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Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Bortell's: West Michigan's roadside fish fry

Need an excuse to get out of town for the afternoon? Buzz contributor Tim Chilcote has a good one for you. It involves Vernors and fried fish, which are, as everyone knows, hallmarks of any successful road trip.

If you like seafood, search for the fish-shaped sign on South Lakeshore Drive. From the Oceana Drive exit off US 31 in Pentwater, turn right on Lakeshore Drive and follow the winding lakeside road toward Ludington. Drive past the vacation cabins and beach mansions. When the road comes around a final wooded curve—just before the tree canopy lifts and the asphalt flattens—there, across from a bluff overlooking Lake Michigan, is the sign. It reads simply, "Fish."

Thirty yards north of the sign you'll find Bortell’s Fisheries, a square cinder block building that’s home to some of west Michigan’s best seafood. Bortell’s has been in business for six generations, since 1898 when Uriah Bortell first put fish to fryer. Six generations of Germans later, the Bortell family continues to run a tidy, utilitarian ship.

The outside of the building is brightly painted in a modern fish décor, but the inside retains the old-world, rustic feel you might expect from a rural fishmonger. The room is crowded by a glass cooler that takes up half the space. Behind the cooler, a deep fryer and a bare-bones menu on the wall. To the left is a small glass refrigerator for pop, and on the front wall, wood slat paneling adorned with historic photos of the building and its family.

Fish are available fresh or prepared, à la carte or dinners with French fries and coleslaw. Menu items include walleye, whitefish, and a variety of local and imported seafood. I recommend the perch dinner for $13.60: half pound of lake perch, half pound of fries, and a half cup of slaw, plus a Vernors ginger ale for good measure. The perch is some of the finest I’ve ever tasted—lightly breaded and übber fresh. Forget tartar sauce, forget lemon, forget salt; the fish is it—crisp on the outside, buttery and flaky on the inside.

Two dining options: To-go, or at outdoor picnic tables. For cooked food, the tables work just fine, and even in rain they’re covered with sizeable umbrellas. For hours of operation, an approximation of lunch to dusk seems about right. Open through Labor Day. 5528 S. Lakeshore Dr., Ludington, Michigan, 231-843-3337. *A version of this post originally appeared on Tim's blog, Great Lakes Guru, on July 13, 2010.

Tim Chilcote is a writer, editor, teacher, and Michigan enthusiast. Though he lives with his wife and bulldog in Ann Arbor, he is a Muskegon native and frequent visitor to Michigan's more western climes. You can often find him standing near signs and billboards fashioned to resemble his favorite state's tastiest native species.

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