Smells Fishy

In restaurant on 03/22/2009 at 5:19 pm

One of the great cultural landmarks in a Harlem neighborhood is the fish market. Otherwise, they aren’t to be found between there and Chinatown, except in those ridiculously priced sushi-grade joints like at Chelsea market or the Upper West Side Zabar’s where the cheapest flesh is $15/lb. These Harlem jewels are hole-in-the-wall purveyors of not-so-fresh red eyed fish with dirty tanks of old lobsters in the back.

In a fish market, you can find the opposite of gourmet cuisine, but why go to A Salt and Battery for overpriced British fish sticks when you can go to the counter at one of these fish markets and get crispy, fresh-fried whole filets of soft, flaky goodness, topped with as much greasy squirt bottles full of watered down hot sauce, lemon juice, ketchup and tartar sauce as you want, for 1/3 the price? For less than $5, we get our choice of whiting, flounder, and several other varieties. You could also get convection oven-steamed versions of the same dishes, packed in paper and styrofoam boxes, sealed with a ring of rubberband.

There’s usually a stained bench or rickety chair to sit on, and the floor is slick with fish juice, but what’s better than inhaling these ocean critters while watching the comings and goings of the neighborhood folks as they poke and prod and point, while gingerly holding their plastic baskets of raw whole fish? Can’t get better ambience than this, except maybe at the barber shop. This afternoon we were privy to a conversation about fish heads, and how much so-and-so’s dad loved to eat them.

The one we particularly like lives in the shadows of Lenox Terrace on 133rd St., the projects-like housing complex behemoth that boasts the likes of Congressman Charlie Rangel, of recent tax-evading and rent-controlled housing-hoarding fame, as its resident. Some of my classmates and professors also live there. We discovered it one day on our Goodwill-shopping spree. It’s currently in the same strip of shops as a Mormon church outpost and a Porsche/Rolls Royce dealership. Last year in the fall, we used to walk briskly from the fish market to our garden and chomp down our feast there. There’s a Sound of Music-type gazebo and wrought-iron trimmed benches under the shade of peach and plum trees, besides the hordes of mosquitoes.

If you’re ready for the mean streets of fish feeding, put on your grungiest pair of dungarees, BYOB and grab a fistfull of dollars. These joints are usually cash only, Spanish-speaking, Korean-owned dives, miles away from anything Seattle’s Pike’s Place has to offer. Just point to the pre-battered filet of your choice and make sure your belly is beyond empty. One ‘sandwich’ order is plenty for two healthy appetites. Sop up any remaining juices with the accompanying Wonder bread. This is definitely the meal of champions.

so fishing good

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