Heston Blumenthal—the three-Michelin-starred British chef—has a very elaborate recipe for fish and chips. To make the chips, he doesn’t just double-fry; he also cooks them three times. First, he boils the hand-cut potatoes. Then he dries and cools them in the fridge before frying for the first time. Then comes the second drying period. When he finally plunges them into hot oil for the last fry, it’s hours later. Things get even more complicated with the fish. His batter involves vodka, beer and a carbonator that aerates it with CO2.
If you want to commit a whole afternoon to re-creating his recipe, Google “perfect fish and chips.” It’s the first hit on YouTube. Someday, I might attempt it, but I’ve already had plenty of fish and chips I can call perfect. It would be hard, for instance, to beat what I had at a chip shop in Christchurch, New Zealand. The fries were as thick as my thumb, canary yellow and the exact right ratio of crunchy exterior to fluffy interior. And the fish! It was encased in an ethereal cocoon of batter that, when broken, revealed flesh as pristine as snow.
Even though it looks like nothing I’ve ever had before, I’d also put up the rendition I recently ate at Little Fishermen’s Fish & Chips in Cypress as one of the very best—though Blumenthal might disagree. The chips here aren’t actually chips. Heck, they’re not even fries; they’re potato wedges, with the skins attached. Yet, thanks to the scrim of batter that covers them, they’re crisp, their insides fluffy and steamy. They’re the ideal basket mate for the fish, which, I dare say, is also perfect.
More specifically, it’s the Pacific halibut that’s perfect. Yes, you can have traditional cod, which Little Fishermen’s offers at a significantly lower price. But the few dollars more you spend on the halibut will yield dividends that prove great fish and chips doesn’t just depend on the batter or the number of Michelin stars earned by the person doing the frying; it’s the fish itself.
The halibut is simultaneously moister, firmer and more delicate than the cod. It’s as though it’s consciously trying to be better—the Kobe beef to the cod’s USDA Select. And since Little Fishermen’s fries every fish the same way, the difference becomes even more evident. From my counter seat, I watched as the fry cook dusted the raw pieces in flour, dunked them for a long soak in batter, then tossed them into the oil. What came out had the same color as the potato wedges, but with a crust that’s not much of a crust at all. In fact, it almost wasn’t there.
If I didn’t witness them being fried, I would’ve thought they weren’t battered, but rather breaded in flour. They reminded me of the fish produced by Lenten fish fries more than those from British pubs. This is all in service to the fish. The thin veneer does its job shielding the flesh from drying out in the oil, giving it just enough structural rigidity for you to pick it up and eat it.
When you do, it will be with gobs of tartar sauce, an Irma of malt vinegar, ketchup, and dribbles of hot sauce (either Tapatío, Cholula, Tabasco or a non-Huy-Fong brand of Sriracha). Little Fishermen’s supplies bottles of each on all tables. The assumption is that your deep-fried-heavy order will need them to stave off the grease, especially if you order the Fisherman’s Boat—a basket of shrimp, squid, cod and potatoes so massive and uniformly golden-colored you can’t tell one piece from the other.
After three visits, I’ve decided it’s best to stick with what comes out of the fryolator. It’s not that the Cajun-spiced grilled salmon bowl served over mushy rice pilaf, broccoli and shredded carrots isn’t well-cooked and flaky; it’s just that it’s an unnecessary reminder how much healthier it is, especially when someone across the table is tucking into a more decadent pile of fried food. When you’re at a place like this, your diet needs to be the last thing on your mind.
You should probably even skip the fish tacos, which were grilled when I ordered it, not fried like the way Anthony Bourdain had it when he ate at Shanghai Red’s in Palm Springs. (Little Fishermen’s is affiliated with Shanghai Red’s as part of the Fisherman’s restaurant empire.) I’ve also yet to touch the sandwiches or salads. I probably never will. But I have become addicted to the sweet potato fries here, which are waffle-cut and better than any other sweet potato fries I’ve ever had. I might even go so far as to call them . . . perfect.
Little Fishermen’s Fish & Chips, 5895 Katella Ave., Cypress, (714) 952-9465; littlefishermens.com. Open daily, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Meal for two, $20-$40, food only. Beer and wine.
Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, Edwin Goei went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.