A lone Captain D's Seafood Kitchen somehow stays afloat in metro Denver -- at 605 South Havana Street in Aurora. But while there are four more Captains in Colorado Springs and one in Pueblo, Long John Silver's has fourteen locations in Denver alone. Why all the local love for Long John, when the Captain actually has much better food?
I've driven, bussed and cabbed my way all over Denver, but Aurora is still a big mystery to me. I found the Captain D's by accident, and got all tweaked to have lunch there because I grew up in the Midwest where there are plenty of Captain D's stores. There are plenty of Long John Silver's there as well, but I always chose the Captain because its food costs the same and is waaaaay less salty, and the kitchen offered a selection of un-breaded seafood before it was trendy.
On the other hand, the service at both chains is perpetually lousy, so no competition there unless someone is giving a "Whose Fast Food Employees Can Give Less of a F*ck?" award, and the ambiance at both Long John's and Captain D's is so fishing boat-fake that they makePirates of the Caribbean look classy and understated. At last both serve those delicious fried batter-crumbies.
The Aurora Captain D's did not confound my expectations on any level; the store was run-down on the outside, scraggly and greasy on the inside -- with silver duct-taped chair cushions. Although D's execs announced in 2012 that they were doing chain-wide, massive image upgrades to "enhance the Captain D's experience for our guests" to "create a coastal ambiance and welcoming atmosphere that transports you to your favorite beachside destination as soon as you walk through our doors," they haven't done Captain Jack Squat to this store.
But the pervasive aroma of fried fish was inviting, I could see from the above-counter menu board that the food was still relatively inexpensive, and there was a menu full of the same old favorites as well as a few new items. I hadn't ordered from a D's in well over a decade and I was afraid this Denver-ish mirage would vanish before I could make a return trip, so I got a bit of everything with a 3-piece fish platter ($6.99), the variety platter ($8.99), the seafood lover's platter ($9.99) and a single-serving chocolate cake ($1.79), with a tiny ganache swirl.
The three employees didn't bother to exercise even the most rudimentary social skills -- like smiling, giving some sort of greeting or even being polite -- but that was comfortably consistent with my recollection. I tucked into a greasy booth with a greasy table stuck in the middle, and waited about twenty minutes for my fried feast to arrive. The food was everything that I remembered and more (or less, in the case of the chicken planks). The battered and fried cod strip was burning hot and solid inside and the outer layers were light, crispy and mercifully low-sodium, which is my biggest gripe about the fish planks at Long John Silver's. Captain D's variety platter nets you two fish planks, four breaded shrimp, hush puppies, two sides (get the cole slaw, which is top-notch for fast-food slaw) and two of those seafood-stuffed crab shells.
The crab shells are the signature items at Captain D's: bony, boiled crab carcasses crammed with a red-bell-pepper-heavy bread stuffing with a few strands of probably-fake crab in it. These were as appealing as they were when I was a stoned teenager digging at them in my car after a right-before-closing-drive-thru run. The hush puppies were the perfect little oniony dough balls of my memories, with mealy insides and airy outsides, in no need of malt vinegar (unlike LJS's version). And the breaded shrimp were meaty with a light crumb breading.
The seafood lover's platter brought a rather pale grilled salmon filet and a pasty grilled shrimp skewer over a bed of rice. These weren't so much grilled as possibly boiled, and the rice was staring death in the face, but Old Bay seasoning can make up for a lot, and the worst platter at D's is still better than the best one at Long John Silver's.
So why does Captain D seem stuck on the shore, while Long John Silver's is going full steam ahead?
Here's the back story: In 1969, Shoney's introduced a fast-food seafood concept called Mr. D's Seafood and Hamburgers, named after Ray Danner, co-founder of Shoney's, Inc. In 1974 the company ditched the burgers to focus on the fish and changed the name of the chain, then fifteen restaurants strong. Today there are just shy of 600, concentrated in the South and Midwest.
Long John Silver's also started up in 1969, in Kentucky (what's up with the seafood places being birthed so far inland?), and grew to over 1,200 locations worldwide. The company has changed hands a couple of times and ended up in bankruptcy. It was finally acquired by Yum! Brands and was co-branded with Yum!'s other chains, including A&W Restaurants, KFC, Taco Bell and Pizza Hut. In 2011 Yum! Brands sold Long John Silver's/ A&W Restaurants to a group of Long John Silver's franchisees, LJS Partners LLC, which has given the two chains enough TLC to see steady increases in sales, market shares and net worth. More upscale makeovers for the stores are planned through 2016.
After changing hands a few times, Captain D's was bought by investment firm Sun Capital Partners Inc., which already owns successful chains like Boston Market, Bruegger's, Fazoli's and Friendly's. Sun Capital execs now hope to pull up the Captain D's anchor and get this number two fast-seafood chain sailing the seas of profit -- and I'm rooting for them to overtake Long John Silver's.
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I'm a sucker for the underdog -- and an even bigger sucker for the Captain's fish planks and stuffed crab shells. Especially since they won't leave you swimming in a sea of salt.