Dear Hurricane Earl, I know you caused a ruckus for plenty of folks further south, and that was admittedly not very cool. I know you were supposed to be all big and bad, that as an East Coaster, I am now supposed to be wary of hurricanes instead of tornadoes.
But apart from the boisterous breezes, which made wearing a skirt a no-go for our Saturday trip to the Brooklyn Flea Market (stop by just for old-fashioned shaved ice and fruit pops at People’s Pops, YUM), you really outdid yourself with the weekend weather. So my sincere thanks for that, in part because it resulted in my first adventure to City Island.
What’s that?, you ask? City Island is a small maritime community that is surprisingly part of the Bronx, neighbors Pelham Bay and is known for its plentiful seafood, nautical activity and views of Eastchester Bay and Long Island Sound.
You can get there by bus or bike easily enough and when I decided to sell my car, I was envisioning my new automobile-free life with, well, much less automobile. But the thing about living in student housing with most of your new friends – many of whom hail from various New England locales, is that there are abundant opportunities to ride shotgun. One such friend, a Scarsdale local, offered to drive us out to City Island for dinner, so we packed into his SUV and headed across the bridge to stuff ourselves with seafood.
As we followed the Labor Day weekend crowds down City Island Avenue, past one dining venue after the next toward our destination, our host informed us of the fierce rivalry between Johnny’s Reef and Tony’s Pier, two seafood restaurants across the street from each other offering nearly identical fare. Like the Yankees and the Mets, everyone is die-hard one team or the other, and thanks to years of visits with his dad, the Scarsdale native and all-out Yankee fan is staunchly on Team Johnny.
Finally, we turned in to iconic Johnny’s Reef Restaurant at the tip of the island and secured a coveted space in the parking lot. Upon entering the cafeteria-style seafood joint, we were inundated with noise and hungry clientele lined up at the busy counters. Though initially overwhelming, the fast-food-resto-meets-1950s-diner actually functions through organized chaos, with regulars maintaining the eb and flow of traffic and countless employees diligently manning the counters and churning out freshly fried fare.
After eyeballing the overhead menus, we tentatively approached a counter, ready to spit out our orders. Being informed the place was cash-only, we quickly grabbed a friend and promised to pay her back before ordering two baskets, a fried shrimp and a fillet of sole. Our food was on the counter and piping hot before we even received our change, so swift (not to mention smiley) was the service.
Maneuvering our trays through the crowds, we nabbed some condiments and $2.25 cans of Bud Light before planting ourselves at one of the blue picnic tables on the sprawling outdoor patio. I took a moment to absorb our surroundings – swarms of seagulls flying overhead, sailboats on the horizon, colorful groupings of diners – before finally digging into my food.
For $11, I made out with two giant battered sole fillets and a basket stuffed with soggy yet satisfying fries. The sole was perfect: buttery, flaky white flesh with a crispy, nicely seasoned golden coating that paired nicely with Johnny’s notable tartar sauce. The shrimp, I dare say, was almost comparable to that of a New Orleans po-boy. Almost. There was tons to go around, so we passed and dipped until we’d had our fill. If I hadn’t already been stuffed to the gills, I might have rounded out the meal with a soft-serve cone.
In sum, if you’re looking to get out of the city for some good ol’ fried fish and chips and cheap drinks, Johnny’s is right down your alley. If you’re in search of lighter fare and not one for fighting crowds, look elsewhere.
As for this starving foodie, consider me a proud recruit to Team Johnny.