Chris Nelson likes to talk about fish. He talks about fish at a furious rate, weaving tales of dayboats and eelgrass and aquaculture and adductor muscles and overnight airmail from fishermen to his shop, Nelson’s Meat + Fish in Phoenix. Nelson talks about how his fish and meat shop opened four weeks ago. He talks about relationships with suppliers that go back 15 years, about how one supplier sends him 10 pounds of smoked mullet from Florida every Christmas. He talks about fish with customers, callers, anybody who will listen.
He talks about Sue Buxton of Dayboat Fresh, one of his suppliers in Maine. Buxton sends him diver scallops. She also just started experimenting with aquaculture — fish farming. “These little guys right here,” Nelson says, pointing a knife at a pog-sized shell, one tiny live scallop in a tub of many. “They grow up to be these meats over here.”
He points into his shop's display case.
Scallops heaped in a line glisten like pearls. They are each about as big as an inch-thick cut of pork tenderloin but with a color close to the ivory of fresh whitefish.
Nelson's sells some fresh fish. Nelson developed relationships with fishermen all over the country and world when he worked full-time as a supplier of hotels and restaurants with Seafoods.com. He wants to tap into his vast network of long-liners and deep-ocean salmon farmers, his scallop guys and his crab trappers, to provide super-fresh seafood to Phoenix. His suppliers span waters from Nantucket to New Zealand. He only sells fish that has been overnighted from the source. In some cases, Nelson says, he gets the same fish as New York’s famed Fulton Fish Market, but a day earlier. As he taps into his network of elite suppliers, he follows seafood's little-known seasons.
Nelson talks about how it’s scallop season.
He talks about another scallop provider, Jeff Henderson of Salty Balls (Massachusetts). “These really kind of ruin people,” he says of a quarter-sized scallop as he cuts it free from its muscle and shell. “We tell people you’re going to the dark side. When you try these big scallops, it’s going to be hard to eat any others.”
According to Nelson, the Nantucket scallop season runs from November 1 to March 31. During this time, Henderson spends a lot of time at the docks. He buys live scallops from 18 to 20 boats that drag rakes through the offshore eelgrass. Each boat has a daily quota of eight milk crates, filled all the way up. The raking takes place from 7 to 10 a.m. The fishermen then have two hours to shuck what they catch. At noon, the scallops are overnighted to Nelson. He gets them in Phoenix 18 hours after they leave the Nantucket water.
This is the kind of relationship that Nelson has with his sources. He talks about dozens of them. He has a stone crab hookup in west Florida, a fourth-generation family of fishermen consisting of seven brothers. They catch stone crabs in the Appalachee Bay and Gulf of Mexico. In the two weeks, they will catch the octopuses that prey on these crabs. Nelson will then carry octopus.
“I’m just using the same relationships I’ve been using for the past 15 years,” Nelson says.
He talks about whole fish. Nelson has carried two-pound Thai snapper. He has carried five-pound shima aji, a kind of trevally, a fish like hamachi but smaller. He now has a few 1,000-gram branzino. They’re beside a whole grotesque, frisbee-shaped John Dory, laid sideways on ice for purchase, but also to show customers the whole fish the neighboring fillets come from.
Nelson talks to Martha, a regular customer who has approached the display. He discusses the merits of John Dory, sharing an option should she want to branch out from her usual salmon. She declines, but accepts chef Ryan Laufenburger’s offer of smoked fish dip (which rotates each week). She picks a gemlike salmon slab and exits with the packaged goods in hand.
Like eggplant, football, and the beach, salmon has a season. “I like to chase the season,” Nelson says.
He talks about how he sources wild Alaskan salmon from spring until November 1, when the salmon season in the 49th state ends. He then toggles to a supplier in New Zealand, one who farms chinook salmon in deep-sea net pens (the most ecological kind of salmon aquaculture).
Filets of this salmon gleam sunset-orange under the display case’s bright lights. They are sashimi grade. You can sample it raw in a poke banh mi that Laufenburger (lately of Braut Haus) plates on ciabatta baked by Noble Bread. The bread isn’t a traditional rice-flour roll. The air here is far drier than Vietnam’s. But the banh mi, which doesn’t aim for authenticity, hits its target of bright, crisp marine flavors.
The limited menu of prepared food includes this sandwich, cider-vinegar-based coleslaw, pickled cucumbers, ceviche, and Chesapeake Bay shrimp salad. Nelson has been doing coleslaw the same way since he was 18. He heaps that slaw on a Noble buttermilk bun with shrimp salad (made from wild shrimp cooked in the shell, as Nelson’s only sources wild shrimp). The shop has a lone induction burner. Nelson and Laufenburger use it to make chowders and poach shrimp with lemon and Old Bay.
Nelson talks about his plans.
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He plans to smoke meat and fish, offer tacos on Tuesdays as part of a top secret collaboration, make more chowders, and orchestrate crudo-and-brew pairings with The Wandering Tortoise, the beer bar next door.
There is something that Nelson doesn’t have to talk about: the quality of his shop. How many scallops, eaten raw, bring that kind of faint sweetness and marine goodness? How many salmon fillets are striated with such fantastic fat and course with such beautiful flavor? How many fish markets display tags on product disclosing when and where the fish was caught, and by whom? And how many of those can, like Nelson’s typically does, boast a date of yesterday?
Nelson’s is a fish market of an almost unprecedented caliber. If you like oysters, get over to Nelson’s and have him shuck you one of the Nantucket bivalves shipped over from Salty Balls. Called Fifth Bend Pearls, they are typically only available on Nantucket. There’s a good chance they won’t be available, but try. What Nelson offers varies with the catches and the seasons. But the supernaturally plump oysters — fresh from the water yesterday — arrive in the same overnight shipment as the scallops. And tasting the vivacious creatures is something like sprinting half-drunk into the ocean, like tasting oysters for the first time.
Nelson's Meat and Fish. 2415 East Indian School Road; 602-596-4069.
Tuesday through Friday 10:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Saturday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; closed Sunday and Monday
*Nelson’s also carries wagyu, heritage breed pork chops, veal, ribeye, and other high-end meat products. You can take all prepared food next store to eat and sip at The Wandering Tortoise.