J&J Seafood Market is a retail store. They have excellent prices on whole fish, including flounder, golden croaker, red snapper, gar and catfish. But in the heat of the summer, when nobody in Houston feels like cooking, this fish store specializes in one of my favorite take-out treats: the "you buy, we fry" fish dinner.
The take-out menu features Gulf Coast fish and chips in a dizzying array of combinations. All include french fries or shrimp fried rice. After that, it gets complicated. The fish selections are drum and redfish, which I can't tell apart; sea trout, which has a stronger marine flavor; and the much milder catfish, which is listed on a separate, slightly more expensive menu. Then there are fried oysters, fried shrimp, hush puppies and coleslaw. J&J tends to fry its oysters too long for my taste, so I always request the oysters fried "soft." You'll also find huge family orders, seafood platters and inexpensive fish sandwiches on the menu. And then there are a couple dozen side orders, including fried okra, fried zucchini, stuffed jalapeños, fried stuffed crab and gumbo.
The meal I'm eating at the moment looks like a classic deep-fried fisherman's platter. At a seafood restaurant, you typically get a pile of prebreaded shrimp and frozen fillets of mystery fish with lots of french fries and maybe some hush puppies on a plastic oval plate for somewhere around 20 bucks.
Your meal comes in a Styrofoam container at J&J Seafood Market, but you can't beat the quality of the fish -- or the price. I don't know of another seafood restaurant in town that's serving fresh redfish on their fried-fish plate. The combo plate No. 28, with one piece of redfish, three oysters, three shrimp, coleslaw, a slice of bread and tartar sauce, sells for $5.99. The No. 24 seafood platter comes with three more oysters and hush puppies for $6.99.
Brother and sister Patrick and Linda Ong are the second-generation owners of J&J Seafood Market. Their Chinese-Vietnamese family has owned the place for 22 years.
"Did you move to Houston from Vietnam?" I ask Patrick.
"No, from New Jersey," he says with a laugh. Patrick tells me his family went to the East Coast first but ended up in Houston, where his father bought J&J from a Caucasian guy named Jim.
Vietnamese immigrants started coming to the Gulf Coast region around 30 years ago to look for work in the seafood industry. They continue to be disproportionately employed in fishing, shrimping and seafood processing, according to Carl Bankston, an associate professor of sociology and Asian studies at Tulane University.
Maybe that's why nearly all of the "you buy, we fry" fish markets in Houston are owned by Vietnamese-Americans -- which is odd, since all the customers at these take-out seafood markets seem to be black. In fact, the greatest concentration of "you buy, we fry" establishments in Houston is in the traditionally African-American Third Ward.
AZ Seafood, located at the corner of Griggs Road and Scott, is a clean, well-lit take-out restaurant with a giant refrigerator case full of beer and sodas and a steel cage separating the cashier from the clientele. Nominally a seafood market, it has a display case with maybe a dozen fish on ice. There are also five tables, which are being used by people waiting to get their orders. I get a family order of fried catfish with shrimp, oysters and french fries.
I take the $28 worth of seafood over to a friend's house, where four hungry adults tear into it. The huge juicy oysters are a big hit. The shrimp are plump and perfectly cooked, and the catfish is succulent. All of the seafood is very moist and covered with a nicely spiced crumb coating. The plates come with a couple of slices of white bread and an iceberg-and-French-dressing salad, which I use to assemble a rudimentary catfish sandwich. Unfortunately, two of the four eaters find some tiny bones in their catfish, a problem I've never had at J&J Seafood.
So where does the "you buy, we fry" tradition come from? Writer Jill Leovy, who is working on an informal history of black Los Angeles, notes that "Southern-style 'you buy, we fry' fish shops" are popular in South Los Angeles and that the majority of African-Americans she meets there hail from Louisiana.
Like Leovy, I've always assumed that the combination seafood store and take-out restaurant has origins in the South. I can't say why, except that my favorite example of the genre is St. Roch Market, a seafood store and poor-boy restaurant at 2381 St. Claude Street in New Orleans. The old wooden building has a long history: It once served as a public market with stalls for vendors, and it was renovated by the Works Progress Administration in 1937 and leased to a private owner in 1945. Today, the format is the same as at the "you buy, we fry" markets in Houston, except that the fried seafood is usually served on a sandwich. As in the Houston stores, the current owners of St. Roch are Vietnamese or Vietnamese-American, and the clientele is almost entirely black.
I asked John T. Edge, the director of the Southern Foodways Alliance, if he knew anything about the history of these places and why they were assumed to be Southern. "Anything that's vaguely odd has got to be an old Southern tradition -- especially if it's fried," he quipped. Otherwise, he knew as little as I did.
It appears that the history of this retail fish-frying tradition has yet to be written.
An elderly black woman and her daughter come into J&J Seafood one morning and look over the menu. But the older woman isn't interested in platters or combos with shrimp, oysters and fries.
"I want that catfish right there," she tells the proprietress, Linda Ong, pointing to a large fish.
The catfish is selling for $3.29 a pound. The store charges an additional 70 cents a pound to clean and fry the whole fish. Ong throws the two-pound-plus fish on the scale. "$11.29, cleaned and fried," she says. This is, of course, the original version of "you buy, we fry" seafood. And if you're willing to buy a whole fish, the concept becomes a lot more interesting.
Emboldened by the elderly woman, I examine the best-looking fish in the seafood case. "I want one of these red snapper, fried," I tell Ong. The gleaming fresh fish is going for $5.19 a pound. She flips mine, which weighs a little less than a pound and a half, on the scale. "$8.29," she says. With it, I order a side of the only Asian item on the menu, shrimp fried rice.
When I get home, I try the rice, which contains lots of tiny shrimp, cubed carrots, green peas and a touch of seasoning. It's tasty enough, but I think I'll stick with fries and hush puppies next time. The fried red snapper is awesome. My whole fish has yielded four generous pieces. I smear a slice of bread with tartar sauce and put a fried fillet on it. Then I slice a vine-ripened tomato and put it on top of the fish, salt it lightly and take a bite. Now this is the way to eat "you buy, we fry" seafood, I muse, as my eyes roll back into my head.
Attracted by my moans of ecstasy, a houseguest grabs the sandwich away from me and samples it. Although she has other plans for lunch, she finds my open-faced fried redfish and ripe tomato poor boy so spectacular that she wolfs the rest of it down.
Luckily, there are lots more fish fillets and ripe tomatoes.