In the realm of noteworthy seafood restaurants, there is no middle ground. At one end you have your roadside shack in Maine selling lobster rolls and blueberry lemonade, your neighborhood tavern in Baltimore with steamed crabs spread across yesterday's Sun. Now, these places aren't necessarily cheap — that lobster roll will cost you fifteen clams, and the last time I was in Charm City, it was either buy a bushel of female blue crabs or pay my mortgage — but they are utterly without pretension.
On the other end are chefs who source seafood impeccably, prepare it with care and a touch of creativity and plate it so beautifully that you'd never believe your piece of tuna sashimi, sea bass, escolar or whatever once had a head and gills and maybe scavenged its food at the very bottom of the sea. You might not have to spend hundreds to enjoy this level of seafood — though at temples like Le Bernardin or Masa, rest assured, you can — but you will part with some serious coin.
In between there's an ocean of farmed salmon fillets perched atop cedar planks, bobbing up and down as far as the eye can see.
Hooked Seafood Bar, which the Hua family opened last December in the same University City strip mall that's home to the other Hua-owned establishment, Pho Long, places itself firmly in the camp of the casual seafood joint. If the name doesn't tip you off, the logo will: the two O's in Hooked cross to form a pair of googly fish eyes and the E is a cartoon fish head attached to the skeleton of the rest of its body. (I'd like to think this is poking fun at Americans' lamentable squeamishness about eating the heads of fish, shrimp and, come to think of it, just about any critter.) If you still don't catch on to the fact that Hooked doesn't take itself too seriously, take a gander at the cocktail menu, which among its many libations includes a concoction called "Right Between the Wench's Legs." The space (which not coincidentally happens to have been the original location of Pho Long before the popular Vietnamese soupery moved to bigger digs a few storefronts west) is very small: Patrons share the single dining room/bar with the kitchen staff's refrigerators. The décor is a playful take on the prototypical seafood shack. The mirrors on one wall mimic portholes; the tables are covered in newspaper (which, in turn, is covered in clear plastic).
One thing Hooked isn't is a Vietnamese seafood joint. Tuyen Hua, the son whose jack-of-all-trades position is best described as part general manager, part executive chef (he's also a general contractor), tells me that in planning Hooked, he consciously avoided too strong a Vietnamese or "Asian" influence. He does, however, use the back page of Hooked's menu to audition candidates for new dishes at Pho Long.
"Every restaurant has a touch of Asian now," he says, laughing. "Like, Houlihan's does!"
Hua's no culinary dilettante, though; he recently spent six weeks in Vietnam to see what was new and promises more new dishes are on their way.
Vietnamese cuisine cameos aside, when Hooked's menu colors inside the lines of the seafood-shack template, the kitchen generally succeeds.
The New England clam chowder, for example, whose flavor is sweet cream with well-calibrated bursts of briny clam. The chowder is ridiculously thick: The kitchen tops your bowlful with a clam in its shell, and when your server deposits it in front of you, said shell has hardly sunk. Ask for bread. You can spread the soup on it like butter.
Fried seafood abounds: shrimp, calamari, oysters. Each of these is available as an appetizer, or stuffed into a baguette as a po' boy, or as an entrée platter. I'll happily vouch for the shrimp po' boy, the crusty bread overflowing with lightly battered shrimp fried crisp and united with lettuce, tomato and a slathering of mayo.
"Torpedo" shrimp — medium-size shrimp that have been uncurled so they're more or less straight, dipped in batter, deep-fried and served with a "kickin'" rémoulade on the side — are available as a starter or (with a side of your choice) an entrée. With their little unbattered tails sticking out, they do indeed look like tiny torpedoes. It pains me to report that they weren't the bomb. The batter was too thick and fried so crisp that it actually hurt to crunch through it. The kickin' rémoulade was...rémoulade.
As with the shrimp in the po' boy, the fried calamari feature a light, crisp batter. The squid inside fell ever-so-slightly into the chewy region of the tender spectrum. Like the torpedoes, these too can be ordered as an appetizer or a main course. Though the menu describes the entrée version as "crispy calamari with salt & pepper lime," there was no detectable citrus pop.
For a side, you can choose French fries, sweet potato fries or seasoned rice. The fries are food-service nothing-to-see-here-move-along — but they come sprinkled with Old Bay, winning this Baltimorean's stamp of approval. (Dip 'em in sriracha, too; thank me later.) The rice, too, receives an Old Bay sprinkle, along with bits of fried egg, for a spicier, less salty riff on fried rice. Several entrées come with a forgettable vegetable medley of yellow squash, zucchini and broccoli.
Three main dishes — seared scallops, grilled salmon and pasta with clams or shrimp (or both) — are served with a miso-cream sauce. And it is here that Hooked strays into the strange and treacherous fish-joint Bermuda Triangle, where the kitchen isn't content to let the seafood speak for itself. Though you can taste the miso, the cream sauce is bland. The seared scallops, generously portioned, looked like a pretty good deal at $15.95, but they were gritty enough that not even the world's most excellent miso-cream sauce could have redeemed them. A similar fate befell a bowl of mussels steamed in Corona beer, garlic and cilantro. The broth didn't add much, several of the mussels hadn't opened and those that did were considerably overcooked.
The kitchen is clearly capable of making the right choices, and for proof one need look no further than the menu's priciest options: a cluster of snow-crab legs or a lobster tail, simply steamed and served with drawn butter. Snow crab isn't the meatiest creature, but when it's good, it's very good — and Hooked's was good indeed, tender and lightly sweet.
Did I happily forgo the tiny-tined fork our server furnished along with a claw cracker and dig out the crab meat with my fat, buttered fingers? You bet I did. This is, after all, a seafood shack.