I became a vegetarian in 1985, when I was 16, for the stupidest of reasons: Meat Is Murder, the second studio album by the Smiths. As a postadolescent, vaguely closeted homosexual in west Texas, I felt a deep connection to the postadolescent, vaguely closeted ramblings of Morrissey as set to music by Marr, and had the Smiths suggested I hurl myself off a cliff, I would have. Fortunately, they only asked—through the weakest track in their canon—that I consider the prospect that killing animals to eat their flesh is not an endeavor to be undertaken thoughtlessly. For me, that line about "the meat in your mouth as you savor the flavor of murder," delivered in Morrissey's ghostly moan over the shrieks of a slaughterhouse (subtle!), was enough to officially put me off the stuff. Embedded in a phase when self-denial seemed the greatest of virtues, I found vegetarianism to be a natural step, and before long, other, better reasons—the hideous facts of the meat industry, the basic extravagance of killing something simply for its taste, the wealth of alleged health benefits—stepped up to reinforce what would become 21 years of vegetarian (not vegan; I'm not insane) living.
"If I were starving, I'd eat a baby," I'd tell evangelical carnivores. But as long as there existed so many satisfying, non-bloodsoaked foods to sustain me—eggs over medium, extra-sharp white cheddar, the vast veg-friendly offerings of Seattle's Thai and Vietnamese and Mexican and Indian restaurants—killing a living thing strictly for my consumption seemed immoral. Lucky for me, I didn't miss meat at all. I'd turned a corner, and while I had no problem dining with meat eaters, to me the stuff was no longer food, and I carefully preserved social harmony by averting my eyes from the towering plates of death I'd frequently find across the table.
Then something happened. Maybe it was the morality-challenging urgency of life during wartime, or maybe I was under direct orders from God, but last year I suddenly became interested in fish. Dining out with my boyfriend—me veg, him not—I requested and received a mini-lecture on the appeal of seafood, and it came to be decided that Jake would serve as my tour guide to the world of edible fish.
Initial tests were unsuccessful. The fish Jake presented, small bits of halibut cheek or salmon ass on the end of his fork, proved too fishy, a flavor I didn't miss; I could taste the swimming. For six weeks during the summer of 2005, I ate and enjoyed a certain brand of frozen shrimp rolls—Trader Joe's, but only if they were cooked for twice the time the box directed, and once I saw what a living shrimp looked like—out of responsibility and masochism, I did a Google image search for "live shrimp"—the romance was over.
Until this summer. On a mildly magical evening this July at the revamped Lloyd's Rocket (110 Boren Ave S, 223-4757)—the ambiance was exquisite, the food ran from great to okay—I accepted Jake's offer to taste his fish and chips. Deep-fried food is vegetarian kryptonite, the gateway drug tempting countless health-conscious vegetarians to plunder countless Indian buffets' vegetable-fritter bins, so desperate are we, trapped in our world devoid of KFC and McNuggets, for that narcotic deep-fried crunch. But the appeal of the Lloyd's Rocket fish—Jake ordered cod; they also serve catfish—extended beyond the deep fryer. Gone was the incriminating fishiness, perhaps subsumed by the deep-fried batter and tartar sauce, a veritable culinary spackle. In its place was a most pleasant and mellow meatiness, one that effortlessly bypassed my vegetarian gag reflex, with a flavor that was clearly reminiscent of childhood fish sticks but resonated now, in this vastly superior edition, like the best tofu I'd ever eaten.
At home, I did my duty with Google, finding images of the creatures—the big dumb cod, the Honey Bucket–sized halibut—that I was surprisingly but sufficiently willing to objectify for my dining pleasure. "Halibut is this close to being a vegetable," urged Jake, his fingers held aloft and pinched tight.
I was sold. Polling friends and neighbors, I compiled a shortlist of Seattle's best fish-and-chip places, and over the next month we visited them all. The area of play in fish and chips is limited, and comparisons are crude: Fish and chips are either done right—or at least well—or done poorly. Perfectly fine specimens were found at Ivar's Salmon House (401 NE Northlake Way, 632-0767), the Elysian Brewing Company (1221 E Pike St, 860-1920), and the Queen Anne McMenamins (200 Roy St, 285-4722). Functional but unimpressive offerings were found at Pike Place Market's tourist-packed Jack's Fish Spot (1514 Pike Place) and Capitol Hill's charming but grubby Canterbury (534 15th Ave E, 322-3130).
Left were two unique standouts: the Pacific Inn (3501 Stone Way N, 547-2967), where the fish is sliced unusually thin, then fried in an idiosyncratic, lightly spicy batter, emerging as fish and chips of the highest order. The only better I found were at Green Lake's legendary Spud Fish & Chips (6860 E Green Lake Way N, 524-0565). No inventive cuts, no ambitious spices, just every component of the basic fish-and-chips experience—perfectly balanced textures and flavors and temperatures, adding up to the highest density of perfect individual bites—executed expertly. I would kill a cod with my bare hands for Spud.
Amped from our unequivocally rewarding fish-and-chips exploration, I decided to take it up a notch, and Jake and I ended our investigation with a night at the Kingfish Cafe (602 19th Ave E, 320-8757). Having heard the place was near pointless for vegetarians, I'd never come near it, and when I did, it proved to be as lush and satisfying as I'd always been told. The weakest link of an otherwise exceptional meal: the fried catfish, the ostensible reason for our visit, which unfortunately hit my palate with a smack of fishiness I didn't appreciate. But then there were the mashed potatoes, the mind-blowing macaroni and cheese, the ridiculously extravagant strawberry shortcake (served with custard instead of whipped cream, dear God), and who can blame a fish for being fishy?
Not me. I blame myself. That catfish and I will dance again. Until then, see you in line at Spud.
Eventually, I will have to investigate sushi. Send suggestions and encouragement/disparagement to email@example.com.