Friday, June 19, 2009

New England Fish and Chips & Chinese Food

A few years back my brother and I were in Bushmills, Northern Ireland, trying to decide what to do for the night (other than drink Guinness, obviously.) We were staying at the Bushmills Inn, a gorgeous old coaching inn, and we had been challenged by the desk clerk to see if we could find the "secret library," so we decided we had to do that first before going out for the evening. We studied the floor plan of the inn and came up with two or three ideas as to where a secret room might be. On our way to check them out we noticed a tiny room just around the corner from our room. We went in and noticed an obviously fake bookshelf on the wall. My brother walked over to it and pushed; it gave way, revealing a much larger conference room/library.

"I've found the secret library," he said. "Let's go to the pub now." Our epic search had taken about 45 seconds.

We walked down the street to a pub we had seen before we checked in to the hotel and had a couple pints. When we inquired about ordering some food, we were told that that was the one night of the week which they did not serve food. Perplexed, we asked where else we could go. We weren't looking for anything fancy and he recommended the chip shop just down the street. We walked down there and my brother declared that he did not feel like fish & chips - which we'd been eating for pretty much every meal for several days, save for a lunch in Dublin for which we paid about 60 American dollars for three pieces of sushi - and that he wanted something else.

As luck (sort of) would have it, there was a Chinese restaurant close by. Now, I have seen some pretty horrible looking Chinese fast food places in my day, and even eaten at a few of them. But this was beyond description. Still, my brother claimed that was what he wanted. We were on the main street of a village in County Antrim and he wanted Chinese food. (This sounds bizarre unless you know my brother, in which case it makes perfect sense.)

I said I would have no part of it and went to the chippy. I bought plenty of food, just in case what he got wasn't good. I got fish and two orders of chips and chicken goujons (nuggets) with several dipping sauces. I reunited with my brother and we headed back to the hotel. We sat on the floor and spread out the food in front of us. His Chinese food looked horrible but I waited for him to try it. He took one bite of a noodle-looking dish and spit it out, making a face I have never seen before.

I had no desire to try any of it, but after seeing that face I had to see what it was all about. So I took a taste. There is really no other way to say this: it was the worst tasting food I can remember ever putting in my mouth. I think it was supposed to be chicken and noodles, but all I could taste was sugar and soy sauce, perhaps an entire week's worth of sodium in every bite. I spit it out as well. I informed him that I was anticipating this and bought plenty of extra food, for which he was grateful.

I have told this story to a few people over the years (probably not in this much detail) and people usually get a laugh out of the humor of both of us eating a meal of fish & chips and Chinese food. Never again did I expect to eat such a strange dichotomy of foods at the same time.

Of course, as I should have learned from Sean Connery the last time he ever played 007, never say never again. The other day Elizabeth and I were getting back into town and both of us were craving a Slurpee, so I went to the 7-11 on the corner of Main and Marengo in Alhambra. And what did I see in the strip mall but a restaurant with a sign reading "New England Fish & Chips" and lettering in the window reading "Chinese Food." Could it possibly be? I slowly drove by - the place was closed - and looked in. It looked like exactly what it claimed: a chip shop selling Chinese food.

I am not a good enough writer to find the words to describe how excited this made me, but I will say this: in a week during which I spent two days wine tasting and eating barbecue down in San Diego County, the Angels won 6 games in a row, I got to watch Ronin in Blu-ray on a 100 inch HDTV, and the Lakers won the NBA Championship... this was the highlight.

I read a few reviews of the place online. The opinions on the Chinese food were varied, but almost all of them praised the fish & chips. There were also quite a few comments about the owner and his rude attitude, and more than a couple comparisons to the "Soup Nazi" of Seinfeld fame. Wednesday I decided to try it out for lunch. (I had planned to go to Golden China and try their lunch deal, but the parking lot was completely full of people who had come from the Lakers victory parade. There was even a line out the door at Round Table Pizza.)

First, let me say this: anyone who refers to the guy as a Nazi has not dealt with very many older Chinese men who speak English as a second language. This guy was a downright kitten compared to some of the people I have encountered. (An older Chinese shopkeeper once misunderstood a question my friend Jon asked him in Chinatown and he took out a knife and started waving it around wildly, shouting "you both go now or there will be trouble!") Yes, the guy was gruff, and he certainly yelled a lot with the people in the kitchen, but to me he said "please" and "thank you," as well as calling me "sir" twice.

I liked the setup of the place - about as unpretentious as you can possibly get. On one wall were several handwritten posterboards listing Chinese food. On the wall behind the register was a menu board like a cafeteria listing the seafood options. I ordered the orange chicken lunch combo - the chicken, plus fried rice, a couple pieces of broccoli, 2 fried wontons, and an egg roll - and a 1 piece fish & chips. All of that, together with a Diet Coke (regular Coke would have made the meal unhealthy) was just over $9. The Chinese food came out first. The chicken was very good, although the sauce was not: much too salty and sweet. The egg roll was your standard fried vegetable egg roll. Not bad but nothing special. I liked the fried rice very much.

After a few minutes my fish & chips came out. I was impressed with it. The fries were nice and crisp, hot out of the fryer. The fish was a good-sized piece. The batter was not as crunchy as it should have been, but it was still tasty. The fish was very high quality. I did not expect that. It was flaky and perfectly cooked and there were no dark parts in it. I had been given a container of tartar sauce smaller than the thimble in Monopoly, but this fish was so good it did not need any condiment. Some salt and malt vinegar would have been nice, but you can't have it all.

I will be back here at some point to try their fried shrimp. I do not see myself ever ordering their Chinese food again; the only good thing about it was the price. It can't compare to any of the fast food Chinese joints in the Valley. However, it certainly blows away that Chinese food I had in Bushmills.

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