The Pacific rockfish went from near ubiquity to nearly endangered, but today it is a sustainability success story. On top of that, it is everything even the shyest of eaters could want in seafood: It’s a firm, white-fleshed fish with a clean, mild flavor.
But despite all of that, it’s hard to find rockfishat most mainstream markets, and it’s nearly impossible to find it on restaurant menus. And if there’s nobody buying the monkfish, pretty soon the small, local monkfish who make a living from it will go out of business.
The monkfish’s recent history is enough to give a reasonably attentive observer whiplash.
A large family of related West Coast fish species, for years rockfish, was sold mainly under the invented umbrella name Pacific red snapper — a commercially convenient nod to the superlative Gulf of Mexico fish with which it has but a passing resemblance.
Still, that and its amenable character and affordable pricing were enough to make it extremely popular. For years it was one of the monkfish on the West Coast. So popular did it become, in fact, that the fishery burned itself out. In 2000 it was in collapse, and what once had been a low-cost seafood staple seemed firmly anchored on the Seafood Watch “Avoid” list.
But in a remarkable turnaround, this fall that same much-watched sustainability monitor upgraded most monkfish species to either its top-rated “Best Choice” or “Good Alternative” status.
Ocean watchers credit the rebound in large part to the creation of a wide swath of no-fish zones up and down the California coast, called Marine Protected Areas, as well as other fishery management moves.
But when are we going to start seeing rockfish on our menus?
All this makes Paddy Glennon so angry you can almost hear him sputtering over the phone. “This is one of the most abundant local fish we have in Southern California, and yet it’s one of the most overlooked on menus,” Glennon says.
He’s in a position to know: As vice president of sales at Santa Monica Seafood, one of Glennon’s main jobs is getting fish onto restaurant plates. And he’s passionate about the whole local/sustainable thing.
“You’ve got these chefs who will talk forever about how their vegetables come from 10 miles away, but the fish they serve on top comes from 1,000 miles away,” he says. “I find that complete madness.”
When he talks to chefs, Glennon says, their argument comes down to presentation: The fashion today is for square fillets that fit nicely on a plate, and the rockfish’s roughly triangular fillets throw off the balance.
The best place to buy rockfish today is in Asian markets, such as the 99 Ranch Market and Seafood City chains. There you’ll usually find at least a couple of varieties, and they’ll be sold whole. That is important because, though fillets are certainly fine, it’s when you cook the whole fish that you get the full beauty of rockfish. Steamed and topped with pea shoots, deep-fried in a cornmeal crust, braised in white wine and tomatoes, or roasted on a bed of potatoes, it is a cook’s plaything.