Trash Fish Without the Trashiness

Wherein the author praises scum suckers, bottom dwellers, and other ne’er-do-wells of the deep.
trash fish

I just got home from Pensacola, Florida. I was there for a wine and food festival that commemorated the city’s 450th anniversary. On behalf of the city fathers (and mothers) I judged a paella contest among local chefs. The idea was to honor Florida’s Spanish past. And its Southern present.

I ate crowder pea paella. And paella simmered in cobia stock. And paella garnished with soft-shelled crabs. The food was great. And so were the wines. (Jorge Ordóñez, the kingpin importer, brought more than a dozen Spanish winemakers with him to schmooze and pour.)

But no matter which riff on paella I ate, my mind wandered back to the mullet lunch I had eaten on the way into town. (Mullet is an oily-fleshed saltwater fish that’s a favorite among Pensacola folks.) And thinking about mullet got me to thinking about buffalo, a freshwater kissing cousin to carp that’s popular in Mississippi, where I live, and Arkansas, where I visited not long before I landed in Pensacola.

Both mullet and buffalo are trash fish. Bottom dwellers. Scum suckers. Fish I love because too few others do. Fish I love because they’re retrograde. Because so-called sophisticated palates sniff and pass when the heaped platter comes their way.

The best buffalo comes in rib form. Arcs of sweet white fish flesh surrounding a crescent of flat bone, the whole thing cornmeal-battered and deep-fat-fried. At the Lassis Inn—a juke joint just off the interstate in Little Rock, Arkansas—that’s how they serve it. And that’s how I ate mine. With a tall-boy Bud. While listening to Bobby “Blue” Bland rattle and hum through the speakers.

I got my mullet fix at Chet’s Seafood, a hutch of a place on Pensacola’s outskirts. Open Thursday through Saturday only, Chet’s fries a range of mullet fare, all caught fresh by the Sanders family, proprietors of the restaurant. (Fresh is important: Because mullet is an oily-fleshed fish, two-day-old mullet is not considered trash fish; it’s considered trash.)

During past Chet’s visits, I’ve eaten mullet gizzards. And white mullet roe. And red mullet roe. And mullet backs. This time I went for mullet filets, marinated in a mix of milk, lemon juice, and garlic. As cooked by the wizard in the kitchen, those thin white filets emerged from the Frialator still popping with grease. The scent of the garlic was subtle. The sweetness of the milk was, too.

I chased my mullet with sweet tea. But the gaggle of ladies at the table next to me had smuggled in a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc. They brought their own stemware, too. They were models of decorum and décolletage. Not trashy at all. Truth be told, there was nothing trashy about that fish, either.

Chet’s Seafood 3708 W Navy Blvd, Pensacola, FL (850-456-0165)

Lassis Inn 18 E. 27th St., Little Rock, AR (501-372-8714)

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