New Fresh Seafood Shack in Jersey City: Hooked JC

January 19, 2018

 

 

 

Fun fact for all of you Bvsters out there, both William and I grew up in New England. For both of us, seafood played a vital role in our childhoods. To this day we still seek out freshly caught seafood that we both experienced growing up. So when we heard that there was a new seafood shack in Jersey City, we both hurried over to give it a try.

 

We sat down with the duo behind Hooked JC, co-owner Natalie Miniard and chef/co-owner Tony Aunspache to learn about their fast casual seafood shack concept, their unusual selection of fish, and the hidden surprise they found in their basement.

 

 

Bvster:

 

Can you talk about the challenges you face as a seafood restaurant?

 

Tory Aunspach (Hooked JC):

 

As far as sourcing great seafood, it's actually not as hard as people might imagine. I work with a couple of great companies. The one I work with primarily now is Local 130, out of Asbury Park here in New Jersey. Their name comes from that they deal with primarily seafood along the 130 miles of New Jersey coastline. It’s important to me that these guys actually know the local fishermen and they're walking the docks. So lots of times they'll give me a call and say “Hey Tory we've got some great looking skate today. Or hey we have a bycatch, it's Maiko shark. We know this isn’t something you normally sell or push but is it something you'd be interested in?”

 

There's another company that I use out of Toms River that I get some gorgeous Barnegat Light New Jersey scallops from. When we first opened I was using primarily Sea to Table. They have a great name and they ship straight from the dock. We still use them from time to time for blowfish or for blue catfish out of the Chesapeake.

 

As far as challenges of running a seafood restaurant one is of course refrigeration. In the beginning it was very hot and I bought the majority of our equipment at an auction or it was already here. So we did have some issues with coolers going down and coolers that weren’t properly maintained previous to us having them. We did lose quite a bit of product a couple of times and it hit us pretty hard.

 

Other than that I have to make sure that I only order a little bit of fish at a time. So I may order 5-10 lbs of any fish that would allow me to feed anywhere from 15 to 30 people depending on the cut of fish and how we break it down. It comes down to knowing how many people are going to be seated in the next couple of days as well as having great relationships with the docks that allows me to get inventory whenever I need it.

 

 

 

 

 

Bvster:

 

Tell us about the fresh fish on the menu.

 

Tory Aunspach (Hooked JC):

 

One thing to know is that I have to run a profitable restaurant. That means that I'm not going to pull in the center cut tuna loins or the center cut swordfish loins. It also means having to look beyond what people are used to eating. There was a survey done that the average American has only eaten nine different types of fish. I find that believable and still amazing at the same time. 90% of the fish that we as Americans consume comes from overseas. To me this is madness. Our local fishermen aren't getting the same price for it they should. It's only because the American consumer hasn't been educated enough to know that other fish tastes good. So what we do here is with our three different types of fish, we often don't have fish people recognize. We have fish like pollock, hake, monkfish and skate and these are exotic fish to some people. I'm used to seeing them and the fishermen are used to seeing them but for your average American diner it's not what they're accustomed to.

 

We actually have a book at Hooked JC called “Delicious Fishes”. Maybe not grammatically correct but it has great information about the flavor profiles and some of the habits of the fish. When you come in we describe each fish for you, that way we can figure out what kind of fish you like and what you are accustomed to eating. Then we can make a referral based on that. So it's about working with customers and making sure that we're pushing them in the right direction toward something that maybe they didn't know about. It also helps because at a $9-12 price you can only get 5-6 lbs of extremely fresh fish. I can't afford to pull in the center cut swordfish so if we do get the swordfish maybe we'll get something a little bit closer to the tail. It's not that center cut fillet but it still tastes good and I'm not charging $40 a plate. So our goal is to bring in interesting fish that people can try.

 

Another interesting fish we just brought in is blowfish. People often think it’s poisonous. But it's a North American blowfish and it's known as chicken of the sea. We take blowfish tails, batter them, and fry them up like a chicken wing. You actually eat it right off the spine like a chicken wing. We actually toss ours in a honey buffalo sauce and serve it with blue cheese dressing and celery sticks. It's been a nice option for people that don’t get to eat the chicken wings. They were so excited that they had the flavor and experience with the Blowfish tails.

