Los Angeles is having a seafood moment. New-age clam shacks and haute oyster bars are tucking into neighborhood spaces and building out into massive new digs at an unbelievable pace. Even the lobster roll, that sometimes rubbery, thick with mayonnaise or hot with butter lunch snack, is popping up in unexpected places all of a sudden. Yet for all the newness of these oceanic delights, there is one seafood dish that can be found on the menu of most any restaurant with a fryer in the back: the fish & chips.
It is a long-standing dish, iconic enough to score it's own ampersand (as in “fish & chips”, not “fish and chips”). These are not two separate food items that happen to share a plate — they are intrinsically linked in a dance of lusty oil and crunchy desires, while a bottle of malt vinegar flirts around the edges. Ask any Brit, and they'll tell you that fish & chips is late night food, a perfect swan song of starchy potatoes to soak up the evening and a plank of white fish to keep you from feeling too heavy in the morning. Over the pond, it's often just wrapped inside a newspaper, because you don't even need a fork to finish this dish. It's a perfect pairing already.
For our purposes, we wanted to look at places around Los Angeles that approximate the United Kingdom's version of fish & chips. That is to say, a slab of white fish (usually Icelandic or Alaskan cod, with some haddock exceptions) that's been battered with flour and fried, with crispy salted French fries and a pour or two of malt vinegar to boot. This list contains no panko crusting, no salmon, no sweet potato fries, no “you buy we fry” fish markets; just great fish and tasty fries that work towards — or riff on — the notion of quintessential British fish & chips. Here are the ten best we've found.
10. Water Grill
As perhaps L.A.'s most iconic seafood restaurant, it's no wonder that Water Grill serves up a mean fish & chips. It also helps that their relatively new chef Damon Gordon is a native Brit with a love of all things fresh from the water. The downtown Water Grill location emerged from a serious revamp with a more open, inviting feel and plenty of eye candy access to the well-lit kitchen in the back. What tends to emerge from back there is fresh and vibrant, with the same simple touch of class you'd expect from Water Grill.
The fish & chips are no exception. Instead of medium-sized, craggy logs of indiscernible fish, the fried cod at Water Grill is smooth, thick and buttery. Fork through the hulking single chunk of cod for waves of juicy, tender flesh inside. With all that mass, you'll want to flake on some sea salt or add a squirt of lemon to help cut through the natural oils. The sharp, vibrant tartar sauce also helps in that department. The potatoes are served separately and have been triple-fried, which means they are shatteringly crispy but lack the full, creamy richness you might be looking for in a spud. Also, by leaving a little room for the baby Jesus between these two dance partners, the fries never get the opportunity to soak up some of that juice and oil. It's a bit of a shame, but nothing you won't be willing to forgive with a hefty forkful of freshly fried cod. 544 S. Grand Ave., Downtown; 213-891-0900.
Beer drinkers have already heard of Lucky Baldwin's, the Old Town Pasadena haunt that's home to 63 taps and a bottle line up that is constantly astounding. If you stick around those pint glasses long enough, you'll start to notice something: everyone around you keeps ordering the fish & chips. That's because the freshly battered cod plate is the perfect antidote to an afternoon spent soaking up suds, and everyone knows it. Thanks to British expat David Farnworth, who opened the pub in 1996, the well-fried fish & chips have been a staple for Pasadena drinkers for almost 20 years.
The fish & chips here are served English-style, which is to say: wider, thicker fries and a side of peas. A half order is enough for most, with the oblong fish spanning nearly the entire plate. There's an uneven batter to the cod, heavy and saturated at some points and thin, almost transparent at others. Still, the misshapen fry is almost endearing to the place, a sign that your order was freshly dipped just moments before. Besides, isn't Lucky Baldwin's still a little rough around the edges itself? As for the steak fries, they offer a surprisingly crisp exterior, with lots of starchy goodness inside to soak up the bottles of HP malt vinegar. You'll find some sogginess down at the bottom of the plate, but with a fork and a rodeo of peas to corral all the last little bits, it's a still a satisfying finish. 17 S. Raymond Ave., Pasadena; 626-795-0652.
8. Hot Red Bus
Billing itself as the “L.A.'s FIRST British Indian Chip Shop”, Hot Red Bus in Alhambra is all about reclaiming a bit of England's fish & chips magic here on the West Coast. Inside, Union Jack flags are like hidden Mickeys at Disneyland; once you spot the first one, you start to notice that they're everywhere. As are images of the namesake double decker red buses that toot through London, and the occasional piece of British kitsch. Hot Red Bus is really trying to sell the true chip shop brand, that's for sure.
