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Dining Out: Chad's Fish & Chips (Willits, California)
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Cooking For Engineers



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PostPosted: Thu Aug 23, 2007 4:42 am    Post subject: Dining Out: Chad's Fish & Chips (Willits, California) Reply with quote

Tina and I have been wanting to recommend a particular restaurant to our friends for the last five years. The problem was we couldn't remember what town it was in or what it was called. All we knew was that it had the best fish and chips we had ever had, and it was somewhere in Northern California. This weekend we finally found it - it's Chad's Fish & Chips in Willits, California.

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?"

Since 2003, Tina and I had been trying to figure out where this legendary (to us) fish and chips shop was. We made a lot of trips in 2002 and 2003, so it wasn't easy to remember which one took us to an empty shop along a highway that served us the best fish and chips we ever tasted (prepared and presented to us by a talkative older man adorned with a few obvious tattoos - the most obvious of which informed you he was an Airborne Ranger). We knew it was on one of our Northward driving trips, but was it Lake Tahoe, Yosemite, Eureka, or Mendocino? I had practically given up the idea that we'd ever find the place again. It was one of two restaurants we wanted to tell people about, but could only do it by description. (The other is a German restaurant that serves game meats and real Weiner schnitzel that's only open for a few months of the year and is located near one of the entrances to Redwood National Park... oh wait, the magic of Google has revealed it to be Rolf's Park Cafe and Motel at 123664 Highway 101, Orick, CA. Now, as you will soon see, all my restaurant mysteries have been solved and I promise to take better notes from now on.)

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.
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fergusg



Joined: 15 Aug 2007
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Location: Oxford, UK

PostPosted: Thu Aug 23, 2007 7:59 am    Post subject: Re-importing Fish & Chips Reply with quote

Sounds like we need to get Chad over here to teach us limeys how to do it. Fish'n'chips seem to be a forgotten art. Hardly anywhere can we get them better than cr*p, in my experience.

Fergus (Oxford, UK)
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Michael Chu



Joined: 10 May 2005
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Location: Austin, TX (USA)

PostPosted: Thu Aug 23, 2007 8:01 am    Post subject: Re: Re-importing Fish & Chips Reply with quote

fergusg wrote:
Sounds like we need to get Chad over here to teach us limeys how to do it. Fish'n'chips seem to be a forgotten art. Hardly anywhere can we get them better than cr*p, in my experience.

That reminded me, Chad's wife, Francis, told us that they had a Briton visiting the California coast who happened to eat at their place and said that he'd "been to a lot of fish and chips eateries and Chad's was the best". She said, coming from a Brit, it was very high praise.
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fergusg



Joined: 15 Aug 2007
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Location: Oxford, UK

PostPosted: Thu Aug 23, 2007 8:26 am    Post subject: Brit Chips Reply with quote

My point was that, nowadays, praise from a Brit is no praise at all Smile

The best chips I've ever had are ones I cooked myself (of course!). The recipe was from Heston Blumenthal's TV show "In Search of Perfection" and was a fantastically protracted 3 cooking-stage process:

1. Peel & cut Maris Pipers. Par-boil in water until surface just starts to break up.

2. Lay chips on a cooling rack in a single layer and place in fridge for at least 30 mins.

3. Cook in oil (I used groundnut) at medium temp until just starting to crisp.

4. Repeat cooling stage in fridge (30 mins).

5. Cook in hot oil to brown.

If you like chips, I recommend you give it a go. Not suitable for a quick fry up after work - probably the best part of 2 hours elapsed time! However, you can do everything up to and including stage 4 in advance.

(In case you don't know, Heston Blumenthal's "Fat Duck" restaurant was voted "Best Restaurant in the World" a while back. Famous for weird stuff like snail porridge.)
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Michael Chu



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PostPosted: Thu Aug 23, 2007 6:18 pm    Post subject: Re: Brit Chips Reply with quote

fergusg wrote:
The best chips I've ever had are ones I cooked myself (of course!). The recipe was from Heston Blumenthal's TV show "In Search of Perfection" and was a fantastically protracted 3 cooking-stage process:

A two stage cooking method for potatoes is pretty common, but this is the first I've heard of a three stage fry. I'll have to try it the next time I decide to fry up some French fries (as well call them over here in California)
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fergusg



Joined: 15 Aug 2007
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Location: Oxford, UK

PostPosted: Thu Aug 23, 2007 6:51 pm    Post subject: Chips not FF Reply with quote

NO NO NO. Infidel! That recipe was for CHIPS. They should be around 1in thick. A medium spud cut into wedges is a good start.
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Michael Chu



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PostPosted: Thu Aug 23, 2007 9:17 pm    Post subject: Re: Chips not FF Reply with quote

fergusg wrote:
NO NO NO. Infidel! That recipe was for CHIPS. They should be around 1in thick. A medium spud cut into wedges is a good start.

