Benjamin Velani | Sun Contributor

October 10, 2018

Ithaca’s Hidden Gem for Fried Fish and All Things American

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On the corner of Court and Plain streets, you will find a facade that’s, well, plain. Yet beneath the faded exterior of the Red & White Cafe emerges humble homestyle fish fry and classic American dinner.

The first thing I note when eating at any restaurant is its cleanliness, both in the kitchen and the restroom. When walking up to the counter, I noticed that while the surfaces and equipment looked clean, there was a moderate buildup of dirt and grime underneath the stoves, as well as what looked like days of grease residue above the fryers.

However, after taking a trip to the restroom, I was pleasantly surprised to find a newly refinished and clean space decorated with a fresh coat of red paint and knotty pine on the walls. This rustic theme continued throughout the restaurant, with accents like aluminum fish hanging from the ceiling, which added a certain novelty and charm.

While the front half of the building is a fairly composed restaurant, one can find a messy backroom of unfinished space just by peeking their head through a pair of red curtains by the restroom. Now, I don’t know about you, but most of the restaurants I’ve been to don’t seem to have been tacked on, almost as an afterthought, to the rest of the building.

Putting these initial fears behind me, I grabbed a menu and began peering over it. For anyone not accustomed to Chinese dining and its many options, you will be overwhelmed by the amount of items available at Red & White Cafe. From Philly cheesesteak sandwiches to pizza burgers to fried oysters sourced from Virginia, the restaurant offers a multitude of staples of American cuisine. I decided to go with their specialty, a fried fish dinner with an upgrade from fries to potato wedges for $2, and an iced tea from the fridges to the right of the counter, totaling to $19.42 after tax. The man checking us out, who doubled as the chef, politely took our orders and began hustling and bustling at the fryers.

While waiting at the folding table and plastic chairs, I got to take in the wafting smell of hot oil on a warm fall breeze. Every little accent in the room screamed “homemade and proud,” which was only further embodied by our host: a man of stature who was probably born with his thick grey mustache and a well-loved pair of blue jeans. Known as John Wells, he proudly explained to us that all of their haddock is sourced fresh from Boston, each sub comes with a half pound of meat and each burger is a full third pound of beef.

Within 15 minutes, Chef Wells, John’s brother Chuck, cranked out all five of the meals that my friends and I had ordered, piping hot — an impressive feat from a restaurant I had walked into with low expectations. Now, just to set the record straight, I am a Minnesotan, so fried fish is no laughing matter to me. It quite literally is religion in the land of 10,000 lakes because on every Friday night of Lent, your local Catholic church will serve a homestyle fish fry made by all the grandmothers of the surrounding neighborhoods.

Therefore, to my surprise, laid before me in red-and-white checkered paper was a beautiful golden-brown fillet of Bostonian haddock, positioned over a bed of crisp yet fluffy potato wedges seasoned with coarse sea salt, another unexpected touch from such a modest establishment. The fish was flaky and tender, but the batter was a little chewy, instead of the expected crunch that is characteristic of quality fried fish. This may have been due to how the haddock was fried skin-on, or maybe it just wasn’t as fresh as John had marketed it to be. Unlike the potatoes, the fish was underseasoned, so a splash of malt vinegar or sprinkling of salt was necessary.

Complimentary are some of the expected sides for any fish fry: a sweet and tangy tartar sauce, a light yet creamy coleslaw, two lemon wedges and one sauce unique to the Red & White Cafe — a homemade buttermilk ranch that John says “people go crazy over.” He also informed me that all sides and sauces were made in-house. While the ranch was good, it was nothing to lose your mind over, just a simple and tasty addition that helped to compensate for the lack of seasoning on the fish.

The Philly cheesesteak my friend Brennan Kosut ’22 ordered was a monstrous portion for the fair price of $8.95. It came on a toasted roll, and was piled high with shredded steak, sautéed onions and green peppers, all melded together with gooey Swiss cheese. Brennan commented that, “It tasted great, and the steak was tender and not overcooked.”

Stacked with criss-crossed bacon slices, a fried egg, lettuce, tomatoes and mayo, the juicy, medium-cooked “Papa Moe” burger my friend Andrew Martinez ’22 ordered was a traditional, yet well-executed take on a classic for just $7.49. Much to his surprise, “The food was actually really good, but I wished the burger was a little more pink on the inside,” a change that could easily be made by making your preference clear when ordering. He also preferred the potato wedges over the sweet potato fries, which were somewhat soggy and lacking salt, as they may have been frozen and prepared in haste.

Overall, the experience you get at the Red & White Cafe is perfect for a Friday night, especially when you’re a college student missing some good, old-fashioned home cooking. And if you’re looking to get the best bang for your buck, this restaurant, with its healthy portion sizes, will not disappoint.

Serves: classic Americana and homestyle fried seafood
Vibe: rustic and blue collar
Price: $
Overall: ★★★☆☆