The same holds true for the menu, which is practically overrun with Indian-influenced dishes. There are balti rice bowls, lots of chicken tikka, a vindaloo burger and tandoori chicken wings. But if you're here for the fish & chips, your only option is the swai fish, a moist, slightly coarse white fish from southeast Asia. The thin, long strips are lightly battered, which means you'll have to hit the curled edges to find some serious crunch. Still, the flesh is plenty tasty, with bright and almost slightly sweet taste that works well with the vinegar-laced tartar sauce or housemade curry ketchup. The fries are standard fare, perfectly squared at the edges for easy bundling and dipping, but need a dose of salt to really pop to life. Most authentic of all, Hot Red Bus imports their tangy Sarson's Vinegar, which has long been a staple across the pond. 31 E. Main St., Alhambra; 626-576-2877.
The fish you'll find at Malibu Seafood can't get much closer to its home than it already is. The Pacific is a literal stone's throw from the parking lot of this longtime PCH shack in Malibu. It's about the only thing you'll actually see along this quiet stretch of shoreline, which means you can expect a line out the door during the summer time. Salty surfers, Malibu heavy hitters and tourists all queue up together for a chance at the fish & chips here, and with good reason.
The long, rectangular pieces of cod you'll find in your basket don't exactly look like the asymmetrical fish you'll find out to sea, but that's mostly to do with sliced uniformity in Malibu Seafood's delivery. There are lots of folks after these golden fried fish pieces, so keeping things relatively precise is just part of the equation. Besides, the fish itself is worth a shaved corner or two, particularly when it comes to the dense batter that envelops the cod. This is greasy roadside stuff, meant to be picked up with your fingers and swallowed in large mouthfuls. The underside pile of pale skin-on fries receive all of that grease and tiny batter droppings, making Malibu Seafood the perfect drunk food — if it weren't so far of a drive. 25653 Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu; 310-456-3430.
The Whale & Ale is San Pedro's home for fish & chips. Their Icelandic cod iteration has pulled in plenty of local awards, including back-to-back CityVoter nods for best fish & chips. Granted, sleepy San Pedro isn't exactly overrun with old world British pubs serving fried fare, but the positive affirmations from locals is not without merit.
A $12 plate of fish & chips from the bar seems simple enough: darkly browned cod, wide, thin cries, a lemon wedge and a dump of tartar sauce. But the secret is in the fish, which comes tender and gently flaky, with an even brown coating that smacks of salt and pepper and lots and lots of times spent dunking fish into hot oil. There's almost a built-in depth to the fish, with years behind the simple batter and sizzling pockets of grease. This is the sort of fish that requires a pint of British ale as much as it does a slap of malt vinegar. The unspectacular fries should be fanned out in a single layer underneath the fried cod so as not to miss a single ounce of fried batter or tender, salted flesh. A few more pints in, and you may just find yourself ordering another award-winning plate of the stuff. 327 W. 7th St., San Pedro; 310-832-0363.
Good luck getting a lunchtime table at this popular Santa Monica spot. The lines at Santa Monica Seafood can be enough to deter even the most stubborn hopeful diner, but if anything it's a testament to the market cafe's success. If you don't mind rubbing elbows with a neighboring eater or drooling over dozens of hand-shucked oysters being prepared right next to you, consider grabbing a chair at the bar. Otherwise, drop your name on the list and hold out for a tabletop: it's worth the wait.
You won't find fresher Alaskan cod than inside the fish & chips at Santa Monica Seafood, given their longstanding reputation as top quality fishmongers. One $15 order comes with a few medium-sized pieces, each battered and flash-fried to create an unbelievably crispy exterior. The batter is also salted first, which means you'll be getting a hunk of cod that's had a few moments to soak up all of that salty perfection. Add a squirt of lemon to lighten things up and then dunk away in some of the best tartar sauce you'll find. It's zippy without being overwhelmingly vinegar-heavy, and the mayonnaise has been perfectly settled by the surrounding ingredients. The fries are also among the best you'll find, served skin on and lightly fried. They are whispy reminders of what satisfying little things potatoes can be. 1000 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica; 310-393-5244.
Plenty of people bemoaned the loss of Bit O'Scotland on Westwood Boulevard when it closed, ostensibly taking with it some of the best fish & chips in the whole city. Thankfully, the Jacoby family also operates two locations of their beloved John O'Groats, a breakfast-heavy destination for West L.A. Encino diners. The perfectly flaky fish & chips migrated onto the menus there, although much of the old Bit O'Scotland crowd may have no idea that the very dish they lust after still exists around the corner.
