On one side of Rodriquez Seafood’s storefront on the south side of Tucson are cooler cases full of seafood on ice—cabrilla, red snapper, grouper, flounder, shrimp, scallops, oysters, clams, mussels, and octopus.
On the other side of a small wall divider is La Costa Brava Restaurant, where those fresh seafood items go into a pot or oven and are served in the form of 7 Seas Soup, shrimp prepared in over half a dozen ways, seafood cocktails of abalone, campechana, or tostada de ceviche, and cabrilla fillet grilled, steamed, or fried. For the really hungry fish lover, a two-pound crispy deep-fried “Catch of the Day” will fill a large oval dinner plate.
The Rodriguez family has been importing seafood from the Gulf of California since 1944; in those 70 years, they’ve been witness to many changes in the marketplace, both locally and through their California-based subsidiary, Gulf Seafood Importers.
“Starting in the early 1940s, friends in Rocky Point would sell us fish. We’d pack them on wet ice in a warehouse in Douglas and sell them out of a truck in Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas,” says the owner of Rodriguez Seafood, Gloria Rodriguez. “It was a family operation even then. Several relatives drove the trucks that traveled to small communities like Saint David, Morenci, and Silver City—fishmongers right to your door.”
A decade later, in 1953, the operation moved to Tucson and set up shop in a small warehouse on North 10th Avenue, a place called the Roof Garden. The company has grown slowly but steadily since then, opening (and then closing) a location on Broadway and now selling to both restaurants and private buyers out of its market and restaurant on South 12th Avenue.
First-time visitors should save some time to gawk at the many seafaring items on display, from commercial netting to stuffed sailfish. And don’t overlook the two swabbie statues at the front door welcoming those who wish to share the bounty of the sea.
That “bounty” has undergone changes over the years in numbers, cost, and ease of acquisition. Art Rodriguez, company president, pulls out an invoice book from the mid-1940s and quotes back-then prices: “Sea bass, 25 cents a pound. Flounder, 15 cents. Shark for only 10 cents a pound.” Gone are the days of cheap gasoline, nickel cigars, and inexpensive seafood. Higher demand has resulted in leaner supply and higher cost.
“It’s a changing consumer market,” says Gloria Rodriguez. “For a while in the nineties, people were eating lots of fish and the back-to-nature health movement brought us new customers, but prices for wild-caught fish keep going up. With the economy the way it is now, a lot of people can’t afford quality [fish]. I understand a family of six can’t always spend $12 to $15 a pound to feed the kids supper.”
Discriminating diners find a way to please their palates, however, at several well-known dining spots. Two of the most popular places to find fish from Rodriguez Seafood are Kingfisher and Bluefin Seafood Bistro, where seafood items represent 70 to 85 percent of their menu items. “We do millions in sales of just seafood alone,” says the owner and chef, Jim Murphy. “We’re really not that far from the ocean and the bounty that comes out of the Sea of Cortez is amazing. The bestseller at our two restaurants is sea bass, although we also sell a lot of shrimp and cabrilla from the Gulf.”
Another veteran fishmonger with 30 years in the industry is Steve Tidwell, manager at the Tucson-based family-owned operation, Blessing Seafood. “We’re the smaller fish tail that wags the larger shrimp dog,” says Tidwell, who ran the fish departments at the now defunct City Meat and 17th Street Market. “Here I supply high quality fresh fish to most of the smaller restaurants.”
If all goes as planned, you can get a truckload of fish from point to point in 24 hours—off the boat, into a truck, and in our backyard within a day. That’s if all goes as planned.”
Both suppliers, Rodriguez and Blessing, long for the old days.
Says Gloria Rodriguez: “Times were easier back then, more simple. Now that we have refrigeration, we keep fish skeletons and make our soup stock from them. Years ago, lower income folks would pick up our leftovers instead of sending them to the landfill.”
