Dead or Alive
Happy Family Food Market is aswirl with activity, if you count the gurgling glass aquariums crammed into every cubic inch of the Chinatown shop’s subterranean space. Saltwater eels swoosh and eddy, whipping their tails behind them. Lobsters shimmy; spider crabs bob. Black bass and tilapia practice laps, tossing off effortless flip-turn flourishes. Even the chilled-out spot prawns exude a certain liveliness of spirit as they dangle about with Zenlike buoyancy. Yet right in the center of all the action stands a stone-faced cashier who seems bound and determined to stonewall my quest for what’s rumored to be the freshest seafood experience in Greater Boston.
Brief backstory: I’d heard you can purchase sea beasts from these tanks and carry them in a bag—still alive and, in some cases, kicking—to the Best Little Restaurant, the Cantonese eatery next door, to get them cooked up and served. Is it true? Sizing me up, the woman behind the cash register gives the language-barrier gambit the old college try. “Yes,” she says glumly, shaking her head no from side to side. Wait…what? “No,” she clarifies, this time nodding rapidly. You don’t say. Scanning the shop for hidden cameras—or Ashton Kutcher crouching Punk’d-style behind the surf clams—I decide to cut bait and try my luck next door.
Truth be told, I’m cheating…in a way. It’s four hours before my date with Ken Oringer—the acclaimed chef behind Clio, Uni, and Toro—whom I’ve talked into taking me on a tour of Chinatown’s live-seafood circuit. You know the places: All offer decent renditions of Chinese-food standards like dumplings and kung pao chicken; in fact, for most diners, the tanks on the walls might as well be SeaWorld-themed décor. But those with an adventurous spirit and a modicum of insider knowledge are handsomely rewarded with culinary transcendence of the pescatarian kind. Oringer, I’ve heard, is a fiend for this stuff—which is why I’ve agreed to cede control of the itinerary to him. Which I’m totally doing…in about 10 minutes. Right after I finish one last bit of detective work. If it all pans out, who knows? Maybe I’ll teach Oringer a thing or two myself.
Ducking my head into Best Little, I try again. Can you buy a live fish at Happy Family and get it cooked here? The guy manning the door gives me a long, quizzical once-over. “Yes,” he says, finally. “But I buy.” Ahh, gotcha. Wink-wink, nudge-nudge.
I can already envision how it’ll go down. At just the right moment, I’ll suggest Oringer and I make a little detour to Happy Family, where we’ll browse the tanks, then head next door to tell my new secret-shopper buddy exactly how to hook us up.
At Oringer’s bidding we meet up at Peach Farm, Boston’s ground zero for live-tank eating. Julia Child was a fan back in the day, and when food writers mention chefs dining late night in Chinatown, Peach Farm is where they mean. I open the glass door at the bottom of the stairs to the familiar sounds of pandemonium, the default ambiance of the claustrophobic waiting area. Oringer waves me over, and the host whisks us past the throngs of waiting diners—then past tourists tucking, cluelessly, into sweet-and-sour pork and beef lo mein—to a table in the back. Our server appears within seconds.
“Sir, you want that geoduck now?”
Oringer nods, and the waiter scurries off. Guess I’m not the only one who’s done a little premeal sleuthing.
“Before meeting you here,” Oringer says, “I walked into five, maybe six places, looked at their tanks, checked out what shape the fish were in. It usually drives the people I’m with crazy, because they assume that once you walk into a restaurant, you have to stay.” Our server returns to get approval of the geoduck he’s selected, which is now writhing away in a plastic bucket under our noses.
Now, anyone who’s never experienced geoduck may get blindsided by what shows up at the table. First, geoduck (pronounced “gooey duck”) isn’t a duck at all but, rather, a species of clam. A very, very large species of clam. Ever see that Gilligan’s Island episode where the castaways find a crate of radioactive seeds that yield cartoonishly oversize produce? This would be the steamer-clam counterpart, complete with a gnarly “neck” the size and approximate shape of a baby’s arm. (For pop-culture snobs: what a bivalve-inspired Claes Oldenburg might have dreamed up during his soft-sculpture period.)
“Nice,” Oringer says, giving the thumbs-up. “You want it as sashimi?” asks the waiter. “We’ll get the body sashimi-style,” Oringer instructs, “but let’s do the neck dry-fried-spicy.” Wait, we’re eating that thing raw? So much for cautiously wading in.
The waiter departs to slay our beast; I quiz Oringer on his live-tank bona fides. “I’ve literally done this in every city I’ve ever been in,” he says. “Marseille, San Sebastián, Istanbul, Croatia, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Bangkok, Tel Aviv…everywhere.” His favorite tank creature is spider crab; his least, tilapia.
Live-tank eating didn’t begin as a hobby for Oringer. Instead, he says, it was a key ingredient-sourcing strategy for his upscale restaurants. “Back in the day, before you could get something easily shipped overnight from Japan and everywhere else, I would go to the places in Chinatown that had tanks and convince the owners to sell me items for just a little cheaper than retail. They’d look at me like I was crazy. ‘Um, you don’t want me to cook this for you?’ It just didn’t make sense to them.”
