It’s 10 o’clock on a Friday morning. On a hushed, industrial street in Greenpoint—a booming neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York—there’s a pretty long line for… something.
The line spills out of a narrow steel door on the side of a squat brick building. It contains a patchwork of people, young and old: most keep to themselves, holding cell phones and to-go cups of coffee, while others chat in English and Polish and Russian. Almost all of these people are smiling from ear to ear.
They’re waiting for fish—that is, some of the best (and best-priced) smoked fish available. For just five hours every Friday, Acme Smoked Fish Corporation, one of the country’s biggest, most respected producers and wholesalers of smoked fish, opens that steel door and sells directly to the public. It’s a unique pop-up shop, hosted right in the place where all the fish are cut, brined, dried and smoked.
Because they rely exclusively on word of mouth, “Fish Fridays” are still a bit under the radar, even though the tradition is actually 25 years old.
“Back in the day, Fish Fridays were just a way for us to unload extra inventory,” says Adam Caslow, co-CEO and a fourth-generation operator of Acme.
But the business as a whole has even deeper roots than that. It all began in 1905, when a Russian immigrant named Harry Brownstein (Caslow’s great-grandfather) settled in Brooklyn and started buying and distributing fish from local smokehouses. By the time of his death in 1969, his family was devoted to the growing operation, which had just earned its first supermarket chain customers.
Today, Acme supplies not only supermarket chains like Whole Foods, but also high-end shops and eateries that specialize in smoked fish, including Barney Greengrass, Zabar’s and Sadelle’s—all New York City institutions themselves.
So what’s the big deal, really, about Acme’s smoked fish?
In their hot and cold smoke rooms, Acme smokes high-quality fish—already cut, brined and air-dried in separate rooms—with smoke generated by burning real wood chips. For most of their items, that’s all there is to it. The natural flavor of the fish, be it the ever-popular salmon or a specialty species like trout, takes beautifully to the flavor of the smoke.
Acme does offer a few extra flavors, like pastrami spices and lemon-pepper. One of the newest additions is honey-maple: in one room, thick slabs of salmon are brushed with the syrupy mixture, giving them a beautiful golden sheen.
After all is said and done, the smoked fish is sliced thinly with a special machine, wrapped tightly in layers of paper and handed over to one eager customer after another.
At half past 10, a young boy in line asks sheepishly, “Does it smell inside?”
“No, it doesn’t smell at all,” an older man, possibly his grandfather, reassures him. Then, after a beat: “Well, maybe a little.”
The distinctive smell is one that many New Yorkers, and perhaps now tourists, actually relish. It hangs in the air inside, where one long table is set up for these fleeting hours. Behind the table, a few employees take orders, calling out the occasional “Good to see you again” and “You’re here early!”
At the far end of the table, where samples are offered, one customer holds up a translucent-thin slice of smoked fish to the overhead light, as if examining a hundred-dollar bill. Apparently satisfied, she tears off a piece for her friend and stuffs the rest in her mouth.
“In salmon, the oil gives you a nice sea-saltiness,” says Adam, describing what sets different species’ flavors apart, as he looks over the samples. “Then there’s something like trout, which is already smoky—so it takes particularly well to the smoke. It reminds me of being in the mountains or woods.”
The main distinction between salmon and trout, he goes on, is the difference in smoking temperatures. Trout is hot smoked: the high-temperature hardwood smoke both flavors it and cooks it through, lending it a multidimensional (but not especially fishy) taste.
And Adam’s favorite way to eat smoked fish?
“Me? Well, I do love it on a bagel with cream cheese, onion, tomato.”
Where smoked fish is concerned, tradition reigns supreme. Even with decades’ worth of change in the neighborhood and, by extension, the scene at Fish Fridays, few things are better than smoked fish on bread.
By 11 o’clock, the line out the door is longer than ever. But, as Adam points out, most people don’t mind waiting: it’s part of the experience. Still, he sometimes thinks about changing the setup of Fish Fridays. If they don’t do something new, won’t people stop coming?
Behind the now-mobbed table, an energized employee rings up three pounds of smoked whole salmon (a Fish Friday special). Watching with a twinkle in his eye, one older customer says, “I see business is bad,” to laughter. “How will you survive? I’m worried about you.”