At New Zealand’s Best Fish & Chips

At around the lunching hour on a recent day in Mangonui I saw a familiar face—Jo’s—ball-capped and smiling about to pass me. Just beyond her a blue wood building rose on an array of wood stilts looking like a lone fish monger’s shop with nothing around it except for a slanted stone retaining wall. The building’s side was a simple advertisement: World Famous Mangonui Fish Shop. Fresh From the Ocean.

“What are the chances I run into you again?” Jo said.

She had just finished eating (totted a plastic bag with snacks too), but with the lure of a few hours company agreed to join me for round two at the WFMFS.

The Mangonui Fish shop, much suggested and famous enough to have an automatic Google Maps shout out if you zoom in on the area, is antiseptically clean. Taxidermic puffer fish in various bloat states are suspended from wires hung on ceiling eyebolts, and jade starfish hang on ornamental string. There are no decorations though near the work space, all eye-level-and-below real estate is for penny making—hand written dry erase menus, stacks of red-canned fish, mussels and crayfish salad tightly packed in tupperware containers and sold in exact grams, trays of aioli and tomato based dipping sauces neatly placed.

There are daily fish specials for the fish and chips, though there’s an out of the spotlight menu replete with fresh caught offerings from the you-can-see-it-from-the-window Doubtless Bay. The fish for the F&C special are laid out, filleted and clean, behind display glass and next to the trio of chip exemplars (cut fat, skinny or homestyle). Jo, in front of another display, pointed to separate platters of fish, which were off special that you could buy by gram and have fried with your chosen scoop of chips on the side with sauce that is—as is customary—extra. “Get the Tarakihi” she said, pointing to a white fish with rose chevrons down the fillets’ centers.

It was a weekday before the summer vacationer onslaught. The few clientele sitting among the lacquered wood picnic benches were as simply dressed as the decor and speaking English with many accents. On this day the sun was benevolent, and Jo, sitting at a water facing counter and wanting to get a breeze, opened the window and shooed gulls roosting on the sill. Finished orders are announced on a first name basis. Napkins and utensils, like the conversations, are communal.

The food delivers on an uncomplicated promise. The fish was as light as sunlight, lightly fried and dressed with quarter lemon slices that are available to grab. Grease was somehow subsumed to oblivion. The chips, the fish—the lot—were served on clean butcher’s paper, no newsprint here. And the green lipped mussels, de-shelled and steamed and acid cooked with lemon and water and mezzaluna onion slices were meaty and ripe and brackish. The fat chips shear apart with slight finger pressure. “Oh my god,” one customer said, rotating his hand above and around his plate, “I’d order this over a burger.” That customer was, I think, American.

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