From Maevas Coffee Shop in Alton, Illinois, I headed towards Grafton on the Great River Road.
I stopped along the Main Street that run along the river and popped my head inside a couple of shops before heading to Beasley Fish for lunch. The road was lined with shops, restaurants, and inns. Many buildings displayed “For Sale” signs in their windows. This Saturday afternoon was pretty darn near perfect at sunny and 75 degrees. Everyone seemed to know it, too.
Anticipating a meal of fried fish, I hesitantly passed on the fudge shop. One antique shop made me pause when I read a hand-painted sign near the entrance. “Just lookin’ doesn’t keep us cookin'”. The truth was that I was just looking. “Does this mean I shouldn’t go inside?” I wondered. “What if I don’t find anything I want. Am I supposed to just buy something? Why would you buy something you don’t want?”
“What the hell,” I thought, and headed inside. I’m always on the prowl for 90’s memorabilia. There were lots of curiosities to see and some “You break it, you buy it signs.” I just didn’t find what I was looking for, so I tried to leave as inconspicuously as possible.
The Ruebel Hotel immediately landed on my itinerary. Mostly, because it’s supposedly haunted. The original hotel was built in 1884 by Michael Ruebel. In 1912, the hotel suffered a fire and was rebuilt with some expansions, like a restaurant. It seems the building was vacant during the 80’s until new owners bought it and renovated it again in 1997. According to the hotel’s website, a ghost named Abigail supposedly haunts the hotel. The new owners reported hearing running sounds up and down the stairwells and noticing objects being moved when they lived in the downstairs apartment during the winter off-season.
I walked inside and hesitantly peeked inside the lobby. No one was there, so I poked around a little bit more. I felt like a time traveler wandering around in a hotel lobby frozen in time, from the ticket booth front desk, the carpeting, the wallpaper, and furniture. The restaurant looked inviting.
I first learned about Buffalo Fish from @ChiBBQKing’s blog post. He had ordered some from O-Jan’s, mentioning that he noticed Beasley Fish located down the main street. For variety’s sake, I decided to visit Beasley.
I had never heard of buffalo fish and had assumed it referred to the style of being sliced, fried, and served with hot sauce. It turns out that buffalo fish is a type of carp. In Anne Lemons Pollack’s STL Magazine article about Kinder’s Restaurant, she describes how the fish is a regional specialty to communities near”the juncture of the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers.” She adds that buffalo fish are very bony. The thin slicing along the fillet ensures the bones will dissolve during deep-frying.
If you google for information about eating buffalo fish, you’ll find articles mentioning rare occurrences of small numbers of people contracting Haff disease in 2004 and 2014. These incidents were not something I was aware of when I ordered my meal. I fared just fine. Looking around, I saw many ordering the buffalo fish, too. If you do not want to eat buffalo fish, you can choose from the other fish on the menu.
Do any locals want to chime in about buffalo fish for those of us that know very little?
Slightly after the restaurant opened at 11 a.m. I joined a few other early lunchers on the deck. I ordered at a window where a friendly employee handed me a ticket to claim my food. There are plenty of nice picnic tables to park at while you wait and a fish market next door, too. For the buffalo fish, fries, coleslaw and a bottle of water, my bill totaled than $9 before tip.
About seven minutes later, I heard someone call my ticket. My fish looked glorious.
I wandered around the corner to the wrong window. Some nice customers helped shepherd me back to the correct window and we laughed together. I followed a regular to the condiment table where I imitated her. She dressed her fish with a good dousing of hot sauce from a squirt bottle and filled little cups with ketchup. Then, she moved to a cooler labeled with a prominent sign instructing customers to keep it shut. The cooler contained chilled onion slices and tartar sauce. In my confused haze reaching for ketchup, I realized I must have accidentally left the top of the cooler open. Another customer ran over to shut it, grumbling that it’s supposed to remain shut! I felt my cheeks warm in sheepishness.
The picnic tables were nearly filled and a line had formed at the ordering window by the time I had finished dressing my meal at the condiment table. I decided to drive a few minutes down the street and enjoy my meal at a park by the river. The fries were your standard crinkle cut, freshly fried, but the fish was unlike anything I’ve tried. The fish coating was crisp and nicely seasoned, while the actual meat was moist and flaky. It appeared darker in color the closer it got to the skin. I worked my way down the scored fillet, dipping and popping pieces into my mouth like potato chips. The fish skin on the bottom, I left behind.
In my mind, I kept describing the buffalo fish as “spiralized.” Just as Pollack’s article describes, I really did notice maybe one or two tiny little bones. They were small and soft enough not to cause a nuisance.
It’s clear that Beasley Fish has loyal customers who love the food and genuinely care about the business. On this beautiful spring afternoon, enjoying this $9 meal on the river watching the boats felt like a feast.
Stay tuned for Part III of Exploring The Great River Road Part III: Old Bakery Beer Company