Where We've Been: Marko's Fish House

Three tables and three counter stools are somehow ample to serve customers what just might be the state's best fish sandwich

 Marko's Fish House in Madison: feel lucky if you find it open. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

Marko's Fish House in Madison: feel lucky if you find it open. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

By Ted Cox

For a while now, we've been planning to write about the places we've visited, the things we've seen — and, yes, the food we've eaten across this great state.

And the time has come to launch that series on "Where We've Been," because last week, while covering President Trump's visit to Granite City, we came across what just might be the best fish sandwich in the state.

Marko's Fish House is a cozy little restaurant at 820 Madison Ave. in Madison, the first town south of Granite City, in Madison County. It's not the county seat, though, as that title belongs to Edwardsville.

It might lay claim to being the state's fish-sandwich capital, though, because at $6.75 Marko's fish sandwich is not just a bargain; it can stand up to the best anyone else has to offer at any price.

We found out about it by doing a search for "Granite City" on the LTH Forum, a Chicago-based food blog that's been known to stray across Illinois and the Midwest in search of local delicacies. ("LTH" stands for Little Three Happiness, a small restaurant beloved by foodies in Chicago's Chinatown.) The search turned up a post on "The Great River Road," with stops in Madison County.

According to LTH Forum, Marko's has been making the sandwich the same way since 1926, based on a Croatian recipe. Key to that is the thick slabs of soft white bread the fried cod is served on.

As an old alumnus of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, I can recall the wonderful fish sandwiches served each weekend at the long-lost and lamented Deluxe Billiards on Green Street. (Legends has replaced it on almost the same exact site at 522 E. Green, and it pays homage to the old Deluxe with fish sandwiches on the weekend said to be made from the same recipe, but it really can never be the same, can it.) The wait could be well over an hour for those fish sandwiches, and they were fried to a crisp, served on a bun with a slice of onion, and with yellow mustard or — for Anglophiles — vinegar as a condiment.

The cod at Marko's is deep-fried the same way, but to a deliberately softer finish and with no oil residue. The taste and texture of the fish comes through, and it's served again on onion slices, but with banana peppers to give it a pickly snap and a tang of some sweet heat.

Everything about it is soft and flavorful, and served with onion rings it makes for a deep-fried taste of paradise.

 The fish sandwich and onion rings at Marko's: best in the state? (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

The fish sandwich and onion rings at Marko's: best in the state? (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

Marko's is a small, single-room restaurant with three tables and three counter stools at the fry station. That's it. And it couldn't be better (except for maybe some yellow mustard; it substitutes tartar sauce instead). The menu also includes catfish nuggets, fried shrimps in a basket, hamburgers, and cheeseburgers.

It's open 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 10 to 7 on Friday, but get this: it's closed on the weekend and Monday. This is a place for locals that disdains weekend interlopers.

 The deep fryer is a staple of Great River Road greasy spoons, according to LTH Forum, and one of the local delicacies is deep-fried tacos. The same thread recommended Ernie & Annie's, an old bar in Granite City where deep-fried tacos are the specialty, located at 935 Niedringhaus Ave.

We went there to interview locals about the president's visit, but were soon charmed by the woody, welcoming atmosphere of the place — a bar on one side, wooden booths along the wall on the other, with tables (and, of course, gaming consoles) in the middle — and, yes, the tacos. The LTH Forum thread kind of dismissed them as being not quite as good as the cold beer on tap, but there was something to their simplicity.

 Ernie & Annie's in Granite City: one of the places along the Great River Road specializing in the local delicacy of deep-fried tacos. (One Illinois/Zachary Sigelko)

Ernie & Annie's in Granite City: one of the places along the Great River Road specializing in the local delicacy of deep-fried tacos. (One Illinois/Zachary Sigelko)

The tortillas had been slapped with some refried beans, pressed flat, and dipped in the deep fryer. Upon removal from the oil, they had some shreds of lettuce inserted into the top and were served along with hot sauce — nothing fancy. But there was something to the texture — the soft flaky fried tortilla wrapping the hardened beans within and the crisp, cool lettuce on top — that made it exceptional. At $1.50 a taco, this was get-your-load-on bar food of a high order to rival White Castle sliders.

So if you're ever in Madison County, on the Illinois side of the Mississippi River across and up slightly from St. Louis, make it a point to hit Marko's. Get there before the weekend, and save the deep-fried tacos at Ernie & Annie's for Saturday, when they're a special from 4 until 9 p.m. "or sold out."

We'll be writing regularly about Where We've Been at One Illinois — and where we're going to be going.

Ted Cox