The deep-fried billy clubs of cod at England Fish & Chips will knock your taste buds (and your cholesterol level) for a loop
It was around 2 in the afternoon when I saw a man with a backpack saunter into England Fish & Chips. He stared at the menu board of deep-fried foods for moment, and when he decided he wanted none of it, he turned around to leave. That was when a woman standing near him asked, “You’re not going to try it?”
The woman who intervened was also a customer, waiting for her order. But she took it upon herself to make the case for the place. “Trust me,” she said to him. “You’ve got to try something. Maybe just one fish. This is the best! The best!”
Since it looked like he was on the fence anyway, her unsolicited endorsement convinced him. He stayed and asked her for recommendations, which she was more than happy to give.
Word-of-mouth, though not quite so directly, is also how I came to know about England Fish & Chips. Without it, I would never have learned that it is, indeed, very good and also very cheap.
Located in the western part of Long Beach, far from the Orange County line, the hole in the wall is not something a non-local would be likely to discover without a guide. It huddles in the corner spot of a 7-Eleven-anchored mini-mall, has graffiti etched by razor blade on its windows, and seats fewer than 10 diners. At the counter, a motherly Asian woman takes orders while dwarfed by a gurgling Orange Bang! dispenser and towering stacks of paper baskets.
Behind her, you catch glimpses of the fry cook through a rectangular slit in the wall. Mostly, you see his forearm and the tongs that occasionally deposit thick, foot-long golden spears of battered fish onto a parchment-paper-lined metal pan.
This man, quite simply, is a modern-day alchemist, utilizing hot oil to transform what was once liquid batter into golden cocoons of crunch. Encased in the greaseless goodness are all manner of sea critters, most notably cod, cut into the formidable length and thickness of a billy club, sliced off from a whole filet. This is not one of those preformed or machine-molested travesties that passes for fish at other joints. It is the largest piece of deep-fried anything I’ve encountered.
England’s specimens have a dense, firm, unshakably hearty constitution indicative of cod. Its flesh separates into supple flakes but doesn’t cower from a malt-vinegar dousing or a tartar-sauce dunk. You don’t even have to order the chips (the spuds are the standard, thin, fast-food kind). A single piece of fish would be enough for a light lunch and retails for $1.49—a very low price, as the enthusiastic patron was quick to point out to the man with the backpack.
But if you intend to go for broke and have a proper deep-fried feast (especially if you drove from OC, like I did), get a combo. The Deluxe includes a piece of fish; a jumbo shrimp splayed out into a rigid, golden Hula-Hoop; and five thick scallops piled on top of a Signal Hill-sized mountain of fries—all for $6.39, a bargain considering the scallops are the size of walnuts, meatier than those precious jewels that French chefs sear, sauce and sell for five times the toll.
A warning about the scallops, though: These breaded beauties will squirt out hot juice when bitten. Let them cool slightly, or you will be scalded. The same word of caution applies to the oysters, which dribbled iron-y brine all over my pants.
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The smaller shrimp is better than the jumbo, since it mirrors tempura and is just as elegantly crisp. The clam strips, unfortunately, are almost all breading, while the fried chicken has an understated crust from a light dusting of flour.
When you’re close to OD’ing on the food blamed for British obesity, reinvigorate your palate with fresh coleslaw, made from only cabbage and dressing. I thought I saw a trace of a carrot in it once, but I don’t think it was in there on purpose. Cabbage, by the way, doesn’t get a deep-fry reprieve: It’s the stuffing in their egg roll. Other vegetables—such as zucchini, mushrooms and onion rings—are blessed with the same batter treatment as the fish. But, paradoxically, eating them only makes you feel guiltier. I won’t even speak of the delicious wrongness of deep-fried pineapple for dessert.
But I will tell you that it was after my second bite of the latter that I noticed near the counter a coin-operated, pulse-monitoring machine common to carnivals. And I’m not making this up—it said in bold letters, “How Long Will You Live?” Was that what gave the man with a backpack pause? Good thing someone was there to make sure he got his priorities straight.
England Fish & Chips, 2614 Pacific Ave., Long Beach, (562) 426-7400. One piece of fish, $1.49; combos, up to $6.39. Open Mon.-Sat., 11 a.m.-9 p.m.