When London Fish & Chips opened in April, eager customers were lined up four deep out onto the sidewalk of the Cary strip mall where the restaurant is located. "We were slammed," says Russ Brown, who owns the restaurant. Brown's experience as a chef in his native England hadn't prepared him for such an onslaught. His deep fryer was overwhelmed, and his batter, which he'll proudly tell you has won awards in England, suffered. Brown was forced to close up shop for a few days to regroup.
When the restaurant reopened a few days later, its owner was better prepared. "I hadn't done any advertising, other than to hang a sign on the door saying that we'd be opening on Tuesday. I wasn't even sure there would be enough interest in an authentic English chippie in the area."
That question has been emphatically answered. Eight months after the restaurant's opening, the lines still form at the order counter during peak lunch and dinner hours, though they move quickly now. Russ Brown has gotten the timing down to a science -- mostly cooking to order, and frying up anticipatory batches of the classic (and most popular) cod and haddock when turnover is high. Rarely does a piece of fish sit under the heat lamp for more than a few seconds after it comes out of the fryer.
When your order is brought to your table, usually before you've had more than a few sips of your Guinness or Boddington's, the tempura-light batter leaves no doubts that it could have won awards back in the land where there's a chippie on every corner and people don't stand in line but "queue up." And the fish inside that crisp, golden crust is every bit as satisfying. Cod, haddock, flounder - even pollock, known in England as the poor man's fish - all are impeccably fresh-tasting and moist.
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Full and half orders (perfect for lunch) are available, with or without chips. If you've never had authentic English chips, be advised that these are not the familiar fries you've had at McDonald's or even, God forbid, Arthur Treacher's. They're thick, stubby batons of hand-cut potato, fried until they're soft on the inside and barely crisp on the outside. What's more, to call these chips "authentic" is an oversimplification, as Brown will explain if you ask him. He can describe regional variations all over England and even as far away as South Africa, where aficionados prefer a chip that most Americans would describe as limp and soggy. "We serve what I call the classic English seaside chip," he notes.
For a British twist on cheese fries, you can douse your chips with curry sauce. And you can round out your meal with traditional accompaniments - a splash of malt vinegar on your fish, or a side of pickled onions. Or you could try mushy peas, though I'll warn you that many Americans (including me) describe them as tasting like mashed up green peas, cooked with no salt. Brown assures me that their preparation is more complicated than that, and that they have a loyal following among expat Brits. And my wife, who has never set foot on English soil, has become addicted to them. Go figure.
The menu at London Fish & Chips goes a bit beyond the traditional chippie offering. Shrimp, fried in Brown's signature batter, have justifiably become a local favorite. Batter-fried bangers are a tempting landlubber alternative, and a vegetarian could dine happily on an organic salad followed by a vegetarian burger or sausages. Deep-fried "Maryland style" crab cakes, however, are an ill-advised concession to American tastes and are to be avoided at all costs.
London Fish & Chips is a casual and family-friendly place, but the décor is a decided step up from the Spartan furnishings of a typical English chippie. There's ample comfortable seating, and Brown has decorated the mint green walls with dozens of framed black and white photos of nostalgic scenes from his years in England. You might say that the setting, like the food, offers the best of both worlds.