When Ray Kroc introduced the McDonald's Filet-O-Fish sandwich nationwide in 1963, he was just finding a new way to market one of the oldest "fast food" dishes in the world. The English had been buying take-away orders of fried fish and potatoes, often served wrapped in newspapers, since the early 19th century. There's a reference to the dish in Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist, published in 1838.
Fish and chips have never enjoyed the same iconic status in the United States, and the dish's popularity has traced a distinctly roller-coaster-like arc in landlocked Kansas City. Here, after all, "fresh fish" has usually meant catfish or maybe trout. Well into the 1970s, local menus that offered "seafood" used that suspect phrase as an umbrella description for catches that had been in dry dock for some time: shrimp that went from freezer to deep fryer, maybe a bit of sole thawed and poached.
The 1976 Menu Guide of Kansas City doesn't list a single fish-and-chips dish on any of the 94 restaurant menus reproduced in the book. (Several restaurants, including the American and Jasper's, did offer frogs' legs, a delicacy that has definitely fallen out of favor over the last 35 years. You can still order them fried — with french fries — at the Savoy Grill, among a few other places.) That '70s decade was, however, a boom time for fast-food fish and chips, served with only the most tenuous links to the British staple. The three leading fried-fish purveyors of the era — Long John Silver's, Arthur Treacher's Fish & Chips and Captain D's — were all founded in 1969, at the end of a British-crazed decade (the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Carnaby Street, Twiggy, Vidal Sassoon). By the time compact discs began to replace records and cassettes, many of the chains' franchises had sunk to a watery grave.
A more upscale version of fish and chips later became a fixture on pub menus, not least because it's a relatively cheap and easy dish to prepare. The breaded fish fillet and the fries can be dumped in the same deep fryer as the mozzarella sticks and chicken fingers and "toasted" ravioli. Sometimes it tastes better than the deep-fried square of flash-frozen, prepackaged breaded pollock offered — with a half-slice of processed American cheese — at McDonald's. And sometimes not. Either way, it's not very good for you and isn't supposed to be. Even the lightest crusts and least greasy mound of fries assault the arteries like a pirate ship.
It's generally agreed that the best fish to use in this dish is flaky, mild-tasting cod. But cod — once a cheaper white fish — has become more expensive, thanks to aggressive overfishing in the Atlantic. So more and more chefs are using alternatives, such as cape capensis (also known as hake), fished off the coast of southwestern Africa. "What's not to like about it?" says chef Michael Peterson, who likes the fact that cape capensis holds together better in the deep fryer and has more fat than cod. "A higher fat count means a more moist and flaky fried fish," he says.
Peterson won't take credit for the delicious fried fish served at Beer Kitchen, the Foundry and McCoy's. The best-seller is the creation of chef Mark Kelpe, and it calls for some kind of house-brewed ale; Beer Kitchen's batter uses McCoy's Landing Light lager and also has bits of cilantro, which McCoy's skips. At the Foundry, the fish has a touch of roasted garlic and parsley. In any of its incarnations, it's a gloriously light and crunchy fried fish, greatly enhanced by the house-made "chips": hand-cut Idaho russet-burbank spuds brined overnight in cold salt water and vinegar and never over-fried. Peterson's malt-vinegar aioli complements fish and chip both.