The best fish and chips in town come from a Korean fine-dining-trained chef at a former fast food joint in the part of Lemon Grove where you're more likely to get a used car than a meal. Perhaps it's not the most classic fish and chips in town. For that, Shakespeare's Pub & Grille is probably your best bet. But there is no greater manifestation of the fryolated arts than at Chef John's Fish & Chips (8047 Broadway).
The walls of Chef John's are adorned with seafood tchotchkes and photographs of a younger Jong Eum Bae (aka Chef John) in his chef's whites (which he regularly wears) and toque (which he doesn't) from his days as a fine dining chef with the Westin Hotel chain in South Korea.
The architecture and décor of the place say it was a fast-food joint. The color of the chairs suggests Long John Silver's.
But, while at first blush the menu at Chef John's seems not entirely unlike its predecessor, the resulting food is definitely not ordinary fast-food fare. Take, for example, the signature fish and chips. Classic British fish and chips are seasoned cod or haddock in a flour and beer batter, deep fried to golden perfection. When done right, they are clean and brilliantly crisp on the outside, moist and nearly sweet on the inside. Choice of frying fat can significantly impact the ultimate flavor but the biggest variable is the batter.
And that is where Chef John excels, where he does something different. Instead of the classic beer batter, Chef John takes the whole thing east and uses a tempura-style batter. The result is a much lighter affair that is still clean, still crisp and marvelously moist and sweet on the inside. It's different than any fish and chips I'd had in England (or here) but I've tasted none better. A few pricks with the tines of a fork, a sprinkle of malt vinegar and a dip in tartar sauce and you can't decide whether you've gone to England or Japan.
Fish and chips are not the only thing on Chef John's menu. The shrimp—done in the same tempura batter—are equally good and read as more Asian (despite the absence of Asian condiments). Fried oysters are good as well, though distinctly heavier, more what you might expect on the inside of a Cajun-Creole oyster po' boy.
Not quite as good were the fried clams, a specialty of New England, not old. Fried clams are to New England what barbeque is to the South with as many debates about the details. Chef John's choices—necks and a heavy batter—yielded something more like the "crispies" at the Long John Silver's this place once was than anything you'd find in Ipswich.
But Chef John's is not about the fried clams: It's about the fish and chips. It's about the innovative choice of a fine-dining-trained chef gone down market to apply a technique and taste of his heritage to a dish for which it is non-traditional but perfectly adapted.