Words by Leigh van Maaren, photos by Yuli Scheidt
I’m cursed. I love seafood. Unfortunately people with seafood allergies surround me, and shellfish just doesn’t taste as sweet when it comes with a side of anaphylaxis. So as you can imagine, I was thrilled to accompany my seafood loving pal, Yuli, to The Happy Hooker on Dundas West.
This particular evening we were attending a media event, so we had the chance to try 8 items from the Hooker’s menu over the course of several hours. While the restaurant has been open for over a year, they only recently obtained a liquor license, and were looking to show off some of their new boozy prowess along with their extensive seafood menu.
We were greeted with one of their signature cocktails – a Dark & Stormy, boozy and gingery as it’s intended to be. I don’t drink much, so unfortunately cocktails are often lost on me – however, they had an excellent selection of glass bottle pop available, including Sumol, my favourite, which made the wait for our food a little bit sweeter.
The first item served was a kale salad. While veggie-haters (and Homer J. Simpson) might try to tell you that you don’t make friends with salad – Yuli and I are two friends you will make with an excellent salad. The kale salad featured a mix of microgreens and kale, plus thinly sliced standard and watermelon radishes, cucumber, dressed with a simple red wine vinaigrette. The salad was bitter, sour, and spicy all at once – which doesn’t sound nearly as delicious as it was. We agreed that we’d have to try making this salad at home, because the flavor balance was totally killing it.
While the family-style serving of the dishes was a little awkward (serving utensils were nowhere to be found) the Happy Hooker is usually more take-out focused, so it’s understandable that family style service wouldn’t translate as well.
After the salad came towering plates of the Baja fries – essentially a plate of russet fries topped with cheese, chipotle sauce, onion, cilantro, guacamole and a delicious lime crema that we’d come to be very familiar with over the course of the evening. While the toppings on the fries were delicious, the stand-out was the fries themselves. They were almost unbelievably good – twice-fried russet potatoes stayed crispy and delicious even after they were cooled down, with a potato taste that reminded me more of kettle chips than your typical plate of fries.
Up next was the token po boy – my least favourite item of the night. The shrimp po boy had cornmeal breaded shrimp with lemon aoli, pickled habanero, lettuce and tomato on a Portuguese bun. I found that the cornmeal breading was a bit sweet – between it and the lemon aoli, left it tasting something like a shrimp pound cake. My portion was also loaded with pickled habaneros. I like spicy food, but after my second bite tears were streaming down my face like I was a dude on the Internet who had just seen a picture of a woman with unshaved armpits. I had to pick the habaneros off and drink several glasses of water before I could keep eating, but the residual habanero burn in my mouth meant I didn’t really enjoy the rest of my po boy. Bummer.
The shrimp taco fared much better; with tasty, well-cooked grilled shrimp. Its only crime was common to the rest of the tacos; the corn tortillas were all served raw. While I imagine there are plenty of places that do this, a corn tortilla really deserves a quick dip in water and a minute on the flat top to be at its best. Fortunately the well-balanced toppings and well-cooked proteins made this an easy to overlook.
The next two tacos were the Grouper and Cali Baja tacos, both with battered and deep-fried fish. The Cali Baja has small pieces of breaded haddock, and the Grouper was a large single piece of beer-battered grouper. I’d eat both of these tacos again in a second – although I did feel that cheddar cheese was out of place on both of these California-style tacos. I’m a firm believer that cheddar cheese only belongs on two kinds of tacos: those from an Old El-Paso taco kit, and Taco Bell Dorito Locos Taco. Queso Fresca would have added to both tacos, the shredded cheddar cheese didn’t feel like it belonged. I’d still eat these tacos again in a second, but I might ask them to hold the cheese.
The last item of the night was my favourite, by far – the lobster roll. A lobster roll is already one of my favourite foods. You could dice up an old running shoe, add some mayo and a bun and I’d eat it if you told me it was lobster roll. As somebody who ate more than one McLobster this past summer, it is barely an exaggeration. While the lobster salad was standard and very solid, the thing that I find that is often lacking from inexpensive lobster rolls is a properly toasted bun. Where the Happy Hooker faltered on their toasting game with the tortillas, the crunchy, buttery outside of the bun did amazing things for that lobster roll, and I can’t wait to be all over one of those puppies again.
Despite some small areas for improvement, the Happy Hooker is shaping up to be a great little place to get some seafood on Dundas West. I imagine come summer, it’ll make an excellent take-out then make-out location for your fishy Trinity-Bellwoods dates.