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Gropp’s Famous Fish
** 1/2
Out of a possible five

Gropp’s fish dishes deserve their fame

When it says F amous Fish of Stroh on the sign, it’s not a lie.

The fish is almost stuff of legend in northeast Indiana, and there were once 19 Fish of Stroh restaurants in Indiana, Michigan and Ohio. But they started to fade away about a decade ago. Even the last place to serve the original recipe, Gropp’s Famous Fish of Stroh, which was once three stores strong, is down to one location in Georgetown Square.

Is the fish no longer famous, or is it just a sign of the times?

“I just think there are more choices these days,” said Stacia Andriano, who owns Gropp’s with her husband, Fred. “And I think maybe they are thinking healthy and not wanting fried fish. But I can tell you this: When some of those people come in here thinking they are going to get baked fish or something healthful, they usually don’t. They get what they really want.”

What they want is the Famous Fish, and it is still great – lightly breaded, moist and flaky pollock with just a hint of sweetness that you just never want to stop eating. Add in some of Gropp’s super sweet tartar sauce and you will have no complaints.

But I did find something healthful that was just as impressive. The baked Parmesan fish featured the same pollock with a Parmesan bread crumb mixture beautifully browned on top. The fillets were flanked by a bright, fresh array of carrot, zucchini, red pepper, mushrooms and red potatoes, which made it as hearty as it was healthful.

Another great fish find – and another Indiana favorite – was the bluegill appetizer. Bluegill has a much more pronounced flavor. The small, thin fillets were similarly breaded but had more black pepper. They were arranged around a pile of zesty salsa made from red peppers, tomato and jalapeño, which completely transformed the fish, waking it up a bit and making the taste brighter and fresher. It was a much better starting choice than any of the other mundane fried offerings – shrimp, mushrooms, mozzarella sticks, etc.

Gropp’s offers two kinds of slaw as a side: creamy or sweet and sour. Neither was great, but the vinegar-based sweet and sour was better than the soupy creamy version with its soggy, lifeless cabbage. The hush puppies were on point with some herbs to brighten up the sweet fried cornmeal, but the best side I had was a bit of a surprise. The baked beans arrived in a mini crock, and the thick, rich, sweet, barbecued beans were joined in that crock by chunks of pulled pork and bacon.

I assume the pulled pork in those beans came from scraps of the meat used to make the pulled pork sandwich I tried. This hickory smoked pork did not have a strong smoky flavor, but it was moist and tender and had the right, slightly gamey richness a good hunk of pork should have.

The only entrée I did not like was the blackened catfish. The 8-ounce fillet was nice with the kind of fatty richness one looks for in catfish, but the blackening spice had a lot of fennel seed, which overpowered everything else. The seeds that were burned during the blackening process gave off a foul odor and gave the fish an off-putting bitterness.

The desserts did not leave a bitter taste in my mouth. During my first visit, I could choose only from pre-made offerings, such as carrot cake and Reece’s peanut putter pie – both of which were tasty – but to my delight, homemade apple pie was available during the second visit. Dutch and regular pies were baked fresh that day, and both were delicious.

The atmosphere at Gropp’s Famous Fish of Stroh was a delightful surprise. It was the perfect mix of clean and modern and retro cool.

Old photos from area lakes were everywhere, along with antique lake accoutrements such as inner tubes, skis and old signs with the names of those lakes. There was also a nifty mock pier hanging from the ceiling along one wall that held a tattered old canoe, an old boat motor and an old cooler. All of it really gave some character to what would normally be a rather sterile shopping-center space. My favorite detail was in the squeaky-clean men’s restroom – a loud pair of old Bermuda shorts your dad probably wore sometime in the ’70s with a just-as-gaudy camp shirt hanging on the wall.

Restaurant: Gropp’s Famous Fish of Stroh

Address: 6735 E. State Blvd.

Phone: 493-3700

Hours: 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday

Cuisine: American

Handicapped accessible: Yes

Alcohol: Beer and wine

Credit cards: Yes

Kid-friendly: Yes

Menu: Bluegill ($7.99), baked Parmesan fish (2-piece $11.99; 3-piece $12.99), Famous Fish (2-piece $11.49; 3-piece $12.99), pulled pork sandwich ($7.49), blackened catfish ($12.99)

Rating breakdown: Food: * (3-star maximum); atmosphere: *(1 maximum), service: 1/2 (1 maximum)

Note: Restaurants are categorized by price range: $ (less than $20 for three-course meal), $$ ($20-$29); $$$ ($30-$39), $$$$ ($40-$49), $$$$$ ($50 and up).

Ryan DuVall is a restaurant critic for The Journal Gazette. This review is based on two unannounced visits. The Journal Gazette pays for all meals. E-mail him at rduvall@jg.net, call at 461-8130. DuVall’s past reviews can be found at www.journalgazette.net, and you can hear Ryan from 3 to 4 p.m. every Thursday on 92.3 FM, The Fort.