New Orleans BBQ Shrimp
One of the greatest downfalls of our hopelessly landlocked state a the stunning lack of fresh seafood. Our area markets to a fair job of getting the stuff in flash-frozen, but even the best piece of frozen fish can't compare to fresh. Little Rock's fish-loving masses need not fret, though, because we've got a gem of a fish market tucked away on South University at Mr. Chen's Oriental Supermarket.
I stopped into Chen's the other day for some shrimp and was not disappointed. Piles of fresh shellfish (both head-on and off) were glistening atop huge piles of ice, smelling of nothing stronger than good sea water — and at around $6 a pound, as cheap or cheaper than many of the frozen varieties around. I grabbed a couple of pounds, and turned those crustaceans into a big plate of New Orleans-style Barbecue Shrimp
, and they were as good this many miles from the ocean as they might have been in the French Quarter.
The seafood doesn't stop with shrimp, though. Huge baskets of live crawfish are a mainstay of the market, and while the creatures are a little creepy as they crawl around their prisons, a fine feast awaits anyone who adds a little boiling water and crab boil to the mix. Large tanks full of blue and Dugeness crab line the back walls, and there's a wide variety of freshly cleaned fish, squid, and octopus available daily.
Just how fresh can the fish get at Chen's? Well, while I was waiting my turn at the counter, an older couple in front of me pointed down at their feet while talking to the gentleman behind the counter. There, under the counter, are several huge aquariums stocked with live tilapia and catfish, and as soon as the couple made their selection, the Chen's fishmonger grabbed a net, caught a couple of lively fish, and knocked them in the head with a mallet, just like my grandpa used to do before our fish fries on the river when I was a kid. With a steady, practiced motion, he rinsed the fish, scaled them, and gutted them in about three minutes, giving them one last rinse before packing them with ice, slapping a price tag on them, and handing them to the waiting customers. It doesn't get much fresher than that.
In this day and age of prepackaged, nearly bloodless meat, it might be a little unnerving to watch someone process your protein right in front of you. For me, it's a comfort to see an animal go from swimming around to ready to cook before my eyes, because there's no way to hide anything unseemly behind closed doors. It connects you to the food you eat in a very visceral way, and that's something very rare in our time. And since nothing beats the taste of fresh fish, it's certainly preferable to the anonymous flash-frozen slabs available in your grocer's freezer.