Before you hear the word "haddock" uttered in a thick Boston accent, or picture Industrial Revolution-era U.K. and its hungry proletariat, you should trace the roots of fish and chips back to the Jewish sabbath (specifically the Spanish Andalusians' of the 16th century) and Sephardic migration to England, which brought pescado frito.
By the mid-19th century, Charles Dickens was giving the crispy dish shout-outs, and today you can't be a respectable pub if you can't pair a plate with the house Guinness tap. A wide range of white fish will do, though cod's probably most common, and good luck finding any eatery to fry you an order with the traditional fat of lard or tallow.
Accouterments vary internationally, but malt vinegar, tartar and/or a fresh lemon squeeze have gained preeminence. Americans of course demand ketchup for their fries and have come to expect coleslaw as a side, which on its own was introduced to the U.S. by Dutch immigrants, but mostly gets associated with Southern cuisine nowadays. So, meet a melting-pot dish and four top versions in town.
The best fish and chips this side of the pond
At McCabe's Tavern (520 S. Tejon St., 633-3300, mccabestavern.com), owner Greg Howard says he'd tried hundreds of different fish-and-chips renditions while living in New England for many years. So when it came time to design his own ($11.75), "I played around a little bit." For one thing, Howard goes with one large Alaskan cod strip (yes, actually caught there) for "shock value," less batter overall and a "light buttery flavor."
First comes a Harp lager beer-battering with flour, onion and garlic powder, salt and pepper and a key input of baking powder that results in a noticeably crunchy shell that quickly yields to a fluffy interior. Work quick at the table, though, as the fish's bottom sogs a bit in pooled oil.
Piquant pickle acidity in the house tartar accentuates all the protein softness well, but the killer side curry dip stars, as always, when it meets properly crunchy fries (not house-cut), also seasoned with onion, garlic, salt and pepper. McCabe's slaw ranks high for crispness and an overall fresh crunch; Howard's staff makes it five times throughout the day to keep it from getting soggy. Red and green onion bits also give it a stylized bite.
When looking at value, thoughtfulness and heart, plus overall strength of each component, McCabe's just edges out the competition.
It's safe to assume that nobody's delivered fish and chips to C-Springs longer than The Broadmoor's The Golden Bee (1 Lake Ave., 577-5776, broadmoor.com). If you for some reason can't feel the history in the décor, it'll greet you on a tributary sheet of replica 1918 newspaper that soaks up fryer oil between your plate and all the good stuff.
The dish, though, has certainly been modernized over time. When executive sous chef David Patterson arrived a couple of years ago, the Bee was closed for renovations, so he took time to study old menus and redevelop recipes, "while preserving their identity and hanging onto tradition."
What that equates to today is 6 ounces of fresh East Coast cod halved into fingers. Bristol Brewing Co.'s Beehive Honey Wheat lends carbonation to aid baking powder for loft. All-purpose flour and cornstarch are joined by paprika, onion powder, white pepper and Kosher salt as the remainder of the batter, made fresh before lunch and dinner service daily. The final fried product holds a golden color with dark highlights and good crunch and flavor.
House-cut fries are a little limp despite pre-blanching and cooling, but they sport crisp edges and a nice salt kick. House tartar's classically prepared and familiar, and the real highlight is Patterson's addition of vibrantly green mushy peas. Contrary to "drab and warm" tradition, his are served cold, with mint, a touch of olive oil lemon zest and salt and pepper as a "nice counterpoint" to the fried food, also evocative of Indian flavors. This overall lovely affair would have taken top honors were it not for the $16 price tag: just too steep, five-diamond-hotel status or not.
Chef John Tutko designed the fish and chips for Jack Quinn Irish Alehouse & Pub (21 S. Tejon St., 385-0766, jackquinnspub.com) when the spot first opened in 1998, and almost nothing has changed with the recipe since. General manager Les Bridger does note that when he arrived a couple of years ago, the staff re-tested several cod options and chose a new-to-them Atlantic cod that held its weight and texture nicely after thawing, gifting customers more protein for the price. Now, thoughtfully, five-ounce fillets are halved and served on two-, three- or four-piece plates ($8.50/$10.50/$12.50) with all the fixins.
The batter's a very simple mix of flour, baking powder and salt, plus Busch lager (not served at the bar, mind you) for its "light flavor that lends to a light fish, without heavy beer flavor in it," says Bridger. On the plate, the fish appears in tempura-like egg roll shapes, and mine are somewhat unevenly fried: One piece is perfectly crispy and crunchy on the more-fried side, another less so, and a third releases from the meat like a sleeve with a mushy lining. A traditional tartar receives it well.
Wedge-cut spuds are brought in bearing a sandy texture from a beef-stock-and-flour blend baked onto the skin, plus garnishing Kosher salt. Those are best dipped in a unique and presumably locally exclusive Marie Rose sauce. Traditionally tomato, mayo and Worcestershire in England, here it's a mix of egg, brown sugar, cider vinegar, sour cream, Dijon, paprika and other spices. Red and green cabbage and carrots inform a basic, mildly tangy, twice-daily-made slaw of mayo, white wine vinegar, sugar, salt and pepper. It's an enjoyable eat, but not our winner.
The best-selling fish and chips at Wyatt's Pub & Grill (806 Village Center Drive, 598-4100, wyattspub.com) finds Pangasius fish (a farm-raised, freshwater catfish also called swai) battered in Fuller's London Pride beer. Co-owner Todd Wyatt calls the beer "the key for us," noting the English pale ale's subtle caramel notes and sufficient carbonation.
Next, he likes the fish because he finds it more flavorful than cod, and higher in oil, which he feels maintains a juiciness inside his batter, which is otherwise a fine flour and basic spices, including paprika, salt and pepper.
A basket ($11.45) includes three butterflied pieces, thinly battered and only mildly crunchy under the fork; indeed the protein seems more buttery and softer than cod, almost mushy at thick points. A great house tartar bursts with pickle flavor and acidity, which highlights the fish well. Wyatt uses both pickle juice and relish, plus mustard, mayo and horseradish, gifting an almost egg-salad appearance. By contrast, the slaw's less crunchy and missing a nice tang, plus being on the wetter side.
Bought waffle fries are pretty soft and in need of a condiment dip — ketchup's just fine. As is the whole experience.
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