Since the oil boom days at the turn of the century through the 1930s, Tulsa has maintained itself as a cosmopolitan city, albeit a small one by some standards yet rich in diversity.
Waite Phillips, William Skelly and J. Paul Getty were Tulsa pioneers, establishing the foundation for what we now enjoy in Tulsa more than 80 years later. The development of diverse cultures and employment opportunities through Tulsa's nascent years set into motion the diverse foods and dining establishments enjoyed across the city today. Just a glance at some of the cuisines available for locals and visitors include Brazilian, Cajun, Caribbean, Chinese, Japanese, Venezuelan, Vietnamese, Thai, Mexican and Indian.
Still, an enduring question often surfaces among locals and visitors regarding seafood served and sold in Tulsa. What can landlocked Tulsa offer in the way of quality seafood? What is the survival rate of seafood from Australia or South America, Maine or Alaska?
Plenty and great, respectively.
Tulsa is home to excellent seafood markets and restaurants serving fresh seafood daily, many claim just as fresh as what is found in Eastern and Western coastal cities. A little mystery still remains when it comes to tracing the process of acquiring seafood to selecting it from a market or enjoying it on a plate in T-Town.
Many establishments and markets are tight-lipped about their vendors or distributors, but one that is used often is Honolulu Fish Company. Hawaii's largest wholesale fish distributor, the company sells more than 30 varieties of Pacific fish species and seafood to more than 2,000 customers. Within only 18-24 hours, this company can prepare the fish and seafood and have it delivered to its destination. They can catch as much as 98,000 pounds of seafood in a day's time from seven boats.
"This is a high-end distributing company," said Chef Curt Herrmann, Chef de Garde Manger at the Culinary Institute of Platt College, Tulsa. Herrmann, graduate of the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in 1992, has plenty of experience in the industry, having worked at the Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs, Las Ventanas in Scottsdale, co-owned Curt & Marg's in Tulsa, and as a private chef for the granddaughter of the late William Randolph Hearst.
"Many of the bigger cities use this company, offering the highest quality seafood," he said. "The seafood is very well-handled as soon as it comes out of the water."
Herrmann said how the seafood is handled -- from initial catch to preparation -- is key to the best tasting (and aesthetically pleasing) seafood. Selecting the best seafood or fish on a menu or purchasing it at a local market can sometimes get complicated.
Take, for example, scallops -- there are plenty of piscatorial aspects to consider. "Dry pack" scallops are best because they are "unsoaked" scallops, meaning they have not been treated with sodium tripolyphosphate (STP), which is recognized by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as a safe food additive which helps bind the scallop moisture through the process of freezing and thawing.
In fact, soon after harvesting, they are often shucked on the boat and kept chilled until delivered on shore. In addition, "day boat" or "diver scallops" are preferred over dredged or boat harvested (chain nets drag the ocean bed gathering the scallops) because, as Herrmann said, "divers go down and hand-pick each scallop off a rock. Also, it is better on the environment," more ecologically friendly because the seabed is not torn from the chain nets. He adds that they will taste fresher since they are not kept in boats to be sorted and are less gritty when eating them since they have not been dredged on the seabed.
Chef Tim Fitzgerald, Chef Instructor and Sommelier at Platt College, said "most people are not educated about fish in general." Also a CIA graduate, Fitzgerald has many accomplishments, such as Executive Chef at Playboy Hotel in Chicago, Executive Chef at Southern Hills Country Club, Chef at Summit Club and Master Sommelier.
He offers another example -- the oyster. He said before being shipped out, they are better preserved when "washing the oysters with filtered sea water because it cleans the oyster of any algae or sand, and it keeps them in their own environment. They should be salty, sweet and clean when eaten."
Herrmann said some of the "most beautiful oysters are cold water oysters, such as Colchester oysters, from Ireland and New Brunswick, and Blue Point oysters from New England." Also, it is good to remember when selecting them from a market that the dryer they are the older and less fresh they are.
"We can definitely get fresh seafood in Tulsa," both Herrmann and Fitzgerald said.
"Absolutely," said Chef Neil McCarley, Chef Instructor at Platt College. "You can get all the fish you want whenever you want. Anything, from Skate Wings to Ray Fins and from Florida, Indonesia or South America -- you can get it."
