But first off, it’s locally owned. Always choose the local establishments over the Rubee Tuesdees and all those sorts of places.
I swear, when you go down to th’ Lake, it used to be you’d find all kinds of nifty local restaurants. Diners and such. Now, Chili’s and Starbucks have moved in. Horrors! If you can’t find Middle America in Middle America, then where the heck is it supposed to be?
I’m ecstatic that the Happy Fisherman is still there, in Osage Beach on the east side of Highway 54, just south of the big outlet mall. You can’t miss it—there’s a huge sign. The place looks like some kind of nautical fishin’ village (or a spoof of one). There are fake giant clam shells along the road, with loony cartoon eyes peering out at you, luring you in.
I fished around a bit on the Internet trying to see what people were saying about the place, and the reviews are kinda mixed. Which I guess is appropriate, since this is not a place that attempts to make every soul in the universe mildly happy (the way a chain restaurant would).
They do make some allowances for “diversity”: If you’re not into fish, can’t handle the bones, or whatever, you will indeed find menu items featuring big-boned terrestrial creatures for you to consume. They’re particularly proud of their steaks. So “The Lake’s Seafood Authority since 1975” does widen its net to include pisciphobes.
. . . Anyway, we went down there last weekend for Sue’s birthday (she wanted fried fish, and I refused to take her out to Cap’n D’s or Big John Silver’s’s’s). It had been a few years since we’d visited the Happy Fisherman, and although they’d changed the menu slightly, we weren’t let down.
First off, unless you order just an appetizer, every dinner automatically comes with a trip to the salad boat. Yeah, you read that right: salad boat. (Ahoy, mateys!) And this is distinctive all in itself.
I think we all have preconceptions about what “should” constitute yer basic salad bar, right? It’s lettuce, plus a bunch of other veggie-type stuff to add to your lettuce salad. Pieces of broccoli, sliced mushrooms, grated carrots, sprouts, garbanzo beans. Am I right? The other types of salads (potato salad, pasta salad, three-bean, etc.) are there at the end, almost as an afterthought. You add a little dab of that to the side of your lettuce salad, where space permits.
Well, it’s different at the Happy Fisherman. Think: potluck. Think: church basements. Think: what would your mom or grandma serve as a salad? Would it necessarily be a lettuce salad with toppings? Nuh-uh. Let us recall our church-ladies cookbooks from the fifties!
Folks, trust me, they had lettuce and stuff in the salad boat, but they had no less than fourteen different other salads and relishes to enjoy. Seriously! Seven along one side, seven on the other, plus one in the middle after the line of dressings.
Let’s see if I can remember them all. I’m not a professional restaurant reviewer, and I don’t have a photographic memory. Here goes: Creamy broccoli salad. Sauerkraut salad with Italian dressing (apparently) (Sue liked it; I thought it was abominable; both opinions are valid). Green pea and cheese cube salad. Carrot and raisin salad—boy, when’s the last time you had that? Bell peppers and onions in another Italian-type dressing. Pickled beets (I suspect homemade). Pickled onion slices colored deep green. (What a trip!) Spiced apples with a nice clove flavor, also deep green. I think there was a Jell-o salad. I think there was a potato salad. There was a pasta salad. And coleslaw (the creamy kind). What else. Three-bean salad! Of course.
Oh yeah. And there was one salad that I had to ask our waiter about. I was stumped, absolutely stumped about what I was eating. It was orange, it was sweet, it was tart, it had thinly sliced carrots to crunch on, and . . . what was the other stuff?
Turns out the cook has fun with a mandoline or other food slicer: In addition to the carrots, this salad had radishes and broccoli stems, all sliced incredibly thinly. And the sauce? French dressing. Yes, and it was actually pretty good. It didn’t look all that great, which is why (the waiter said), the cook calls the dish “Yuck.” I’m not joking. This is exactly what she told me.
I have to hand it to the chef: What a clever way of using the broccoli stems, which would otherwise just go to waste! I suspect it’s a “mom” recipe—a way to get kids (and spouses, for that matter) to swallow veggies.
While we were eating, a family arrived at the salad boat, and I overheard the young son asking his dad, “What is this?” The dad shrugged and said, “I don’t know, son; just take a little on your plate and see if you like it.” Ha! Isn’t that funny? Like I said—think “potluck.”
