One of the hardest parts of expanding your seafood world is finding good seafood dealers. Depending on where you live, there may be very few of them to choose from. Many of the best ones are difficult to find because they focus all of their efforts on providing great fish and none of their efforts on marketing. Some seafood markets are embracing social media and internet advertising, but many of the old school dealers are content with a single yellow pages listing. Their storefronts may be poorly signed and poorly located. They may not necessarily be classified as a seafood dealer at all. You may find a great seafood dealer that calls itself a neighborhood grocery or a deli.
Once you find one, it takes a little bit of probing to find out if they are going to meet your needs or not. You should get a feel for the quality of what they offer and understand what different species they have access to. Often, dealers in small markets will stick to just the basics, but chances are, they will be able to get many other species if you ask. Seafood has a short lead time, so dealers are often hesitant to try new things. If you show them that there is demand for something new, they may bring it in.
Sometimes a seafood market will not be as good as you would like it to be. In this situation I’ve found that if you ask enough questions and become a regular, you can dig down to uncover their strengths. Maybe your local dealer gets fish only once a week. If you go in there on the day before they receive new product, you’ll find fish that is past its prime. Maybe they buy mostly frozen fish and refresh it as needed, but they have a relationship with a particular fisherman that brings them a few types of great fresh fish. Ask when new fish arrive, then buy accordingly. Ask what is fresh and what has been frozen. Ask what else they can bring in for you. Ask about the origin of fish that they sell that interest you. In many cases, you can steer them to be a better provider for you.
Other times, you just get lucky and find a seafood market that is unexpectedly perfect. I had this experience on a recent trip to Nashville, TN. With all of the outstanding foodie destinations scattered around Nashville, I did not cook very much on this trip. I bounced from barbecue joint to trendy taco shop to hipster deli and back again. When I’d eaten all the glorious sushi and artisan pizza that I could afford, I decided to crash someone else’s kitchen and try out a couple of new recipes. It had been a while since I’d shopped for seafood in Nashville, so I did some exploring. What I found is that the regular grocery stores are trying a lot harder than they used to. Kroger had snapper! 10 years ago, I would swear your choices were catfish, catfish, or more catfish. Publix had a dozen choices of high quality frozen fish and at least half a dozen great looking fresh fish. Digging a little deeper, I found a market called Little’s Fish Company.
Nestled in a small unassuming building on the edge of downtown Nashville, this market is the definition of a hidden gem. They have no web presence. Their small sign does not immediately grab your eye, and they are in an area that you are unlikely to pass by accident. You could live 3 miles away for 20 years and never notice them. Walking through the door, you are greeted by 3 generations of people that I presume to be the Littles. Working the front counter is a sweet little girl, not more than 12 years old. She is polite, helpful, outgoing, and she knows her stuff. She is supported by a handful of family members that are all eager to help. They are clearly passionate about what they sell.
On this trip we spent about 30 minutes shopping all of their offerings and talking to them about their business and their sources. They mentioned that they only keep fresh fish in the case for a couple of days before marking it down and moving it to the freezer. That was clear just from looking at the pristine fish on display. The ice was fresh and perfectly clean, something you rarely see. Clearly, they take a lot of pride in the appearance of their shop. There was not a hint of fish blood or slime or oxidation on or around any of the fish.
Their fresh selection had a wide range of great fish including: mullet, lane snapper, salmon, trout, catfish, and even buffalo fish. I’ve never seen buffalo fish for sale and I was excited to try it. A new fish in Nashville, what an unexpected treat! The woman told me that they source this fish directly from a local fisherman. They were quick to warn me that this species is full of tiny bones. I appreciated the honesty, but this characteristic makes buffalo very cheap and I ain’t afraid a’ no bones. I purchased an interesting cut called a “buffalo rib”. More on that later. I also purchased a gorgeous 3 ½ pound slab of salmon and a big fat farm raised rainbow trout, which both ended up being excellent.
Moving on to their freezer case, the selection is even more extensive. They have a few other types of fish and then some interesting Cajun products like boudin and alligator. They sell a few other seafood related dry goods and some fresh shellfish. The selection at Little’s is exciting, especially considering that Nashville is an inland city that is generally much more interested in meat than seafood. All in, I give these guys a 10 out of 10. Their product is fantastic. Their knowledge of seafood is pretty good. They are very approachable and friendly. Their pricing is great, and they are super helpful. The store is spotless. I’ll definitely be back.
In the kitchen, I trimmed up the buffalo ribs and pulled out all the bones I could find, but that still left quite a few. They were not kidding, this fish had a ton of bones, arranged in seemingly random order. I breaded these oddly shaped cutlets in seasoned flour and breadcrumbs and fried them in some bacon grease. That’s a fitting use for a southern freshwater fish, I think. They came out looking a bit like a pork chop. The flavor of the fish is pretty good, similar to sturgeon, but with a much less firm texture. The ones I ate had a subtle almost undetectable muddy flavor to them, which I suspect can vary based on the quality of water they come from. It wasn’t off-putting, but just barely there, like a wild caught catfish. This cut of fish varies in texture. The upper part which would be the fillet on a standard cut fish is flaky and a little firm. The lower part, which would be the belly on a standard cut fish is not flaky at all, but rather a single chunk of fine fibers with a central bead of collagen that surrounds a big thick bone. That probably sounds terrible, but it is actually quite pleasing, like the little pop of richness and flavor that pork fat gives to a slow cooked pork rib. Like most fish, this belly portion is softer than the rest of the fish. Overall, this fish is very interesting and for the money it is a great choice.