The seascape of this installment of Killin Food is ever a-changing. In the fish and chip scene in Toronto there have been some notable changes in the last few years: local Queen East favourite Wood Green has capsized permanently; Danforth and Broadview location Deep Blue has also abandoned ship, a location previously serving some of the more unique varieties of fish and chips that you were likely to find anywhere, including Jamaican Jerk Battered Cod and Corn Meal Battered Sea Scallops; British Style Fish and Chips at Coxwell and Dundas has reportedly changed management since opening, compromising the original reputation that the location had accrued through its previous tenants. Even the new location in Kensington Market, Somethin’s Fishy, did not last very long at all, apparently scraping bottom on the shallows of the current Torontonian economy.
With all these floundering locations in constant flux, I decided to plunge into the depths of the waters of Torontonian fish and chips to check which locations are still serving the top fish in the city.
Harbord Fish and Chips (147 Harbord Street)
Taking in the view from the outside while I wait for my compatriots, I have initial reservations about this: an older, grungy white painted brick building that filth seems to cling to from the outside, standing unconnected from its neighbours, a tarnished teal sign on the front affirming the location. Looking inside, there is practically no indoor seating besides a few miniature bar stools shored up to a counter by the tall front window, but customers do not seem interested in ordering and sticking around. As I wait for Me and the Real Ted Killin, no fewer than five people enter the tiny shop and leave with their meals, people ready to wait in line for this neighbourhood fish and chips.
The purveyor of fish stands behind an aluminum paneled counter, wearing a Nike ball cap and a teal apron that very nearly matches the sign out front. There are strangely two menus posted for such a small store, one above the counter and one against the front wall. There are potatoes deskinned in the sink, prepared for the final transformation into fresh chips. A batch of batter and a pile of newspapers to wrap to-go orders are always on hand, ready to be used at a moments noticed. A poster gives the customer the low down on the advantages of eating fish: “strong hearts help fish to overcome obstacles. Eat fish and imagine what you can do!”
The Real Ted Killin and I order a round of the higher priced halibut while Me orders a small order of six deep-fried shrimp. The cashier is very easy going and tosses Me a few fries to go with the order, even though they aren’t regularly included with the order itself; he just didn’t want Me to be left out!
All three of us take our offering and sit in the stands of a nearby high school track to eat. The newspaper was a great receptacle for the fish, and contributed to the ambiance of the meal, although I am slightly disappointed in the prepackaged vinegar and tartar sauce that Harbord serves. The fish itself is extremely well prepared: a lighter, flakier crust than I expect, bridging the gap between a tempura and a classic greasier coating, the fish and crispy chips able to retain their heat even in the high winds until I had finish gorging myself, the only remaining evidence a few blotches of grease on the newspaper.
Chippy’s (490 Bloor Street West and 893 Queen Street West)
After the disappointment of finding out about the absence of Deep Blue, a large group of diners ship out to descend upon the Bloor location of Chippy’s, a downtown eatery idolized by the common downtown resident to the point that there are now two locations. The Bloor West location looks very similar to the original Queen West location, but is more condensed and already dressed for the holiday season with black, red and silver bulbs dangling in the window.
The rest of the décor inside is fairly standard: the floor consists of black and white tiles, bulb lights hang from the ceiling and on several vintage coke adverts hang on white walls, in addition to fairly kitschy, fish-inspired porcelain models on small shelves that portray scenes of bears clasping fish and pairs of fishes in various poses. A counter runs around the outside edge of half the shop, offering bar stools as seating, and behind the wood grain cashier counter are several fryers and counter space which the employees use to prepare their fishy goods. When we order, I watch as he slices my salmon fillets, a fish that I have never before attempted in a deep-fried format.
Which, as it turns out, was a slight miscalculation. The dense quality of salmon does not fry as well as a lighter fish such as halibut or cod, and although the crumbly fish itself was fresh, the amount of grease involved is far too much: the thin paper plate offered for dining in soaked through long before I had finished, which is a little unnerving. However, the chips themselves are phenomenal: very thick, crispy and fresh, but I am glad that I did not take this meal to go, for while I unwittingly would wait to arrive home and eat, I would run the risk of the dense fish soaking the quality right out of the fries stacked in the thin container.
