Once upon a time in New York City (which will always be my town), there was a little place in Queens called College Point—known by residents as the first town over the Whitestone Bridge. College Point is where I owned and ran a bar and grill with a name that may be a bit cutesy by New York standards: Quinn’s Inn.
I’ve lived away from that community for so long that I’m not sure if this is still true, but back in the day College Points residents always claimed we lived in the first town over the bridge as a sign of recognition and loyalty. (Even though, as the crow flies, the first town out is more likely Bayside or Whitestone—but who’s counting?)
We owned a small gin mill, a little-known expression for a café or bar. Even back then, perhaps this phrase was only the vernacular of the city. Though ours was small, it was better than countless other gin mills—which, I might say, were a dime a dozen. In New York, then as now, you have to be better to exist.
You must remember Humphrey Bogart saying in Casablanca, “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.” Well, as I’m proudly fond of saying, “I had to walk into this joint!” It changed my life forever.
I know I have your ear now. (At least that’s what we’d in New York say, instead of “Are you listening?” or “Have I piqued your curiosity?”) This local hole in the wall eventually became the story of more than a thousand days that I still love writing about. Each month, that gin mill gave birth to a new recipe out of necessity.
So what dish brought even the air controllers from LaGuardia Airport—five miles away—to our gin joint every Friday? It was a sandwich the likes of which you couldn’t get anywhere else. Kind of a shrimp po’ boy because yes…we observed meatless Fridays back then. Might I add, in 1976 you could get a beer fresh from the tap and an adequate lunch sandwich for 25 cents—even in New York.
The towns of Bayside and Whitestone are landlocked, but College Point is on a peninsula and surrounded by water on three sides. On some days there would be red tides (you may or may not know what that is), and fishing off the jetty for blue claw crabs is still common. My son Billy used to get crabs with a piece of bacon on a string. One day, a blue claw caught his finger when he was putting it in his bucket and wouldn’t let go. Thank goodness, before Billy lost his finger, an older fisherman came along with his trusty sharp fishing knife and cut the claw away—an easy fix my son never thought of for sure. (But as you know, that is the makings of yet another post.)
Every restaurant in College Point touts a seafood specialty. Fresh mussels in wine sauce at The Old Rendezvous. Oysters on the half shell, shucked in front of you, at Angela’s. Seasonal soft shell crab sandwiches at Chioti’s. College Point even had its own version of the famous Maine lobster roll at the Five Corners’ Bar & Grill.
But back to the sandwich that brought in the factory workers for lunch from miles around—because it sure wasn’t the ubiquitous 25-cent tap beer. It was our Friday lunch special: a shrimp salad with homemade dilly tartar sauce, coleslaw, and fritter fried oysters served on the famous New York water roll.
Although New York water rolls (also called hard rolls or Kaiser rolls) was it at the time, you’ll still love the more nutritious whole wheat roll that takes its place (recipe below). I’ve also omitted the fried oysters for this home version, but you’ll find this sandwich every bit as delicious without them. And don’t worry, I’ve adjusted the amounts below to feed a family rather than a restaurant.
Shrimp Salad Po’ Boy
Chef’s note: A po’ boy sandwich with shrimp always reminds me of a sun-filled day at the beach, whether it was Jones Beach, Coney Island, or the North Shore of Long Island. When I was a child, we frequented all of them. I love the ocean, and the sea air lingers still in my mind.
¼ cup Old Bay Seasoning
3 lbs. large raw shrimp (16–20 per pound)
1–1½ cups mayonnaise (homemade, if possible)
½ cup finely diced shallots or scallions
1 cup celery, leaves and stems removed, cut into ½-inch dice)
5 to 6 cloves garlic roasted until soft and scraped into the mayonnaise
¼ cup fresh minced parsley
Juice of half a lemon
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Romaine lettuce leaves (optional)
6 New York whole wheat water rolls (see recipe below)
For the dilly tartar sauce:
Your usual tartar sauce recipe but with no sweet pickle relish
Good dash of Sriracha sauce
Juice of half a lemon
- Bring 8 quarts water to a rolling boil. Add Old Bay Seasoning. Drop shrimp in and bring water back to a boil.
- Remove shrimp from heat as soon as they turn slightly pink. Drain in a colander. Let cool and remove the shells (you can reserve the shells for fish stock if you like).
- Chop the shrimp in pieces (but not too small).
- Combine the shrimp with the garlic, parsley, lemon juice, and salt and pepper, in the order given. Chill at least 6 hours.
- Prepare dilly tartar sauce: combine all ingredients and chill. Serve either on the whole wheat roll (recipe below), or on the side.
Whole Wheat New York Water (or Hard) Rolls
3–3½ cups freshly ground whole wheat flour
¼ cup whey
¾ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon raw unfiltered honey
1 tablespoon instant yeast
¾ cup warm (90–105°F) water
Poppy or sesame seeds
Special equipment: a design tool for the top of the rolls, if you have one
- Mix flour with whey, salt, honey, yeast, and water (dough will be stiff). Set mixture into a bowl and cover tightly with plastic wrap. Store in refrigerator overnight. Remove in the morning and let warm for 2–3 hours.
- Divide dough into 6 even-sized roll, then roll them each around on the counter to make them smooth. Turn rolls over and place on a buttered pan.
- Mist the top of the rolls with water. Sprinkle tops with the seeds or use the designer tool to make the famous crown. Cover loosely with a damp tea towel.
- Let rise in a warm place for 2 hours, or until doubled in size.
- Preheat the oven to 425°F. Mist rolls with water again. Place in the oven for 10 minutes, then rotate the pan. Lower heat to 400°F and bake for an additional 15– 20 minutes. Wait 30 minutes to cool before serving.
Image from iStock/Julvostrik.