Steve and Mustafa Allen, the brothers behind Emerald City Fish & Chips down on Rainier Avenue South, might trade—ever so gently—on their family's New Orleans heritage, but make no mistake: They're hometown boys, young entrepreneurs who were raised in the Central District, graduated from Garfield High School, and ran a string of businesses from a rim shop to a clothing store before opening this, their first restaurant. Construction on the light rail near King Plaza on Martin Luther King Jr. Way South put a strain on their clothing business, Steve says, and he got a little sick of cars. "I don't like to get dirty anymore, you know?" he says while we sit at a table outside Emerald City, his eyes flicking between me, customers coming and going from the shop, and cars passing by on the street. "And those rims were getting so big, they were too heavy for me!"
The brothers' grandmother was from New Orleans, Mustafa had told me in the shop while we waited for his brother to arrive and he fried up a batch of cod fillets. Later, sitting outside, Steve says she lived in Monroe, about 300 miles north of New Orleans. But she used to go down there to visit sometimes. Whatever. Whether they're more Emerald City or Crescent City hardly matters—claims for regional authenticity are typically more marketing ploy than guarantee of a good plate of food. Give us a heaping helping of perfect fried fish and we won't ask too many questions.
No matter what the Allen brothers did or didn't learn in their grandma's kitchen, they've got plenty of deliciousness going on in their own: cod ($7.50 will get you three pieces with fries), catfish (ditto), halibut ($9 for three pieces), salmon ($8), po'boys ($6 for chicken, $7 for shrimp and oyster), fish and beef burgers ($6–$7.50), coleslaw ($5 for a large), fried oysters and prawns ($5–$12.50 depending on how many you get), and crab hush puppies ($9 will get you 12), an Allen brothers specialty. "We wanted something with more pizzazz," Steve says. "We wanted to make something people would come back for especially and say, 'Man, I remember those, I loved those. I'm gonna need a dozen this time.'"
You might want a dozen of almost everything at Emerald City, particularly the catfish. The fish is firm and juicy, and the slices are thin enough to ensure a perfect bite every time—a little batter and a little flesh, instead of that tower of awkwardness you sometimes get with a piece of fried fish. (That cross section is all too familiar in Seattle: a too-thick, too-greasy crust; a little pocket of humid air where the cooling fish has peeled away from its breading; a slap of steamy and sometimes slimy fish; and then the bottom layer of too-thick, too-greasy crust.)
The Allen brothers' batter is also a minor miracle, well seasoned with garlic and cayenne, but not so hot that you won't want to grab a bottle of hot sauce sitting on the counter. The batter's consistency is its blue-ribbon feature: smooth and not too thick, it sticks to the fish and doesn't turn into a wringable grease sponge.
"We use panko, but grind it up really fine," Steve says. "Some people use cornmeal for a little grittier flavor. But we really want people to taste the fish, that nice and clean taste, and the spices without leaving that taste of grit in your mouth." Mission accomplished. The catfish tastes just a touch muddy, the way a catfish should, a little earthy and a little weedy. The french fries—thick cut and slightly seasoned—are also an accomplishment, nice and golden, not too greasy or floppy.
The oyster po'boy, on the other hand, isn't so much. The oysters are passable, unremarkable little nuggets of oyster and batter, but the bread is a major letdown—a sort of soggy white roll instead of the nice, crispy French bread a po'boy so desperately wants. (It's a common problem with Seattle po'boys. The New Orleans sandwich is a new fad in these parts, but the proper roll remains its elusive philosopher's stone.) But for all the fooling around the Allen brothers have done in their grandma's kitchen—"It was just skillets back in those days," Steve says, but he's since gotten himself a private deep fryer—they are still new to the restaurant business. They've heard other critiques of their po'boy, including a review in the Rainier Valley Post: "They used hot dog bread instead of traditional crispy French bread. The saying in New Orleans is, 'If the bread ain't right then it's not a po boy.'"
But Emerald City Fish & Chips has only been open for five months—the Allen brothers have time to tighten up their game. As it is, there's plenty to love.