There are two kinds of people in the world, and we spent Christmas Eve morning with our own.
The other kind wince and whine when passing the seafood case in the supermarket. They are circumspect types with upturned noses who complain that they don’t like “fishy fish.” They stick to the landlubbers’ section of the menu at Bob Chinn’s, and recoil in horror at the very mention of sushi.
Our people, meanwhile, slurp raw Fishers Island Oysters from the half shell and crack open lobsters barehanded. They enjoy music and sex, are more intelligent and better-looking, and can tell when someone is joking.
Amy and I are unabashed seafood lovers, and we are not alone. In what is fast becoming our holiday tradition, we pressed ourselves into Empire Fish Company in Milwaukee minutes after they opened at 9 a.m., and the store was already packed like George Bailey’s living room at the end of It’s a Wonderful Life. Outside on North 113th St., parking restrictions had been temporarily covered over to accommodate all the cars. We immediately took a number, which was 67. The cheerful staffers behind the display cases were now serving Number 12.
Empire Fish, you see, is something special. Take a look at Coastal Living magazine’s April 2006 list of the Top 10 Seafood Markets in the United States and you’ll notice that nine of the entries are located, as one would expect, on the ocean coasts. The tenth sits all by itself in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on the west coast of Lake Michigan, and it’s been in business there since 1913.
For cooks who want more than the limited and often past-fresh options at supermarket chains, fishmongers are becoming increasingly rare. Kenosha had one when I was a kid, and Houmann’s Fish & Seafood in Racine closed its retail store in October 2006. Since then, the 40-minute drive to Empire Fish has become our go-to seafood run. It helps to bring a cooler loaded with ice.
Empire supplies fine restaurants around the region, and the retail store is simply a convenient outlet of that business. The selection varies from day to day, but there’s always something delicious on display, with exciting items in the freezers as well — from five-pound boxes of frozen shrimp in all sizes to lobster tails up to two pounds apiece.
This Christmas Eve, we picked up some beautiful walleye fillets for our Wigilia. Other shoppers were ordering littleneck clams, crab legs, mussels, and scrod. One man’s checkout total was $347, and the woman next in line shouted, “Follow him!” Last year, another customer told us it wouldn’t be Christmas unless she had some oyster pie, and Amy has been dying to try one ever since.
If these folks sound like your kind too, and you haven’t been to Empire Fish, it’s well worth checking out.