Reliable Fish and Chips (954 Queen Street East)
With such an audacious name, of course I have to test the claim. Will a fish and chippery named Reliable deliver every time?
I leap out of the cold into a small store on Queen east with massive fryers, the ample menu hung above. Across from the front desk the condiment stand holds dangling aluminum cups that contain peripherals such as straws and napkins. The owner addresses me immediately, but after I tell him I am having a sit-down meal he pulls out two sets of utensils and shows me to one of the few tables in the place. While waiting for Nuke, all I have to do is swivel my head around to take in the entirety of the chippery.
Metal sailboats and fish adorn the white walls, with framed pictures of sailboats sailing smoothly on calm waters, pictures of Queen east from 1959 and other newspaper articles are scattered around Reliable. The wall behind me has been stacked with empty screech bottles relabeled with the Reliable store logo, with a few left bearing their original label. A strong scent of vinegar pervades my table, the source of which is a spray bottle on a mist setting to lightly coat the fish. A final, large model sailboat sits atop a large fridge filled with drinks and condiments. In addition, behind my head are several fish and chip ditties that proudly declare love for this necessitous dish of the English, evoking pride, synaesthesia and hilarity all at once.
Nuke arrives and the owner is anxious to feed us, visiting several times within the span of five minutes. I grab the rainbow trout, which I have not seen at any other location yet, Nuke orders a haddock, and we grab a breaded clam dish to share for only $2.50, which arrives in no time at all with a side of shrimp sauce – I now prefer this chewy snack to deep-fried shrimp. When the fish arrives, I spray a fine mist of malt vinegar on the offering, while Nuke peppers his haddock, preparing for a well portioned sit down meal.
The haddock is always a good, subtle fish that responds well to the battering, and the rainbow trout has a stronger flavour, allowing the fish its independence to flourish while the same time lending itself well to the fryer. Yet after tackling both these dishes Nuke and I are still a mite peckish, so we decide to split a New England seafood chowder: bacon, fish, shrimp, clams and veggies (celery and carrots) in a light broth. Although Reliable has no business calling this dish a chowder, for the broth is so light that it must be a soup, the “chowder” is a blend of several interesting tastes with good texture nonetheless.
As I leave, I read a framed article that outlines the history of the fish and chips stand started by one A.W. Mongour (1886-1960). He had already owned a chip store, and named his second fish and chips stand Reliable when he moved locations to 258 Carlaw in 1934, which gives the claim to the Reliable brand as the oldest fish and chippery in the downtown core. And yes, the Reliable namesake holds true to this day: a friendly staff, a solid deep-fry and a comfortable atmosphere would keep Mongour proud to this day. For great eat-in fish and chips, Reliable should be your destination every time.
The poster inside Hardbord fish and chips shows a little fish escaping the bowl to swim into the bigger bowl, which turns out to be the perfect image for the Harbord location itself. Although the building itself is nothing special, the product alone is worth the trip. This niche store serves a veritable slew of customers and encourages you to take your fish to go, wrapped in a newspaper ala classic Britain, and the mountain of chips offered (my favourite chips of the lot) will sail delicately across your taste buds and challenge the capacity of your stomach.
Chippy's has turned out to be bit of a touchy subject for the fish and chip market, because in the middle of a number of capsizing fish stands, Chippy's has managed to thrive and actually expand to a new location. Yet I am not quite sure it deserves such reputable outlook. It is certainly the most expensive location. The salmon was fresh but certainly did not react well to the fryer. I have visited the Queen West location several times, and while I believe the higher priced Halibut to be the perfect fish for the fryer, the Chippy's price sits at a whopping $11.99, far more expensive than $8.99 at Harbord and just $6.95 at Reliable. There should be spectacular quality above the competitors to justify such a price, but I do not find the heavier, greasier batter to compete with the lighter, inexpensive offerings at the other fish and chip contenders. Chippy's surely is the most successful fish and chips downtown, but that certainly does not make it the port that I will frequent when my stomach hollers for fish.