REVIEW: The sun never sets on decent fish ‘n chips

11603 104 Ave NW
Edmonton, AB T5K 2R1

For a country in which celebrity chefs seem as common as bad weather and football fans, England is the perennial whipping boy when it comes to haute cuisine.

Long-standing aspersions: English food is bland, boiled, grey and stodgy. If it is the senior-citizen of European gastronomy, French food is the dashing young playboy, teasing it from across the channel with saucy flair and creamy goodness: “Zut alors, Eenglish dogs, you are, ‘ow you say, living a sad, lonely ex-ees-tahnce, no? You ‘av, ‘ow you say, zee tastebuds of swine, yes? ‘Av aynozehr sticky bun, you savages!”

The funny thing is, if you grow up in England, you don’t hear about this until you’ve spent a few years living overseas. People aren’t particularly inclined to talk about food they DIDN’T like, so it’s not really the most natural topic of conservation.

Quite the contrary. As with most social experiences a young Briton goes through, knowledge of one’s own culinary history is filtered heavily through a delusion of grandeur that’s been kicking around since the days when it was till OK to call black people “darkies” and foreigners “wogs,” …. as long as one sang Rule Brittania, had tea at 4 o’clock, and every so often conquered some small, “less advanced” colony in Africa or Asia.

To be English these days, it seems, is to be relegated to the dustbin of historical greatness. And for every Jamie Oliver, for every Gordon Ramsay, there are a few million non-English people who think English food is crap.

Here’s the thing: it’s just not true. English food is not, generally, boiled, bland and sto…OK, so it’s stodgy, but it’s not all boiled or bland, and that counts for a lot.

Think about all those English classics that still rank on our comfort food lists: hearty beef stews, meatloaf and mash potatoes, roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, welsh rarebit, chicken pot pie, steak and kidney pie, bubble and squeak (fried spinach with left over pan drippings – no really, it’s awesome).

English food isn’t bland, it’s just incredibly unsophisticated. It’s baked, or its fried; it cottons to gravy for beef, pork and chicken over sauces, meat and potatoes over flans and quiches.

Sure, suet pudding with raisins and hot strawberry jam poured over the top is the dietary equivalent to eating a piece of fruit soaked in sugar then stuffing a cork into your aorta….but it’s really, really tasty.

And then there’s fish ‘n chips. Fish ‘n chips, along with the pork pie, is the ultimate in English traditions because just about anywhere you buy it in England, it tastes exactly the same.

The batter is made a particular way, with a particular type of oil, and to a particular consistency that makes it unlike fish and chips anywhere on Earth. Along with the aforementioned pork pie and English chocolate, it is among the few offerings from the formerly dominant Empire that still kicks butt with all the vicious efficiency of Her Majesty’s Royal Fusiliers gunning down helpless locals.

English people never win Wimbledon anymore, or the World Cup. Their pop culture is drenched in witless “reality” drecch, David Beckham, a media with the grace of starving cannibals and a Royal family now considered some sort of quaint, moving museum piece.

But they still know how to make fish ‘n chips.

As such, a recent visit to local franchise “Brits” was an exercise in apprehension for all of the 10 minutes it took, on a quiet evening, to receive our food: just long enough to check that they were still importing their ingredients from England or had somehow managed to find it in Canada.

After that, it was another 15 minutes of inhaling the cod and chips like a starving crocodile at a gazelle conference. I mean, really, as long as they stick with being actual English fish ‘n chips, Brits will be exactly what I want them to be: rapid, delicious refueling.

That’s another English tradition: anti-social consumption. As much as North Americans love Chinese takeout, the English will take out Italian, East Indian (Vindaloo spots outnumber McDonald’s there), Greek, Uzbek, Mongoli – you name it, they’d rather eat it at home.

Consequently, most of the fish ‘n chip shops I remember as a child took the same approach as a KFC: A counter, a few formica tables, and a general air that everyone would like to get in and out as quickly as possible.

Brits is a bit nicer than that. They do wrap the fish in newspaper for takeout, but it’s just tradition – newspaper has long been banned as a primary wrapper for food due to its ink being unhealthy, so there’s wax paper round it first. But they also have dining areas at both city locations. Again, it’s not exactly haute cuisine; there’s no ambient sound other than people eating and the odd order being shouted out, and no tablecloths, or anything fancy like that. If you want to refuel on the spot, however, it suits the purpose.

Along with fish ‘n chips, Brits is licensed and has several decent English beers, along with the standard pint mug you find in actual British pubs, but in none of the ones over here that claim to be British pubs.

Famously, it also features traditional UK treats like scotch eggs, pickled onions and the like. They also sell deep-fried Mars Bars, which I’d never actually seen in England, but which are delicious and unhealthy enough that I must assume they must be British.

The food portions are as enormous as they seemed in my long-ago English childhood and dinner for two with beers was under $40.

The sun has long set on the British empire; now, they’re just hurtling through the universe with the rest of us. If you can’t get across the pond to visit, Brits is still the only place I know that recreates England over here just about perfectly.

You won’t impress any French chefs, but you will go home sated, and happy.