July 17, 2013
Four plates of good fish 'n' chips swimming in a sea of so-so

tugboat.JPGThe angler's mantra is "Fish are where you find 'em." That's also true of exceptional fish 'n' chips, which swim in a small school in a sea of mostly so-so versions.

Our go-to's? We like the plates of haddock, cod and salmon at 36 Handles, served either battered and deep-fried or buttermilk-dipped, rolled in panko and pan-fried (1010 White Rock Road, El Dorado Hills; 916-941-3606,

We've also been known to knock back a plate of crispy fried wild Atlantic cod in beer-vodka batter, and skinny, hand-cut Kennebec fries (preceded by briny clam chowder) at Boxing Donkey (300 Lincoln St., Roseville; 916-797-3665,

Whenever travel takes us to Marin County, we detour to Nick's Cove on Tomales Bay for excellent (though costly) deep-fried locally caught rockcod and more premium hand-cut Kennebec fries (23240 Highway 1, Marshall; 415-663-1033,

BTW: Highly regarded Kennebec potatoes hold up well to frying (they don't get soggy) and are widely used to make chips.

Closer to home, a group of us recently sat on the breezy patio adjoining Tugboat Fish & Chips, diving into a fried-seafood feast. The place looks like a weathered wood vessel docked alongside busy Fair Oaks Boulevard in Carmichael. Though there are a half-dozen Tugboats around town, we favor this one.

Why? The cooks seem to know that deep-frying is an art. The oil must be clean and just hot enough, the batter thin and not oversalted. Cooking time is crucial, as are freshness, handling and consistency.

In this case, a crisp, non-oily, tempura-like coating encased fresh-tasting cod fillets and sweet prawns (pictured), pieces of flavorful calamari and assorted fresh veggies (including thick, crunchy onion rings). The french fries were an also-ran.

We could have done without the fishy, pre-breaded frozen oysters, chewy fried clam strips and the surprise dish - pork lumpia, a Filipino-Indonesian meat pastry similar to Chinese spring rolls. They can be terrific if you know a home cook who makes them from scratch.

And: Not all tartar sauces are created equal. Tugboat would be wise to upgrade its runny, sub-par version to match the quality of its fish and prawns. Which made us wonder: Is there any seafood restaurant in Sacramento that makes real tartar sauce from scratch? You know - dill pickle, onion, bell pepper, mayo. Not aioli. We'd love to know.

Caution: Watch your step on the patio. For some reason, the floor is on two levels, with a hard-to-see curb dividing them. We watched in shock as a woman tripped over it and crashed hard.

Tugboat is at 7601 Fair Oaks Blvd., Carmichael; (916) 944-4911.

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