No need to venture to London’s gritty East End to enjoy authentic pub fare; it’s all right here waiting for you, mate.
For me, the joys of authentic English pub grub are forever tied to fish and chips wrapped in the latest tabloid and drowning in brisk malt vinegar, the true meaning of Greenwich Mean Time. Is it any wonder that I’m something of a regular at the Red Lion?
My love of fish and chips (a pub specialty that our newest local pub on Shepherd tried to offer only on Fridays but failed by popular demand) came from a small place I got to know in Greenwich during the long dry summer of 1976. It was hot. There was no air conditioning. There was a drought in England and Europe that made food expensive. The heat and the drought conspired to live more fully in my throat than anywhere else, so I discovered this backstreet pub in Greenwich. The place doubled as a “chip shop,” I recall, meaning you could eat your fish and chips, roast beef or shepherd’s pie inside with a not-really-cold “lager and lime” or some other malt beverage – or you could order your meal wrapped in Fleet Street journalism at its finest. That’s what I usually did, being a journalist.
The food served in English pubs (short for “public houses”) is an evolved embodiment of a 2,000- or perhaps 3,000-year-old tradition. The Romans were the first to get the basic idea down, building tabernae serving food, wine and local ale everywhere across the Isles. When the Romans pulled back into Gaul – and finally, all the way back into Rome – the tabernae faded, leaving only a linguistic legacy in the sibling word tavern.
With the Romans and their grapes gone, surviving Brits could focus on what they really loved to drink: ale. Most brewers made ale in their homes at first, selling it to passersby. The better brewers were recognized as such, opening small rooms or building small outbuildings in which to serve their golden treasure. The English alehouse was born, a memory that lives on at the Red Lion and other local pubs.
Yet another river of history flowed into the British pub tradition, that of the overnight roadside inn. Beginning with pilgrimages to the Canterbury cathedral in which St. Thomas Becket was murdered in 1170, the dusty roads of England were filled with travelers – weary, hungry and especially thirsty. These inns on the roads to Canterbury were gossip centers, specifically for the swapping of bawdy tales. You can’t really blame Geoffrey Chaucer for grabbing his notebook. The tavern propelled the old alehouse and roadside inn toward the modern world. Though usually stepping up a notch socially from its predecessors, the tavern was by no means a place of decorum. In many instances, it was a place gentlemen disappeared into to escape their everyday wives – I mean lives. Yes, there were a few prostitutes, perhaps. And some drinking. As one historian puts it, in a happy turn of phrase: “There was much drunkenness, but drunkenness was not disapproved of as it is today.”
All of these story lines come together in a true pub, whether in Hartford, Hereford or Houston. The beers are many and varied, from the lightest lagers to the nearly black Irish sludge now universally known as Guinness. The foods served in pubs have to nourish folks between one long, hard day of physical labor and the next. It’s good, solid, hearty food – full of flavor, butter and cream.
I love to go to the Red Lion when it’s hot or cold, when it’s dark or light, when it’s early or late. There’s sure to be one or more tables of people speaking with British accents, sometimes even the northern twang of Yorkshire echoing that of owner Craig Mallinson. Sit at this bar long enough, and somebody just might buy you a Boddingtons. Then, naturally, you’ll buy your new friend one right back. Common decency, you know. Hands across the water. All that.
When you can’t spot me at the Red Lion, I might be at Sherlock’s Baker Street Pub & Grill, probably the oldest surviving pub tradition in Houston – and named after one of my all-time favorite things that will be forever England, the Sherlock Holmes detective stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. You might run into me at Kenneally’s, which has the nerve to be an Irish pub serving some of the best pizza in town. These days, you might catch me downing a cold one with some nibbles at O’Rourke’s – the new, charmingly faux-Irish offshoot of O’Rourke’s Steakhouse on Montrose. This is a real-feeling pub for the museum district crowd, with vastly upgraded “pub grub” from the steakhouse to prove it.
For the record, I still love few things better than fish and chips doused with malt vinegar, though I heard a rumor recently that in England the stuff now comes in Styrofoam. I love roast beef with Yorkshire pudding. I love shepherd’s pie, since whoever decided ground beef needed to get intimate with mashed potatoes is some kind of genius. And I love those crazy little fatty sausages baked inside buttery pastry. H
Fish and Chips
1 1/2 pounds sole fillet, skinned
Salt and white pepper
1/4 cup flour
Oil for frying
1 1/2 teaspoons active dry yeast
1/2 cup warm water
3/4 cup flour
1 teaspoon oil
3/4 cup beer
1 egg white
1 pinch granulated sugar
4 large russet potatoes
Wash fish fillets in lemon and water. Season with salt and pepper. Chill while you prepare the batter.
Sprinkle yeast over warm water. Let stand until dissolved. Place flour in a bowl with the salt and sugar and make a well in the center. Add the dissolved yeast, oil and 2/3 of the beer and stir with a wooden spoon just to combine. Stir in remaining beer. Let the batter stand, covered, in a warm place 30 to 35 minutes, until it has thickened and becomes frothy.
Dry fish with paper towels and cut each fillet diagonally in two pieces. Slice the potatoes with the skin on. Place in a large bowl with cold water.
Heat the oven to warm. Stir together remaining flour, pepper and salt in a plate. Heat the oil. Whip egg white until it forms soft peaks and fold it into the batter.
Coat fish with seasoned flour, patting so they are evenly coated. Shake off excess flour. Using a two-pronged fork, dip the fish in the batter. Lift it out and hold it over the bowl five seconds to drip off excess batter. Carefully lower the piece of fish into the hot oil and deep fry, turning once, until golden brown and crisp.
Fry one or two pieces at a time, transferring to paper towels as you go. Keep warm in the oven until all fish is done, or until you finish frying the potatoes.
Drain potatoes thoroughly, removing any excess water. When oil reaches 320 degrees, submerge the potatoes in the oil. Working in small batches, fry for two to three minutes until they are pale and floppy. Remove from oil, drain and cool to room temperature.
Increase the temperature of the oil to 375 degrees. Reimmerse fries and cook until crisp and golden brown, about two to three minutes. Remove and drain on roasting rack. Season with kosher salt and serve with fish, lemons and tartar sauce – and plenty of malt vinegar for sprinkling. Serves six.