When we hear tales of a proper fish and chips meal from the United Kingdom, we might conjure visions of Dickens' characters scurrying about in search of the quintessential British take away. The "Husky chips of potatoes, fried with some reluctant drops of oil" mentioned in The Tale of Two Cities was one of the earliest references to what has become the most common food for Brits from all walks of life.
The putrid cauldrons of boiling beef tallow were considered offensive by many in the early days, but after World War II fish and chips became more popular, found on many street corners, shops and vending carts.
Often wrapped in newsprint, the large chunks of cod were battered in a simple flour and water solution, and later beer was substituted to offer a light crispness imparted by the carbon dioxide. The beer also gave the crust a deeper flavor and richer, golden color.
The newsprint that the fish was served in eventually gave cause for controversy. A liberal Englishman might shun a perfectly fine order of fish wrapped in a conservative paper.
I caught up with Brit Jonathan Shelton from Peterborough, England, and he waxed loving memories of being a child enjoying his fish and chips.
"We would always have our fish and chips from the Chippy, and would soak the fish in salt and vinegar until the paper was sodden, the fish would stick to the paper but we didn't care. It was too good," he said. "Then Elf and Safety decided that it was unhealthy to be eating off other peoples old newspapers that they had been reading the day before, more than likely reading it on the toilet."
Shelton was, of course, referring to the Health and Safety, which would be equal to our Health Department. Seems they banned the old tradition of newsprint wrapped fish for the more modern waxed paper. But he still enjoys his meal served Ruby Murray and with mushy peas. Ruby Murray is cockney rhyming slang for the curry sauce that is also offered at many of the Chippy's.
With all this banter on fish and chips, I am eager to offer today's Toque to Toque challengers. Enter Sea Breeze Fish Market and Grill versus Old Monk for the great Fish and Chip Massacre.
Most people have their ideas of what constitutes proper fish and chips. With the many British expats and even more anglophiles, there seems plenty of options. I ate my weight in greasy fish fillets to find two of our cities finest examples of how you might be served fish and chips in the UK.
I started with Sea Breeze located in Plano on Preston Road. They not only serve up fresh seafood items in their bright suburb grill, they also sell fresh--for you to take home and cook yourself. All the seafood is brought in fresh daily and cooked to order. Sea Breeze has been serving fresh seafood for almost three years and is mostly famous for their incredible lobster roll.
I ordered my fish and was told it would take six minutes. While I waited I pressed my nose to the glass case and was entertained by one of the owners, Rick Oruch. He was working on a new recipe for a smoked salmon cake while helping the other customers.
Soon, my order arrived and I was in fish and chips euphoria. I sampled the fish and found it steaming hot and extremely fresh. The fish they serve is a thick cut haddock fillet. It is moist and very meaty, and the crust is extremely crunchy. The batter was a bit thicker than some of the examples I have tried previously. The chips were thin-cut service fries that were very close to those of McDonald's. Not the best, but not offensive.
I was served three rather large pieces of fish for lunch and was able to finish maybe half of the basketful.
Rick was rather proud of his fish fillets and when I spoke to him later he said that "we should all eat fish twice a week, and since it is Lent, three times. We are all about the fresh fish."
I let my fish swim around my belly a bit before heading to The Old Monk on Henderson. Old Monk might be best known for being an old fashioned-style pub. They offer many beers on tap, and even more by the bottle. They are also known for their great fish and chips, served pub-style.
I bellied up to the bar and ordered a pint and the fish. I wasn't finished with my first pint before my plate arrived. These were familiar fish and chips. Old Monk uses Atlantic cod, and envelopes the fish lightly in a Smithwicks Ale batter. They are served with thick steak cut-style fries that are crisp yet boast a creamy interior, and are accompanied by a homemade tartar sauce. There is also the obligatory malt vinegar that my brit friend Jonathan Shelton insists on using to soak down his fish.
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The beer batter used by Old Monk seems a bit lighter. The crunch is faint, but persistent. There seems to be a layer of air that separates the thick fish fillet and the crust, giving way to a surprising mouth-feel that screams cockney expletives like "bloody 'ell this fish is good enough for Jehovah."
Carsen Jacobsen, general manger of Old Monk told me that the Jehovah-pleasing factor was due to the Smithwick's Ale, and many trial and error recipes by the pub's chefs. He said they sell a lot of orders of fish and chips each week, and it's a favorite of their clients, outselling any other menu item two to one.
Today's victory was one of the toughest calls I have made to date. Each example of the fish and chips that I tasted were nothing short of amazing, and suggest you try them both. But there must be a victor.
For their unique recipe using a 300-year-old beer, the more authentic thicker cut potato and the crazy deity-pleasing taste, the win of today's challenge goes to Old Monk. But it was bloody close.