Friendly fish war heats up during Lent

Someone with a good throwing arm could walk out of Charlie's Fresh Seafood and Carry-out Market with, say, a big clam, and fling it far enough to bean someone heading into Detroit's Famous Coney Island.

It hasn't come to that, of course, but the two establishments, less than a block apart on Lexington's Winchester Road, are engaged in what could be called a friendly fish sandwich war.

Charlie's, which has been at 928 Winchester for 29 years, boasts "Lexington's Largest Fish Sandwich."

Detroit's, which has been in operation for 19 years across town on Lane Allen Road and opened at 911 Winchester a year ago, says it offers the "World's Largest Fish Sandwich."

One thing is certain: In this Lenten season, when many Catholics and others eschew red meat, and when everyone from McDonald's to Kroger supermarkets are offering fish sandwich specials, a lot of fried fish between buns is moving on the short section of road.

Both Charlie's and Detroit's are "mom and pop" type places.

The Charlie of Charlie's was Charles Wilson Johnson, who took over an existing fish market in what had been an old Texaco station in 1981. Barry Sissle, who was an employee, bought the business seven years ago from Charlene Johnson, Charlie's widow.

Sissle runs it now with his wife, Pattie.

They also sell fresh and frozen seafood. All the cooked food is takeout. There are no tables or chairs.

On Fridays during Lent, the line of customers frequently extends out the door, and the tiny parking lot overflows.

Detroit's was started on Lane Allen by Charles and Darlene Martha. The Winchester Road location is run by Charles Martha Jr. and his wife, Mitzi.

There are about a dozen tables and a wall where customers are welcome to write their names and comments on the food. Besides fish sandwiches, they sell Coney Island-style hot dogs with chili, onions and mustard, as well as burgers, gyros and steak sandwiches.

So, who has the bigger fish sandwich? The Herald-Leader bought a couple of sandwiches from each place and weighed them. The results:

■ Charlie's sandwich, which cost $5.25, weighed 300 grams, or about 2/3 of a pound.

■ Detroit's sandwich, which costs $5.99, weighed 400 grams, or nearly 9/10 of a pound.

We also did an informal taste test, in which a dozen people in the Herald-Leader newsroom ranked the sandwiches. Charlie's came out ahead, with an average ranking of 7.3 out of 10. Detroit's scored 6.8.

Because there is a large billboard between Charlie's and Detroit's that advertises McDonald's current fish special, we added it to the mix for comparison.

The result: Two sandwiches, for $3.33, came in at a combined weight of 350 grams, or nearly 8/10 of a pound. On taste, the McDonald's offering scored only a 4.3.

Of course, the people running Charlie's and Detroit's will tell you that they really don't consider a fast food place as competition.

"Here you get full, you get your money's worth, and it's the same at Charlie's," Charles Martha Jr. said. "It's made fresh for you right here."

Patty Sissle said she tried her competitor's fish sandwich when they moved in down the street. She says it's "different," but won't go much beyond that.

"I'm not going to say their sandwich is not bigger than ours," she said. "It's just not better than ours."