The air in the Dock’s at 87th and State is thick with wafts of today’s well-seasoned grease. Not old grease—I can tell because old deep-fryer grease weighs down the air around it; weighs down the food cooked in it; turns light yellow cornmeal into coffee brown and sends the dregs of last week’s fried chicken down with every bite.
The smell of what must be onion and garlic powders permeates everything. My eyes water in part from anticipation and in part from the well-crafted pungency of Dock’s’ fish batter. The small shop’s single flat-screen TV is mounted high on one wall and is tuned to ESPN, broadcasting Sunday’s maladies: blowouts, turnovers, and favorites to win—losing badly. The radio is on an R&B station playing just loud enough to fill the room, serving up Kem and Anita Baker to the waiting guests.
This location of Dock’s, a thirty-five year old Black institution for Chicago-style fried fish, has steadily remained in its corner spot in the Chatham Ridge shopping mall at 87th and State for many years, even as other locations—such as the ones on the West Side and on 79th and State—have gone. They open at 11am Monday through Saturday and at noon on Sunday, and, no doubt about it, there is always a line. It frequently runs ten people deep, with another fifteen folks in the booths waiting for their food. Why? In this extremely popular establishment, there is only one person manning the register, answering phones, making drinks (including shakes), and bagging and handing off takeout. As a culinary professional, I know that in a business of this volume, each one of these duties can be fulfilled by a different person. Here, there is one Black lady, moving with intentionality, speed, and what looks like multiple arms.
In big-tent salesman fashion, Dock’s boasts promises to their patrons on a poster tacked to the wall for all to see. I feel that measuring a restaurant against their own claims is one of the most surefire ways to gain the full picture of a place. In most areas Dock’s is true to their word, but in one key area the Docks on 87th fails their patrons. Here, I will be evaluating each bullet pointed promise against Dock’s’ delivery, highlighting the triumphs and opportunities.
The Weekly has not independently verified any of these claims. The reviewer’s statements are those of observation, experience, and opinion.
“All meals are freshly prepared… FAST!”
The fish may be fried but it ain’t fast. I repeat: THIS. IS. NOT. FAST. FOOD. Each ticket is cooked to order. In the twenty times I’ve been here since moving back to Chicago this past winter, everyone in this place waits: even the Uber Eats drivers who are picking up pre-orders, they wait. In the past, I’ve waited over forty-five minutes just to have my order taken and another forty-five minutes for the order to be prepared.
Over the past year, I’ve tried a number of ways to cut this order time. Calling in? The number listed on Google is wrong and even when you call the right one, eight out of ten times no one answers. Uber Eats? This is fried fish, best when scalding hot, and delivery tends to steam the order in the bag while letting the heat escape, leaving you with soggy, cold—but still tasty—fish. These days I tend to try and come when they open, when the ever-present line is at its shortest. I order, then grocery shop next door while they make it, to save time. On a recent visit, I’m lucky. The line is light and moving fast. Ten minutes to order. Fifteen to fry. I eat in.
“We serve the whole filet broken pieces become tasty nuggets”
Frequently when I am looking to change things up I will order the Sea Nuggets. Usually treated elsewhere as a remainder dish—made from the remainder of the preparation of another menu offering—the nuggets here, as promised, are a star, made from broken fillets and trimmings of mainly whiting. They are one of the most popular menu items. Coated in Dock’s’ signature breading, they are light, flavorful, and served in hungry-man portions. I can never finish an order, even a small one, in a single sitting. Like everything else here, the Deep Sea Nuggets starting at $5.29 are well priced for the amount and quality of the food you get.
“Our proprietary breading are light…but so flavorful!”
The breading here is more of a dusting than a full coating and this seafood is seasoned within an inch of its life. In my opinion, the tastiness of the breading is one of the main reasons Dock’s has been a staple on the South Side for over three decades. Don’t get me wrong, there are other establishments whose fish is as good or better than Dock’s’, but few have a customer base as rabidly loyal. Folks will wait in their cars for the better part of an hour just to bring a little bit of it home. In my opinion this is in no small part due to the breading.
“Our whole wheat buns are natural grain…no preservatives added.”
Dock’s does a few things that are out of the ordinary. Aside from their competitive pricing, their famous Fishwich Sandwich (made with whiting) is served on wheat buns. Wheat buns—not white bread slices as is typical of fried fish establishments. Dock’s serves slices of wheat bread with all of their filet orders as well. They say that their bread is natural with no preservatives added. (Now, “natural” is one of those terms that sounds like everything and means exactly nothing. Though tossed around by health advocates and major food brands, “natural” has no enforced standards and is therefore an empty phrase.) I can say that the bread, which does not fall apart as you eat it, does do a great job of soaking up the oil from the whiting filets.
“We cook in 100% cholesterol-free vegetable oil.”
Old oil reeks and you can smell it in the air of an establishment perverse enough to neglect their deep fryer. Old animal fat, like lard, has an even stronger smell. It sticks with you, too, in your hair, your clothes. The smell can stay with you all day after eating in the wrong fried food spot. What is worse is what it does to your insides: bubble gut and heartburn. The slick feeling at the back of the throat. The belching up of bad decisions. I have never had this experience at Dock’s. The fish is light. Their batter is always golden and not an overused brown. Also probably part of the reason this place has such a loyal following.
“Our ‘Big Shrimp’ are the largest and meatiest you find anywhere.”
On 87th Street, for the price, you can’t beat the Shrimp Tease special. For $2.69 plus tax, Dock’s will treat you to five shrimp, tail on, each an inch to an inch-and-a-half in diameter, with a side of crackers and a packet of what is essentially cocktail sauce.
The shrimp will be perfectly fried, which in my opinion is fried to a crisp, not fried to a tooth-cracking crunch. The Tease is a great accompaniment dish to any other item on the menu—a little something extra to go with your fillets of catfish or perch.
Jumbo shrimp are a long-standing favorite of mine since childhood. My first time eating them was with a friend and her mom in Beverly. The clerk fried up the shrimp that my friend and I picked out and we scarfed down our bounty in the car. Sweet and whole and dressed in just the right amount of grease, we ate them so quickly that the smell of fried shrimp barely had time to permeate the car. Until that moment I had only had them heavily breaded, birthed from white boxes tucked in the back of the freezer. Dock’s is the closest I get to this childhood memory of hot and fresh.
…But the wait. The wait for these well-seasoned classics is a major factor. And to top it off today is the fourth day in a row that the credit card machine has been out of order. I’ve seen the cashier get cursed out on multiple occasions because of the wait, so on the way out, I asked Shakicia, the day’s one-woman counter band, how she deals with angry patrons, having myself been one on a few occasions. “I don’t pay them no mind. I listen, give them a refund if they want, and let them talk to my manager—she’s good at calming folks down.”
Rating: 3.5 out of 5. 1.5 stars off for the wait.
Dock’s, 112 W. 87th St. (773) 723-6320.
Other Dock’s locations:
4011 W. 167th St., Country Club Hills, IL. (708) 206-1919
321 E. 35th St. (312) 929-2336.
AV Benford is a Food and Land Editor at South Side Weekly.