Cafe Reviews

Bottom Feeding

Whenever St. Valentine's Day draws near, my thoughts turn to cod. True, there initially may seem nothing so unromantic as the humble Gadus morhua, which spends its life swimming along the ocean floor, mandibles agape, devouring anything in its path. Fishermen have even been known to slit open these vacuum cleaners of the sea and find everything in their tummies from bottle caps to the undigested body parts of drowned humans.

Yet despite such unappetizing thoughts, my mid-February cod jones sent me in search of the perfect fish and chips. This is the result of a sojourn many moons ago in London where I fell for a Liverpudlian lass named Julia. Like most English gals in their 20s, Julia liked hitting the pubs, where we'd imbibe 'til closing, and then stagger to the nearest fish and chips wagon for a newspaper cone full of those salty fillets and thick pommes frites. For us, fish and chips were a prelude to love.

So with the advent of the amatory season, I decided to set out for my first ever survey of Phoenix eateries serving cod and fried tubers. Sadly, Phoenix ain't exactly foggy old London town when it comes to fish and chips. Poor Julia would spit most of this slop in the gutter. Alas, being a food critic, I can't afford the luxury.

Here follows, then, in order of worst to best, my findings. If you know of some place I've missed, please let me know, and this column's sequel will feature your suggestions.

The lowest of all bottom feeders listed is perhaps the best known -- Pete's Fish and Chips. Pete's never fails to get glowing press from our town's beloved daily, which should indicate how reliable those fuddy-duddies are when it comes to comestibles. I'm saying Pete's sorry offerings cannot even match Gordon's fish sticks in taste and quality. By Neptune's pointy trident, I wouldn't wish their crap on my most rabid antagonists!

Pete's has several locations, so I called up co-owner Kathy Adams to ask which I should try. She assured me their Mesa outlet was the jewel in their crown, so I dutifully made the trek. Blimey, that eyesore looks like the kind of place junkies go to score smack! Picnic tables with flaking red paint surround a cruddy, white stucco structure. And as far as I can tell by driving by other locations, this eyesore exterior is one of Pete's calling cards, not unlike their infantile vermilion logo.

The food is quite inexpensive, with a two-piece fish and chips order costing only $3.20. Garbage is cheaper (why, it's free!), but I wouldn't eat it if you fried it up for me. Pete's flat, square fillets filled my porthole with freezer-burn, and I'd hardly call their skinny, stale fries "chips." They also make a big deal out of not serving ketchup or tartar sauce, allowing each customer one free two-ounce cup of "Pete's Special Sauce," which is essentially tomato sauce and cayenne pepper. Generous!

Their fried oysters are slightly more edible, particularly if you remember to bring a roll of extra-strength Rolaids. But I did not, and it was all I could do not to puke in the parking lot. Signs near the picnic tables warn customers not to feed the birds, so at least the chain opposes cruelty to animals. I'm already anticipating the letters telling me Pete's has been in business since the dawn of man, blah, blah. But anyone who eats at Pete's more than once of their own accord is a bloody imbecile. Especially when there's always a Jack in the Crack around the corner.

Turk's Fish and Chips in Phoenix isn't much better. The fish and fries are the same as Pete's, but Turk's at least offers free ketchup and tartar sauce along with their own "special sauce." Could this be the reason their two-piece plate is $4 a serving? Or could it be the additional grease, which made me want to get a high colonic to cleanse my system of all that oil? Either way, I give them points for their hushpuppies, which are not bad if you're able to eat them before they harden into little brown lumps of Crisco.

Inching up the food chain are (believe it or not!) Long John Silver's on Indian School and Rula Bula, the Irish pub on Tempe's Mill Avenue. According to the latter's Web site, "rula bula" is a modified Gaelic phrase meaning "uproar and commotion," but if I didn't know better, I'd guess it was Irish for "My bleedin' fish is undercooked, boyo!" Indeed, when I cut into the first piece, it was gooey and white inside. My rather surly waitress took it back to the kitchen and returned with a new platter, but the breading was as thick as Kelly Osbourne's makeup. I literally had to pick through it to find the cod beneath. Cost? $11.95 a plate.

Long John Silver's finishes just ahead of Rula Bula. Their crust is light and doesn't get in the way of the fish, and the $4.99 combo comes with fried shrimp that aren't too bad. There's no atmosphere, but the place is at least clean, and their fish doesn't taste like freezer-burn. I wouldn't have eaten there if I hadn't been doing a column. But if someone aimed a Tec Nine to my forehead and I had to choose between Rula Bula and LJS, the chain joint would win by a gill.

Casey Moore's in Tempe is superior to both LJS and Rula Bula. At $10, it's not the best cod I've had, nor the worst. Still, the establishment deserves praise for its congenial wait staff and the lovely ambiance of the old converted house it occupies. Demerits for not having thicker fries, though. I would most definitely eat there again, but I'll probably choose something other than fish and chips next time.

And, at last, we come to my three favorite fish and chips spots, with only a fin's space between them: Seamus McCaffrey's, next to the San Carlos downtown; George and Dragon near Central and Indian School; and Rosie McCaffrey's just east of Seventh Street on Camelback.

Third-place finisher Seamus' fish and chips are quite nice, with a delicious auburn crust on the cod pieces. (I always imagine Henry VIII when I use that phrase.) These come with thick fries, and, at $8.09 a plate, they're a pretty dandy deal. Seamus McCaffrey's also prepares a killer Irish whiskey cake, which would make W.C. Fields weep were he alive and able.

Just ahead of Seamus is the George and Dragon. The good G&D boasts all the atmosphere of a real British pub, which is to say it smells of cigarette butts, spilled beer and urine. A brilliant place, as the Brits would say, it serves a $9.95 entree of fish and chips, with thick fries, peas and all the tangy, brown HP sauce you desire. You get two large pieces of cod, which are neither over-battered nor undercooked. By the way, kudos for their spotted dick, a giant bowl of sponge pudding filled with raisins and sultanas and topped with a thick, creamy layer of Birds' English custard.

At the top of the fish and chips heap is Rosie McCaffrey's Irish Pub, owned by Seamus McCaffrey, who once owned the aforementioned bar/restaurant before selling it to his barman Frank Murray. Rosie's is easily the most attractive pub in the city, with stained-glass windows depicting fair Irish maidens, and portraits of famous Irishmen on the walls. So it's no surprise that it has the best fish and chips in the city, which are a bargain at $9.95 a serving. The chips are big and satisfying, and they come with two fat cuts of cod that are fried a delicate golden brown. Underneath, the fish is moist, flaky, and fresher-tasting than any other I've had in the Valley.

According to Rosie's kitchen manager Shelli Johannpeter, the secret is in the consistency of the batter. She's careful, it seems, to avoid letting the batter get too thick, and thereby eluding the dreaded Rula Bula effect. Now if Rosie had peas like at George and Dragon, its fish and chips would be nonpareil. Might there be some Irish equivalent of spotted dick? The color of shamrocks, perhaps? That's another spotted dick I'd be proud to pop in my mouth, you betcha.

E-mail [email protected].