 

 

Bvster:

 

Can you talk about the format of your menu?

 

Tory Aunspach (Hooked JC): 

 

The goal is to give as many different options while still allowing my kitchen staff to put it out consistently and on time. As I was looking at all of the menu items I started to think about how do I want to this dish? I like this one blackened, this one grilled, and this one fried. As I dove in deeper I realized almost all of them would be good blackened, fried or grilled. So we started going off of that thinking about what are we going to do with these? This would make a good sandwich. This would be great over fries with hush puppies and coleslaw. Blackened scallops would be great on a salad. Well guess what blackened scallops are great on a po'boy too. They're also really good with a side of hand cut fries, green apple slaw and some hushpuppies. It was really just about affording those options. Once again it gets back to the price points and wanting to serve everyone. It’s really about making it as customizable as possible while still making it easy for my kitchen staff. I only have a 10 x 10 kitchen where we wash dishes and prepare all the food. So I had to make it so that it was as easy as possible for those guys to execute.

 

 

Bvster:

 

What inspires you as a chef/restauranteur?

 

Tory Aunspach (Hooked JC):

 

I get really excited any time I walk into someplace that has what I call a complete concept. Any time you can walk into someplace new and you feel a vibe, you feel a warmth and you feel an energy that draws you in and makes you want to be there. It's usually a combination of lighting, music, the smell of the food, the way the menu is prepared, how the staff greets you, and how people answer the phone. It really spans a lot of things. That's what I pride myself on and that's what I strive for with every place that I hope to open from here on out. There are many restaurants I've walked into that have the complete concept. We have a lot of them right here in Jersey City and of course a lot of great ones in New York City.  That's where I get my inspiration from is every single one of those awesome joints you walk into and automatically feel good.

 

Natalie Minaird (Hooked J.C):

 

So for me I'm coming from a different angle. I'm in real estate and I've been in this area for 21 years. I moved up here from Florida and immediately fell in love with Jersey City. It's obviously changed a lot over the last 21 years. Being in real estate I've been able to watch how things have developed. I've seen what things add value to neighborhoods and what we're lacking. Even personally I wanted a seafood restaurant in Jersey City like we opened. I knew it would add value to the neighborhood and people's lives having a great little spot nearby.

 

 

 

Bvster:

 

What is your process for recipe development?

 

Tory Aunspach (Hooked JC):

 

When we were putting this space together I knew I had a basic concept of what a seafood shack does. I've seen hundreds of seafood shacks over the last four years working on motor yachts. Every dock we would stop at had something like this and it was the inspiration from those places that made me decide that this concept was what we should do.

 

As far as developing the recipes, if you let it sit in the back of your mind for long enough, you finally come to a point where you've let your subconscious work on it. So when I sat down and started sketching out the different styles of preparations as I was talking about earlier, I found it came naturally.

 

Once we have the ingredients in-house then we start playing with them. That's how we got our polenta poppers. We already had the andouille sausage for the gumbo and we already had the polenta. We were talking about doing some kind of shrimp and grits because we were throwing away grits every night to make a fresh batch every morning. So we starting thinking what can we do with those grits? We tried fried grit cakes but it just wasn’t enough for me. One of my chefs said “Hey man what do you think about fried shrimp and grit balls?” I was like BOOM perfect. We probably made about 8-10 different batches before we finally came on a great recipe that I felt really worked.

 

So it's under the light but it always evolves on paper first. I'm a big procrastinator. I wait until the last minute but I feel like that's letting my subconscious do a lot of the hard work for me. Then when I'm forced to put it out, I do. Right now I'm working on menus for our catering side and I have somebody waiting on those now. So I've been procrastinating long enough that I feel like they're going to finally come out. I think they're probably going to look good by the time I get done with them because it has been sitting in the back of my mind for the last couple of months.

 

 

Bvster:

 

What is the biggest mistake you made with Hooked JC and how did you overcome it?

 

Natalie Minaird (Hooked J.C):

 

I would say we might have taken it a little bit slower. We were open lunch and dinner seven days a week from the beginning. In hindsight we could have just started with dinner even maybe being closed a couple days a week just to get our grounding. However being open even for lunch it's a different group of people that come through. Being here in the junction, we have the car wash across the street, the gas station on one side, the auto repair place next door and then the hardware store. Those are people that only come in only during the day. So we've actually done quite a bit of business during that time as well.

