Strolling the Pike Place seafood stalls makes for a quintessential Seattle afternoon. While the market is temporarily closed, local expert Ryan Reese offers up tips for picking quality seafood at your neighborhood grocery store—until Pike Place opens its doors once again.
Being a Seattle fishmonger takes more than a good throwing arm, says Ryan Reese, seafood vendor and co-owner of Pike Place Fish Market. Like the other local fishmongers known for throwing fish, Reese can send a salmon flying with ease, but his true expertise is working with the seafood itself.
“It takes several years to become proficient at cutting fish and selecting fish, and doing it all with speed and accuracy,” Reese says. “The fish throwing just draws people in, but what keeps people coming back is the customer service and the quality of the seafood.” Read on for Reese’s expert advice, from selecting the right cut at the market to achieving the perfect flavor on the grill.
Fresh or frozen?
At Pike Place Market, fish arrive both fresh and frozen; Reese says that, thanks to modern freezing techniques, frozen fish can be very high quality. “Fishermen are catching, processing, and freezing at sea,” he says. “It might be out of the water for a couple of hours before it’s frozen.” Still, Reese says, some fish freeze better than others. When it comes to warm-water fish, such as swordfish and tuna, Reese opts for fresh, but cold-water salmon, cod, and flounder can be just as good defrosted.
Time it right
What’s in season?
While good seafood is available year-round, knowing what’s best each season can help you find high quality food at great prices. “Around here, summer is peak season,” Reese says. “Fresh salmon, halibut, cod—you name it.” The winter, though, brings some special treats. He recommends watching for king salmon, whose high fat content in winter means extra-rich flavor. White fish are another winter specialty. “Black cod is definitely a fishmonger favorite around here,” he says.
When’s it freshest?
Pike Place seafood vendors receive fish orders all week. “People are fishing every single day,” Reese says. “We’re at Alaska Airlines pretty much every day, picking up fresh fish.” (Clams and oysters from nearby Puget Sound, he adds, could be on display at Pike Place Market under 24 hours after they’re harvested.)
When it comes to supermarkets, though, Reese says that orders may be more sporadic. If you’re shopping for seafood at a grocery store, it’s a good idea to call the fish department to ask when they get orders in. Stop by the day fresh fish is delivered and you’ll get the highest quality product.
Shop by look and smell (kind of)
When sniffing out the best seafood, Reese says you should barely notice a scent at all. “That’s one comment we definitely get here—people say ‘gosh, it’s a fish market and I can barely smell the place!’” he says.
Visually identifying quality seafood at a grocery store can be difficult since fish is often cut before it’s packaged. “You have to have a pretty trained eye to look at a cut piece of fish and tell how good it is,” Reese says. If you can check out the whole fish, he recommends taking a close look at the scales. If they’re flaking off, opt for something else.
When it comes to seafood, Reese says many fishermen and fishmongers are planning for the long term. “People are trying to do the right thing,” he says. “We’re trying to make sure that what we have here is not depleting the ocean, and that the method of catch is not destructive to habitat.” Since the method of catch is not generally noted on packaging, Reese suggests asking your market fishmonger about the best choices. Before browsing fish at the grocery store, consult the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program.
Getting the perfect flavor
To Reese, the best way to cook fish has a lot to do with the weather. “We get beautiful summers and gray, rainy winters,” Reese says. “In the summertime, most people are going to grill no matter what.” If you’re firing up the grill, Reese suggests cooking the fish directly on the grate, rather than using a layer of aluminum foil. “Salmon and halibut are just awesome on the grill,” he says. “Just have a nice hot grill, nice and clean, and oiled up.”
Pike Place Market may be physically closed, but shop owners have gone virtual, allowing you to peruse food and drinks, handicrafts, and collectibles from home. Place an order to pick up curbside or have it delivered right to your front door.
Jen Rose Smith
Vermont travel writer Jen Rose Smith covers adventure, remote places, and traditional cuisine from a home base in the Green Mountains. Her articles have appeared in National Geographic Adventure, American Way, Nexos, Condé Nast Traveler, Backpacker, AFAR, Rolling Stone, USA Today, and Outside Online.