Friday, February 29, 2008
Fish on Fridays
Why is this fish sweating? He isn't. Fish can't sweat. They don't have sweat glands. But he does look rather distressed. Why does he look distressed? Because he was painted that way. He's not real.
If he did have the slightest understanding of human food ways, Fridays would be met with a great deal of anxiety indeed. There are more than one billion Catholics around the world.
And it's Lent.
My family was not the greatest model of a Catholic household. Neither son was an alter boy, holy days of obligation were not obligatory, and an experiment with Catholic school was an unmitigated disaster for my sister, ending with her prompt placement in a public school after her habit-wearing instructress was not-so-quietly removed in a piece of protective (for others) outerwear. So the story goes. But somehow, we always managed to eat fish on Fridays.
To my own horror, this invariably meant a tuna fish sandwich in my lunchbox, the smell of which permeated the plastic and even the skin of the accompanying brownish banana. I loathed this part of Lent. But, of course, Lent is about privation and penance. Lent is also about alms-giving, but try as I might, no one-- not even the poorest of my classmates-- wanted my tuna sandwich.
The one, bright, fish-related candle upon my Lenten cake was the occasional Friday foray to Anthony's Fish and Chips, a dark, wood panelled establishment housed in a mini-mall that smelled, unsurprisingly, of grease-- both from the fryer and from the heads of the old men that always seemed to be loitering around the place. My mother or sister would send themselves down the road to pick up a bright pink box filled with monoliths of battered cod and hot, steamy fried potatoes. Fish and Chips. It was the only seafood we ever saw as kids, barring the occasional shrimp cocktail. I loved it.
I had nearly forgotten how much I enjoyed fish and chips until it was suggested the other week that, while visiting friends in Redwood City, we all go have some for lunch.
We went to Al's Fish n' Chips on Roosevelt Boulevard, located in an unassuming mini-mall not unlike those of my suburban youth. It led me to question whether or not there was some sort of zoning law specifically targeting such establishments.
We ordered several items, but the fish and chips ($7.95 for a two-piece order) really stood out in my mind. It was (and I don't use this word often) perfect. A crisp, flavorful batter coating that complimented rather than competed with the tender, steamy cod inside. The chips were nearly the same. A tad thinner than the usual chunky chips associated with the dish, but still thick enough to produce both exterior crunch and inner steam. Everything we consumed there was fresh and really very good (the black beans? Yes, do try). I nearly wet myself with joy. And I cursed myself for not having my camera with me.
The following weekend, I rode up to Sausalito for a morning run to Heath Ceramics with my friend Mark. He suggested lunch at Fish nearby. There was no need to twist my arm. No guessing what we ordered.
I was a bit shocked at the sticker price-- $21.00 for beer-battered fish (3 pieces) and chips. It was, however, extremely good. I just had to tell myself that I was sitting in a restaurant in Sausalito and not in a suburban mini-mall. Perhaps the proximity of a bait and tackle shop adds incalculably more to property value than, say, a Tan n' Nails.
The final stop on my cod binge was a place in my neighborhood I've wandered by for years-- Piccadilly Fish n' Chips. A fire knocked it out of commission a little while back but it has returned. I ordered the 2-piece fish and chips, of course, for $6.95. Since this is classic English takeaway, I did just that. What made me happiest was the fact that my order was wrapped in newspaper-- the SF Weekly. I stifled any impulse I had to engage in Cockney rhyming slang, since I was the only person in the place apart from the sweet woman making my fish who is, I believe, Korean. And I'm not a Cockney. I took away my take-away.
When I arrived home, I found that the fish and chips had continued to steam as they snuggled in the Pink Section-- exactly what is supposed to happen. To my joy, the fish was still crispy, but not beer-battered. More tempura in style-- delicate, brittle and pock-marked. It was good. I ignored the small packets of tartar sauce and made my own impromptu condiment of mayonnaise, chopped sweet pickles and cider vinegar (since I didn't have the traditional malt vinegar handy). It worked in the pinch. Disappointing, however, were the chips. Rather soggy and bland. Of course, I am partly to blame. I was the first person in Piccadilly's door at 11:00 am and these were the first batch of chips of the day. I should have known better. The fish (and the price point) will bring me back.
All this battered cod and fries over the past few days. I'm actually not sick of it. Could you, my reading public (yes, all three of you) tell me of other, great places to go for a Friday Night Fish Fry? I'm all ears. And all stomach.
And now for the history lesson.
A Brief History of Fish and Chips
The potato has been known to the English since the late 16th century-- about the time that old canard about Sir Walter Raleigh introducing it to a grateful nation started making its rounds. According to The Straight Dope, the Irish refused to plant them, since potatoes were not mentioned in the Bible. They have since eaten their words. It was the French, naturally, who invented pommes frites, in the 1840's.
Fish has, not surprisingly, been known to the English for a much longer time. They live on an island, after all. Frying the fish is believed to have become popular in England in the early mid-19th century, even being mentioned in Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens.
There is a bit of controversy as to where the inspired idea of combining fried fish with fried potatoes first occurred. A Mr. Lees opened a fish and chip shop in Mossley, Lancashire in 1863 while a Mr. Joseph Malin opened his London shoppe in 1860. Or 1865. No one is certain. The National Federation of Fish Friers recognizes that both should share the Oscar. They ought to know, since an average of 300 million servings of fish and chips are served each year in Britain. That's six servings for every human.
Fish has a rather entertaining website, its map is drawn on a napkin.
350 Harbor Drive
Sausalito, CA 9465 (latitude and longitude also given)
Open seven days a week
11:30 am- 4:30 pm for lunch
5:30 pm- 8:30 pm for dinner
Piccadilly Fish and Chips
1345 Polk Street (at Pine)
San Francisco, CA 94109
Open seven days a week
Monday- Thursday 11 am - 11 pm
Friday 11 am - midnight
Saturday 11 am - 11 pm
Sunday 1 pm - 11 pm
Al's Fish n' Chips
2139 Roosevelt Avenue
Redwood City, CA 94061
Open seven days a week
Monday - Thursday 11 am - 8 pm
Friday - 11 am - 8:30 pm
Saturday - 11 am - 8 pm
Sunday - 11 am - 7:30 pm
* Oh. A food person's fun(ish) fact about Lent. Marie-Antoine Carême's last name means "Lent", derived from the Latin quadragesima. Go now, and impress your friends.