Give a man a fish and you’ll feed him for a day. Give a man directions to La Isla and you’ll feed him for a lifetime.
I’m a stickler when it comes to fresh and certain foods. I’ll buy frozen beef. But I won’t buy frozen poultry. I’ll buy frozen shrimp. But I won’t buy frozen clams. I’ll buy frozen salmon or tuna. But it’s very rare that I’ll buy any other frozen fish. And I think my aversion to frozen fish is not just because of the loss of taste or texture, it’s because of the loss of tradition.
Even though Clarence Birdseye’s invention (yes there really was a Mr. Birdseye) went on sale around 1930, there were no frozen foods in our home when I was a kid. The freezer section of our icebox (we hadn’t adjusted to the word refrigerator) was barely big enough for the two ice cube trays. Everything was fresh, bought almost daily except for Sunday, and that’s the way I still like it.
According to Janet Rausa Fuller, writing in Epicurious, more than 85 percent of the seafood consumed in the United States is imported. 70 percent of that, but likely higher, according to Gavin Gibbons, spokesman for the National Fisheries Institute, has been frozen at some point.
In San Miguel de Allende, at the supermercados Soriano and La Comer and at the pescaderias on Canal, Prolongacion de Pila Seca and Hernandez Macias, I’m guessing 100% of all the seafood is frozen or, in the case of some of the fish at the supermarkets, “previamente congelado”.
In San Miguel de Allende, however, we also have a pescaderia where none of the fish (except the salmon) is imported and every one is fresh when it arrives. Unless you’re living within the smell of salt water or the sound of crashing waves, I don’t know of any other town that is as fortunate.
That pescaderia with the fresh fish is called La Isla and it first dropped anchor in San Miguel down in Colonia Guadalupe about seven years ago in the building where Josephine’s now spins their smoothies. It was a bit more than a fishmonger in the early days, with Miguel Vidales captaining the seafood business, while business partner (and one of San Miguel’s very best chefs) David Jahnke crafted excellent gourmet takeout food.
In 2016, much to my dismay, La Isla moved, setting sail for a place called Casa Colectiva out on the Libramiento; it was too far for me to walk to and for a lot of other people to walk to. And if it wasn’t for La Isla also having a stall at the Saturday Organic Market, I thought we might lose them. Then, La Isla moved again, becoming one of the anchor businesses at Mercado Sano, and much to my delight, they began bringing in more fresh fish than ever before.
On Wednesday and Friday, La Isla has seafood flown in from Ensenada to San Luis Potosi and, from there, driven to San Miguel by car. Those shipments are supplemented with fish from La Nueva Viga in Mexico City which just happens to be the world’s second largest fish market.
Now La Isla isn’t like your old fashioned fishmonger with all of their offerings resting on ice on a gleaming white enamel counter. Or like a new fangled fishmonger with everything in shiny glass refrigerated cases. There is a glass case at their space in Mercado Sano but you may find it empty. The fish you’re looking for may be in the big refrigerator or still in the travel cooler. So you have to ask.
“So what do you have today, Miguel?”
“We’ve got rocott, blanquillo and jurel, Don Day.”
You’ve got what, Miguel?”
“Well, I’ve got rocott, that’s called vermillion rockfish in English, Don Day…”
“…you’ve got what, Miguel?”
Yes, I made up that conversation. But it’s not far off actual conversations I’ve had with Miguel Vidales. You see the joy of having all of your fish from Mexico’s Pacific coast is it’s all fresh. The melancholy of having all of your fish from Mexico’s Pacific coast is you may have never heard of any of the types of fish before. Especially if Miguel Vidales is using their local names (as he should).
There’s no cod, no haddock, no halibut. None of the fish that I grew up with. Instead there’s robalo, mero, huachinango, dorado, sierra, lenguado, atún aleta azul, cavicucho, cabrilla, corvina, pez escada, atún aleta amarilla, aguja…plus that rocott, blanquillo and jurel that I already mentioned. Now you’ll never find all of those types of fish stocked all at once at La Isla, only two, three, maybe four on any one day, but every one of those fish makes an appearance once in a while and, I’ve found, if I give Miguel Vidales a week’s notice, he’s very good at finding and bringing in any of them.