Like Herrmann and Fitzgerald, McCarley is a CIA graduate and has been Sous Chef at Marriott hotels in Cleveland, Executive Chef at DoubleTree hotels, Executive Chef at Philbrook Museum of Art, and Chef/Owner of Autumn Oaks Grille & Catering.
Herrmann said some of freshest seafood comes from the day boats -- boats which make a run and head back to shore with their fresh catch the same day. They are semi-processed, such as gutted, and then ice-packed and brought to shore.
In addition to seafood from around the world, several different species of fish can be purchased and consumed in Tulsa daily. Trout, Blue Gill, Crappie and Bass are just a few examples of fish found in area lakes or in local fish farms -- many of these, including John Dory (St. Pierre's fish), Sturgeon, Halibut and Turbot, can also be purchased from the local fish market mongers.
"Seafood can be easily ordered in the morning and sold the next day in the market or in a restaurant here in Tulsa," Fitzgerald confirms.
Fish monger Heath Davis, mongering a fish at Bodean's.
And it is. "We have fish flown in twice a day," said Kieron St. Ledger, general manager of Bodean Seafood Restaurant and Market, 3376 E. 51st St. "We get it in from the Gulf, East, West and even New Zealand."
Southwest Airlines is the carrier, said St. Ledger, for "they have the best refrigeration, so the integrity of the product stays intact." Bodean's sends a dedicated employee for the daily airport fish runs.
Leroy Cox, wholesale manager, said Bodean's has been doing this since 1968, and they have the process down. "We get what has just come off the boats, and we get what is currently available. Our fish is fresh, never frozen." The process of getting the fish from the water to Bodean's market and then to the dinner table is a "long process, because the items will come from the fishing boats, be sold to vendors or suppliers, and then arrives here."
For its journey to Tulsa, Cox said the fish are packed in boxes with frozen gel packs and once at Bodean's, they are immediately packed in ice.
Some of the biggest selling items include Halibut, King Salmon, Clams and Scallops (from Massachusetts), Yellow Fin Tuna and Shrimp from the Gulf of Mexico. They also sell Catfish which they procure from Mississippi.
Once it comes in, Cox said, the case life is three days, but he said the fish usually sells before then. "We can go through 100 pounds of Halibut each day," St. Ledger said. Cox said the planes arrive around 6am for the first delivery and 6pm for the second. Domestically, fish arrives from both coasts and beyond; Catfish comes from Mississippi; oysters and salmon come from Canada (British Columbia, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia); Blue Butterfish, John Dory and Orange Roughy from New Zealand; Barramundi from Australia; and Mahi Mahi from South America.
Bodean's even sells to the vast majority of restaurants in Tulsa, said Cox, but he admits, "I'd rather not say" which ones they are.
St. Ledger said he was a bit dubious about coming to Oklahoma, having spent many years in a New York City restaurant in a similar position. "I was a little apprehensive about coming to a mom and pop restaurant and living in a landlocked state," he said, but he has found there is not much difference from managing the same type of operation in Oklahoma. A partial list of what Bodean Market sells includes shell fish, seasonal fresh fish, frozen items, deli items and more.
Far north across the city from Bodean's, White River Fish Market & Restaurant (1708 N. Sheridan Rd.), has been a purveyor of fresh fish since 1932. General Manger Chad Brinson said they get fresh fish four to five times each week from all coastal areas and North and South America.
"We are 30 seconds from the airport," he said, "which helps us get fish very quickly. Even though we are landlocked, we can get items shipped over night and get it directly from the source. Our location benefits everyone. We can pick up a load of scallops very easily in the middle of the day." Like Bodean's, they also use Southwest as their carrier, but also American Airlines and Fed-Ex, which delivers tuna from Hawaii.
I sampled the fresh grilled tuna steak dinner ($17.99) from Hawaii in the restaurant while visiting the market, and the tuna was very fresh to the taste, but unfortunately the preparation resulted in a dry steak, even after being brushed with seasoned lemon butter.
While dining, the market was buzzing with customers purchasing fish from the market. Catfish and Halibut were the main items sold, and Brinson is not surprised. He said "more than 1,000 pounds of Catfish come from Louisiana each week by truck." They also have salmon from Canada, Halibut and oysters from Alaska, Sea Bass from Chile, Gulf Shrimp from Alabama, Scallops, Salmon and Halibut from Maine, and many other options such as Orange Roughy and Mahi Mahi.