Not only was the tank-sourced seafood pristine enough for regular customers—the ones paying top dime at Clio and Uni—but VIPs got the Chinatown treatment, too. “When Ferran Adrià [of El Bulli] or Thomas Keller [of the French Laundry] would come into the restaurant, I would go to Chinatown and buy live king crabs, or live geoducks, or live scallops, and shuck them to order and give it to these guys—these world-class chefs—and they would be like, ‘How do you get these ingredients?’” Eventually, when he got tired of paying tank prices, Oringer turned to lurking around the Chinatown restaurants’ dumpsters, examining boxes for distributors’ names.
Out comes our food, and boy, did that ugly old geoduck clean up well. The salty, deep-fried disks of baby arm…er, clam neck are tender, pillowy, and not the least bit greasy. A superb fry job. But the sashimi is a revelation. Glossy-white, teardrop-shaped swaths of raw, thin-sliced clam are splayed out atop a bed of crushed ice. Oringer selects a piece with his chopsticks and dips it into the wasabi and soy, so I follow suit. Not at all chewy, it has the crisp snap of a blanched radish, yet far suppler. There’s not a hint of fishiness
Leaving Peach Farm, we set about scoping out whole-fish options. Oringer talks tank strategy: “If I see only tilapia, that’s my cue to move on.” Too dull, he says. “Look for the places with black bass—it means they’re getting the good stuff.” As if on cue, we stroll into Tilapia Central, with three floating upside down in the tank. “I’m gonna go out on a limb here and guess…,” I joke. “Definitely,” says the master. “Dead fish aren’t a good sign.” We inspect three more places, all within two blocks, before Oringer finds one he likes: East Ocean City, on Beach Street. There we share a whole black bass steamed with ginger and scallions and plated in a pool of soy sauce—salty and viscous, yet so clean-tasting. The simplicity and execution are stunning.
Oringer and I take a breather at Shojo, the modern, low-lit cocktail lounge and eatery frequented by off-shift restaurant-industry folks and itinerant foodies. Which is when opportunity knocks.
“Hey, anywhere you’ve been wanting to try?” Oringer asks, taking a sip of his mezcal and soda. Well. As a matter of fact. Totally keeping my cool and never once crossing the line into sputtering fanboy breathlessness, I casually float my Happy Family/Best Little plan. Window shopping! Eels and spot prawns and dour cashiers! And then, and then… taking it next door! Oh, well. “Aww, that’s awesome,” Oringer says. “Let’s totally do that.” Great! I’ll get the check and we can—
Just then we’re interrupted by Brian Moy, co-owner of Shojo, who recognizes Oringer. “How are you! You two want some food?” Oringer relates my plan of attack. “Naw, you don’t have to go through all that,” Moy says. “Lemme walk you over there. I know those guys well.” But…but! Fine, fair enough.
Moy escorts us to Happy Family, and the cramped store erupts into a convivial lather. So maybe it’s not Chinatown’s worst-named place, after all. Oringer takes the wheel; he’s in his element. “We want white eel, not yellow, I think,” he says. “You kill it here, or they kill it next door?” They’ll do it here. “When I used to hire new cooks at Clio or Uni, the first week, I used to make them kill and skin an eel, to see if they could handle it,” he continues. “Oh, and how about two conchs and, I don’t know, half a pound of these beautiful spot prawns?”
Turns out my erstwhile dour shopkeeper can be pretty darned cheerful, not to mention eloquent, as she and Oringer compare preferred cooking methods for the eel, conch, and prawns. “Because if you cook a long time, it toughens up,” Oringer says, affably playing along. “Toughens up,” she says, smiling. Some guy peeks in from the backroom, spots Oringer, and clues in his colleagues: “You know who this is? Very, very important chef!”
“Maybe next time you cook yourself!” the shopkeeper says with a wink. Is she flirting? “You need to try sometime big lobster—15-pound lobster.” Wow, you have that here? “No, you tell me, I get for you!” She’s positively giggly.
They weigh up our beasts. “This is the sight that makes me happiest of anything in life, to see live, quivering seafood like this,” Oringer says. “It puts a smile on my face like nothing else.” I think he means it, too.
The party moves next door. For propriety’s sake, let’s just say the seafood that, um, inspired us at Happy Family ends up being precisely what we decide to order at Best Little. (To replicate, see the circuitous window- shopping method I outline above.) Recently wriggling spot prawns arrive butterflied and barely steamed, drizzled with a nutty slick of sesame oil and sprinkled with garlic so crunchy and intensely toasted that a stickler trattoria chef might call it burnt; here, though, it makes a glorious foil to the shrimp’s sweet, tender flesh. Next, a platter of conch, sliced thin, stir-fried with hearty Chinese chives so quickly the seafood never turns chewy, but hot and dry enough for the wok to impart a haunting smokiness. Finally, spicy salt-and-pepper eel, tossed with fresh jalapeño. The soft, almost velvety swaths are what every ersatz platter of calamari grows up dreaming it’ll become.
“How sweet is that?” Oringer says, beaming. “It’s just so fresh. People get so intimidated by eel, and you wouldn’t even know that’s what this is. Here, they leave the skin on and everything, and it’s…perfect.”
The ice-cold Tsingtaos seem to keep coming and coming. As we dig in, no one stops to notice the threadbare décor, the sickly pallor of the weak fluorescent lighting, or the implicit irony of it all: that here, in such an unassuming setting, is where some of the freshest—and most transcendent—seafood in the entire city can be had.