Hours: Seven days, 11 a.m.-10 p.m.
Prices: Sandwiches, $4-9; combos, $7-13
Fare: Fried fish and chicken, with some surprises
Atmosphere: Cheerful fast food
Smoking: None permitted
We'll confess that we were slow to catch on to the name. Perhaps we were distracted by the trendy spelling of the first word, or by the shorthand of the last. But once we heard it, it made sense: Fish & Chix, like fish & chips. Inspired by the great British pub meal of fried fish & French fries, the owners wanted to be clear that chicken is part of their repertoire, as well.
What the name leaves out, however, is what's really remarkable about the menu: Phat Fish & Chix is the only restaurant that has ever offered us our choice of fries and slaw or basmati rice and grilled vegetables. And not only is the rice exemplary toasty-flavored with tender-firm, individual grains but the vegetables are tossed with capers after grilling. Yes, you read that right capers at a fried-food place. Clearly, Phat Fish & Chix is aiming to be in a different league than its competitors.
Still, the first question is whether the menu mainstays are any good. We got fish & chips with a side of wings, and the results were mixed. The fish was in a hearty, crisp cornmeal crust so hearty, in fact, that the thin filets almost disappeared within. We're not always impressed with Pittsburgh's ubiquitous enormous fish sandwiches, but here was a breading crying out for a half-pound of whiting. Instead, it seemed that a more delicate and possibly more refined fish had been entombed. The medium-sized chicken wings were similarly out of meat-breading balance, albeit minus the cornmeal.
But then there was the dipping sauce. To keep its deep-fried crusts intact, Phat thoughtfully serves its sauces on the side, and we tried a couple. Buffalo-style hot was above average, while garlic-Parmesan brilliantly broke the mold. Rather than the granules of cheese and garlic suspended in butter that one tends to find at other establishments, Phat offered a thin, spicy red base with just enough of the title ingredients to create flavor without dominating. It is a democratic sauce, too: Chicken, fish and fries all benefited from their turns in the little cup.
Now, about those fries. Frankly, we're a bit tired of the soggy thick-cut fries that are de rigueur around here. Too few places double-fry them or double-fry them right to create the crisp-on-the-outside, creamy-on-the-inside texture that is the ideal essence of the French fry experience. Phat neatly avoids this pitfall with shoestring-like fries that seem to be battered, resulting in a crust that remains crunchy even after cooling.
Moving on from the obvious stars of the menu, we tried some unexpected options. A kafta wrap is a Middle Eastern ground-beef treat that evokes both falafel and gyro. Phat's meat was elegantly spiced with cinnamon, among other intriguing flavors, and the lettuce and tomatoes were crisp and fresh in a way that few kitchens centered around deep fryers bother to achieve. Finally, in what seemed to us more than a perfunctory nod to healthy eating, Phat offers grilled seafood along with rice and veggies. Those filets that got lost in their fried breading probably fare better on the grill, and we were sure we'd enjoy the salmon, but it was a dish called Shrimplicious that won us over. Well-seasoned and then grilled, these medium shrimp were succulent, fragrant and flavorful on their bed of basmati rice. (Also available fried are "shrimbo," jumbo shrimp.)
Phat Fish & Chix stands out from other fried-food restaurants, and not in name only. Despite some imbalance in its eponymous dishes, Phat achieves something commendable: a tempting variety of food that is fast, fresh and delicious, no matter how you spell it.
Jason: 2.5 stars
Angelique: 2.5 stars