The construction for new apartments that I’ll never be able to afford begins pounding at 8:00 am every goddamn morning. The sound it makes, my god, the sound. The unmistakable sound of metal-on-metal: too dense to be high-pitched, and too violent to be low. It sounds like meth-addicts playing College Baseball and induces the same panicked awakening as a home invasion by one of the players. When it’s finally completed in the too-soon future it will be an eight-story building with 104 units and 35 parking spots, which I’m sure is enough. The night skyline I used to occasionally look at from my front porch will soon be completely blocked by the landed gentry, leaving me sad for the view I once had and did not appreciate. I’d guess this sentiment is shared by the Dominican family living in the shadow of my own three-unit building, but the volume at which they are playing Aventura tells me they’re OK.
In BeLa, Bergen-Lafayette’s saccharine nickname that doubles as an AIM handle, the property values continue to skyrocket for the 4th straight year, leading prospective home-buyers from the hood to collectively Google Map the commute from Bayonne. When I first moved here I had very limited options for eating in my hood. There’s Mi Casa, a Dominican spot on Communipaw which has good Pernil, good Sancocho, and a menu that rotates every. fucking. day. There’s Pacific Pizza, which still exists, and MAE, which lasted shorter than a good fart. MAE, which inhabited the storefront that now houses Harry’s Daughter, was a little too early for the neighborhood, though a really good spot. I went there exactly twice before it abruptly shut down, a trend that would follow the next three failed bars at that location, and one that I hope stops with Harry’s – that is if they can stop charging $11 for a rum punch.
Link above. Pure Properties continuing to kill the Hudson County real estate analysis game
I list my options to highlight that up until recently we didn’t have many options. This is a feeling that’s shared by any resident you come across, probably with a bit too much enthusiasm, as if suffering through minimal culinary options is worthy of a Purple Heart. If you haven’t come across one of them you can spot these people from a block away because that’s the distance at which they begin their endless prattling of “You shoulda seen this place in 2006”.
I’m obviously exaggerating, but there’s a lot of truth in the playful caricature I’ve created. The sentiment is deeply ingrained in the identity of many residents of this neighborhood, including myself, which is why we want to give a James Beard Award to anyone who merely opens a restaurant here. We don’t want them to leave because if they left what would we have? Because of this, we celebrate restaurants that are just OK for the fact that they exist. Except for The Factory. We celebrate their inevitable demise.
This brings me to Hooked, the BYOB seafood spot on Communipaw and Garfield that opened last year.
For starters, what Hooked brings to the neighborhood is not a new concept. You could get a generous amount of serviceable fried fish at Tanty’s on Pacific Ave for under $9, complete with fries and the owner’s homemade hot sauce. Tanty’s closed unceremoniously at some point in the last two years, but you can still occasionally find the owner selling fish sandwiches out of a pop-up tent on Pacific, near Johnston. A few blocks away from Hooked, Big Easy sells fried fish, scallops, and po’ boys all for under $10. By no means is this an endorsement of Big Easy, as I haven’t had anything there worth remembering, but that’s for another time. What I’m trying to say is that fried fish spots are prevalent in under-served neighborhoods in the same way fried chicken spots are, though in fewer numbers.
Despite a familiar concept, Hooked packages their shop in a way that is more digestible to a crowd less accustomed to going into your hood fish spot (read: gentrifiers). The result is kitschy and generally pleasing. I enjoy the nautical theme, complete with a giant Tarpon shellacked on the wall and oil paintings of large ships sailing to sea. The interior is floor-to-wall wood paneling with portholes for windows. The place feels like it’s caked in decades of salty ocean breeze. I’m originally from a small coastal town, so a place that looks like Hooked feels familiar and reminds me of the divey-ist beach bars in Ship Bottom, which is a compliment.
Like my hometown favorites, my feelings for Hooked are conflicted. Starting with their fast-casual service format, which means you seat yourself, you order your meal at the counter, you get all of your condiments and drinks yourself, you pay the bill, and you get the fuck out. Though there are things about the format I really enjoy, there’s an element of ceremony my shore spots have that I’m not getting here. I think what I’m trying to say is that it doesn’t FEEL like it should be in this format. The ambiance is too personal to have such a transactional premise.
For what it is, the service at Hooked is great. From the friendly girls behind the counter, to the owner who always makes a point to check in with every guest, its friendly, hospitable and deliberate. In this sense, it’s the anti-Taqueria and should be applauded.
NO FAJITAS. GTFO!!!
In this format, tips are always confusing to me. I generally tip 20% minimum, but really can’t land on an amount to tip at Hooked. At a fast-casual place like Chipotle I’d never even consider tipping, and at a full-service spot like Taqueria I feel like my 20% is leading to the collapse of the social contract. Hooked is somewhere on this spectrum but I have trouble figuring out where, so I default to 15% which is probably too much. Any guidance from my readers is appreciated and can be done by telling me how much I suck @NiceThingsJC on Instagram.
Before we go any further I feel it’s necessary to disclose that I’ve got a Red October sized hard-on for seafood. I definitely skew towards more critical and self-righteous when talking about seafood because a) it’s so good, so easy to cook, and so often done poorly b) because we’re actively destroying marine ecosystems across the planet with our seafood habits, so it better be fucking tasty.
