With current technology for preserving and transporting seafood, it is possible to get a wide variety of species wherever you may live. You may have to sacrifice a little bit of quality by buying frozen offerings or you may have to spend a little more money to have something shipped in fresh, but the choices are usually there. You just have to find them. It helps to have an idea of what to ask for. I have searched high and low around my home in Northern California and have developed a mental list of what is readily available, as well as a list of options that come around occasionally. These uncommon fish will often change my dinner plans whenever they appear in the market. I’ve also got a list of contacts that I’ll reach out to when I hear about something new. The internet offers an even wider range of options, but these can be very expensive.
My favorite way to expand my seafood world is through travel. I often research my destination weeks in advance to determine if there are any interesting seasonal offerings or any exciting seafood markets in the area. I’ve found interesting varieties of fish in some very unexpected places. For example, I once found trumpeter, a fantastic fish from New Zealand, in Salt Lake City. It is similar to Chilean sea bass, but cheaper and, in my opinion, more flavorful. I purchased two pounds and carried it home in my briefcase. Each part of the United States has its own set of interesting local fish and I’ve listed a few of my top picks from each corner of the country. In addition to local offerings, you may find imported variety just about anywhere.
Washington, Oregon, and California are close enough to pull fishing vessels directly out Alaska and this allows for unparalleled freshness of cold water species. Most people know that you will find outstanding salmon, king crab, halibut, and cod. Many people choose these options, but miss out on the wide variety of rockfish available. There are also some extremely interesting oysters and clams including the geoduck which is a little intimidating to work with, but fairly mild flavored. Inland seafood markets often have sturgeon, steelhead, and for the brave culinary explorer, freshwater eels. Seattle offers maybe the most choices of any market in the United States for seafood and it is within striking distance of Vancouver, BC. With its strong Asian influence, Vancouver offers some unparalleled sushi options and imports a tremendous amount of extremely fresh and high quality seafood.
With over 800 miles of coastline, and a broad range of marine conditions, California offers a wide variety of options. The local options will include both the Pacific halibut and the California halibut, rockfish, grenadier, ling cod, salmon, albacore tuna, and a tiny flounder called a sand dab. California also offers access to many Hawaiian options such as mahi mahi, opah, ono, and yellowfin tuna. Smaller fish markets near the coast may offer even more diverse species like kelp greenling, thresher shark, and the sculpin, a small rockfish that I believe is the most underrated fish on the market. My top five recommendations for the West coast are:
Sculpin – This fish has a huge head with a lot of spines on it. They are often under 1 pound in total weight. When filleted, they produce small fillets that can be grilled with the skin on them. They curl up and develop a taste and appearance similar to a lobster tail. I like to eat them dipped in garlic butter or topped with a beurre blanc sauce.
Halibut – One of the tastiest fish to eat when purchased fresh, the halibut deteriorates quickly. I generally avoid frozen or refreshed halibut and only purchase it when it looks nice and white and clean. This fish is extremely versatile and can go into just about any dish. I prefer to cook it simply to highlight the clean taste of the fish. I will grill it, broil it, or pan fry it in olive oil. It also makes a great fish for tacos or fish and chips. It is very forgiving for rookie chefs, although it can be a little pricey.
Sand Dab – This fish is similar to most flounders. It has a mild flavor and a good texture. It is small with tiny bones, so it is often fried whole, dredged in flour and spices. It is a fun experience to tackle and you can’t get it in most parts of the country. These are readily available in the Pismo beach area on up to around Santa Cruz. They are less common up north.
Dungeness crab – Many people will mention king crab as their favorite seafood, and in the Northeast many will mention the blue crab. In my humble opinion, neither of these hold a candle to fresh Dungeness crab. This crab is available at nearly any seafood market in California, but I prefer to buy it live in the months of November and December. That is when they are the cheapest and often the meatiest. Buying a live crab guarantees that you will get the sweet, clean, tasty crab meat that you are hoping for. Anything other than that comes with the possibility that you will get that crabby off flavor that is more off-putting to me than any other food. An already boiled supermarket crab can be OK, but there is a bit of that risk. If you don’t want to wrestle a live crab into a giant pot of boiling salted water, your next safest bet is to go to any of the seafood restaurants that dot the California coastline in most coastal towns. These usually turn their seafood pretty quickly and have some very fresh crab.