So, to hopefully make buying fresh fish at La Isla a little easier, today, a guy named Don Day, who doesn’t speak Spanish, is going to attempt a little translating for you and tell you, in ascending order which of the fish that La Isla sometimes brings to San Miguel are my ten personal favorites.
This one translates easily (I’ve ordered a lot of vino blanco) for me to its English name, whitefish. It’s actually a member of the tilefish family and tilefish is treasured by the country with the only fish market larger than Nueva Viga in Mexico City, Tsukiji in Tokyo.
Ocean whitefish are deep water gourmands, eating mostly crabs, resulting in a fish with firm and sweet meat. The Japanese prefer them as sushi or sashimi. I recommend pan frying in butter and garlic, searing them quickly to seal in the juices. Because of the way the meat holds together, blanquillo would also work well in a chowder.
Sierra gets translated into a lot of languages a lot of different ways. I prefer to leave it in Mexican Spanish and just add the word mackerel. Most mackerel comes from the Atlantic but sierra mackerel comes from the Pacific and is a popular line-caught game fish.
Now, when Don Day’s Wife reads that sierra is number nine on my list she will frown because Don Day’s Wife frowns at all fishy fish. With all that oil (rich in Omega-3, by the way), the dark meat of sierra mackerel is best done on the barbecue (it also helps keep the smell from out of the house). Marinating in lime juice will signicantly cut the fishiness but it’s difficult to measure how much or for how long.
The simplest way for me to describe this fish is, if you like sardines, you’ll like sierra. If you don’t, you won’t.
La Isla almost always has robalo and I wouldn’t be surprised to discover they sell more of it than any other fish. Robalo’s English name is snook but I’ve heard Miguel Vidales and a couple of San Miguel chefs also call it sea bass. There are so many other fish called sea bass, however, I recommend sticking to robalo.
The reason robalo is most popular is because it’s got a similar taste and texture to the fish most San Miguel expats grew up with…the cod, the halibut, the Boston blue. We usually sauté or broil it and it often gets topped with Don Day’s Wife’s dill sauce (you can buy dill at the fruit and veg stall next to La Isla in Mercado Sano). Deep frying it in a beer batter with some frenched and twice-fried Russets would also be a treat.
This one is tough to translate into English. Miguel Vidales translates it as flounder but it could just as easily be called sole or sand dab or turbot or many other names. What’s for sure is that, like all of those fish I mentioned, it’s a member of the flatfish family, those fascinating creatures that begin with an eye on each side of their head and end up with both eyes on one side.
Lenguado is mild but very pleasant in taste and, as I know it’s important to a lot of people, easily debones after cooking (if La Isla isn’t selling them filleted).
I like lenguado a la plancha, lightly dredged in seasoned flour and fried for just two or three minutes on each side (any longer than that and they’ll dry out) in a hot cast iron pan with the very tasty skin skill on. It’s good on the barbecue as well so the skin crisps up but be careful you don’t lose it through the bars of the grill.
6. Atún Aleta Amarillo
I know this one as much by its Japanese name of ahi, as I do by its English name of yellowfin tuna. And I must say that if my number one fish on the list…no scrolling, please…wasn’t a tuna this one would be higher up, particularly when you consider its much lower price.
If it’s just the two of us having yellowfin for dinner, Don Day’s Wife usually lightly covers it with sesame seeds then sears the deep pink flesh for a minute or so on each side leaving it rare in the middle. It’s served with a soy and wasabe dip.
If we are having guests, she usually prepares it as a tartare appetizer, chopping the raw meat into small cubes and combining it with soy sauce, wasabi, fresh ginger, chopped green onions, chopped avocado and lime juice. It’s served either in endive or store-bought tostados.
Dorado used to be called dolphin when I was a kid. That was until Flipper became a favorite on TV. So, to separate the fish from the mammal, the Hawaiian name of mahimahi replaced it.
With the electric teal/silver top of its body and silver/gold lower section making it one of the prettiest fish in the ocean, the skin is tempting but tough and best avoided.
