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Hello Fish Fingers
When we first moved to Alexandria, Virginia, over 50 years ago, we had some local options for seafood that were quite good. There was a man who parked his truck in front of City Hall every week, full of fresh fish he’d hand-selected in Southern Virginia and North Carolina. A family in Old Town also ran a small seafood stall out of their house off of South Washington Street. But in time, they both retired, and we found our way to Eastern Market. While we adored our butcher, Charlie Fincham, the seafood purveyor was not great, and neither were our experiences at DC’s Maine Avenue seafood markets. Plus, we missed the convenience of a neighborhood spot. Fish began to play a steadily declining role on our home menus. We suffered the interminable parking problem in front of Cannon’s Seafood in Georgetown, as they had an excellent but still limited selection of seafood. Of course, with our pescatarian black cloud, Cannon’s was forced to close for its illegal trafficking in rockfish, of all things.
Despite the fact you can see oyster shells in the mortar of our 200-year-old building, Alexandria’s oyster and fish trade, like tobacco, is indeed a thing of the past. You should read about the fish trade at the foot of Oronoco Street – the area that was once called Fish Town where both free and enslaved African Americans worked in a seasonal but thriving salted fish business.
But local history aside, a certain member of my family managed to survive pretty happily without a local source of superb seafood: the Resident Wine Maniac is somewhere south of neutral in his affection for marine life, and I’m high on the anxiety scale when it comes to cooking it. His mantra remains “Bring on the steak and chicken.”
A Silver Lining
Covid changed this dynamic, along with so much else. Soon after the lockdown went into effect, we succumbed to the evangelizing of our sharp-penciled editor, who had found a seafood source she was thrilled with. Victoria had joined with some Old Town neighbors ordering fish from Manolo & Sons, which, until Covid, was a vendor marketing only to restaurants. Katy and Mike Ribadulla, owners of the business begun by Mike’s father as his retirement occupation, got hit by the quarantine just after they had ordered hundreds of pounds of seafood. They needed to sell it very quickly, and restaurant demand was hovering near zero. With a cheerful “let’s see what happens” attitude, they turned to word of mouth, Facebook, and neighborhood forums to offer their bounty directly to consumers. For Victoria and her neighbors, this was the jackpot.
No Glitz Just Fish
“We gave our orders to our designated buyer each week, and she called it in to Katy, who packed everything up for pickup from an Igloo cooler in the parking lot of Manolo & Sons,” she says. It was the best seafood ever, so word inevitably got around.”
That was the birth of MAS Seafood, the seafood store Alexandria had needed. It was a bold move for the Ribadullas, who knew lots about fish, but nothing about retail. The turning point came when redevelopment plans for their site in a mini-industrial park on North Richmond Highway got the green light, forcing them to relocate. The day came when they had to move on, and they turned again to word of mouth, asking around to see if anyone knew of a space they might occupy. An empty store on Pendleton street, happily, was just waiting to be spruced up to become MAS Seafood. It was zoned for retail, so with the same “let’s give it a try” approach, they went for it. They’ve moved slowly and steadily, transforming their restaurant clients into retail customers, and bringing along an expanding collection of eager individual buyers.
And retail is what they love now — that’s where the fun is, they say. Meeting clients face to face, getting to know likes and dislikes, watching neighbors run into one another on their Saturday seafood searches. “People often aren’t comfortable buying fish” says Katy, “and we’d like to change that.” She has also sensed that they think they don’t know how to cook fish [I swear she looked right at me], they want to help dispel that notion. MAS has a few books on hand for you to look through for instructions and inspiration.
Having a store has given the couple a chance to create a small grocery selection stocked with items curated to reflect their commitment to local small businesses and to unusual and sustainable ingredients. On shelves are supplementary groceries — pastas, anchovies, spices, canned clams and broth among them — that can be combined with selections from their varied weekly menu of fresh and frozen seafood to create a complete dinner. We’ve had nothing but raves for their salmon, scallops, swordfish, smoked salmon, and lobster meat and are looking forward to sampling more.
First-time customers might notice one noteworthy omission — no cold case displaying MAS’s main attraction, its seafood. This is intentional. By keeping their fish under ice, and re-burying it many times a day, it stays at peak freshness, an effect amplified by their insistence upon fileting your fish as you order it. It means a short wait, but avoids the dry, dark edges so much pre-fileted fish suffers. Any wait is minimal, and growing ever-shorter, Katy promises. “Mike and Francisco, our main knife guys, are fast and getting faster. And I’m coming along!”
Victoria Sackett is a speechwriter and editor who uses cooking as an antidote to Washington, DC dysfunction. Nothing counteracts chaos like measuring out ingredients in tiny dishes, arranging them in proper order, blending them together, and watching magic happen. Namaste indeed!