You might go just for the neon. Waves of it course across the rear wall, upon which a happy blue porgy and pink octopus dance, and orange Arabic script crawls across the front windows. In addition, there are nautical motifs galore, including lighthouses and carved boats. You’ll feel as if you were dining in a ship’s galley, or maybe in Sea World. Open more than a decade, Suez Canal is one of the Egyptian fish restaurants that constitute Jersey City’s greatest culinary asset, though light years away from the high-rises and shopping opportunities of Harborside and Newport Mall. The proprietors are from Port Said, at the mouth of the Suez Canal, where fresh fish is an obsession.
In fact, fish is so much the focus of the menu, there’s little else to eat. If you prefer, you can begin with a rudimentary salad of iceberg, purple onions, tomatoes, and cukes in a bare-bones vinaigrette (large, $2; colossal, $4), which could be readily shared, respectively, by two or four persons. The best part: There’s no balsamic vinegar anywhere on the premises! Then there’s the thing I call the eggplant appetizer ($2), even though most diners use it as a side dish. Fried rounds of aubergine are heaped with diced tomatoes and mild green chiles, then sprinkled with dill, which is not the first herb you’d expect to find sprouting next to the Suez Canal. These two starters are sided with pitas warmed on the grill and a saucer of herbed tahini.
Apart from the starters, and a big plate of dirty rice that can be ordered separately, the rest of the menu is entirely seafood. First off, there are whole fish. These are dipped in whole-wheat flour, blackened over charcoal, then baptized with salt water. This process renders the skin inedible, but turns the flesh supremely sweet and moist. One evening, proprietor Hasan El Khodairy sidled up and showed us how to peel the skin away before attacking our foot-long sea bass. The market price was $8—but what planet is that market on, we wondered as we tore into the wonderful fish? We learned to extract more flavor by dipping our pitas in the cooking moisture that accumulated in the bottom of the metal salver. There are usually a couple of other whole fish available in the same price range, including red mullet and porgy.
Being sophisticated New Yorkers, we initially eschewed the fried filets. Were we ever full of shit! Described simply as “white fish,” the breaded and boneless grouper filet ($8) flops over the sides of the plate, crisp and chestnut-colored. Alone, it would have made a perfect meal. But it came flooded with a thick tart garlic sauce that seeped into the flesh as we cut through the breading, making the fish seem like an aquatic take on chicken-fried steak. More surprises were in store on subsequent visits. Shrimp and calamari are available singly ($8) or in combination ($14). They come flooded with a red sauce that owes much to Italian marinara, with the herbal seasoning shifted in a Middle Eastern direction. After exhausting the plate of dirty rice we ordered with it, we looked around sheepishly. Then we were unable to restrain ourselves from tilting the plate and drinking the remaining fluid as if it were a soup.