Brinson said they can get most every fish they want -- for sale or preparation -- year round, except the King Crab which comes from Alaska mainly in the winter months. He admits about 60 percent of the fish arriving at White River is frozen. Crab legs and frog legs, for example, come to him frozen. And like Bodean's Market, White River sells to local restaurants in Tulsa, but he was reluctant to disclose which ones.
One additional seafood market that many Tulsans have shopped for 30 years is Nam-Hai Oriental Food Market (1924 S. Garnett Rd.). Nam-Hai is not just a market but a cultural experience, one that rivals Asian markets in cities such as San Francisco. Patrons are greeted with as many unknown aromas as they are products. Passing by the lineup of whole Peking ducks roasting to perfection and the frozen food cases of such items as anchovies, Mackerel, Sapodilla, Leather Jacket, Broadhead Fish, Mullet Fish, Yellow Eel, Flying Fish and Yellow Croaker, I came upon two cardboard boxes of live Blue Crabs. (Despite their name, Blue Crabs are more grey than blue; only the claws are blue.)
A young Asian couple was intent upon pulling out the best sized crabs using the long-armed tongs (provided by Nam-Hai) amidst the many clamoring claws. These were male crabs, an onlooker informed me. How did he know? Males have a "T" shaped abdomen. The Asian couple secured a few hefty crabs to steam later that day. Next, I noticed a large fish tank with equally large Catfish swimming about, and beyond that, a tank of live lobsters.
"We sell Tilapia, Catfish and lobster right out of the tank," Nam-Hai Manager Quan Do said. "We sell it live or if the customer prefers, we will clean it and package it. We sell more than 3,000 pounds of Catfish and Tilapia each week." He said many Asians have large families and will prepare their weekend meals using these live fish.
He said the swimming Tilapia and Catfish are procured from local Oklahoma fish farms (the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture Food and Forestry lists 24 aquaculture facilities in the state), and in addition to these two types of fish, lobster and clams are brought in every Thursday in preparation for weekend sales. The Blue Crabs come from Louisiana, two days or less from being caught.
"We also have Crawfish which sells like crazy," he said, "but they are only available part of the year, from May/June through August." With Crawfish, he said they place their order in advance, and the fish are taken to a warehouse in Houston and delivered twice a week.
Deliveries arrive three times a week -- Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday -- for all other fish, and four times a week during the holidays. He said the fish they carry is 50 percent frozen and 50 percent fresh upon arrival. The list includes many seasonal varieties, but also year-round fish such as Red Snapper, Grouper, Shark, Red Fish, Mackerel and Monkfish (or Headfish).
In the fresh fish cases, I also noticed Bonito, Pompano, Milk Fish, Blue Runner, Soad and more. Fish is flown in from such countries as Korea, Japan, Philippines, India, Vietnam, China and Thailand.
Selecting your dinner from live fish right out of a tank is a bit much for some, and so is sushi. Westerners, generally speaking, can tend to be a bit squeamish at the thought of consuming raw fish, so today in many sushi bars and restaurants, the sushi menu has fully cooked options.
Strict food codes ensure the fish is safe for consumption. The Tulsa Health Department has an established "Food Code of the City of Tulsa," which defines fish as "fresh or saltwater finfish, molluscan shellfish, crustaceans, and other forms of aquatic animal life other than birds or mammals and includes any edible human food product derived in whole or in part from fish, including fish that has been processed in any manner."
In addition, further policy states that "fish shall not be received for sale or service unless they are commercially and legally caught or harvested, or as approved by the Department (of Health and Human Services)."
Strict guidelines are in place to protect the consumer when it comes to fish consumption, and Hannah Skocik, Manager at Fuji Japanese Cuisine and Sushi Bar (8226 E. 71st St.) adheres to all the codes needed to operate safely.
"The lower grade fish, Salmon, Tuna and Hamachi," she said by way of example, must be frozen 7 days, either by the supplier or by me." Like others interviewed, she cannot give the names of her distributors, but she explains that there are so many grades of fish, that it is difficult to explain every single fish used at Fuji. She said fish arrives from all over the world -- China, Japan, California, Florida -- twice a week, on Tuesdays and Fridays.
