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How to Shop for Seafood in Arizona, According to the Founder of Nelson's Meat + Fish

There's good seafood for sale in Arizona. Here's how to find it.
There's good seafood for sale in Arizona. Here's how to find it.
Natalie Allen
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“What’s good today?” It’s a question Chris Nelson, aka Nellie, hears from behind the counter of Nelson's Meat + Fish a zillion times a day. The Connecticut native — you'll know by the way he pronounces "scallops" — opened the small seafood market in 2017. It's now a major part of Phoenix’s new wave of seafood options.

While many consumers have discovered that fresh seafood in the desert is a real thing, shopping for fish and other seafood in town remains tricky. We asked Nelson to outline some tips for finding the good stuff. Here's what he told us.

Nellie will tell you anything you want to know and then some.EXPAND
Nellie will tell you anything you want to know and then some.
Chris Malloy

Develop A Relationship with Your Fishmonger

The biggest takeaway from Nelson: Become comfortable with the person you’re buying fish from. “I think that is singularly the most important thing and what’s made us successful,” Nelson says. “That's what really carried us through COVID.”

This involves introductions, asking questions, and making requests of the people behind the case.

“We know we’re the most expensive fish market in town, but it’s really about the service,” Nelson says. “We want our guests feeling great about coming in and spending their hard-earned money with us.”

Once that relationship is established, team members can take you beyond salmon and scallops, offering cooking instructions, and getting you to make uncomfortable purchases (more on that later).

Search for a Smell-Free Zone

In addition to a fish market being clean upon entry, there should be no smell. It shouldn’t hint of fish, shouldn’t smell like whatever is being prepared.

The fish itself, either whole or fillets, should smell like the sea. “As we say, it shouldn’t smell like low tide,” Nelson says.

Overall, there shouldn’t be a strong odor to the fish you’re buying.

Yellowtail snapper with those "dead eyes looking alive.”
Yellowtail snapper with those "dead eyes looking alive.”
Nelson's Meat + Fish

Whole Fish: The Eye Test

“When you’re looking at a fish, those eyes should be bright and clear,” Nelson says.

Nelson recalls a quick line from his 2018 Best of Phoenix award for Best Fish Market: “Chain-mailed sardines from Greece, dead eyes looking alive.” (Mostly those last four words.) “To me, that was like the greatest compliment,” Nelson says.

And just to the side of those bright, clear eyes, the gills should be a bright red or pink.

Filets: The Compression Test

When you have filets or pre-sliced fish flesh, you can still test the quality and freshness without staring into the eyes. For this, it's about compression.

You probably can’t touch the fish yourself, but you can ask your butcher or fishmonger to. That's another reason why Nelson says this relationship is so important.

“You can ask your fishmonger to see the fish, ask them to press it down,” Nelson says. “If that flesh doesn’t bounce back and leaves a big indentation, that’s a sure sign of old seafood.”

For inshore or non-marine species, head to Lee Lee International Supermarkets.EXPAND
For inshore or non-marine species, head to Lee Lee International Supermarkets.
Tom Carlson

Know Where to Go

While Nelson’s is part of Phoenix’s new crop of seafood options (Chula Seafood is another), they aren’t the only fish pushers in town. For instance, Nelson offers mostly marine species seafood — not a ton of freshwater species aside from the occasional rainbow trout or walleye.

For inshore or non-marine species, Nelson’s crew directs people toward a location of Lee Lee International Supermarkets, Mekong Plaza, or another reputable Asian market. A lot of the time, consumers can find live freshwater seafood at these places.

“People come in looking for catfish or croaker or panfish, crappie, red drum — we would always direct them to Lee Lee’s,” Nelson says. “I have typed directions to them into people’s phones.”

In fact, Nelson says if you’re in a town for the first time and don't know where to buy seafood, hunt for any small, family-owned Asian market.

Talk to your fishmonger about how to cook those diver scallops.
Talk to your fishmonger about how to cook those diver scallops.
Nelson's Meat + Fish

Common Mistakes

Customers must align their purchase with how it will be prepared. “That’s one of the first questions we ask guests when they ask, ‘What's good today?” Nelson says. Do you want to grill, sauté, pan-fry? From there, a good fishmonger can help you narrow down the species and finally make a selection.

Scenario: “If you knew that you were going to grill your seafood, dead set, you wouldn’t purchase orange roughy, or a real fine thin fish like John Dory, because it will just fall through the grates,” Nelson says.

But, of course, Nelson thinks the biggest mistake a consumer can make is not asking questions.

