Fin City

For the freshest catch, a shop on SE Powell Boulevard is the closest dock.

By Mike Thelin November 9, 2009 Published in the December 2009 issue of Portland Monthly

If you’ve ever enjoyed the pasta with fresh crab at Clyde Common, the catfish clay pot at Pok Pok, or the pepper-salted squid at Jin Wah, you can thank ABC Seafood Market. This tiny storefront at SE 65th Avenue and Powell Boulevard has the largest selection of edible aquatic life in the city: it’s stacked floor-to-ceiling with so many sea creatures, it could rival the Oregon Coast Aquarium. Dungeness crabs and giant Maine lobsters skulk around their tanks; bright-eyed tilapia swish about; prawns wiggle; mussels pulse. You can even stare down a lingcod or poke a geoduck the size of your foot.

But what makes ABC one of the best seafood markets in the city is the quality of its catch—and the roster of creative local chefs who habitually shop here. “We buy 90 percent of our seafood from them,” says Andy Ricker, chef and owner of Pok Pok and Ping. Ricker purchases up to 60 pounds of catfish from ABC every week. “No supplier can beat their prices.”

The store’s owner, Guangzhou, China, native Sharon Chan, has filled a crucial niche in Portland’s culinary landscape. Catching, processing, and selling seafood is a nearly $300 million industry in Oregon, where local ports enjoy more fishing-boat landings than Maine, Florida, or Maryland. Yet, aside from the robust selections of fresh fish sold by a handful of retailers such as Whole Foods and Newman’s Fish Company, much of the central city is a desert when it comes to seafood. Most Oregon fish, it turns out, is shipped elsewhere. According to Hans Radtke, an economist who works with the state’s Department of Fish and Wildlife, 80 to 90 percent of our local catch is eaten outside of Oregon. Eighty percent of Oregon black cod, for instance, heads straight to Japan, along with most of our sardines and several types of rockfish. Small wonder: the Japanese consume 140 pounds of seafood per person annually, while Americans, in contrast, eat a paltry 53.4 pounds. Oregon simply doesn’t have much of a market for its own best products.

Even buying fresh fish at the coast can be a challenge. The running joke among Portland chefs, says Wildwood founder Cory Schreiber, is that the best way to enjoy seafood on your beach vacation is to buy it in Portland before you leave. Most coastal towns ship their catch inland for processing before their stores get it back for sale.

Amid the complicated tangle of the Oregon seafood industry, Chan and ABC Seafood offer a wonderfully taut hook-to-table line. Chan imports (live crawfish from Louisiana, for example); she exports (half of ABC’s business is with restaurants and seafood markets all over the country); and she still has time to cater to home cooks. Ask nicely, and the folks at ABC will gut and clean your catch at no extra charge.

“Sharon can tell me who the fisherman was, where the fish was caught, and when it was caught,” says Country Cat chef Adam Sappington. “It’s the closest thing you have to actually driving to the beach and casting off the docks yourself.”

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