Copper Rockfish – Finding this fish is a tougher mission. There are dozens of commercially available rockfish caught off the coast of California and if you don’t catch it yourself, it is tough to be sure what you are getting. Many markets in Southern California have boats that dump their catch directly into the market each day. If you visit one of these and find a copper rockfish, don’t pass it up. You can’t go wrong with a rockfish as they are all pretty light and flaky, but not boring. This one stands above many of the others though. It has a nice buttery flavor and it stands up to high heat well.
Gulf of Mexico
This region has abundant seafood and should be explored extensively. They boast the best shrimp on the planet and they have fantastic oysters and crabs. Crawfish are abundant and celebrated throughout much of the region. In addition they have a wide variety of warm water fish including Red drum, black drum, sea trout, flounder, snapper, amberjack, and cobia.
My top 5 recommendations for the gulf are:
Shrimp – While shrimp are available almost anywhere and they freeze and travel well, they are best here. They can be found fresh off the boat and often still alive. They have a nuttier flavor than shrimp from other regions and their shells can be made into a stock that is much cleaner tasting than seafood stock using imported shrimp. Often these shrimp can be huge. I can’t think of anything better than a bowl of shrimp and grits made with fresh jumbo gulf shrimp.
Red Drum (also known as Redfish) – This is my all-time favorite fish, but a word of caution: restaurants will often substitute other, cheaper fish for redfish. In order to make sure, you need to order this fish prepared with the skin on and make sure to confirm it is really a redfish. It is illegal to sell wild caught redfish. Farmed redfish are available, but they are rarely shipped out of the gulf region. I find the farmed fish to be less flavorful than the wild caught redfish, probably due to their limited diet in captivity. If you really want to get the true experience of eating a real redfish, you have to catch it yourself and I assure you it is worth the effort. Charters are easy to find in the region and these fish are incredibly powerful and fun to catch. The meat of this fish is firm with dense flakes, almost more like beef than fish. It has a wonderful irony taste unlike any other fish I’ve found.
Sheepshead – These fish can be purchased occasionally in specialty markets or from fisherman in marinas around the gulf. They are often labelled as bay snappers. They eat mostly shellfish from structures in the gulf and they have a flavor that is similar to the crabs that make up a large part of their diet. The meat of this fish is pure white when cooked and tastes extremely clean. It holds moisture very well and takes on flavors better than most fish.
Red Snapper – These are caught just a few miles offshore around structures like oil rigs and buoys. These are available in most parts of the country, but they are freshest in the gulf states. The flavor of these extremely fresh snappers is fantastic and they make outstanding ceviche or fish tacos. They are dense and firm and stand up to a wide variety of cooking techniques.
Crawfish – With so many seafood options in the gulf, it was a little tough to put crawfish in the top 5, but with them being such a staple in the region, I couldn’t leave them out. Going to a crawfish boil in Louisiana should be a bucket list item for any food enthusiast. These events not just a meal, but a life experience. They are intensely social and allow the visitor to get a real sense of the culture and heritage of the region. And with so many spices, local vegetables, and sausages, they are an explosion of flavor. I recommend that every visitor to the region attend a crawfish boil. Even if this one makes you a little uncomfortable, grab a beer, watch the locals, and when you have gotten comfortable enough, dive on in.
With its extensive coastline and access to the Caribbean, Florida has a seafood culture all its own. From adventurous fish like mullet on the panhandle to stone crabs in the Florida Keys, there are abundant options. Florida has snappers just like the gulf and they have big water fish like blue marlin, king mackerel, and tuna. Seafood fans in Florida can dine on the invasive lionfish and help eat a problem that has plagued the region for more than a decade. They can also pull in warm water lobsters from the Caribbean and more exotic items like the conch.
My top five for Florida are:
Stone crab claws – These are great because you can eat these claws and the animal still gets to live on. Fisherman snap off only one claw from each crab and then return it to the water to grow another claw. These claws have a fantastic flavor that is similar to other crabs but unique at the same time. They are served boiled and chilled with a dipping sauce or sautéed in a cream sauce and both options are fantastic.
Cobia – Also known as black salmon or lemonfish reaches lengths of up to 6 feet. It is nutritionally very similar to salmon and is high in Omega 3. It is high in fat and very forgiving to cook. It can be cooked like other steaky fish such as swordfish and will tolerate high heat or long cook times.
Lionfish – These are a small Asian invader that probably came to the Atlantic through the pet trade. They can grow to about 2 lbs. They are fast growing and they can reproduce after only one year, making them extremely prolific. You do the ocean a favor every time you eat one. They have a mild flavor and good texture with small flakes, similar to a cod or a rockfish. They also have a large amount of meat under their gills attached to their pectoral fins. Fried lionfish throats are a common dish made from this fish.