“We used to bring in 4,000 to 5,000 pounds of fish weekly, but some weeks now I can only get a limited number of pounds because fish is going to competing buyers in places like California and China where they’re paying big bucks,” says Tidwell. “I’m not here to serve a small niche market and get rich. I want to feed fish to the masses to make them healthier in the process.”
Similarly, Gloria Rodriguez looks back a decade ago when they had four 10-wheeler trucks that carried nearly 20,000 pounds of product and sold all over the Southwest. “We used to move 150,000 to 200,000 pounds of seafood a year … probably triple what we do now. Today, a weekly load of 400 to 500 pounds is considered good. Wild-caught seafood is still available, but it’s becoming more elite and much pricier.”
Partly that’s because it’s now more expensive for fisherman to get on the water. Increasing costs of doing business, as well as new health regulations, make it nearly impossible for individual fishermen to make a living without joining forces. Some cooperatives or middleman “foot the bill for the fishermen so they’ll sell directly to them,” said Art Rodriguez.
“Fishermen sell to the middleman who buys fish from a number of independents until there’s a couple thousand pounds that will make a sales trip [across the border] feasible. Once the truck is loaded with a variety of fish and the manifest is prepared and certified, the trip from Guaymas begins. Before, you used to come across the border easy, but new regulations can slow the delivery down. If all goes as planned, you can get a truckload of fish from point to point in 24 hours—off the boat, into a truck, and in our backyard within a day. That’s if all goes as planned.”
Drivers need to notify federal officials in advance of their arrival so the cargo can be physically examined for illicit drugs that might be hidden in the hundreds of pounds of iced fish. Samples of each species are taken and sent for laboratory examination to ensure the health and safety of the product. “If you’ve got a truckload of fresh fish and you’ve got to sit idling at the border for hours on end, that can complicate the issue,” Tidwell says.
Once fish brokers clear the border checkpoint, they head straight for the Rodriguez Seafood unloading station. Guaymas-based broker Enrique Vasquez arrived carrying 400-pound assortment of kilos of Gulf shrimp and lots of fish, gutted and cleaned but with heads still on. “The heads and skeletons make great soup stock,” Gloria advises.
Once the shrimp get separated from the pile and fish are sorted into buckets by species, fillet masters like Carlos Medina at Rodriguez and Manny Alvarado at Blessing Seafood work their magic processing fish for local trade—large fish into marketable portions for both wholesale and retail consumption. “Restaurants want larger fish that provide hefty fillets,” says Tidwell.
Availability of seafood varieties is dependent on several factors, most importantly the season. With annual water temperatures in the Gulf ranging between the low 60s and the upper 80s, different finned prey visit or stay elsewhere until conditions are as they like them. Cabrilla, snapper, pinto bass, grouper, and large yellow-tail tuna like late fall and early spring, while sportfishing quarry like marlin and sailfish splash and play in the hotter months.
Shrimp lovers can plan ahead to fill their freezers with the crustaceans. “High season for shrimp gets under way in late summer when the independents chase small-to-medium-size bait shrimp and the big boats go after big shrimp and a lot of byproduct,” says Art Rodriguez.
“Nobody calls me at that time of the year to say they’ve got fish available,” says Tidwell, “so I suspect there’s still money to be made in shrimp.”
But, he says, “The fish business has basically become dominated by the chains and everybody is carrying the same half-dozen species. There’s a ton of species that are not being utilized and are available in quantity—things like trigger fish (cochito) or rabbit fish (conejo) or gray tile that are great for fish and chips. Lots of them, tasty and cheap.”
The changing times may end up being too much for Gloria and Art Rodriguez, however. “I’ve been ready to retire for some time now,” she says. “I could see myself going to Rocky Point and bringing back fresh fish to satisfy my family, but once Art and I decide we’ve had enough, it will be the end of an era that we’ve been involved in.”
Which is to say: Rodriguez Seafood could soon be for sale. ✜
Rodriguez Seafood. 3541 S. 12th Ave. 520.623.1931.
Lee Allen likes to see what’s growing in other people’s gardens.