When pulled apart, the best fried cod separates into tender, flaky pieces with a puff of steam billowing from beneath clingy breading.
Add fried clams cut into thick strips, silky-textured chowder, calamari that is resistant but not rubbery and snappy shrimp, and I’ve found myself the perfect fried fish spot.
Since June, I’ve toured from Ruston to Graham for the area’s best all-purpose fish-and-chips stands.
To keep this tour comparable for price and scope, I focused only on spots with counter service, skipping the sit-down restaurants with table service that make good, but much more expensive fried fish (ie: Duke’s, Fish Peddler, Boathouse 19 and Lobster Shop). I also skipped chains.
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I’ve ranked them in the order in which you should visit.
The best of the tour? The newly opened Daily Catch at Point Ruston.
The Daily Catch
5115 Grand Loop, Tacoma; 253-448-2145, wildfinamericangrill.com/the-daily-catch.
Tacoma’s newest fish-and-chips stand opened in May with a stunning Ruston waterfront view behind the building in which it’s located. This walk-up counter flanks the entrance to its sister restaurant, WildFin American Grill, with two more outposts in Renton and Issaquah. The Daily Catch window is seasonal and expects to close in October.
Rating: Best all-around execution and quality of ingredients.
Cod and chips: The yeasty beer batter crackled crisply, much crunchier than I expected for such a thick batter, which I think some fish and chips fans will criticize for being too puffy. Me? I’m a fan of thicker batter so long as the jacket is snug and texture crispy. This had both, plus flaky cod, and was seasoned with big flakes of black pepper and kosher salt. Battered fries were extra crispy. $7.99 for two-piece, $9.99 three-piece, $11.89 four-piece.
Other fish: The halibut ($12.99/$15.79/$18.89) broke into satiny flakes in puffy beer batter. Tender slices of calamari steak carried a snappy breading and an added bonus of fried jalapeno chips ($9.99, with fries). Clams were broad strips, also with a crunchy breading ($8.99, with fries).
Fish tacos: A nutty-sweet-salty seared cod taco ($6.99) came with the traditional trimmings of a Vietnamese banh mi sandwich: fresh jalapeno, cilantro, carrots, daikon and a drippy-peppery-creamy sauce. Fried cod in a flour tortilla was dressed with house jicama slaw ($6.89).
Seafood chowder: Velvety-smooth cream-based chowder with salmon, cod, a smoky bacon backbone and tinged with thyme. Outstanding texture, no pastiness. $3.99 small, $6.99 large, $13.59 tanker.
Sauces: Pump as much as you want at the self-serve tartar bar, with a piquant jalapeno aioli and puckery tartar. Cocktail sauce by request, with a chunky tomato base and lots of horseradish.
Seating: Standing tables only, but there are benches at the nearby plaza and shoreline.
Oliver’s Fish and Chips
9915 224th St. E., Graham, 253-262-3474, oliversfishnchips.com.
In 2013, Pat Nicholl opened his fish-and-chips stand across the shopping center from his other restaurant, Amici Italian Eatery.
Rating: Tie with Daily Catch for best chowder and terrific tartar choices.
Cod and fries: The crunchy, thin breading hugged so tightly it squeezed the broad filet of cod, which was steamy hot and silken. Skins-on fries were medium width, perfect dippers. $7.99 two-piece, $8.99 three-piece.
Other fish: The seafood fest platter with fries ($10.99, choice of three fish) held tiny bay scallops and crescent-shaped prawns encased in a puffy, crispy batter that I wish held on a little better. Big Pacific oysters were better with a lighter breading.
Clam strips and chips ($8.99) were among the largest strips of the tour and crunched satisfyingly with a well-seasoned breading, no rubbery texture. Thicker-cut halibut ($11.99 two-piece, $13.99 three-piece) carried a deliciously brittle, thinly-applied batter.
Fish tacos: Fried cod with a pineapple cabbage slaw and a delicious, drippy chipotle sauce in flour tortillas. Finished with cilantro leaves and a wedge of lime. ($8.99, two tacos and fries).
