“We’re trying to preserve the concept of real food here,” says Rose Zapletal of her weekly VFW fish fry, “because everyone eats junk these days and people should just put down their phones and enjoy a good meal together.”
Rose Zapletal, formerly of of Cheateau Rose (her since closed bohemian restaurant in Cicero), with the support of her husband and adult daughters, has been frying fish at the Riverside VFW on Friday evenings for nearly 20 years. The unflappable quartet slings honest fare in a no frills enviromemnt and frankly everyone should give it a whirl.
Zapletal didn’t have a natural hankering to become a fish-fryer; the VFW approached her to handle their weekly fish fry because of her considerable restaurant and catering background. Initially, she was on the fence about doing it at all, but when a friend stepped up to help, the accomplish cook accepted the job. Zapletal and her skeleton crew started small in October of 1998 and have never looked back; Rose’s Fish Fry has been drawing a crowd ever since.
“At first we offered only fried perch, catfish, and shrimp with cole slaw and potato salad along with salad and coffee,” says Zapletal, “but over time we started changing things up to keep things interesting for our guests.”
Today coffee, salad and fried fish and seafood remain on the menu, but the family also offers a meat special each week (breaded pork tenderloin and beef goulash are popular) as well as a rotating menu of seasonal soups (1 in the summer/2 in the winter). Additionally there’s always a baked fish option on the menu (think scrod, trout, or salmon) for folks who may be gluten intolerant or simply looking to make a healthier choice.
The pastry table over flows with Zapletal’s sweets; think blueberry crisscross bars made from puff pastry and organic blueberries, piquant lemon squares, mascarpone cheesecake bars, and cranberry white chocolate blondies. Snagging a sweet will cost you an extra dollar-so be prepared to pay up.
Savvy fish fry goers also know Zapletal and her family stock a bunch of coolers with bohemian style heat and eat meals. Guests are encouraged to grab a few (typically $6-$7 per package) to cut down on week-day cooking. Despite the fact the weekly fish fry runs from 4-8pm, eager eaters have been known to show up more than an hour early to ensure they have the best selection of Zapletal’s heat and eat meals.
“Its just chaos around here, insanity; ” says Zapletal, “let’s just say a lot of people are looking forward to Friday!”
Not only does Rose’s Fish Fry at the Riverside VFW provide a social outlet for the community, it also preserves a time honored tradition. Fish Fry’s have been long known to provide a hearty, inexpensive, low pressure evening out for community members. The fish fry attracts an average of 200 guests per night and certain meat specials (especially breaded pork tenderloin) can make up 50% of total tickets in a given Friday. Rose’s Fish Fry typically draws an older crowd, but Zapletal has noticed more and more young people and young families enjoying dinner at the VFW in recent years.
Like the gradual menu expansion, Zapletal’s passion for cooking emerged slowly. Her father owned a butcher shop and as a young woman she learned the business nose-to-tail. Under her father’s tutelage she learned the value of hard work and discipline. She also learned the importance of using quality ingredients.
In addition, Zapletal had a role-model in her grandmother. The duo used to cook side-by-side; baking and canning foods together formed the core if their relationship. Zapletal remembers (with a groan) making pickles in the late summer and the endless days of picking and washing cucumbers before transforming them in to more than 200 quarts of pickles.
“I don’t know exactly what intrigued me to follow in their footsteps,” says Zapletal frankly, but some where between working in her father’s butcher shop and canning all those cucumbers she came to understand convenience comes at a cost; wholesome cooking takes time, patience, and dedication. Rose’s goal is to pass the business along to her daughters Michelle and Nicole (both of whom are graduates of Kendall College’s culinary program), but for now the kitchen runs smoothly with the family of four sharing the work.
Love is a key ingredient in Zapletal’s Bohemian fare and while she likes spices she shies away from any she deems to be “too funky.” She aims to create food people are familiar with and feels she’s succeeded when she evokes memories in her guests. The family genuinely loves what they do and sure, there are parts of the job that are hard, but all four of them consider repeat customers to be their biggest reward.
“We take the fish fry to a whole new level.” says Michelle Zapletal with pride, “I mean I used to hate fish as a kid, but there are just so many options here there is something for everyone.”
“Yeah,” chimes in Nicole Zapletal, “if people leave here hungry something has gone wrong.”
ROSES FISH FRY 101:
1. Be patient. Everything is cooked to order at Rose’s Fish Fry. There are only four folks slinging fish in the kitchen and everyone else is volunteering. You can expect to wait up to 20 minutes for your meal, but use that time to socialize while enjoying a salad, buy your dessert, or snag a drink at the bar.
2. Read the menu and order right away. All items are prepared in limited quantities and some items (especially baked potatoes) will run out before the end of the evening. So its best to have a couple menu items in mind when you arrive. A volunteer waiting near the entrance will take your order.
3. CASH ONLY. Seriously, CASH.
4. After taking your order the volunteer will give you a 2-part ticket. Give the white portion of your ticket to the kitchen right away and keep the yellow portion for yourself. The kitchen will call your order number as soon as it is ready.
5. Don’t be mad if there is a hiccup with your order. This dining experience is like a big game of fish fry telephone; nothing is computerized and orders and quantities are communicated by word-of-mouth. Occasionally an order will come for an item before the volunteers know it has sold out; if you happen to get caught in this rare loop just be flexible.
6. Pro-tip: If you really want something specific call ahead and place an order at (708) 447-4005. Rose will hold your white ticket in the kitchen; just check in when you arrive and let them know you have pre-ordered; you’ll be given your yellow ticket and instructed to let the kitchen know you have arrived.
7. Parking. If the VFW lot is full, overflow parking is available in the forest preserve parking lot on the south side of the building. The Zapletals have a deal worked out with the park district to allow for parking in the preserve on Friday nights; if your car is mistakenly ticketed simply bring the ticket to the kitchen and they will handle it on your behalf.
Rose’s Fish Fry at the North Riverside VFW (2622 South Des Plaines, North Riverside, IL) is hosted on Fridays year round except for closing a portion of August for a family get away. Follow the fish fry on Facebook to get weekly menu updates.