Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Maine Avenue Fish Market

The Maine Avenue Fish Market is one of those places you'd whip out in a contest of "Are you a real Washingtonian?" It would go something like this:

Washingtonian Wannabe:
I've eaten at Ben's Chili Bowl 456 times! I've been to the every museum in town and even know about the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens. In fact, I was at the Zoo when Tai Shan was born!

True Washingtonian:
But have you been to the Maine Avenue Fish Market? Have you fought the crowds of hungry people for the best crabs? Have you taken home a bag of fresh seafood and a healthy dose of fish smell?

Washingtonian Wannabe:
The Maine Avenue what? Where is Maine Avenue?

To help out the Washingtonian Wannabe and anyone else who has yet to experience the "real DC," here's a quick rundown on the Maine Avenue Fish Market. Apologies for the Droid pictures. Sometimes I fail in my duty as camera carrier...

The Market is located on Maine Avenue SW on the waterfront tucked near a freeway overpass. You're likely to smell it before you see it, as the dozen or so vendors stocking all manner of sea creatures, combined with the crowds and their trash, lead to an olfactory experience that's hard to describe. Our friend Matt thinks it smells good. I think he's weird. If you're driving, cross your fingers that you'll luck out with a street spot. You don't want to try parking in the chaos that is the parking lot. We saw a guy in a giant truck drive right up onto the sidewalk and park (Yes Alix, he was from Maryland). It is crazy.

Each vendor is located below ground level making this a less than ideal place to sport your new miniskirt. As you walk the Market, you'll see everything from Maryland crabs to octopus. You can buy whole fish and have them cleaned on site. If you're willing to wait for a spell, they'll also cook your crabs in giant vats of bubbling water and douse them in an alarming amount of Old Bay seasoning.

This is one of those places where you just have to act like you've been there before. It helps to watch the regulars order so you can learn the process, but most of the guys will answer your newbie questions if you're nice. The main decision points are 1) the kind of seafood you want, 2) how much of it you want, 3) whether you want it cooked, and 4) whether you want it seasoned. Most vendors have set up separate lines for cooking the baskets full of crabs so you purchase them first and step to a second line to send your new ocean friends into their final Jacuzzi.

On this visit, we skipped the true DC (or Maryland) experience of picking blue crab and opted to take home 3 pounds of freshly-cooked Alaskan snow crab legs from Jessie Taylor Seafood. These delicious morsels were then surgically dissected and thoroughly enjoyed on our building's roof terrace at sunset. I couldn't have scripted a more perfect summer night.

Second Thoughts from B

Before we start getting hate mail for being hypocrites, let me put this out there up front: J and I are still earning our stripes as true Washingtonians and we know that opting for Alaskan King Crab over the Maryland Blue is not helping our cause...

Now that that is out of the way, let me tell you a story that may help explain our selection. When I was 13 my family visited a friend named Chips (who later officiated our wedding) who lived in Kake, Alaska. If you've never been there, you've probably never heard of it. It is a town of about 700 Native Alaskans located on one of the small islands in Southeast Alaska. Warm people, beautiful country, and fantastic seafood.

One day we went out on Chips' boat and pulled up a crab pot (cage that sits at the bottom of the ocean with a one-way opening) that was bursting with crab. After finding a secluded cove (not hard to find in a town of 700), we built a bonfire and boiled the crab in fresh seawater. At that point, the all you can eat feast began. Empty shells were flying through the air as we all devoured the freshest crab meat we'd ever come across. It is a perfect memory, and unfortunately for J, a story she has heard more than a few times.

That was the first time I had crab, and is probably why I love it so. While the environment at the fish market couldn't be more different than the peaceful, serene waters of Kake, the crab and the experience (I'm referring to eating with my hands outdoors, not the experience of fighting for position at the market) were close enough to evoke memories of my time in Alaska.

And as for the whole "true Washingtonian" thing, we promise to go back soon for the Blue Crab. Stay tuned!
Jessie Taylor Seafood on Urbanspoon


Anonymous said...

This post is shockingly pretentious. Which is common for your posts, but this just reaches a new level.

J said...

I'm sorry you feel that way :( By no means am I suggesting I'm a true Washingtonian. Just a tongue in cheek way to explain that a lot of people have told me this is one of DC's best hidden gems.

sean said...

Yikes. Hidden, yes. Gem, I'm not so sure about that. I've worked at L'Enfant Plaza for seven years and I've eaten lunch at "the Warf" three times. I'd be willing to bet their crabs are from down south anyways so don't feel too bad. If you really want good blue crabs I'd head back to Annapolis, or the Eastern Shore even. St Michaels/Tilghman Island are a nice day trip.

nelliebly said...

I've been to the fish market a few times, but I'm not a fan. It will be interesting to see if it survives redevelopment in the neighborhood. The smell is really bad.

P.S. Your tongue-in-cheek lead was fine. Don't mind the haters.

VC said...

Anonymous probably shouldn't spend time reading a blog that is pretentious.

I love the SW waterfront and all its varied charms!

Alix said...

I was listening to Kojo this afternoon and Barton Seaver was on, talking about seafood and specifically about the Maine Ave Seafood Market! He was suggesting it as a cultural experience, and I certainly agree. It's got the most interesting assortment of people that most of us would never encounter in our lives in NW. Of course, we live in NE so are not nearly as snobby as you two.

I read somewhere that it is the oldest seafood market in the US, so I doubt it's going anywhere with the (slowly moving) gentrification in the SW waterfront.

And I would be willing to bet that the blue crabs are from the Chesapeake ... and even if they're not I'd like to keep believing they are, because a trip to Maine Ave is much more convenient than a trip to the Eastern Shore.

Anonymous said...

i love the easy to haggle seafood spot in the dmv

Anonymous said...

I was at Maine Ave wwwhen this post was written & it is 100% better then what it was several years ago in the 1990s. It has been cleaned up immensly.

If you have not been recently, it is well worth a return trip.