Clam chowder: The super creamy chowder uses the same base Nicholl uses for his alfredo sauce at Amici. Cream-based with a peppery background and thick clams in a broth that was satiny smooth. It only needed a bit more seasoning. $3.99 cup, $5.99 bowl, $7.99 with bread bowl.
Sauces: Three terrific finds: sweet tartar, chipotle spiked and puckery dill. A cocktail sauce tinged with horseradish, too.
Also find: Gluten-free cod and halibut, as well as pollock, chicken strips, sourdough bread bowl, oyster hoagie, popcorn shrimp.
Seating: Plenty of tables, plus bar seating.
Northern Fish Old Town
2201 Ruston Way, Tacoma; 253-272-4104, northernfish.com.
This is a dual-purpose business with a fresh seafood counter and a fish-and-chips stand.
Rating: Terrific beer batter crunch, great clams and cioppino. Skip the chowder and tacos.
Cod and fries: The beer batter held lacy-edged air pockets, creating a bonus layer of crunch. Small problems: one overcooked piece and another had an unattractive brown streak running through it, both forgivable. Skins-on fries were squat, small chips, but plenty of surface area and crunch. $7.95 two-piece, $8.95 three-piece.
Other fish: Halibut ($11.95/$13.95) carried the same crunchy beer batter. I hit the clam jackpot here. Thick-cut breaded clams held minimal chewiness and terrific briny flavor ($8.95). Calamari ($8.95/$10.95) came with rings and tentacles, freshly doused in lemon and a light batter, and not overcooked.
Fish tacos: A duo with too much salsa and cabbage, and fried, battered cod that was inexplicably finely chopped, which subtracted satisfying crunch. Skip ’em. ($6.99 cod, $10.99 halibut).
Clam chowder: Typical pasty-flour base, skip it ($4.25/$4.75), but the Northwest cioppino was made with an herb-laden tomato base teeming with whitefish ($5.50/$5.95).
Sauces: Served in a wide-mouth container built for dipping. Cocktail sauce in two strengths, the spicy version kicked up with horseradish.
Also find: Smoked salmon chowder, chicken strips, prawn basket.
Seating: A few outdoor tables.
Paya Thai Fish and Chips
430 E. 25th St., Tacoma; 253-627-8432, payathaifishandchips.com.
Just glaze over the word “Thai” in the restaurant’s name — Chayan Samalee hasn’t served Thai food since his fish and chips outpaced his native cuisine shortly after opening the Freighthouse Square restaurant 25 years ago. The restaurant is named after the street where Samalee grew up in Thailand.
Rating: Tie for crunchiest breading of the tour, best plating, presentation and service.
Cod and fries: The uber-clingy breading crunched loudly upon first bite, the crust shattering to supple fish cut into big, blocky pieces. Fries were thinner cut and crunchy. $8.95 two-piece, $10.95 three-piece.
Extra points for plating: A patriotic flag pick extends from every piece of fish, also garnished with fresh flowers and lemon wedges carved into miniature citrus sculptures.
Other fish: The Captain’s Platter ($19.95, with chowder) was a bonanza built for two of crisply-breaded cod, plus briny fresh fried oysters and snappy shrimp that carried the same crunchy coating as the cod. Clam strips were of the tiny, pebbly ilk. I wanted bigger pieces.
Halibut and chips ($10.95 two-piece, $12.95 three-piece) carried a puffy batter with a springy texture, with big, sleek pieces of halibut.
Fish tacos: None.
Clam chowder: Typical gloppy base with a bacon backnote that overshadowed the clams. $4 cup, $4.75 bowl.
Sauces: Horseradish-heavy cocktail sauce with a lemony kick and a dill-based tartar.
Also find: Caesar salad, weekly grilled salmon specials, fried scallops, chicken strips.
Seating: Plenty of seating in the Freighthouse food court.
Worth noting: Beyond beautiful plating, this fast-food restaurant goes well above the call of duty for customer service, which is the work of Tom Pagano, the smiling guy who takes orders and does frequent table check-ins (totally unexpected for a food court).
