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Go Fish 

Abundance of fresh seafood at Central Avenue market

If you moved to landlocked Charlotte from a coastal community, chances are you miss going down to the wharf to get just caught seafood. Seattle has Pike Place Market; Manhattan has Fulton Fish Market. Even inland cities with ocean accessibility via rivers have fish wharves. Washington DC's wharf specializes in mid-Atlantic seafood from Chincoteague and the Carolina coasts, especially blue and soft-shell crabs. Many of us look forward to trips to the Carolina coast to buy boxes of live crab, heads-on shrimp, or line caught Gulf Stream fish.

Then, last October, Inner Harbor opened on Central Avenue. Live eels and black cobra fish swim -- that's right -- swim in one large tank. Hundreds of live Canadian shrimp creep along the floor of another tank. Three tanks of live Dungeness crab and lobsters arrived just before I did one day. Nearby was a box of live soft shell crab.

Inner Harbor is owned by Julia Yoa, a native of Hong Kong, who immigrated with her parents to the DC metropolitan area when she was seven years old. She says, "When we opened we did not expect the response. We are so blessed with the customers. They came in large numbers."

Yoa's customer base reflects Charlotte. Some of her first customers were members of the Asian and Latino communities. "But then we had Jewish people come in looking for three kinds of white fish for a dish, and more recently the Indian community has found us," Yoa adds.

Approximately half of her store space is dedicated to Asian selections with some Latino dry goods, fresh Asian produce, and frozen Asian products. A few of the more unusual products are Longevity brand sweetened condensed milk (with its drawing on the label of an elderly Chinese man) and cans of Wax Gourd, a soft drink.

But it's the seafood that has Charlotteans talking. Yoa says that her store has between 58 to 64 varieties of seafood, which are delivered by three Inner Harbor trucks. One of the trucks has oxygen tanks and coolers for live animals. Yoa explains, "We get most of our fish from New York, from Chinatown. We get lobster and Dungeness crab and the live shrimp from Canada. The blood clams come from a distributor in Raleigh who ships them in from Mexico directly. The trucks goes to New York twice a week and to Wilmington two to three times a week."

Yoa continues, "Our drivers are also our buyers. Some people will try to fool you and soak old fish in salt water. But our drivers know how to pick fresh fish." Yoa's husband, a native of south China, is "the fish man." His family runs a fish market in China.

Inner Harbor does not have the magnitude of large metropolitan wharf markets, but for a space that used to be a fast food building, the selection is amazing. Blood clams, Manila clams and Razor clams; oysters (origin unidentified); octopus and baby octopus; jellyfish; scallops; freshly shelled conch; squid; mussels; and snails. The iced finfish include red snapper, rock fish, tiger fish, sea trout, mackerel, milk fish, sea bass, whiting, black sea bass, spots, flounder, and more.

Discerning freshness is a practiced art form in China. I asked Yoa about the fish I saw people purchase from a fish market in south China, noting that these fish still had their mouths moving even though they were out of the water and in plastic hand baskets. Yoa says, "In our store we have buffalo cod. We can clean the guts out and the mouth still moves. We have customers who want fish like this for a special China party."

Freshness abounds at Inner Harbor. Straight from the sea anchovies, for example, don't resemble in look or in taste the brown, salty, tinned versions. These fish are other worldly looking: small, slim, white tubes with large black eyes. I was advised by one employee to rinse the anchovies, salt them, and cook them with eggs.

Language can be a barrier at Inner Harbor when Yoa is not there. Some of the signs are only in Chinese. Many of the fish cutters primarily speak Spanish with only some English. They will, however, prepare the fish you select and offer you the head and bones to take home for soup. Whole fish may be drawn (or gutted) or dressed (scales removed). Whole-dressed refers to the whole fish, while pan-dressed means the head, tail, and fins have been removed.

Prices for soft-shell crab, on my visits, have been $23.99 for a dozen or $2.35 each; red snapper was $4.99 a pound. "Heads on" shrimp was $5.99 and headless shrimp, $7.99.

Inner Harbor is not the first, nor only, seafood market in town, but the amount of live seafood and variety of finfish is notable. Yoa says she has a collection of recipes she wants to share with her customers and plans to make them available at her shop. Ask for a recipe or two the next time you visit.

Inner Harbor, 3019 Central Avenue, 704-567-0283. Hours are 10am until 8pm daily. Visa, MC, Discover. No checks.

Tasty Tidbits

* The Mecklenburg County Health Department has teamed with northwest neighborhoods, and other health and human services agencies to open the Neighborhood Farmer's Market at 2845 Beatties Ford Road. The object, according to the MCHD, is to "increase access to fresh foods and encourage better eating habits while stimulating the neighborhood economy."

* Now open is Sushi 101 Noodle Sushi Bar, 1730-F East Woodlawn Road. On the menu are a selection of makimono rolls, nigiri, sushi and Japanese dinners ($9,95-$12.94). Plus, they offer noodle bowls served either Yaki style or "any" style with a choice of glass, ramen, somen, or udon noodles or Don style with steamed rice and a selection of toppings ($7.95-$11.95). Hours are Monday through Friday 11:30am until 2:30pm; Monday through Thursday 4:30pm until 11pm; Friday and Saturday 4:30pm until midnight; Sunday 2pm until 11pm. 704-672-0990.

* Also open is owner Randy Hartley's The Green Tomato, "Because you gotta eat and we need the money," in the Bi-Lo Prosperity Road Shopping Center, 5232 Prosperity Church Road. The restaurant features Southern, Creole, Cajun, and Soul cuisines. Included on the menu are rotisserie chicken, crawfish etouffee, "Nawlens style" po-boy sandwiches, pulled pork, catfish, mac and cheese, collards, red beans and rice, chocolate pecan pie, and pralines. Hours: Monday through Friday 11m until 9pm; Saturday noon until 9pm; Sunday 11:30am until 2:30pm. 704-947-5678.

Do you have a restaurant tip, compliment, complaint? Do you know of a restaurant which has opened, closed, or should be reviewed? Does your restaurant or shop have news, menu changes, new additions to staff or building, upcoming cuisine or wine events? You can fax this information, at least 12 days in advance of event date, to Eaters' Digest: 704-944-3605, or leave voice mail: 704-522-8334, ext. 136. *

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