Pompano – This is a moderately oily fish which makes it flavorful, but not off-putting like some other oily fish. It has a high fat content compared to other fish so it stands up to big flavors and is not prone to drying out. I like to cook this fish whole on the grill. Just remove the guts, cut some hash marks on each side down to the bone, and then coat with a heavy layer of your favorite rub.
Amberjack – This is another moderately oily fish that has a unique flavor. It is firm with big flakes and it takes flavors very well. I rarely marinate any fish, but this one will soak up a good marinade. It is a great fish to grill.
The Atlantic ocean offers a set of seafood options completely unlike the other regions mentioned. With access to the cold Icelandic fisheries down to the temperate waters off the coast of Georgia. In the north, take advantage of the abundant lobsters and mussels as well as Icelandic cod. In the middle, sample Boston clam chowder and striped bass. In the south try the blue crabs and the shrimp. Adventurous eaters can try some of the uglier fish on the menu with sea robin and monkfish both available in many areas.
My top five for the East coast are:
Monkfish – This fish eats mostly lobster and for that reason has a flavor similar to lobster tails. It was nicknamed the poor man’s lobster, but it is often just as expensive. This fish is firm and stands up will to longer cook times. It can go into stews or curries without turning into mush. It is unique and has a great flavor all its own, so generally I try not to cover that up. It is ugly in life and the meat is actually even uglier in the seafood case, but if you can get past the appearance, it is a fantastic fish.
Mussels – These are simple to cook and can be dressed up in a number of ways, but they are a must-have in the winter in the northeast. Restaurants here may serve these simply steamed, with several choices of dipping sauce or sautéed in a white wine broth. They do well with more aggressive flavors like curry or chorizo. Mussels have such a unique flavor that they are tough to describe, but a good mussel is briny and tastes like the sea.
Lobster – This food deteriorates so much from fresh to frozen and costs so much to ship that I generally don’t eat it anywhere outside of a couple hours from where it is caught. If you haven’t had a fresh lobster roll in Massachusetts or Maine or Nova Scotia, then I recommend you reserve judgement on the lobster. Once you have found a good meaty lobster roll along the coast, I expect you’ll go back again and again. Lobster macaroni and cheese, lobster mashed potatoes, and lobster ravioli are but a few of the other ways to sample this fantastic ocean offering.
Blue Crabs – I mentioned before that Dungeness crabs are the best crab and that blue crabs do not come close. I stand by that statement IF you have to pick them yourself. The blue crabs are just as sweet and flavorful, but they are really a pain to clean. If you can get fresh lump crap meat from blue crabs, it can be fantastic. Crab cakes are the most common way I've seen offered on the east coast. I find that I am often disappointed by a crab cake. This dish has many moving parts. It needs to have the freshest crab in the correct proportion to bread crumbs and other ingredients and it has to be properly cooked and mixed. You may have to make several attempts to find the perfect version, but it is worth the effort.
Striped bass - This is the most iconic fish of the Northeast and when they are running, everyone knows about it. Stripers, as they are called by many fisherman, are outstanding to catch and even more outstanding to eat. They are versatile and forgiving in the kitchen. Their flavor is mild, but not boring and they can be baked without drying out like many fish. They do well on the grill and the meaty texture holds up well to all types of cooking. If you needed to pick one all-purpose fish to use in every dish forever, you would do pretty well to choose a striped bass.
States along the great lakes and the Canadian border may seem a little removed from the seafood world, but being heavily influenced by European settlers, and with access to Canadian farmed fish, these parts of the country boast abundant unique choices. Arctic Char is a nice meaty fish, similar to salmon which is easy to get in the north. They also have choices like herring, lake trout, walleye, and whitefish. These states have many options for smoked fish.
These landlocked states have to bring in all of their ocean foods from their more fortunate neighbors, but they have a few great freshwater offerings. Idaho offers fantastic trout from commercial sources and many species of wild trout for those who like to catch their own dinners. Smallmouth and Largemouth bass, catfish, and crappie are also nice freshwater options. Don’t give up on finding seafood variety in these states. There are still thriving seafood markets in most major cities and specialty retailers can be found in unexpected places.
These landlocked states don’t have as much to offer in the way of local fare, but with their close access to Mexico, they often offer a wide variety of warmer water fish from our neighbors to the south. If you are looking for exotic options from around the world, you’ll have to find a specialty retailer and you’ll probably have to settle for some frozen items. If you enjoy fishing, the Southwest has healthy bass and catfish populations and New Mexico even has pike, muskie, and walleye. You can also find several species of trout and bluegill throughout the region.