Once upon a time, I was standing in the Waldbaum’s parking lot in Mattituck waiting for a date at the Boom Burger that used to be near the movie theater, when five men in business suits and sunglasses jumped out of a new black Chevy Suburban and ran to me.
“Where’s the nearest fish shack?” they asked, all very urgent about their mission.
I gave them that funny sarcastic look that North Fork Natives give strangers.
“You know, a roadside stand, where you can get a lobster roll?”
“You mean, like Lunch in Napeague?” I asked. “That’s in Napeague.”
“Where is Napeague?” they asked.
“It’s too far from here. You’d better just have a burger,” I lectured. They agreed. There’s no arguing with Boom Burger’s burgers.
As I was munching on my burger, I got to thinking about why there are no fish shacks on the North Fork. There are picnic tables outside of Braun’s Seafood in Cutchogue, where you can have yourself some takeout fish, but that’s it. The rest of the North Fork roadside attractions are no fun unless you’re picking pumpkins with kids or in search of the perfect peach pie.
I guess the real truth of it is, nobody really wants to eat at a “shack” anymore. It’s just not cute. When the wine shacks start opening on the North Fork, it’s time to head for the hills. I hear that time is coming soon.
This week, I began driving east with a pang of hunger in my stomach, mixed with the usual dread of having to stop to eat at one of the many overpriced and undernourishing restaurants out there along the North Fork stretch, when I realized what the North Fork had been missing.
We had definitely been missing something we didn’t even know we needed.
The kitchen at the Southold Fish Market opened with little fanfare in late April and, as I learned earlier this week, this place makes the best fresh flounder sandwich known to man.
In late 2012, owner Charlie Manwaring moved the market down the road a jog from its old location by Port of Egypt to the building that used to occupy the long-shuttered Hollister’s steakhouse.
The fish market side of things is lovely, but what’s even lovelier is the friendly staff and the cheery, freshly painted dining room, which overlooks the redevelopment of the Mill Creek Inn and the Peconic Bay across the street.
And in that dining room, or at the picnic tables outside, they will serve you the freshest flounder sandwich in the world.
There are plenty of places you can get a flounder sandwich on the East End and there are all kinds of variations on how an East End flounder sandwich can be awful.
There are flounder sandwiches whose flounder has obviously been baked for hours under the hot lights of a fish counter before being battered and fried. There are overcooked flounder sandwiches that give the definition to food that tastes like shoe leather. And there are watery, frozen and thawed messes that do not deserve to be called food.
And then there’s perfection.
The best seafood, always, is fresh and simply prepared, and I’ve never tasted a fresher flounder sandwich than the one at the Southold Fish Market. The batter is simple and unadorned. The preparation is perfectly timed. The wedge of lemon and hefty cup of tartar sauce let you decide how much of the natural flavor of the fish you want to adorn. It comes with delicate, deliciously spiced thin-cut french fries, flaked ever-so-gently with parsley, in a container lined with a wax paper edition of the Daily Telegraph, which you can actually read, if you are inclined to read.
As I munched my flounder sandwich, a thunderstorm stewed in the distance, across the bay. I grew up along this stretch of highway, and those thunderstorms always meant a lot to me: bedtime, ice pops, carnivals at the Moore’s Lane fair grounds, and the never-ending lapping of the waves at the edge of the deep blue sea.
I think I’m going to be a regular here. I’m hooked.