See, I like this kind of dining experience sometimes. It’s one reason to visit ethnic restaurants, either in America or overseas: You get to try new things. Only in this case, we only had to drive down to th’ Lake.
More on the Happy Fisherman. First, because it was Sue’s birthday, I encouraged her to enjoy the house drink, lovingly named the “Happy Hooker.” (Get it? Get it?) Served in a Mason jar, it’s one of those pinkish fruity concoctions with a cherry in it. Sweet, but not cloyingly so. Probably overpriced, but whatever. Sue seemed to enjoy it okay. I’ve had ’em before, and they remind me of mai tais.
We got an appetizer, and it turned out to be my favorite part of the meal. Fried dill pickles, in a form I’ve never had. Yeah, I’ve had them as spears, and as chunky wedges of whole dill pickles cut at an angle, and both types can be as hot as napalm inside, but this is the first time I’ve had them sliced so thinly, lengthwise. (Like I said, I suspect someone back there in the kitchen loves his or her mandoline or other slicer.) The result was good! More surface area for the breading to stick to. And the dipping sauce was truly spicy (in Missouri, when you get something labeled “spicy” that actually is, it’s always worth commenting on).
I got the “Baitcaster’s Platter,” which is yer basic sampler plate, and Sue got the “Ozark Fish Fry.” The latter seemed a misnomer, since the fish was tilapia, but it was good, and they were generous with two big fillets. The “Baitcaster’s” dish also came with a tilapia fillet, plus a whole fried catfish (don’t get it if you’re bone-phobic), plus a pile of fried clams, some shrimps, and shrimp sauce. Unless a dish is specified on the menu as fried in corn meal, it will have rice flour as the breading, and (indeed, as the menu noted) it creates a lighter, crispier fry. Two thumbs up.
Both meals came with choice of potato, a hushpuppy, and the restaurant’s own tartar sauce. Garnished with a nice piece of kale and a lemon wedge. The baked potatoes were modest in size, which I appreciate. We were gonna be stuffed, anyway. (Some restaurants give you baked potatoes that are as big as shoes, and what’s the use of that? Who can eat it? And if you can eat it, then you probably shouldn’t.)
Okay, the verdict on all the fried stuff is: Good. Yummy. No, it’s probably not the very best fried fish you could ever have, but it all tasted fine to me. The fish wasn’t over- or undercooked (it was certainly done, but it was juicy). It wasn’t greasy. I’m not a fine connoisseur of fried fish, but it all tasted delicious to me. I can’t talk about any of the beef, chicken, or other dishes, but I imagine they’re good enough for the one insane person in each party who won’t touch fish.
The price for the Happy Hooker, my O’Dull’s nonalcoholic brew, the fried pickles, and the two meals (which, as I said, each come with an edifying trip to the salad boat) was about $43.00. We were stuffed; we couldn’t finish it all. And it was all plenty good enough.
Part of the fun of the Happy Fisherman is the decor. I have to mention the decor. The theme is “boats and fishing,” so just about everything in there is decorated appropriately. The “salad boat” fits the decor, of course. Oh, you can imagine—there’s all kinds of fishy, nautical, anglin’, hip-wader-type stuff in there. Right before you get to the cash register at the end, there’s a small fish tank made out of an antique battery jar. One of the ladies working there told me it was once used to power a home. (Batteries used to require water. If you don’t understand that, try looking on Wikipedia.)
But most remarkable among the decorations is the impressive collection of vintage outboard motors attached to the rafters. Our table, for instance, was situated beneath a Johnson Seahorse Model JW10 (“Single cylinder motor built in 1954; develops 3 horsepower”) and an Evinrude Model A (“Single cylinder with Brass Base; manufactured 1914–1916”). The labels were helpful. I’m personally not into boat motors, but I can really dig how cool this is. I also recognize how “boatin’ and fishin’” is a large part of Lake culture, and I noted that other diners were nodding admiringly at the collection.
So here is the bottom line: When you’re at the Lake, go to the Happy Fisherman. Enjoy the local color. Eat some delicious fried fish. And explore some genuine mystery salads from the salad boat. Finally, don’t forget to relax and smile. This is vacationland.