Cafe Reviews

Rule, Britannia!

As any Birkenstocks-clad liberal arts major will tell you ad nauseam if you let him, the word "empire" is a loaded term, a Pandora's box of negative connotations. From the conquest and subjugation of native peoples to Darth Vader and the Death Star, empires lack any redeeming characteristics. Or so goes the politically correct wisdom of our age.

I'd retort that empires have made significant cultural contributions to the human race. After all, the Roman empire has given us a century of Hollywood sandal and sword flicks. And as for the still-kickin' American empire, as conservative commentators have delighted in pointing out, it's fostered peace, brotherhood and democracy throughout the Middle East. Okay, maybe not, but we'll still have the Iraqis chompin' Big Macs before it's all over, which has to be the next best thing.

The British empire has made numerous endowments to the global palate, despite jokes to the contrary. Aside from boiled mutton, these include spreading Indian curries far and wide in addition to that culinary delight known as fish and chips. According to Mark Kurlansky's Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World, the fried-fish trade began in London's East End circa 1830, and "chipped" potatoes were added several decades later. In England, fish and chips became "the favorite dish of the urban working class," with cod being used in southern England, and haddock being used in the north.

We Yanks tend to copy British institutions badly, our imperial presidency being a lame imitation of the monarchy of old, for example. And fish and chips follows this pattern, especially here in greater Phoenix, where such gustatory abominations as those mass-produced by Pete's, et al., remain popular with the lumpen hordes. Many of you may recall my scathing assessment of the local fish and chips trade from last year ("Bottom Feeding," February 12, 2004), wherein I bemoaned this state of affairs. Now, I'm ecstatic to report that my prayers have been answered, and a proper fish and chips shop has opened in the Valley, Fountain Hills' The Codfather. If we're lucky, this piscatory purveyor will eventually expand its kingdom of cod so that it rules the fish and chips trade here in Phoenix, just as Britannia once ruled the waves.

The five-month-old Codfather makes an offer impossible to refuse: true, British-style fish and chips prepared by British expats. The expats in question are the family Briner, father Mark, mother Ruth, and their 10-year-old son Jordan, who mostly busies himself with a mitt and baseball outside as mum and dad are inside tending to customers and preparing the specialties of the house, everything from cod, haddock, halibut and salmon to shrimp, scallops, meat pies and battered sausages. I must admit that each item that's passed my lips in the Briners' eatery has met with my wholehearted appreciation.

The Briners hail from Ascot, famous for its horse racing, and they've decorated their smart little restaurant with knickknacks from the old country, as well as photos of Queen Elizabeth, the Beatles, and Big Ben. A Legoland table for kids even offers a stack of British Beano comic books. The place is unpretentious and functional. And indeed, the most important item that the Briners have imported from Albion can be glimpsed behind the register in the back, a Hopkins fryer like those used by fish and chips vans throughout England. Their chips are also peeled and cut by machines shipped over from across the pond.

Mark Briner trained with the National Federation of Fish Friers in England after deciding to move his family to Arizona. (Briner, who owned a chauffeur company in Britain, came over 16 months ago, and his family followed in December.) And I'd say that the training has paid off. All of the fish is outstanding. Lightly coated -- with a batter made from English flour, natch -- each piece arrives within a thin, golden crust that allows the quality of the fish itself to be dominant. Beneath this crust, the cod is a lustrous white, flaky and moist, and so tasty by itself, you hardly need The Codfather's diluted chip shop vinegar, a bottle of which is on each table. A bit of tartar sauce here and there never hurts, though.

I liked the haddock least, mainly because it's a firmer, drier piece of fish, though some may prefer this. The halibut falls somewhere between the cod and haddock texture-wise, and has a lovely, non-fishy flavor. The least traditional offering is the salmon, but with salmon this toothsome and juicy, to hell with convention. Even here in the States, how often do you run across salmon fried up in this manner, if you don't count salmon croquettes? Wonder why it's not a more common occurrence, considering the end result.

Don't expect McDonald's-like uniformity to Briner's chips. The Codfather's are fresh from the tuber to your mouth, and they are thick, wholesome, and admittedly a tad soggy compared to the industrial-strength, cardboard-like starch our fast-food outlets prepare. I think we're so used to eating fries straight from a freezer bag that we have no idea what house-made chips should taste like. Let Briner jog your memory for you.

Other items The Codfather serves include mushy peas, baked beans, sausage rolls, and a slew of English-style pies, such as chicken and mushroom, and steak and kidney. With the pies, the only crust is over top, but this doesn't detract from what's underneath. I'm unusually fond of the steak and kidney, and no, that's not "kidney beans." It's offal, bucko, with a unique taste most Americans would describe as "awful." Hey, that just means more for me.

The only dessert, so to speak, is actually more of a palate-cleanser, fried rings of pineapple called "pineapple fritters." May sound bizarre, but it's quite refreshing after a meal. You'll especially need it on Monday nights, when The Codfather runs an all-you-can-eat cod special from 5 to 8 p.m. for $9.95. Why, I swallowed nearly an ocean of those Piscean pleasures without putting the place out of business, though the Briners did look worried there for a moment.

Kids eat free on Tuesdays (call for details), but try as I might, I don't think I can pass, even with a diaper on. I will look forward to The Codfather expanding one of these days, hopefully somewhere near my apartment in central Phoenix. If only it could take over from Pete's, what a glorious day that would be!

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Stephen is a former staff writer and columnist at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Stephen Lemons