Thursday, June 29, 2006
The Royal Seafood sensory experience begins long before the garlic and petrale sole hit the pan. It starts with the trip down Wharf Two toward the corrugated tin building that houses Royal Seafood’s wholesale market: Off-shore breezes breathe the saltiness of the sea into the nose; the veteran San Giovanni fishing boat, bobbing nobly next to the Wharf in an old coat of turquoise-blue paint, catches the eye; and a scratchy stereo next to a pair of urchin fishermen casting off the pier pits the Chi-Lites—“Ooooh girl, I’d be in trouble if you left me now...”—against sea gulls voicing their hope for a scrap of the day’s catch.
It’s 5:45pm, after work, but before Royal Seafood closes at 6pm. (It doesn’t hurt to call ahead; Royal does close early at times, but will stay open, within reason, if they know a customer is coming.) A Monterey Bay gust pushes me away from the pier’s many stimuli, through wide open double doors, and into the charmingly simple and wide-open warehouse-like market, where the sensorial tour continues.
In one corner, an ice mountain builds as it’s fed from above by a spitting machine. The next generation of local fishermen steal chunks from it to fling at one another. A harpoon hangs next to an old-school register and a calculator, behind which a smiling Maria Villanueva awaits an order and a dry erase board communicates the rates. In the glass display case beneath a five-foot whale rib, elegant yellowfin tuna ($8.99/pound) sidles up next to rippling skate wings ($5/pound).
Filling the remainder of this case and two others are silky petrale sole and fleshy English, Rex and Dover sole ($8/pound for petrale; $5/pound other sole), rock cod and red snapper ($5.50 each), black cod and ling cod ($5 each), local salmon and Canadian salmon ($16.99 and $8.99, respectively), tiger prawns and Monterey Bay prawns ($8.99 or $10.99; $14.99), New Zealand green lip mussels and black mussels ($4.50; $3), blue point oysters and Royal Miyagi oysters ($.65; $.50/each), scallops, swordfish and octopus ($8.99; $11.99; $4). The sea’s bounty is beautiful. The fact that it’s provided by an independent, local fishing family at wholesale prices is downright gorgeous.
Market manager Gino Pennisi says his family has been down on the dock for a little over 36 years.
“I grew up down there,” he says. “All my older brothers had boats, so I was always stuck in the market. As my father got older, I took it over.
“It’s always open to the public, but we used to just take the order and throw it together in the back. We finally got the display cases a month or two ago.”
Pennisi says his fresh bottom fish—like his snapper, rock cod, petrale sole and sand dabs—are his best sellers, in part because, according to him, Royal is the only group that has the boats and the permits to catch them.
When asked to recommend a fish for tacos, Pennisi says red snapper or petrale sole is the way to go. A potentially difficult decision is made easier by the fact that the snapper supply is exhausted for the day. (Pennisi says he fishes red snapper sustainably, or with hook and line, when the season allows, but does use nets when he has to; he also mentions that has an appointment with the Aquarium set up for next week to develop a list of sustainable choices to post at Royal.)
“The petrale is nice,” Pennisi says, “It’s very mild and really versatile.”
His prep rec is similarly straightforward. “Keep it simple,” he says. “Garlic and just a little bit of olive oil.”
The process proves quick and simple, as the sole whitens to perfection in just a couple of minutes, while providing enough delicious aromatic goodness to fill a small home. There’s nothing simple or quick, however, about what results: the sole provides an exquisitely light and moist platform for the garlic, avocado, cheeses, sour cream, diced onion and cilantro of the flour-tortilla tacos. Eyes wash back in the head after each nibble as every diner seems to linger with each bite a little bit longer than normal, presumably in an effort to stretch tastebud-nirvana as far as possible. And the pound and a half of petrale, which turns out to be enough to feed four an ideal healthy summer dinner, runs just $12.
It all conspires to create a final sensory satisfaction that trumps an evening swimming in such experiences. Royal Seafood has found a fresh customer.
ROYAL SEAFOOD INC. Wharf #2, Monterey. • 9am-6pm daily. • 655-8326.