, in landlocked Central Iowa, there were few seafood options and even fewer that offered the treasures of the deep blue, battered-and-fried at an economical price. My hometown in the late 1970s wasn’t big or affluent enough to support a Red Lobster.
Long John Silver’s was the only seafood game in town. And I loved it.
I loved how the thick, golden batter glistened with so much oil you’d swear you could see your reflection in the side of a fish plank. I loved the tiny nuggets of crispy batter that accompanied the fish, known as Crumblies—crunchy pieces of fried bits that my sister and I sometimes ordered as a standalone side dish, fish be damned.
But most of all, I loved the chicken (yes, chicken at a seafood restaurant) which for my money was the best chicken tender ever developed: all white meat encased in the aforementioned coating, ideal for its sweet and tangy cocktail sauce. I suppose the quality of a fried chicken is only as good as the restaurant’s deep-frying talents, and my neighborhood Long John Silver’s happened to have unparalleled skills—at least to my growing tastes. To my eye, an overwhelming majority of the food in that restaurant bore a magnificent hue of golden brown.
Later on when I was a teenager in the late 1980s, my friends and I discovered the magic rainbow of fermented grapes known as Boone’s Farm. Somehow, we believed the ill-conceived notion that greasy foods soaked up alcohol and lessened hangovers. And there was no greasier place than Long John Silver’s. So, we spent many a Friday night devouring fish planks and hush puppies, punishing our arteries and delighting our palates before indulging in copious amounts of Strawberry Hill and Country Kwencher.
Now it’s 2019. Both Long John Silver’s and I turn 50 this year, and who outlives the other depends on how often I eat there. We’ve both tried to get healthier in our senior age. To undo the damage done to my gastrointestinal tract from years of eating at places like Long John Silver’s, I’ve moved to a more plant-based diet in recent years, opting for Beyond and Impossible burgers over ones made from ground beef. Long John Silver’s, for its part, has begun offering menu items such as grilled shrimp. But we both know the path to happiness—if not healthiness—goes through the deep fryer.
It had been at least 20 years since I had been to a Long John Silver’s restaurant, but the all-you-can-eat Sunday buffet near my house was impossible to resist. I had to know: Is today’s Long John Silver’s as good as those Friday night wine-and-fish bacchanalias my buddies and I gorged on during the late ’80s? Is Long John Silver’s still, as its website proclaims, on a mission to bring “great-tasting, sustainably-caught seafood to all the people who aren’t able to be near an ocean every day of their life?” Does the international seafood chain still bring “bell-ringing quality, service and value to land every day?”
Here’s where things get a bit weird.
As I pulled up to the Long John Silver’s near my house, I noticed right away that something had changed. The sign proclaiming the $7.99 all-you-can-eat buffet had been replaced with a sign that said, simply: CLOSED. As in, forever. Doors locked. Deep-fat fryers drained. It seemed that in the race to see who would outlive the other, I had burst into the lead. But I was primed and hellbent, so I pulled out my phone and found another Long John Silver’s just five miles away.
Turns out, it wasn’t just a Long John Silver’s, but a combination Long John Silver’s and Taco Bell. As I hummed Das Racist, I asked the young man behind the counter if they offer a $7.99 all-you-can-eat buffet. He responded with a blank stare that I took to mean “no.” (Ah, I see the fine print now. Pricing and participation may vary.)
Much has changed since my last visit. Though this hybrid location featured an abbreviated LJS menu, a peruse through its website showed vogue menu item that were unheard of from my Iowan childhood—fish tacos and grilled salmon bowls. (Inexplicably, Long John Silver also has a record label, even if a junior marketing associate came up with the idea.)
But the components of my batter-fried youth still existed in the form of the $6.99 “Fish-Chicken-Shrimp” combo. Even if it’s not all-you-can-eat, it was still fairly close to how I envisioned the buffet, but $1 cheaper. It arrived in a paper basket filled with a trapezoidal piece of fried cod, a large plank of boneless fried chicken and two golden-brown fried hushpuppies, all atop a bed of French fries floating above a sea of really fried Crumblies. The shrimp were nowhere to be found, but I figured I’d ask for them after I devoured the rest of my bounty.
Was it all as I remembered? Had much changed in the intervening decades since my last trip to Long John Silver’s? Were my fond memories just idealized fabrications of a grease-addled mind?
Yes. And no.
The batter was, just as I recalled, thick and crispy and coated in a sheen of oil. It was delicious. The fish was on the verge of flaky and damned tasty. Not the best fish-and-chips I’ve ever had, but certainly not the worst. The Crumblies were unchanged from the Crumblies of my youth—they were still glorious little nuggets of fried batter, saltier than I remembered while holding firm to its zero nutritional value-status
But some things remain unchanged. The star of the show was still the chicken, a generous cut of white meat perfectly battered and deeply fried. Dip it in a little tub of the Long John Silver’s cocktail sauce, and I challenge you to find a better chicken tender. It remains king.
By the time I was done, I was so full I no longer had the will to argue with Mr. Blank Stare for my missing shrimp. I waddled out ready to down a glass of the finest Sunshine Pink, Wild Cherry or whatever other flavor of Boone’s Farm I could find at my local fine wine outlet. Would I go back? Perhaps. But first a full-body cleanse and a few months of kale smoothies.