"Sushi is quite popular," she said, adding that Fuji carries a number of exotic and fun items. How about this: Euphoria Roll (snow crab, fried shrimp, and fried asparagus rolled in tempura crunchies; topped with shrimp, scallops, crawfish, and mussels baked in a citrus garlic butter cream) or Funky Monkey Roll (snow crab, fried shrimp, cucumber, scallions, sprouts, and asparagus rolled in wasabi tobico; topped with shrimp, scallops and crawfish baked in mustard cream).
She said "no matter what it costs, we go out and get it freighted in from all over the world from exotic places. We have the highest quality seafood, and we are always looking for new fish. We are committed to serving the healthiest fish we can."
Many Tulsa restaurants will serve any number of fish entrees on their menu and will buy their seafood from Bodean's. At The Brasserie Restaurant and Bar (3509 S. Peoria), Executive Chef Marcus Vause said "90 percent of our fish comes from Bodean's because they are a most proficient purveyor of seafood." He said orders are brought in every third day, sometimes every other day. The Brasserie offers quite a few seafood items: Fruits de Mer which includes Fresh Oysters, Shrimp Cocktail, Moules Frites, King Crab Legs, and Salmon.
The Petit Plateau & Grand Plateau, said Vause is a "traditionally French dish presented as minimally as possible. It's very straight forward."
I sampled the Petit Plateau ($45) with a dining companion recently, and it is just that: minimally presented. It consists of a large iced platter with Chilled Lobster, King Crab, Shrimp (4) and Coastal Oysters (6). My companion and I found it very fresh, yet the preparation could have a little more attention. For example, while these Blue Point oysters were excellent -- slightly salty, clean, crisp with a plump and juicy texture -- my friend said we should not have to work for them. They were still attached to the shell. Ideally, he said, they should be cut from the shell for ease of consumption.
Seafood entrees include Trout a la Catalana, Crispy Salmon, Seared Sea Scallops, Seared Bronzini and Steamed Alaskan King Crab Legs. The Salmon, said Vause, is from Canada. He said his preparation includes leaving the skin on and searing it to a crispy state -- it was definitely enjoyable and a quality slice of fish, though a little overcooked for my taste. We also had the Seared Sea Scallops. Vause said these scallops are "dry pack" scallops brought in fresh from Maine and Canada, and processed right out of the shell into a container.
Another popular restaurant on the outskirts of Tulsa, Bonefish Grill, would not grant an interview, with the statement, 'we are not allowed to do that.' Neither Los Cabos locations nor Reasor's Foods returned repeated phone calls regarding this article.
So in buying, fish, how do you know if it's safe? Inspection and grading of fish and shellfish exist through the U.S. Department of Commerce (USDC), but unlike mandatory meat and poultry inspections, fish and shellfish inspections are voluntary.
There are three types of inspections: Type 1, marked "Packed Under Federal Inspection," is an inspection that covers plant, product and processing methods from raw material to the final product; Type 2 inspection is a warehouse, processing plant or cold storage inspection on specific product lots to ensure the integrity of the condition, weight, labeling and packing of the product; and Type 3 is for sanitation only. Plants and fishing vessels that meet the requirements are recognized as official established and are included in the USDC Approved List of Fish Establishments and Products.
Then, how do you know what's the best choice given a fish "line-up" behind the counters at your local market? What's the difference?
Herrmann said the cold water fish are cleaner while the warm water fish are not as clean and the flesh is soft, mushy and mellow. Regarding fresh or frozen fish at a grocery store, McCarley said that many local grocers sell "IQF or individually quick frozen fish, where they receive it frozen, then thaw it and set it out in the case."
When selecting the fish, Herrmann said the fish should have a "vibrant color," and the flesh moist, not dry. In addition, he points out that a ProChef SmartBrief from The Culinary Institute of America said "when fish is not fresh, a chemical in its tissue called triethylamine oxide breaks down, creating a bad smell."
Fish should be firm with "shiny flesh and eyes that are clear and slightly bulgy. Smell for a fresh and mild scent with no hint of fishiness or sourness of ammonia," Herrmann said.
McCarley said, "Ask to smell it. If it smells too 'fishy,' it's beyond its day. If it's a whole fish, the eyes should not be sunken into the head. The gills should be bright red." Fitzgerald adds that the fish "cavity should be free of slime [which is indicative of bacteria]; the skin should be fresh and moist."
Landlocked Oklahoma can and does compare with high marks to coastal cities in serving (and preparing) seafood. It simply involves a longer trip inland.
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