In the U.S., "french fries" doesn't always mean shoestring fries (like the ones that Chad's serves). They can come thick cut, in wedges, crosscut, or even curly. I myself prefer the thick cut fries where they've been fried to crispiness with a fluffy steaming inside. Around hear, "chips" usually means potato crisps (thin ~1mm slices that have been fired until completely crispy). But the dish "fish and chips" has retained it's name (although I have encounter a few cheap places that actually serve them with a handful of Ruffles potato chips).
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Andrew
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PostPosted: Fri Aug 24, 2007 10:17 pm    Post subject: Heston Reply with quote

If you get a chance read the entire Heston Blumenthal Perfection book. He cooks from an engineering perspective. Some of the dishes are a little to complicated to make at home, but all in all it's one of the most interesting cook books I've ever read.
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Mel
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PostPosted: Sat Aug 25, 2007 1:54 am    Post subject: Rolf's Park Cafe and Motel Reply with quote

I'm afraid Rolf's seems to have closed. By the way, Willets' other claim to fame is that it is the resting place of Seabiscuit.
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PostPosted: Sat Aug 25, 2007 6:49 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Please, for the sake of sanity, proofread the first paragraph and fix that terrifying first sentence.

(There's similar problems in the 4th and 5th paragraphs, but at least they aren't displaying on the front page.)
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Michael Chu



Joined: 10 May 2005
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Location: Austin, TX (USA)

PostPosted: Sat Aug 25, 2007 8:56 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Anonymous wrote:
Please, for the sake of sanity, proofread the first paragraph and fix that terrifying first sentence.

Oh, man. I just read that sentence and it was unbelievable! How was it possible to even craft a sentence like that?!? I rewrote it and updated the posting. I wrote the article in a few bursts - first writing down as many notes about what happened (how we found the place), some info on how the scallops tasted, and then fleshed out the rest. It usually takes me a week to write something, but this time I did it in one day - apparently without proofreading (I even remember making the decision not to read it out loud - if I don't read it out, then I tend to read things in skimming mode, especially if they words are ones that I wrote). That first sentence was the worst of the bunch (no doubt a product of several attempts at the sentence getting fused together in an unholy manner), and there are still several that don't read as well as I would hope.

Over all, I'm not entirely pleased with how this article came out... guess I shouldn't rush things in the future. Anyway, even if you're not convinced by the article, take my word for it, if you find yourself within 1 hour driving time of Willits, make a side trip over there and order the fried fish and scallops at Chad's.
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Burr
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PostPosted: Mon Nov 26, 2007 6:54 pm    Post subject: Chad's Fish and Chips (Willits) Reply with quote

I also like fish and chips, very much. As my home is in Sonoma County, I will follow the lead to Chad's Fish and Chips in Willits, perhaps over the upcoming Xmas holidays.
BTW, I came across your site while searching for a Tiramisu recipe. Fantastic! I am a telecommunications engineer, and really appreciate the fusion of cooking artistry with engineering logic and precision.
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JB
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PostPosted: Sat Dec 22, 2007 5:13 am    Post subject: Really? Reply with quote

I live in Willits, know the people who own the restaurant (nice folks) and never really thought much of the food. Of course I've never had FishnChips from anywhere else before.

Maybe I need to go try some bad stuff to appreciate what I already have here?

It's good that people know the good sides of Willits, most know it for other things...
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tahrey
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PostPosted: Wed Jan 16, 2008 3:15 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Sounds like somewhere to visit if I'm ever on the other side of the world Smile ... agree on the somewhat declining state of the traditional chippy - it came to something recently when taking F&C as the somewhat default choice for lunch in a chain pub of all places and finding the result to be amongst the best I'd had in years (description would be reminiscent of your article - it was an unexpected thing of beauty, for all of 3.50 including a beer), second only to painstakingly homemade ones (by which I mean made by my dad, as I lack the necessary kitchen equipment). Rather than the rather soggy, greasy efforts that the local takeaways seem to offer, where you can feel your face breaking out and intestines shutting down simultaneously before you're even halfway done.

In america, no, california of all places! Smile

BTW, when you say fries come in all sizes.... the thick cut ones, would they be, e.g. "Steak house fries", as I've seen bags of frozen extra-large (oven) chips being sold in the local supermarkets? I imagine there must be various terms for them after all, just as we have crinkly chips and the like Smile

....this captcha thing is getting me down btw, starting to wonder if i'm going crazy and forgetting how to count / the alphabet. 4SETF6 = 5TFSG7, right? It says no. 2IYIZR = 3JZJAS?
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Michael Chu



Joined: 10 May 2005
Posts: 1622
Location: Austin, TX (USA)

PostPosted: Wed Jan 16, 2008 4:09 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

tahrey wrote:
BTW, when you say fries come in all sizes.... the thick cut ones, would they be, e.g. "Steak house fries", as I've seen bags of frozen extra-large (oven) chips being sold in the local supermarkets? I imagine there must be various terms for them after all, just as we have crinkly chips and the like Smile

Different companies and different regions use different names for thick cut fries. Steakhouse fries definitely makes me think that they are thick.

tahrey wrote:
....this captcha thing is getting me down btw, starting to wonder if i'm going crazy and forgetting how to count / the alphabet. 4SETF6 = 5TFSG7, right? It says no. 2IYIZR = 3JZJAS?

4SETF6 => 5TFUG7
2IYIZR does go to 3JZJAS as you say.

If you make an account, you don't have to use the CAPTCHA again after registration.
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