The sweet, pink flesh turns white when cooked and stays intact on the grill. The blackened fish fad may now be considered “so eighties” but it’s still my favorite rub on mahimahi. And a mango and pineapple salsa makes a good side.
Huachinango was one of the Mexican fish I was very familiar with well before I came to Mexico. I still remember the first time I saw it at San Miguel’s Tuesday market and saying, “Look, there’s red snapper.”
There are a lot of red colored fish that masquerade in fish markets as snapper so it helps me to know that I’m buying from what I consider the most knowledgable place in town when I purchase it at La Isla.
You can do virtually anything with lean and moist red snapper. My favorite though is with a sauce that I consider one of Mexico’s greatest contributions to cuisine.
With ingredients like capers and olives, you might think it would overpower the mild yet superb tasting fish but a la veracruzana sauce actually complements it. I usually eat huachinango a la veracruzana at lunch in restaurants but, if it wasn’t available in restaurants, it would be a fixture in my home.
This one gets translated online as amberjack, a word that I love but I’ve never heard come out of someone’s mouth. Much more popular is yellowtail or the Japanese hamachi.
I prefer it sliced thin as sushi but Don Day’s Wife doesn’t like making sushi (I don’t blame her) so I suggest it be quickly grilled with just a light squeeze of lemon (or lime if you’re in San Miguel and can’t find lemons) and a quick grind of sea salt. Baby spinach, quickly sautéed with garlic makes a perfect side.
The English name for this one is very uncomplicated. It always seems to be grouper. Because it’s seldom seen north of Mexico, or even in Europe, it remains mostly unheralded in the seafood world but it truly is a great fish.
At Firenze, considered by some to be San Miguel de Allende’s best restaurant, it’s always the fish of choice and, I’m guessing, but La Isla might be the source for the restaurant’s premier fish dish.
It is very difficult to spoil grouper; it stays moist even when overcooked, so almost any way is a good way to have grouper cooked. If I ask nicely, Don Day’s Wife does it a la meunière and I can’t imagine it any better way than the renowned French brown butter sauce that, undeservedly, has slipped from popular appeal in the last few years.
One more positive to muro or grouper: It’s one of La Isla’s more well-stocked and available choices. And, compared to what I pay for it in Canada, grouper is incredibly cheap in San Miguel.
1. Atún aleta azul
We go from the reasonably cheap to the most expensive fish in the world. But deservedly so. Atún aleta azul is bluefin tuna and bluefin tuna is the best fish I have ever tasted. Though it’s mostly about publicity and has little to do with demand, bluefin has gone for over $3000 U.S. a pound at auction in Tokyo.
You won’t find it often at La Isla…you won’t find it often anywhere except at Japan’s most expensive sushi bars and, even then, only at certain times of the year. But, if you get a chance, don’t miss the chance to give this fish a deep smell, then place it between your lips and hold it for a long time on your tongue as it melts in your mouth with hardly a chew before swallowing.
Bluefin is the sweetest, fattiest, most luscious of all tunas. It should only be eaten raw with, perhaps a little soy and wasabi as a dip. As mentioned, you won’t find it very often at La Isla but, if you do, treasure it.
So that’s my top ten countdown but there are some fish that La Isla sells that I haven’t even mentioned. The Nova Scotia salmon because it’s shipped down from Canada. Other fish because I believe at some point they’ve been frozen before they arrive in San Miguel. And others, like corvina, simply because I haven’t had a chance to try it yet.
My devotion to fresh rather than frozen fish may be considered an obsession with many people and many of the fish I have heralded in my top ten may also be also available frozen at La Isla and other seafood sources. I know that some of San Miguel’s restaurants use frozen fish from San Miguel’s other pescaderias as well as a supplier who delivers from Queretaro. And like I said up front, my devotion to fresh has as much to do with tradition as it does taste and texture. But fresh or frozen, I still believe La Isla has the best seafood selection in San Miguel de Allende.
And that’s no fish story.
La Isla is located in Mercado Sano, Ancha de San Antonio 123, San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. Special orders require about a week’s advance notice. You can contact Miguel Vidales at firstname.lastname@example.org.