Batter Up: Betty's Fish and Chips is still going strong, as good as when this photo was taken.
Seeking the lightest of fishes and chips
By Sara Bir
How many of you here are British? What, three? Great, then. We won't be ruffling any feathers here. But we won't be taking any cheap potshots at British cuisine either, because what's the point? Trifle can be wonderful. And so can scones (real ones, not the mutated versions found at American bakeries), gigantic fatty roasted meats, and Branston Pickle. And fish and chips. Sometimes.
My favorite place to get fish and chips was the Old Vic, which was British, dingy, and Californian all at once. But the fish and chips themselves were excellent. Whenever I had a craving for fish and chips, it was for the Old Vic's fish and chips.
Now that the Vic has come to rest, we must seek other sources for fish and chips. It's been a bumpy road.
Before undertaking this damnation of my arteries, I telephoned a dear friend whose Scottish education and English husband would be of enormous informational wealth on this subject. "Tell me about fish and ships," I said. "The real ones."
"Hmm," she replied. "Well, a proper chips shop--or chippy--is a hole in the wall. Open late, so you can eat there when you are drunk, though if they have beer, it's probably just in cans. Décor: none. Like, none, nothing at all."
"And the food?" I asked.
"The fish itself, yeah. Golden-brown, crispy batter. Chips, I dunno. Often the chips will be undercooked and mushy, all at once. Potatoes cut in all different sizes--some big, some small. Maybe not enough small ones."
"So they are hunked up, just chipped up into random pieces?"
"Yes! A chipped-up potato. Usually I give them away."
Hmm. "Any tartar sauce?"
"No," she continued. "Tartar sauce would be too chichi. Malt vinegar, yes. Ketchup, maybe. If you ask for it, they'll just squirt it all over the fish and chips for you. Same with brown sauce."
Brown sauce, I learned, is like ketchup but less tangy and more peppery. And brown. "I don't really know what it is," my friend admitted.
The main difference between British fish and chips and American fish and chips is the chips; our chips are thinner and more frylike. Heretofore I will say "chips" but actually mean "chips/fries." From my friend's testimony, it seems that with our special American chips/fries, we are not missing out on much.
There are two other important differences: tartar sauce and coleslaw often appear with American fish and chips. And a lemon wedge, usually. I like to squeeze the lemon into my tartar sauce and dunk my chips in it.
Because we live in California, there is absolutely no sense in exactly replicating a British fish and chips shop here; adapting, yes. That is what Californians do: We adapt. My special adapted California criteria for good fish and chips are that they must (a) be cheap, (b) be tasty, and (c) furnish a dining experience not too far afield from the carefree, class-free origins of fish and chips. Oh, and beer is a huge plus.
My current favorite fish and chips are available in San Francisco at Edinburgh Castle, a Scottish pub in the Tenderloin that's Scottish down to the surly bartenders. If you order fish and chips there, they call the Chinese-run fish and chips shop across the street. Minutes later, a tiny, stooped Chinese woman comes shuffling over bearing parcels of fish and chips wrapped in Chinese newspaper. The fish and chips will stink up the whole place, and everyone who didn't order fish and chips will smell yours and stare at their half-empty pints and feel their half-empty stomachs tighten and wish that they, too, had ordered the fish and chips.
The Tenderloin is too damn far away, though. It was time to look elsewhere. I stopped in at the redundantly named Kitchen Avenue Kitchen and BBQ in Mill Valley. It's a newish, funky little place-- designed to be that way, and perhaps they've overdone it with the neon pig sign hanging in the back. I noticed they had fish and chips on the menu, an anomaly at a barbecue joint, but what the hey.
Ten dollars and 95 cents later, a plastic basket full of something remotely resembling fish and chips sat in front of me. First off, I smelled garlic--flash-sautéed chopped garlic and parsley scattered over the fish and chips. Everyone knows that garlic does not hang out with fish and chips! The tartar sauce was nicely lemony, and the watery coleslaw benefited from bits of pineapple here and there. But the fish: big loss.
Four fat, finger-sized pieces sat, dark brown and puffy, atop a greasy lettuce leaf. The batter had been applied too thickly, and its interior was thick, undercooked, and pasty. Plus, I detected the bite of cayenne pepper in the batter. Taking liberties with fish and chips is OK, but there has to be logic underlying it. For a meal presented in a plastic basket, $10.95 is way too much.
If you want cheap ($4.99 for a one-piece meal), go to Cape Cod Fish 'N' Chips in Cotati, right next to Oliver's. It's tiny, dark, and dingy. Ooh, very chippy. And the chips are actually chip-shaped, with a crisp coating of the texture and color of curly fries. Not trad, but edible.
The fish was OK, though the batter was overseasoned in an unplaceable, processed way. The coleslaw was gloppy and hunky and too raw. Plus, their brand of malt vinegar, Four Monks, is too mild--not nearly malty or piquant enough. Beer: none. Sigh.
Jasper O' Farrell's does have the beer, thank you, it being primarily a pub; hence it's also dark, partially seedy, and full of mirrored things. At midday, a few crusty types were sitting at the bar, tucking into plates of fish and chips. Very soon, I joined them.
The $6.75 one-piece deal was, for bar food, priced reasonably. The food was comfortingly unremarkable: salty chips that could have been fried a bit longer and flaky white fish whose batter was leavened a little too much, imparting a flakiness to the coating. Their tartar sauce was chunkier than most, with possibly a hint of horseradish, and I swear to God their coleslaw had sesame oil in it. Unexpected but undisrupting, it added some spunk to the whole deal.
Jasper O' Farrell's is a cool place with a lot of character. You could get better fish and chips, but that's not entirely the point.
Better chips can be had for sure at Market--An American Restaurant, a fancy, recently opened spot in downtown St. Helena. The restaurant has quite a pedigree--veterans from the French Laundry, Farallon, and Gary Danko restaurant are principals--but its menu's focus is squarely on high-end comfort food. The champagne-battered fish and chips I had there ($11) were beautiful: three golden cod fillets, freshly borne from the deep fryer and yet grease-free. The chips were perfectly crisp and shoelace-skinny.
This is all a question of place. I do not want to go to, say, Le Cirque and order a hot dog, no matter how good that hot dog could possibly be, because it could never be as good as a $1 street-cart hot dog. As excellent as Market's fish and chips are, I cannot bring myself to fully endorse them, because Market is way too nice a place to be a proper home to fish and chips.
There's always Betty's. Our former staff writer, Paula Harris, reviewed it in 1998. It hasn't changed much since then, and her review (search for "Betty's Fish and Chips" in the www.metroactive.com archives) is still right-on.
Personally, I say the most promising fish and chips configuration would be to transfer the kitchen staff of Market to the premises of Cape Cod Fish 'N' Chips, and add a keg of Bass Ale. Something tells me that's not going to happen.
Kitchen Avenue Kitchen and BBQ
72 E. Blithedale Ave., Mill Valley. 415.381.2936.
Cape Cod Fish 'N' Chips
548 E. Cotati Ave., Cotati. 707.792.0982.
Market--An American Restaurant
1374 Main St., St. Helena. 707.963.3799.
Jasper O' Farrell's
6957 Sebastopol Road, Sebastopol. 707.823.1389.
Betty's Fish and Chips
4046 Sonoma Hwy., Santa Rosa. 707.539.0899.
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From the May 1-7, 2003 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.