“I never want someone to walk out of the store, especially if they're paying $42 a pound for true diver scallops, and feel uncomfortable in the least about how to cook it,” he says. Beyond cooking tips — and we really like this part — a team member can probably tell you where and when the scallops were harvested, the name of the boat, even the name of the diver. All you gotta do is ask.

The product's origin information should be overly apparent.EXPAND
The product's origin information should be overly apparent.
Chris Malloy

Sustainable Seafood Shopping

“We try whenever possible to buy sustainably harvested or raised seafoods that are either on the Seafood Watch list, Marine Stewardship Council, or any of the other organizations,” Nelson says.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program offers a well-tested guide to help people find seafood supporting a healthy ocean. Items are categorized into best choices, good alternatives, and what to avoid. Seafood Watch recommends farms with raceways, or indoor recirculating tanks with wastewater treatment, sometimes ponds. It’ll even recommend looking for a certain species’ country of origin like Colombia, Honduras, Mexico, Indonesia, and Taiwan. (Most seafood counters provide information on where their fish comes from. If it doesn't, that may be a sign you need to find a new market.)

And if you're on the go, there is a Seafood Watch app for iOS and Android.

Nelson also recommends hunting for a thumbs up from the MSC. “The Marine Stewardship Council has a blue label that they put on products that passed their criteria,” he says. Looking for MSC-certified products might be more applicable to grocery store purchases.

This is all in an effort to, as the Seafood Watch puts it, help consumers shop for seafood that's been fished or farmed in ways that have less of an environmental impact.

“Some poor fishing practices that we try to avoid are dredging or dragging,” Nelson says, referring to a method of fishing where trawlers drag a giant fishing net along the ocean floor, picking up everything in its path. Conversely, “Right now, our scallops are harvested by divers in Maine, in the middle of winter.”

Fresh-dressed Canadian smelts.
Fresh-dressed Canadian smelts.
Nelson's Meat + Fish

Buy a Surprising Fish

“Make a purchase that you're not comfortable with,” Nelson says. “Look at the under-loved species of seafood.”

Nelson says at his shop, and probably many others, there's the top five: everybody buys salmon, tuna, halibut, scallops, and shrimp. So, Nelson likes to talk up (and the man can definitely talk) species that don't get recognition. For example, he just got in some “wonderful” Canadian smelts.

Often the reason for choosing something offbeat is because the fish has a bolder flavor, like sardines, bluefish, or mackerel. Sometimes it’s because it’s lesser-known to consumers, like cusk-eel, hake, and skate.

“Just give it a try. You don't have to buy a lot of it if you don't feel comfortable, or because you've never cooked it before,” Nelson says. “Ask your fishmonger, ‘What's the best way to cook these smelts?'”

It also ties back to shopping responsibly and supporting healthy oceans. “One helps the other,” Nelson says. “If you're buying under-loved species, you're helping the sustainability of others."

And there has been some progress in this particular area: “It’s amazing how many people are buying octopus now.”

Flown-in stone crab.
Flown-in stone crab.
Nelson's Meat + Fish

Addressing Arizona's Seafood Stigma

According to Move.org, Arizona was the seventh most popular state to move to in 2020. That means a lot of people are arriving from the east coast, west coast, fresh coast, gulf coast. Places where seafood is more common and considered naturally fresh.

Nelson says he noticed in the first two years of running the shop that customers would wait till the last minute to purchase their seafood, then rush home to cook it before it "went bad." He says he can only assume that prior to Phoenix's new seafood options, that used to be the worry. “You buy seafood somewhere in the desert, and then you were just so concerned about it that you had to hurry home.”

So, what does Nellie have to say about people thinking fresh seafood in the desert isn't possible?

“I think we've definitely proved that wrong,” he says. "Chula's done a good job of proving that wrong."

Speaking for Nelson’s alone, the meat is fresh for two to three days beyond the purchase. Nelson, like many other seafood restaurants and businesses in town in 2021, flies products directly from the point of harvest. (In fact, Nellie even had to put me on hold during our interview to quickly coordinate a shipment from Boston.)

It’s a continuous grind. “We buy to sell out so we can get more in the next day,” he says. There’s no menu here, other than maybe Faroe Islands salmon, U15 Sea of Cortez wild shrimp, or maybe the tuna or swordfish.

And it’s a proven process. Nelson's Meat + Fish passed three years in business last October, a symbol for how to provide seafood in Arizona. But Nellie says it “really isn't about us.” He wants to put the emphasis on the product and celebrate the fishermen, farmers, and foragers.

“Those people really do the hard work,” Nelson says. “Think about fishing for swordfish in the North Atlantic in January.”

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