 

 

 

Bvster:

 

What did you look for when looking for your location?

 

Tory Aunspach (Hooked JC):

 

There were three major things for us when looking for a spot. It had to have been a restaurant previously. The reason for that is that the zoning here in Jersey City can be difficult. It can take weeks, if not months to get those approvals to become zoned as a restaurant. Also from what I understand it helps with the health department. If it hasn't been too long since it's closed down then it's a lot easier for health department to give their approval.

 

The number two biggest thing for me was that the space had to have a functioning ventilation hood in the kitchen. I was particularly looking for the stickers that are put on by the hood cleaning companies. This space did have a sticker on it showing that it had been cleaned in at least the last year and a half. That enabled me to call up that company again to get them to come back out and clean it. It also allowed me to get a quick approval from the fire marshal, the health inspector, and the building inspector when they come through to inspect the space.

 

The third biggest thing is the ansul fire suppression system, which you have to have to cook with gas. If the ansul system wasn't there, we would need architectural renderings and we would have to have a contractor come in and install it. Since this space has an ansul fire suppression system, I could just call the fire suppression company and have them come out to test my charges, change out my links and tune it up. It also was a lot easier for once again the fire marshal to come in and give us those approvals.

 

 

Bvster:

 

Did you run into any issues opening a restaurant in a building built in 1870s?

 

Natalie Minaird (Hooked J.C):

 

Actually we were very lucky. I mean we really believed that this building found us. When we saw the space originally, to be fair Tory saw it and then brought me over, and I thought he was crazy. But he had a really great concept in mind so we said let’s see what can we do on a shoestring budget. We knew that the time that we'd be here is going to be limited so we planned on getting open as inexpensively as we could. We planned on slapping paint on the walls, throwing up kitschy seafood décor and just opening the doors. As Tory was here doing all the work he found really cool hidden historic details. He found this incredible old knotty pine on the walls that transformed the place. We really felt like this building wanted to be pretty one last time.

 

 

Bvster:

 

You have really interesting decor here, is there a story behind it?

 

Natalie Minaird (Hooked J.C):

 

My mother and her boyfriend Mike went pretty much every weekend to estate sales, hunting for anything nautical. So every Sunday they'd come with their pile of goodies for us. I have to say it felt like it was meant to be. We'd think we really could use fish mounted on the wall and they'd find them. For us, this was a challenge. I never opened a restaurant before,obviously this is more Tory’s deal. So we were downstairs in the very beginning, maybe a week after having the keys to this place.  We were probably down there questioning what we were doing. Then I looked up and there was a fishing pole in the rafters down in the basement. We both just kind of said okay, we're supposed be doing this. So anytime we get stressed out about if we are doing the right thing we'd both say listen, go to the poll. We're supposed to be here.

 

 

Bvster:

 

What's your favorite childhood memory associated with food?

 

Natalie Minaird (Hooked J.C):

 

So for me it was definitely going to grandma's. She knew that my favorite was her pot roast so she would make it special for me. It always made me feel really special and loved that she was making this nice dish for me. So for me food is always love.

 

Tory Aunspach (Hooked JC)

 

When I was very young my family was poor and my mom would get what they called commodity cheese. We lived in a small town in Iowa. She would get a lot of the cheese because she would take the stuff that was moldy and supposed to be thrown away, cut the crust off of it and make the most amazing cheese bread and cheese soup. I still can't get the recipe out of her.

 

Now probably one of the worst memories is when I was eight years old my aunt Joe, who we were staying with when I moved to Florida, wanted to make me a special meal for my birthday. She made the most beautiful rolled trout and baked squash I've ever laid eyes on. But I was 8 years old and I absolutely hated it. So that's that's one of my favorite memories looking back on because that's actually a dish I'd probably appreciate now but I just could not comprehend why somebody would feed an 8 year old child rolled trout and baked squash.

 

 

Have you visited Hooked JC? Tag us on Instagram @imbvster with all of your seafood pics.

 

 

Hooked JC 

Address: 467 Communipaw Avenue, Jersey City

Phone: 201-946-4177

Hours: Sunday-Thursday 12pm-10pm, Friday/Saturday 12pm-11pm

 

 

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