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Up to their gills in freshness

Asian immigrants keep demand high for live fish from California aqua farms. Obtaining the delicacies can be a cat-and-mouse game.

June 23, 2008|John M. Glionna | Times Staff Writer

OAKLAND — Rafael Anguiano takes his corners gingerly. He has to -- he's driving an aquarium on wheels, a lumbering delivery truck carrying 3,000 pounds of live fish in large, sloshing tanks.

One sunny afternoon, he sweats freely as he hustles hundreds of flopping fish into the Lucky Seafood Market inside a rolling rubber trash can. Breathless, he dumps five buckets into the store's tanks, the sturgeon, catfish and carp slashing and struggling like salmon surging upstream.

For eager Chinese and Vietnamese customers, Anguiano can't move fast enough. And there's never enough of the daily catch to satisfy everyone.

"C'mon, make me full," a Lucky market worker pleads. "One more bucket, one more."

Anguiano's cellphone rings. It's Johnson Cheng, owner of Yet Sun Market six blocks away. Customers are demanding their fish, he says. Wincing into the receiver, Anguiano asks wearily: "People are already waiting for me?"

Cheng, Anguiano says, is a ruthless negotiator: "He wants all my fish and won't take no for an answer. I'm going to have to cut somebody bad today."

Anguiano, 33, is a critical link in California's ethnic food chain. He works for The Fishery, a Central Valley aqua farm that's one of a handful statewide catering to a unique niche: California's Asian markets.

In Asian cuisine, live fish are a delicacy. Asian diners insist they can distinguish on the plate between a fish freshly plucked from a tank or stream and one previously gutted and languishing on ice.

Ken Beer, Anguiano's boss and founder of The Fishery, once believed the Asian live-fish venture would be short-lived. His older ethnic customers would die off, he figured, and new generations would adopt American habits and take to buying fillets in Styrofoam packages.

Instead, new immigrants kept demand high for the dozen California fish farmers who raise product for the state's Asian customers. Small neighborhood markets catering to Asian tastes have expanded outside traditional Chinatowns to suburbs such as the Sunset District in San Francisco and Monterey Park in Los Angeles.

About 25 years after Beer and several others began supplying Asian markets, business is swimming across California.

According to several aqua farmers, the Asian appetite for finned fish -- sturgeon, large-mouthed bass, tilapia, catfish, carp -- comprises 70% of the estimated $50-million California aquaculture industry, not counting algae and shellfish. That's a whopping 20 million pounds annually.

Beers delivers 1 million of those pounds -- and he's in the process of expanding his farms. The Fishery's small fleet of delivery trucks serves markets in San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose and Sacramento.

Still, he worries he won't be able to keep up with demand.

Already, Anguiano plays a cat-and-mouse game with markets. On his twice-weekly Oakland rounds, he serves his veteran customers first, then hits those who play the field with other suppliers.

But word gets out the moment Anguiano's truck is spotted. "I can't drive past a market without my phone ringing," he says. "Everyone has their spies out."

In market after market, Anguiano weighs his loaded trash can on scales. Then he pushes his load -- fish writhing, water spraying off whipping tails -- down narrow aisles with slippery tile floors, shoppers jostling to eyeball his catch. Anguiano knows the appearance of his fish is critical. Anything off-color or under stress will be rejected.

He passes splayed fish heads and turtles with their shells broken open to expose red meat -- soup ingredients. There are live bullfrogs and geoduck (pronounced gooey-duck), which are large saltwater clams with long, meaty necks. Workers scoop a fresh fish from a display tank, stun it with a mallet, then quickly skin and fillet it.

Anguiano negotiates both language and cultural barriers.

"Hey, amigo!" he calls out to one Asian worker. "Boss?"

People smile and point. "I don't know much Cantonese -- just the names of the fish, that's it," he says in one of Oakland's Chinatown markets. "But luckily this owner speaks fluent Spanish."

Ken Beer wanted to study bighorn sheep.

The year was 1975 and Beer had a summer to kill at home in California before starting graduate school. That's when three Arkansas entrepreneurs approached him with a harebrained scheme.

Soon Beer was hooked. He skipped graduate school and started raising fish. Mistakes were made. One customer wanted 100,000 finger-length catfish, half his year's earnings. An excited Beer scrubbed the holding pool with bleach to kill any bacteria. A tad too much bleach, it turned out.

"Within 15 minutes, the fish were dead," he said. "That took a lot of the starch out of me."

By 1982, Beer was selling live catfish one or two at a time right from the farm in Galt, just outside Sacramento. He noticed that Chinese and Vietnamese from the Bay Area would snap up a hundred fish at a time to sell in their city markets.

That's when he thought: Why not deliver wholesale?

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