Does anyone even get this reference any more?
When I go to Hooked I’m typically ordering very app heavy. They’ve got a ton of delicious little things to pick on, and I really can’t help but over-ordering them. Fried pickles with the cornmeal batter god intended it to have. Polenta Poppers, their golf ball sized version of shrimp and grits are very tasty. The hushpuppies are good though anyone who has spent time in the South will blow an aorta seeing that they charge $4 for 3 GODDAMN HUSHPUPPIES. The crab cakes are also incredibly delicious though about the same size as a hushpuppy and will set you back $12 for two of them. In their defense, they’re almost entirely crab meat and almost no filler. I haven’t had the lobster roll or the mac and cheese which both look really good in pictures, though the lobster roll wildly varies in size.
I want to take this moment to commend Hooked on one of the best Caesar salads I’ve had in my life. The dressing has black belt levels of anchovy funk that bombs your tongue with straight umami, it’s clearly made in-house and with authority. This salad is fishscale grade good. Opt for the Kale Caesar for the pairing instead of the platter.
Blackened Shark with Kale Caesar. Don’t let the looks of the salad fool you.
Despite the various fried snacks that Hooked offers, its mainstay is the fish. The fish is allegedly fresh and allegedly local. I’ve got no reason to doubt the provenance of the fish, though I did hear the owner brag about how one particular catch was brought in by a small boat into southern Massachusetts. What that tells me is that this was probably a trawler coming into New Bedford, the largest fishing port in the U.S whose annual catch typically brings in around $400 million dollars, roughly $200 million beyond the second largest port, Alaska’s Dutch Harbor of Deadliest Catch fame. Not exactly a mom and pop operation. What it also tells me is they’re not shy about embellishing their product and know we’re not going to call them on it.
Hooked is typically serving cheap, underrated fish that they can upsell, which isn’t devious if done with restraint. Monkfish, one of the smelliest and ugliest fucking fish in the ocean also happens to be one of the tastiest and is often on the menu – something you’re not going to see at Big Easy or Tanty’s. I’ve seen shark, skate, pollock, haddock, swordfish, hake, porgy, and flounder on the menu as well. That’s a pretty great lineup and one that an experienced chef could do a lot with. This is where my biggest issue with Hooked presents itself.
KILL IT! KILL IT!
Fish is something that commands a certain level of thought and respect. Hooked gives you two options for the preparation for your fish: blackened or fried. Of all the possible ways you can prepare all the fish in the sea they’ve settled on two. Items like skate or monkfish are forced to be prepared either fried or blackened which completely defeats the point of serving either of them in the first place. These are delicious pieces of fish that should be prepared in a way that enhances the flavor of the fish instead of masks it.
Blackened Skate with Kale Caesar
Fish like swordfish and shark, which could just simply be grilled and hit with a light sauce or spice, are often caked with blackening seasoning and fried on a flattop, leaving you craving that taste of char that is imbued through fire. But you need to grill it….on an actual fucking grill, with actual fucking fire.
Pollock, haddock, and hake are all in the cod family and are suitable for frying, though any distinction of flavor is lost in the process. Hake is on Big Easy’s menu under its more common name: whiting. The only difference between hake and whiting is that you can get a platter of one at Big Easy for $7.95 and one at Hooked for $16. This a somewhat deceptive tactic to upsell fish, but by no means endemic to Hooked.
Fried Oyster platter with fries and hushpuppies
By offering the wide array of fish that they do, Hooked is clearly trying to open the mind of the fried fish crowd to try new things and I applaud them on it. I’d really like to see them diversify the preparation of the fish, either with grilling, poaching, or serving the fish whole. They are still young and continue to grow and innovate and I’m excited to see how they evolve, but the current blind deep-throating by taste-blind JCers is not helpful. A perfect example of this is that Hooked has 4.7 stars on Zagat, 4.5 stars on Yelp, and 4.9 stars on Facebook, all ratings better than three Michelin star Per Se. This speaks to the desperation celebration I described earlier in this article. Support for your local business isn’t solely gauged on your undying loyalty. It needs good critical feedback so it can grow and evolve. By always saying the food is good or over-rating them you’re actually hurting the restaurant and preventing them from growth, which just isn’t fair.
I think all of this speaks to the larger question of what Hooked actually wants to be, what we want them to be, and what Hooked actually is. Their rotating menu, “fancy” water, and humble brags about the origin of their fish say they aspire to be above fast-casual, but the quality of their fish says they still have a lot to improve before they get there. I think they are probably most comfortable doing fast-casual, which is not a diss, but it does mean the prices and portions need to adjust to align with the fast-casual experience. Regardless of what you want to call it, you should definitely support what Hooked is doing. See! You can be critical AND support something!
The future for Hooked and our hood is bright, though I’ll remain cautiously optimistic. If we want Hooked to be the pinnacle of cuisine in the neighborhood we should continue to blindly shower them with praise and then head to NYC for a “real meal”. If we believe that our neighborhood is worth it, like the developers who are pouring tons of money and concrete into this neighborhood do, then you need to put your money where your fucking mouth is and look at this objectively.
In other words, by calling it hake they’re able to get a little more out of YOU. So, what are YOU doing to get a little more out of THEM?
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