The fish and chips and chicken combo at Chef John's Fish & Chips
They say the sun doesn’t set on the British empire, but what I think they really mean is there’s never a time of day that a British-styled pub isn’t open somewhere on the planet, serving fish and chips. You’d almost think they’d invented the stuff.
8047 Broadway, Lemon Grove
Fish and chips are arguably the most celebrated plate of all British cuisine, which, let’s be honest, needs all the hits it can get. But England mostly just put deep fried fish and potatoes together and gave them a snappy name. The pairing has fantastically global history.
Even asparagus gets fried in tempura-like batter.
First of all, potatoes don’t come from England, or even Ireland. They originated in the “new world,” the Americas, and not any of the parts the British colonized. Now one of the most widely grown agricultural products on the planet, potatoes originated in Peru. But the country that grows the most these days is China, and it’s not even close. China harvests more than twice the potatoes of the country in second place, India. In case you wondered, Peru is number 17 on the list.
While we’re at it, the French didn’t really invent chips, a.k.a. French fries. Those came from Belgium, where the practice of frying fish was put on hold during the winter, because the rivers iced over. So they fried potatoes instead, and still do so better than anyone.
But their fried fish came by way of the Iberian peninsula, where the Portuguese and Spanish ate fried fish during Lent, when Catholics stopped eating meat. It’s speculated the fish frying grew out of escabeche recipes, which were in turn inspired by vinegar-heavy dishes from the Middle East. So even the British habit of eating fish and chips with vinegar can be seen as a call back.
Meanwhile, around the world, the Japanese learned to batter and fry fish from the Portuguese, who were the first Europeans to trade with the island nation. The Japanese fried food tradition of tempura takes its name from tempora, the Latin word for time used by the Roman church in reference to Lent.
I bring all this up because I went for a fish and chips meal at Chef John’s Fish & Chips in Lemon Grove, and it defied expectations. Anticipating British pub fare, I instead found a converted fast food restaurant that is owned and operated by a Korean couple. Chef John is really chef Jong Eum Bae, and though he claims not to know the word panko, his mastery of a fryer goes without question. His fried cod, shrimp, and other seafood feature a beautifully light and crispy batter crust that more closely resembled tempura than fish and chips.
Of course, we know the traditions aren’t that far apart, and the condiments at Chef John’s include tartar sauce as well as vinegar, so let’s call it a worldly little counter restaurant. Just don’t expect to find many options that aren’t deep fried. Along with standard fish and chips for $7.99, You can get a fried fish and chicken (and chips) combo for $11.49, or double down on the sea with fried oysters, clams, calamari, or scallops.
The French fries themselves prove perfectly crisp, and even asparagus gets the tempura-like treatment. The sun never sets on eating healthy, right?