Spike's of Jersey

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I spent the last weekend in February cruising around New Jersey with a woman I've been seeing. Saturday we rode down the Turnpike and had dinner with my cousin and some friends of hers, then we took a room at a cheap motel we favor. Neither one of us gets cable tv at home, so we watched tv, got drunk and had crazy sex, just like real Americans. On Sunday she was kind enough to get up and run out to a nearby Dunkin' Donuts, and we shared a cop breakfast as we watched the History Channel and CNN. I like the History Channel on Sunday mornings, especially when they run the old black-and-white footage of the Navy battling it out with the Japanese during WWII. The moral clarity of the situation and the nobility of purpose reminds me of my Baptist upbringing in the 50s, when things were still fairly simple.

It was raining, mostly drizzle punctuated with the occasional real downpour. It was warm enough to ride with the window down when the rain got light. Neither one of us wanted to take the Turnpike back, so we drove through the Pine Barrens, sticking to back roads through Medford and Indian Mills, Chatsworth and Toms River. There was very little traffic out, and the Pines were enveloped by a thick mist. I tuned in an oldies station on the radio. We stopped in Medford to get a drink at an ancient tavern. Three teenage boys were chasing each other around the parking lot, done up as movie monsters. One was wearing a hockey mask a la Jason from Friday the 13th, one had on that gruesome blank Michael Myers mask from the Halloween movies and one was done up in that outfit from Scream. There were white picket fences and hedges and quaint little gift shops.

As we exited the tavern, the boy in the Scream mask leaped in front of us, moaning and swinging his arms like a monkey. My friend smiled at him and said, "You remind me of my son," whereupon the lad began rolling around on the ground in front of us groaning "Mommy" over and over again. We got into the car and drove out of town, into the woods and the mist.

I've given up red meat, and my friend is considering doing so. We discussed this at some length as we drove through the eerie stunted pines in the fog. All these weird epidemics: anthrax, BSE, vCJD, foot and mouth disease, not to mention all the steroids and antibiotics and whatever other horrors the meat industry is hiding, have finally converged in my thinking to render cultivated animal flesh unpalatable. It wasn't that hard to stop, I don't really get cravings for it very often, but I've developed a voracious appetite for just about anything else, especially seafood. It's a little scary, this enhanced appetite, but I'm indulging it for the time being. It's not as scary as Mad Cow disease.

It kicked in with a vengeance just as we sped past a rather promising-looking roadhouse on Rte. 70, approaching Rte. 9. I cursed myself for missing the place and headed north on 9. South of Tuckerton, Rte. 9 is fairly quaint: lots of little antique joints and odd little bars and restaurants. But the northern end of the highway has turned into an extended strip mall, an endless procession of Jiffy Lube and CVS, Boston Market and Outback. My stomach was rumbling, and visions of blackened catfish and lobster bisque were dancing in my head. I was ready to pig out in a big way, more than ready, but I staunchly refused to cave in and stop at a chain restaurant. This was Rte. 9, for chrissakes, practically the Bruce Springsteen Memorial Highway. I knew if I just kept going and resisted the temptations of the banal I'd eventually find some little mom-and-pop joint with some character and some real food.

I was beginning to despair of finding anything better than a local diner when Spike's Fish Market appeared on the right. It looked perfect: small and down-home, and there were beer lights in the windows. We went in and took our seats at the bar. We both smoke, and we've grown accustomed to eating at bars. We ordered a couple of Molsons and perused the menu.

There was a lot to choose from. The menu proudly boasts, "None of our food is deep fried!" The appetizers range from variations on clams, oysters and shrimp to stuffed tomatoes and salads. Entrees are standard Jersey Shore fare: catch of the day, crabcakes, lobster, stuffed flounder, that sort of thing. Very basic, very fresh. I was impressed with the cleanliness of the place and the fact that our waiter volunteered to let us peruse the fish before preparation. I ordered a bowl of peel-and-eat shrimp as an appetizer, and decided on linguine with white clam sauce as an entree. I'd been craving that for days; it's one of my favorite meals, and I'm very picky about it. My companion ordered a tossed salad and a bowl of Manhattan clam chowder.

The shrimp were fabulous: eight perfectly prepared jumbos served on a bed of mixed greens accompanied by a tangy and perfectly balanced cocktail sauce. My friend's salad was a rich blend of garden vegetables and fresh croutons generously splashed with a light vinaigrette. The shrimp tasted like it had been caught that morning, as fresh as any I have ever eaten.

The entrees arrived, and my lady friend made little cooing orgasm noises as she slurped up her chowder. I dug into a perfect portion of linguine smothered in a rich clam sauce with an exquisite undercurrent of garlic in a delicately balanced broth of clam juice and a very light olive oil. The sauce was too good to let go of, and what I didn't get with the linguine I sopped up with the fresh bread. They had key lime pie on the dessert menu, but the linguine was precisely what I'd needed to sate my voracious appetite, and I was stuffed.

I spoke briefly with one of the owners, Jackie Heron. She and her partner Steve Weinstein operate three of these places: the one we were at, in Marlboro, had been open just two years in November. There's a Spike's in Belmar, which they are reopening "for the millennium" this spring. The original Spike's, in Pt. Pleasant, has been around since 1926. There's live entertainment on Thursday nights at the Spike's in Marlboro, which is an easy one-hour hop down Rte. 9 from the city.

Summer's coming; it's right around the corner. The Hamptons were over 20 years ago, so the undiscovered country is to the south, where unassuming roadhouses and seafood joints abound and true wealth is always understated. I keep a lot of my summer haunts secret, but Jackie doesn't mind a few extra visitors and Spike's is a great place to stop for a fresh hearty meal on your way to or from the Jersey Shore at any time of year.

Spike's Fish Market & Restaurant, 448 Rte. 9 N., Marlboro, NJ, 732-972-6066.

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