What? A piece of cooked fish could possibly trump a perfect slice of raw? Let me elaborate. One day, at Upper West Side appetizing heaven, Zabar’s. ::wavy dream lines::

Nah, it doesn’t even merit wavy dream lines. I went across the street to buy a gift for my Thanksgiving-hosting aunt and uncle — a pound ‘o Zabar’s expertly carved Nova, the only food gift anyone in my family actually gets excited about — and was called over by the guy handing out samples of their in-house hot-smoked salmon. I thought maybe I had something stuck to my face, like one of the whole smoked whitefish I’d been ogling extremely close-up in one of the fridge cases, cause since when does a sample guy actually make eye contact with you from across the market, smile and beckon you over? Since Zabar’s, that’s when. 

I realized I’d passed by the hot-smoked salmon, which is right across from the cured smoked salmon, probably a million times in my lifetime and never tried it. So I picked up one of the generous chunks from the table and popped it in my mouth thinking I’d just pull a drive-by, go get my coffee, hit the “checkout amorphous line area of the store” and go home. But nooo, I had to have a life-changing food moment. And those take forever. I usually just stand there, agape, for a while until someone asks if I’m okay and then I dramatically snap out of it. I hear there’s a pill for it, but I’m really more of a naturalist.

Sunday mornings at my house involved bagels and lox, without fail. I loved picking up the almost see-through orange wisps of fish and ceremoniously laying them on top of a perfectly schmeared sesame bagel. Yup, I’m a sesame gal. This salmon was neither raw nor wispy. It was a straight-up fillet, flaked by salmon-loving hands into bite-sized chunks. It had all the intense smoky, salty fish flavor I loved about my bagel topping, with the same melt-in-your-mouth quality only smoking can do to fish. But it was meaty, too. As if in sync with my ‘aha’ moment, the guy handed me a whole wrapped fillet and smiled. Jerk. Yeah, first bag’s free. 

I haven’t bought cured smoked salmon since. It’s weird, I used to wait patiently, even happily in that line clutching my paper number for a quarter pound of belly or pastrami lox. Now I bypass that whole magillah and head straight for the hot stuff. It’s still insane on a bagel, but it’s a lot more versatile in cooking in general because you don’t have to worry about accidentally cooking/ruining it. Mixed with a little Greek yogurt and chopped celery, hot smoked salmon salad makes tuna salad look like an ignorant little lunch salad, indeed. It takes well to any manner of pasta, hot or cold, and stands by itself with a side of something or other like a champ. If you can’t make it to an old-school appetizing store, a good fish market will special-order it for you.

I’m sure I’ll eventually head back to the fish counter and wait contently, Instagramming to my heart’s content while I wait 20 minutes for my effing lox, but in the meantime, new favorite cooked fish, ever.

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