We were on our way up to Fort Bragg, California and cutting across to the coast on California State Route 20 from U.S. Highway 101 at Willits, California when I recognized the giant "Willits: Heart of Mendocino County" sign that spans Route 20. Immediately, it triggered the memory... "was this the place where we had the fish and chips?"
Besides the Army Ranger behind the counter, his amazing fish and chips, and the stark (and empty) restaurant, I remembered little else except for a giant sign that spanned the road. Was it the Willits sign? We seemed so sure it was that we drove around and stuck our heads into likely shops to see if the restaurant had closed and been replaced with something else. Some of the shops looked like it might have been the old fish and chips place (converted into a bakery or a hair salon or a Hallmark store), but none were quite right. Forced to admit defeated we continued onto Fort Bragg to enjoy a four day trip visiting different restaurants, touring a culinary institute, and generally having a great time. On Sunday, we headed back from the coast along the same route and found ourselves in Willits again.
Having already given up the search (and fully believing the fish and chips were no more), we had already planned to go down to Santa Rosa for lunch. With another 1.5 hours to go, we popped into a convenience store for a bathroom break and picked up a new Nestle Rolo Ice Cream Bar. (The ice cream bar was pretty good, but I would have preferred a liquid or gooey caramel center. The bar had a strong caramel taste, but it was like eating a chocolate wrapped dulce de leche ice cream bar instead of a frozen Rolo.) Back to the car we went and I headed south on Highway 101 only to be stopped at the next red light. Tina said, "Chad's Fish and Chips" (just reading signs and not really thinking much about it - not hoping to believe we had found the place). I said, "Let's take a look" and turned left off the highway into the parking lot of the strip mall. Tina said she'd wait in the car, and I stepped out to take a quick look to satisfy my curiosity.
Standing inside Chad's, I was shocked. It was clearly a match to my memory of the place: brightly lit, white, and heavily decorated with an assortment of stuff that may or may not belong together. The only thing that didn't fit was that there was a couple sitting at one of the tables in the middle of the restaurant. They looked up at me, and I just stared. I stammered, "I've been looking for this place for five years... I've got to get my wife."
Unfortunately, having planned to eat lunch more than an hour later, neither Tina nor I were hungry. We decided to stay and eat some fish and chips to see if it was as good as we remembered. We were not disappointed.
The fish that Chad uses is exclusively Icelandic cod. That's actually fairly important as more and more Californian restaurants are serving halibut, snapper, and other white fish that in many cases taste muddy or overly fishy (sometimes a sign of the fish not being fresh, but also dependant on the variety of the fish). Chad's fish tasted clean, almost invisible, well-balanced against the fried batter (which was not oily - a sign of good oil temperature control, cooking time, and maintenance of the deep fryers). The fish was cooked just long enough for it to be tender and still moist, not dry and stringy or wet and gummy as many fried fish can be.
We also tried their fried scallops, oysters, and prawns. (Chad, who is as interesting as his food is delicious, joked that the restaurant was international since the fish is from Iceland and shrimp from Vietnam cooked by a redneck in an Okie town.) The scallops were even better than the cod. They were plump and firm under the fried batter and so juicy (with a fresh briny taste) that none of the homemade tartar or cocktail sauce was needed. The prawns were butterflied and breaded and were not the most flavorful we had ever tasted. (They were still a fine example of fried prawns and like the fish and scallops did not taste or feel oily.) The oysters were delicious as well, but oysters have such a distinctive and strong flavor that it's hard to differentiate great fried oysters from good - the oyster itself is the highlight and balance always goes out the window.
When he was asked by a upcoming new restaurateur where to get the lowest cost oil, Chad told her that wasn't how you run a restaurant. He said you have to get the best oil for the particular application (he's chosen to use 100% non-hydrogenated canola oil). He said when he started his fish and chips shop he felt that if he got the best ingredients and prepared the food well, then there's no way he could fail. (I could think of a few examples of how you could fail, but Chad's not a guy you want to be disagreeing with - anyway, it's much more fun to agree with him.) Sixteen years of serving fish and chips seems to be proving his theory correct, and I'm glad that I had a chance to rediscover his fish and chips.}?>
Chad's Fish and Chips
1661 S. Main St, D
Willits, CA 95490