At John O'Groats (named after a Scottish town at the tip of England), traditional tartan check patterns run everywhere, alongside Scottish flags and lots of old folks itching to relax with a newspaper and a big plate of scrambled eggs. For the Fox execs and anyone else who manages to get a lunchtime table at the West L.A. location, spotting a plate of fried Icelandic haddock is as easy as finding someone bellied up to one of the famous O'Groats bacon cheddar biscuits. The fish is everywhere, tinged an impossibly even golden brown, with lightly fried nubs of popped oil running the length of the thin fish. The flaky insides are just as moist as you could ever want, without falling apart into your cup of tartar sauce. Even the fries, long and dense under a heavy shake of seasoning salt, seem impossibly well-rounded. If the pieces of haddock were bigger, the fries a little greasier, you might be able to close your eyes and imagine yourself standing at a chip shop somewhere in the north of Scotland, tasting for yourself the true beginnings of fish & chips. 10516 W. Pico Blvd., West L.A.; 310-204-0692.
Fresh fish is to be expected along the South Bay coast, where clam shacks and fishermen dive bars practically fall into the sea due to overcrowding. But Fishbar in Manhattan Beach is something different — something more. Yes, there's lots of wood paneling and hanging fish nets for effect, but there's also a well-stocked shelf of top tier liquor, freshly baked sourdough loaves with every meal and a Bloody Mary that will knock the previous night's stink right off of you.
Their fish & chips is just as surprising. Instead of the overly greasy, chewy gut bombs you'll find at a lot of beachside eateries, the key to Fishbar's success lays in its restraint. Three lightly fried strips of cod seasoned simply, without too much peppery heat or salty sharpness. The batter is light and fun, served almost soft in the middle but with prodigious crustiness at either end. Each bite is a mix of supremely fresh white fish, with enough satisfying crunch and finger-shining oils to activate every taste sensor in your brain. The skin-on fries have been watched with care as well, lacking both the over-fried bites of a too long fry or the undercooked middle of a potato that needed a bit more time. Splashed with a heavy pour of malt vinegar, the fries are exactly where they belong: under the fish. That is, until you scrape your plate clean. 3801 Highland Ave., Manhattan Beach; 310-796-0200.
2. Golden State
Fish & chips as good as the ones at Golden State don't come around every day — literally. It's a Friday only special at this Fairfax burger bar, which means you'll want to scoot over there right after work, or risk the kitchen running out. Assuming you arrive in time, be sure to grab a pint of beer to go along with your table and order number. After all, you'll want to remember those malty, bready notes from your glass once your fish arrives; there's a good chance it's been battered in the same stuff you're drinking.
While the idea of beer-battering fish is nothing new, it's an elevated art at Golden State. There is a prodigious crust on every piece of Icelandic cod that comes from the kitchen, light and crackly but with a depth from the beer that's hard to match. There's just something more fully realized about the beer batter at Golden State, from the malty undertones to the ample herbs that coat the fish. It's a clean bit of fish, unencumbered by too much oil or fat. The fries are much the same way, thin but sturdy, fully seasoned and with just enough backbone to not fade away under the strength of its accompanying dish. No doctor would advise you to eat this fish & chips more than once a week, which may explain why it's not a permanent fixture on the menu. Were it there every day, we'd all be in some serious trouble. 426 N. Fairfax Blvd., Los Angeles; 323-782-8331.
As one of the most anticipated restaurants of 2013, West Hollywood's Connie & Ted's is already working hard to lay claim to the title of best seafood restaurant in the city. The airy, sometimes frantic space on Santa Monica Boulevard has been slammed since they officially opened for service, pushing out plates of chilled oysters, bowls of hot chowder and the all-important lobster roll for hundreds of diners a night. Michael Cimarusti (he of Providence fame) is no stranger to fish, having spent his formative years along the coastline of the Northeast. Providence shows off his high-end skill with all things from the deep, but it's Connie & Ted's that nails the simple stuff.
The fish & chips at Connie & Ted's is superb, a reengineering of every great Rhode Island summer that Cimarusti ever had, but with all of his Providence knowledge. The fish is so evenly battered, cooked so perfectly as to exist in that small space between tender and chewy. It's a standalone piece of flesh, strong enough in flavor, batter and bite to be held in the hand and snacked away at. But it's soft too, flaky enough to melt like butter and clean enough to not be weighed down by the side of fries that come with your meal. This is perfect fish, with a $21 price tag to match. The fries, salty and ever-so firm on the outside, gives way in one bite to a pillowy, light interior of potato so creamy it's practically been mashed. A little vinegar and a squirt of lemon to cut through all of that savory eating, and you've got the best fish & chips in Los Angeles. Better, perhaps, than the stuff Cimarusti was actually eating all those years ago on the East Coast. 8171 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood; 323-460-4170.
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