"I wasn't eating white stuff, I was eating real fish and I knew it."
Walking on the pier behind Salty's Seafood Market in Point Pleasant, it was easy to imagine that I was in the middle of an episode of Deadliest Catch. There were tied-up fishing boats, piles of nets, stacks of crab pots, and some tough-looking fisher-folk smoking and chatting. I wanted to be part of it and was even hoping that Captain Sig would be there to laugh at me—and dump a cooler filled with herring guts on me—or whatever it was they did for fun up there in the Aleutian Islands.
This was New Jersey, not Alaska, and her, well, things are different. As I was snapping a few photos with my noisy antique digital camera, some fishermen came up to me and asked, “Have you read Kurlansky?”
It was New Jersey all right, where the local folks will always come up with a new and fresh ways to surprise. The twist of literate, well-read commercial fishermen was like a kidney punch. “I read his oyster book and I’m reading his Younger Land book right now” I stammered. There were three of them and they stared at me with eyes that said: “Not only does this guy not read, he’s not even mature enough to watch SpongeBob.” It was time to go in and get something to eat.
I had driven down to the Fisherman's Dock Coop and its retail store “Salty's Seafood Market” because I was confident that someplace in the Garden State would have actual fresh fish—not "fresh," as in "not frozen" but “fresh off a real actual fishing boat that landed here” fresh.
Local supermarkets carry fish labeled “fresh,” but some of it comes from places like Peru. If you've ever flown from Peru to New Jersey, you know that you're not likely to arrive fresh and I can’t imagine a fish doing any better.
Salty’s is both a casual restaurant with fried seafood and a market with fresh fish. In the past, it was a dingy place with a few tables, but this spring, they spruced it up and really turned it into a terrific destination for serious fish fans. On a nice day, you can order a fried fish or seafood platter and eat it on the well-shaded picnic tables out front.
I ordered fried fish and had a choice between cod, ling, or fluke. I chose ling and was presented with a platter of two fried fish fillets, a nice pile of fries, and some hush puppies. The price was a few bucks more than the well-known fish and chip places but not expensive enough to put me off completely. My fish platter was delicious; what big heap of fried food isn’t? More importantly though, the fish wasn’t just a vehicle for the fried batter—it contributed its own real flavor. I wasn’t eating white stuff, I was eating real fish and I knew it.
Salty's isn't just fried though; there’s a market for uncooked fish too. On the day I visited, there were fillets of mahi-mahi, swordfish, mako, cod, fluke, monkfish (called “monk loin” here), tilefish, and ling. There were also whole cod, mahi-mahi, and tilefish along with bone-in monkfish tail. Live and cooked lobsters and crabs rounded out the selection.
What counts most though is what’s out there behind the store; the Fishermen's Dock Cooperative, one of the oldest fishermens' coops in the nation with seventeen boats. This gives Salty’s a knowledge of product that few other fish markets have. And of course, if you aren’t satisfied with the information they give you, you can stroll on back and find a fisherman to ask.
Oh, and my favorite work of maritime literature? The masterful One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish. Otherwise, I’ll just watch reruns of Deadliest Catch.
Fishermen's Dock Cooperative
Salty’s Seafood Market 57 Channel Drive, Point Pleasant Beach NJ 08742 (map) 732-899-1122 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Daily when in season, but double check before heading out there