Gone Lenten

Knifing whoopee-cushion beliefs at California Fish Grill

Photo by Matt OttoDespite the boy buggering, despite the lies, despite the record-breaking $100 million sex-abuse settlement, I remain Catholic. But the years-long perfidy of Orange diocese Bishop Tod D. Brown has finally, painfully provoked a personal Mass boycott. I didn't even attend Easter services for the first time ever.In fact, my faith nowadays consists mostly of the Immaculate Conception, masturbatory hang-ups and no meat on Fridays during Lent.

That last belief is the goofiest in a religion long derided for its theological whoopee cushions. There is no Bible-based justification for the policy, and the CatechismoftheCatholicChurch—the AccordingtoHoyleof Roman Catholicism—lists nothing on the matter. Even the faithful interpret the flesh-free Friday rule differently: some stay away from all animals, while others consider poultry acceptable. One friend insists on eating pork every Lenten Friday because it's a white meat and, besides, "We're not Jews."

Ah, Catholics.

With this liturgical confusion in mind, I and four other papists visited California Fish Grill in Cypress one recent Friday. Not that I wanted to go: California Fish Grill is one of those middle-class mini-chains (there's another location in Anaheim Hills) common to Orange County—fancier than Knollwood's or Natraj but a step below Sage or the Daily Grill.

These chains, while pleasurable, aren't imaginative at all, offering comfort to the silent majority who like their fish tacos with Coke and their salsa mild. And when we entered, my expectations further dropped. The Fish Grill's design is Cannery Row as imagined by Don Bren: faux fish skeletons, faux peeling paint, faux bricks and wood, faux everything. All the bright booths teemed with families and elderly couples, although I think most customers focused their prayers on the NCAA Tournament broadcast on the numerous televisions instead of on penance.

The first surprise arrived in a bucket: hot, strong, bountiful tortilla chips. Their subtle masa flavor proved a tasteful scaffold for gobs of the Fish Grill's bold, smooth tartar sauce. Being the Mexican Catholics we are, we spiked the tartar sauce with the house salsa, a relish that actually had chile in it. The resulting concoction piqued, seared and scored; it would be our guide for the night.

As the Bucknell Bisons continued their stunning upset of the Kansas Jayhawks, our food waded in. Expectations plunged again thanks to the fish tacos: flavorless, wrapped in a clammy tortilla with limp cabbage and no drizzled queso fresco. But the fried fish and shrimp combo crackled like some divine paper bag. The shrimp were hefty and hooked; their fried, dark-orange skin featured as many bumps as a key-chain basketball. The buttery batter that enveloped the shrimp also covered the long strips of cod without overwhelming its delicate, flaky flesh. A friend bit into a fish strip and yelled, "Ah, it burns!" That was good, though; that meant the Fish Grill folks actually cooked the cod inside. The wimp stopped his moans by dunking the fish into our mutant tartar sauce.

After the fried fish and shrimp, everything led toward bliss. My cousin's massive charbroiled salmon fillet featured deep grill marks on its otherwise-pink flesh and shone thanks to a powerful garlic-butter coating. A friend's swordfish, meanwhile, radiated with a Cajun glaze. We all grabbed at the grilled zucchini's juicy, smoky innards. The night concluded with my roughy, a white fish that was deboned and as light as a napkin.

As another Friday faded into history, our table of wafer eaters talked about our faith. Turns out we each gave up something for Lent—no ice cream for me!—yet when I asked the others if they still attended Mass, all responded no. "So why the hell do we follow these traditions?" I wondered out loud. As if by Providence, the waitress trotted out another order of fried shrimp and fish. Much like Job, I stopped questioning and started chowing.


CALIFORNIA FISH GRILL, 10569 VALLEY VIEW ST., CYPRESS, (714) 252-0001; 5675 E. LA PALMA AVE., ANAHEIM, (714) 777-5710; WWW.CAFISHGRILL.COM. OPEN DAILY, 11 A.M.-9 P.M. NO ALCOHOL. DINNER FOR TWO, $15-$25, FOOD ONLY. ALL MAJOR CREDIT CARDS ACCEPTED.

 
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