There are two things about the desert that make our natural habitat ideal for eating seafood in the summer. One: It's hot. The other day my dashboard showed a temperature of 127. Two: We don't have scallopers or long-liners or crab-trappers. We don't have fishermen.
Both elements are key.
First, heat and seafood are like sun and day. They go together. The lightness and briny flavors of seafood call summer to mind, through memories, maybe, but also through the innate summery nature of the flavors.
Second, eating seafood is ideal here because we live in a desert. Yes, really. We don't have people out in the saguaro and sagebrush lifting marine life out of the ground. Seafood is rare here. Good seafood is rarer. And when you find some, boy, man, shit, that seafood can make your day.
Nelson's Meat + Fish in Phoenix has good seafood. Great seafood. We've covered how the proprietor, Chris Nelson, overnights fish from small providers across the country and beyond. You can get that fish to go. You can get prepared food to eat on the spot.
That latter is one of the great ways to eat seafood in a Sonoran summer.
Nelson's stocks all kinds of prepared foods. Shrimp salad. Ceviche. Salmon banh mi. Smoked trout dip. The staff are generous with providing samples. Though they keep busy – papering skate for a customer, slivering octopus for sashimi – they work tastes and rhapsodies about sourcing into the flow of people in, out, in, out.
I ate my best meal of the week 10 minutes after ordering at Nelson's. You can order prepared seafood from the menu, or you can tell them to hook you up with lunch based on what they have in.
I opted for the freeform route, a kind of elite fish shop omakase.
What came out was an iced riot of superfresh raw fish, a lunch fit for Poseidon.
There was salmon sashimi, powerfully orange slips of fish leaning on a scallop shell, each piece striated with pearly fat. The salmon came from Faroe Islands. There was scallop sashimi, raw fish drizzled with lemon-infused olive oil. After the first coin dissolves in sweet, faintly briny flavors, you realize that we've been doing things wrong all these years. Scallops are better raw.
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Razor clams came chopped up in the hollow of their long shell. Before the chopping, the clam, overnighted in from Massachusetts, was alive, sticking its foot out into the air.
You play a game of oyster roulette at Nelson's. You never know what's going to be in the case. On this day, there were Savage Blondes and Lady Slippers, both from Prince Edward Islands. They sat in pools of saline juices, glistening with a wild sheen and impressive vivacity in the shell. These suckers were pulled out of the water on July 16, and they were history at lunchtime two days later.
And finally, there was ceviche. Ceviche is a food that can range from garbage to glorious. This ceviche, made with halibut, was a bright, citrusy rendition, incandescent even by ceviche standards. Lime and orange juice go into the marinade with cilantro, chile, red onion, and garlic to sculpt that brightness. The only thing that I thought was wrong was the size of the spoon – miniature, way too small for lapping up all that leftover juice after the fish, against your hopes, is gone.
Nelson's Meat + Fish. 2415 East Indian School Road; 602-596-4069.
Tuesday to Friday 10:30 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Saturday 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.; closed Sunday and Monday.
*Note: the price of these platters/towers varies. It can get up there fast. Be sure to communicate what you are willing to spend and what you want. Nelson's can improvise. If you want to keep costs down, throw in a loaf of Noble bread and/or head next door to the Wandering Tortoise and fill some stomach real estate with beer.