Steamer’s Seafood Cafe
8802 Sixth Ave., Tacoma; 253-565-4532, steamersseafoodcafe.com.
Six months after its closure due to a plumbing flood, Steamer’s Fish and Chips reopened at Titlow Beach in June. This is bargain dining with a million-dollar view that other restaurants charge bigger bucks to enjoy.
Rating: Tie with Paya for crunchiest breading, terrific beer list, best indoor and outdoor seating.
Cod and fries: Crunchy-crispy panko breading shattered crisply upon first bite, with even seasoning and flaky cod inside. Skins-on fries had an unpleasant stiff texture as they cooled. $9.95 two-piece, $11.95 three-piece.
Other fish: Yeasty beer-battered halibut with a jacket that hugged the opaque fish that flaked into big pieces ($14.95 two-piece, $18.95 three-piece).
A captain’s platter ($14.95) held battered shrimp (overdone) and scallops (underdone) with a nice piece of crunchy-breaded cod and breaded clams with a terrific flavor, but too many of the pieces were pebbly and small.
Fish tacos: A duo of blackened-and-grilled rockfish tacos ($9.95, with fries) were dry, and the skimpy salsa mayo didn’t help at all. Skip these.
Clam chowder: The cup offered the smallest portion on the tour. I wanted more of the terrific creamy textured soup. $3.95 cup, $5.95 bowl, $8.95 bread bowl. Also, a delicious tomato-based seafood stew similar to cioppino ($4.95/$6.95/$9.95).
Sauces: Another serve-yourself tartar bar with as much delicious, thick dill-based tartar as you want. Also, a decent cocktail sauce.
Also find: Several kinds of fish sandwiches, grilled fish, pasta, crab cakes, seafood Louie, a South Sound-focused brew list.
Seating: Sprawling seat-yourself dining room, plus an outdoor patio with a this-is-why-we-live-here view.
More to try
These come with scaled-down menus, but worth a visit.
Fish House Cafe: This tiny Tacoma Hilltop cafe is more of a southern haunt than a Northwest fish-and-chips house. They’re known for their fried catfish, but also serve thin fillets of cod encased in a crunchy cornmeal jacket ($7.75). Get yours with hush puppies. An oyster po’ boy sandwich is a must order. Fried shrimp also on the menu. 1814 Martin Luther King Jr. Way, Tacoma; 253-383-7144.
JW at the Boatyard: This trolley opened at the Gig Harbor Marina in April and is from the owners of JW Restaurant. Find terrific crunchy calamari steak cut into strips ($11); supple cod encased in a puffy, but sometimes grease-logged, batter made with 7 Seas beer ($12); and cod tacos ($12). Skip the Northwest lobster roll ($14), it’s nothing like the Maine specialty. 3117 Harborview Drive, Gig Harbor; 253-432-9991, jwgigharbor.com.
The Frying Dutchman: This Milton-based food truck roves all over the place, so check its website for its current location. Don’t miss the outstanding grilled cod tacos ($9) with Cajun-style spicing in flour tortillas dressed with pineapple-cabbage slaw and a creamy sauce. Fried cod ($7 two-piece, $10 three-piece) occasionally comes overcooked, but I love that yeasty batter. The cocktail sauce, made with extra horseradish and lemon, is a must try. Check eatthedutch.com or call 206-713-2210 for its current location.
Wally’s White River Drive-In: It’s quite the drive to Buckley, but this flame-broiled burger joint has an added bonus of chowder and fried fish. 282 state Route 410, Buckley; 360-829-0871.
What happened to Fish Fish Fish?
The fish-and-chips restaurant Fish Fish Fish was set to open this year on Sixth Avenue. It’s still underway, but Steve Naccarato exited the project to focus on his other restaurant, Shake Shake Shake, which he operates with Robert Stocker. Stocker will now take the lead on Fish Fish Fish with his sister, Suzanne Roberson.
Stocker said progress is being made, just slowly. He’s submitted his permit application, and once it’s approved he can enter the final stretch of construction. He’s hoping for a fall opening.