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Tilia vs. Blackbird: Fish sandwich fisticuffs

Fish sandwich
Fish sandwich

A rose by any other name would smell as sweet, but would a fish sandwich, even if you insist on tarting it up and calling it a Fish Taco Torta or a Catfish Po' Boy? It's just fish, bread, and toppings, folks. No need for misleading Orwellian doublespeak. Whatever you want to call them, you don't need to use Lent as an excuse to try the fish sandwiches at Tilia and Blackbird Café.

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The Venue: Tilia in Linden Hills is classy and comfortable; at any time of day, you can eat there and feel special without feeling uptight or out of place. After a 2010 fire in its original location, Blackbird now occupies a sunny corner of Nicollet Avenue in South Minneapolis. Its high ceilings, high-backed wooden booths, and plentiful natural light both encourage and amplify big parties of congenial diners.

The Weigh-in: Tilia and Blackbird are not so different at heart. Both restaurants are neighborhood anchors that offer consistent, satisfying food at reasonable prices. But because Tilia's Fish Taco Torta caught Adam Richman's eye when he was trying to figure out the Best Sandwich in America two years ago, it enters this Food Fight as the favorite.

Round 1: The bun Traditional tortas are served on flatbread, and traditional po' boys are served on baguettes. Why aren't either of those breads used here? The world may never know. As long as the bread holds the sandwich together, though, there won't be any problems. But if a sandwich falls apart after the first bite or needs to be continuously and fearfully coddled like a blown-glass Christmas ornament, then it's no good. Tilia's bun does some heavy lifting with the sizable fish fillet, tortilla chips, and diced vegetables. But as functional as it is, it is fairly nondescript. Blackbird's bun is slightly sweet, soft, and toasted; this bun would make every sandwich in the world taste better.

 

Tilia's Fish Taco Torta
Tilia's Fish Taco Torta
Amy Dahlin

Round 2: The fish: Great news here: Neither fish is greasy. Tilia's batter is light and crispy, and the size of the fillet offers at least two great bites of white, tender, and oh-so-light fish on each side of the bun before you get to the main event. If you like the distinct and robust flavor of catfish, then you will appreciate the well-seasoned cornmeal crust on Blackbird's dish.

Blackbird's Catfish Po' Boy
Blackbird's Catfish Po' Boy
Amy Dahlin

Round 3: The fixins All great sandwiches enhance the main ingredient with some extra texture or flavour, and both places add crunchy contrasting ingredients to their fish. In a genius move, Tilia adds perfectly crisp tortilla chips to its finely diced tomatoes, jalapeños and tangy lime dressing. It is just the right amount of heat with a taco crunch. The pickled red cabbage and Cajun mayo on Blackbird's po' boy belongs to the same family of flavors, but the cabbage begs for just a bit more acid to cut through the dressing and play up the fish.

And the winner is... Tilia's fish taco torta. Torta? Not really. Taco? Nope. But don't let a label deter you from heading down to Linden Hills. There's a reason this sandwich commanded national attention.

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