Oakland and Emeryville boast a handful of Fryolator-based seafood takeout joints that make British chippies look like artless grease pits. Some of them even call themselves fish-and-chips shops, but you're eating fish and chips Southern-style. That means cornmeal-encrusted bottom-feeders and crispy steak fries, all cooked in fresh oil, without that rancid pong that the British seem to crave.
I asked Keseti Yohannes, who has owned Temescal's seventeen-year-old S&S Seafood for three years, why he uses cornmeal crust. "It holds the fish together better, and tastes better than when it's fried in wheat flour," he says.
The best fried oysters in the region come from S&S on Telegraph Avenue and 49th Street. The cornmeal-dusted exteriors get crunchy and golden quickly, leaving interiors as soft as custard. The oysters -- and, for that matter, almost all the fried fish at S&S -- remind you of how nongreasy deep-fried food made by a seasoned, precise cook can be. The principle of deep-frying is that when the oil is the correct temperature, it cooks the exterior of the food quickly, forming a shell. Inside, moisture from the food quickly turns to vapor, in effect steaming the fish inside its crispy crust. The paper bags I carried out with me only developed a few scarce translucent patches by the time I unloaded their contents, and I only needed to use my napkin to mop up the tartar sauce that kept missing my mouth.
You may not be able to snag one of the three tiny tables at the bare-bones takeout shop, but you can always order to go. During the rush hours, the three staffers keep the phones busy and the row of fryers bubbling away. At lunch the counter is sometimes covered with rows of tall brown paper bags awaiting pickup.
Like most of the fish, you can get S&S oysters in a basket with fries or a choice of salads, or you can have them in an oyster burger -- Californian for po' boy sandwich. When doused with tartar and hot sauces, the "catburger," layered with lettuce and tomato between slices of toasted hamburger bun, rivals the award-winning fish sandwich from Berkeley's Sea Breeze Market.
But the catfish fillets ordered on a separate visit were disappointingly dry, as were the chicken wings. The rest of the seafood excelled. Like the restaurant's oysters, meltingly moist chunks of snapper are coated in a delicately crisp, well-seasoned cornmeal crust. The prawns don't get too chewy. The buffalo -- a Midwestern and Southern river fish related to carp -- maintains its moistness. Just be willing to pick around the bones.
Cornmeal crusts are so good because they don't appear to soak up so much oil, and their grainy texture metes out more crispiness per square inch than other coatings or batters. But not every cornmeal crust works. A trip to Giant Fish and Chips on East 18th Street near the Parkway Theater neighborhood shows where you can go wrong.
Every piece of seafood at Giant, from the salmon to the prawns, is covered in a coarse-grained cornmeal mixture that's light on seasonings -- including salt, without which fried food is just a sad exercise in caloric overwhelm -- and heavy on crunch. At first bite I enjoyed the slightly gritty, crackly exterior. But when the fish inside was bland (sole) or sliced so thinly that it fried into fish jerky (the salmon, and the sole as well), the lack of flavor in the coating couldn't compensate.
There is one exception to the rule: the catfish. It pulls apart easily and maintains its musky character without tasting too strong. The only other menu item I'd recommend is the crisp "golden steak fries" -- chips worthy of their highfalutin name.
Due to bad timing, I had to skip one of Oakland's great fish fryers. Jesso's closed its doors at the beginning of November just as I started researching this article. The restaurant, which was at Telegraph and 28th Street, will reopen in its new downtown location at 901 Washington on November 29. According to the sign on the door, Jesso's is keeping "the same staff, the same menu, and the same phone number" (510-451-1561).
That gave me an excuse to head over to Scend's, on San Pablo Avenue and 36th Street, for a second visit. To order at Scend's, just pick a name. According to Deborah Nickleson, who owns the restaurant with her mother Cassie and her brother Emery, all the combos are named after longtime regulars and Cassie's grandchildren. There's Pat's Platter, Joyce's Choice, and Debbie's Do, which mix and match fried snapper, fried catfish, fried prawns, fried chicken wings, and fried oysters in various proportions, with fried potatoes on the side. If you want to get enough food for a party of twenty, order it by the piece. Enough people order a hundred chicken wings at a time to warrant a line item on the menu.
On weekends the place buzzes with life. A bartender furiously shakes up martinis for a crowd standing two deep around his station. Old-school funk on the stereo sends couples dancing and romancing. Every table is occupied, some by single men watching the TV overhead while they put away enormous amounts of food, others by parties of young women splitting baskets of oysters. Locals weave their way through the crowd to the counter at back to order takeout.
Scend's fried chicken wings and catfish are the stars of the menu. You can get an order of rice and beans, for example, but they have a cursory appeal, with too few spices and no smoked pork. Stick with the finger food. If you feel the need to cut down on the deep-fried fare, skip the fries and order the creamy, tart, mashed-potato salad moistened with mayonnaise. But you might as well go for broke.
Juice bursts out from the crisp, salty chicken wings at each bite. The meaty chunks of catfish, with their hint of funky sweetness, have more character than the mild red snapper, which sometimes dries out. The prawns are pleasant but not standouts. But the oysters disappear quickly. Instead of being dusted with cornmeal, Scend's dredges the massive mollusks in seasoned wheat flour. Straight out of the fryer, their wrinkled coatings make them look like fried chicken. The insides stay soft and rich, though not quite as ephemeral as the ones at S&S.
One of my old roommates, a Brit, used to keep a plastic container of used vegetable oil on the shelf for months. Every now and then, he'd bring it out, add a little fresh oil -- why dilute the effect, I'd wonder -- and make up a batch of chips. It's a cultural thing, he'd explain as the rest of us would open all the windows. After gorging myself on kickass Southern-fried catfish and oysters five nights out of the past fourteen, I feel comfortable letting a few cultural differences stand.