Tenney Flynn, the chef-owner of GW Fins in New Orleans, recently got into a heated debate about America's best seafood cities with Tom Colicchio, the founder New York's Gramercy Tavern, which has achieved fame in part on the strength of its Sea Bass and Arctic Char. In no time, Flynn went for the jugular, pointing out that northeastern fisheries haul in a comparatively limited number of species. "Once you get past scallops and lobsters, what else have you got?" he asked Colicchio. "Just five kinds of fish. We've got five kinds of tuna, five kinds of snapper, five kinds of grouper."
The Gulf of Mexico, which is connected to the Atlantic through the surprisingly narrow Florida Straits and Yucatan Channel, is the ninth-largest body of water in the world and its mild waters, which engulf reefs, sandy shallows, and deep trenches, are home to some 1,447 species of fish. "The Gulf is kind of tropical and kind of temperate," says P.J. Stoops, a Houston-based fishmonger and chef. "It's a weird mix of everything." The same can be said of the local seafood.
The people that live along the gulf's northern edge have spent the better part of the last 300 years learning to cook up whatever they can net or hook and the diversity of recipes reflects the diversity of the fish. Even if the closest you get to the Gulf is your grocery store's frozen fish counter, there is much to be learned from the wisdom of people who prowl the area's piers. That's why we asked Flynn, Stoops, John Currence (City Grocery, Oxford, Mississippi) and Ryan Prewitt (Pêche, New Orleans), for tips and recipes straight from the Gulf.
How to Buy Your Fish
Always study a fish before you buy it. If it's fresh, it should look moist, plump, and juicy, and have a little bit of a sheen. Its eyes should be clear, not glassy. If you're detecting a fishy scent, steer clear. A truly fresh fish, whether whole or a filet, should not have much odor.
Gently press your finger into the fish. (Now that you're friends with the fishmonger, he will let you.) If your indentation disappears, you're good to go. And every expert we consulted said the same thing: This is no time to skimp. "It's always worth the couple of extra dollars to get the best stuff," says Prewitt. Basically, if you weasel out and buy subpar fish, all the trickery in the world won't mask its wretchedness – or your own.
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