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Restaurants

Houston’s Seafood Masters — When it Has to be Local, the City’s Top Chefs Turn to This 70-Year-Old Fish Market

Pride in Gulf Coast Fish is Suddenly Stronger Than Ever

BY // 02.01.19

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series on the local producers that keep Houston’s restaurant scene — and your kitchen — fresh.

We all know Houston’s a cosmopolitan melting pot. Which means it’s a never-ending revolving door of cuisines from the world over, a merry-go-round of diverse food options. You don’t have to look far, or wait long, to try something downright delicious — something that you won’t find in many cities in America.

But even though Houston’s restaurant scene is inspired by all things exotic, many chefs are still living la vida local. Top chefs keep it fresh, incorporating or even insisting on regional ingredients to make dishes that are innovative but true to their roots, making the most of what Texas and the Gulf Coast have to offer.

There’s been a surge of interest and sensitivity to the knowledge of food’s origins. You are what you eat, after all.

It’s no surprise chef Chris Shepherd’s on that list of geographically conscious chefs — he practically made it, thanks to Underbelly. And while his later projects, like UB Preserv and Georgia James, don’t cling to that same circumscribed ethos, they still feature many local ingredients.

Enter Airline Seafood, one of Georgia James’ savory seafood suppliers. Airline Seafood, a fresh fishmonger that’s been in Houston for roughly 70 years, is a local source for some of Houston’s most raved-about restaurants, from Shepherd’s steakhouse to Doris Metropolitan, Weights & Measures, Tiny Boxwoods and Brennan’s.

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“Looking back over the years, we’ve had a long-term relationship with Brennan’s since the day they opened. Years ago, Brennan’s listed us in their cook book. That really made us feel good,” Airline Seafood’s third-generation owner Steve Berreth tells PaperCity.

Don’t let the name fool you. The seafood here’s a caliber quite above what you’d find shipped on a domestic flight. The fish market was originally located on Airline Drive in the early 1940s. The name stayed, and so did the commitment to keeping it local.

“We’ve always promoted Gulf seafood products,”Berreth says. “We’ve remained true to the promotion of Gulf seafood products. We’re a fresh fish company, not a frozen outfit like some of the bigger companies.”

That fresh seafood, largely wild caught, features the ever-popular red snapper, grouper, trout, flounder, sushi-grade tuna, scallops, stone crab, crawfish, oysters, shrimp, clams — the list goes on and on. Airline even prepares its own fresh campechana, ceviche and gumbo. They’ll fillet whole fish, they’ll smoke salmon in-house.

A Dock Connection

Airline Seafood purchases its goods directly from the boats, working with the first producers, whenever possible. “There’s no middle man between us and the fish that comes right off the boat,” Berreth says. “We go down to the boats ourselves.”

But the treasures hidden in the unassuming, brick storefront at 1841 Richmond aren’t just for the professional chefs. “Our philosophy is to give the retail consumer an opportunity to buy restaurant-quality food at a fair price if they want to take it home and prepare it themselves,” Berreth notes.

It looks like Airline Seafood’s non-restaurant customers are just as into the idea of local, of farm-to-table — for their own kitchen table. Reviews note it’s a rare treat to find high-quality Gulf catches inside the loop.

Berreth says they keep coming back for more. “We have customers whose families have been buying from us for 50 years. The repeat business of families makes you feel great, when someone comes in and says ‘I used to come here as a kid, my mother used to come here,’ ” he says.

As for the restaurant scene, Berreth’s seen the love for local foods come full circle. In the late 1970s, early 1980s, Berreth witnessed the tide of imported seafood, with national and international crab meat coming in at competitive prices.

It was a sea change. Airline Seafood had to shift from strictly to local to broader, carrying more foreign fish like branzino, and products like Spanish octopus.

But Berreth is happy to see the pendulum swing. “You had this whole period of time where local seafood wasn’t as big of a deal,” he says. “But in the last 10 years for sure, probably longer, so many people are becoming more aware and want more information on the food they put in their bodies.

“They want to know how stuff is grown, how the seafood is processed, where it comes from. There’s been this big push, back to eating local products that you can more safely know where they came from.”

Talk about home (grown) sea advantage.

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