Fish Fanatics

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(Sacramento, CA)
Friday, June 12, 2009

   The typical customer at Sunh Fish Market buys one or two catfish at a time. Bill Tran picks one out of a tank taller than he his. At any given time, 100 catfish from Galt are in the tank. The common cooking theme is to steam the catfish with black bean and garlic.

Nguyen “Winn” Pham, 29, takes care of customers like Tran. He and his parents own the market. The name only sounds Asian. Pham says some people think it’s Korean or that it’s sun. It’s a combination of his mother’s first name, Suong, and his father’s name Nho, and you get Sunh.

Pham’s parents fled Vietnam. His mother was a nurse, his father was in the military and was imprisoned by the Communists. They came to America in 1976 and immediately started growing and selling vegetables. For extra income, the family got into the fish business and made enough money to send all three of their kids to college.

The lucrative fish business began at the downtown Sunday farmers market under the freeway. In 1979, they became the first vendor to provide fish alongside the fruits and vegetables there. In 1986, Sunh Fish came to Broadway as a tenant inside the Mekong Oriental Market. At the time, Pham was about 5. He’s able to claim that his parents practically raised him here.

Pham attended UC-Davis, but returned home from college to work here alongside his parents. His mom maintains her perch at the cash register and his dad is still running fish in and out of the store.

Together they stock more than just dinner. They are the ethnic food link to a Broadway community where more than 40% of the residents are Asian.

Growing up in the fish business made Pham expert enough to attract a new and different clientele – professional sushi chefs. The daytime neighborhood customers may not have even noticed that Sunh Fish was trending Japanese --  and expensive. While the catfish and carp went on as usual, the early-morning trade was sustaining demand from an explosion of sushi restaurants in the region.

“I know how to pick out a good fish and a bad fish,” Pham says. “That’s probably the most important thing that I do, is being able to differentiate between a fish I’m going to pass on to a customer and one I should just send back to the company.”

Fridays mornings are particularly busy. Sushi chefs come in person to handpick the day’s catch that must last through the weekend. When they show up, they get to do business with one of their own.

A sushi chef even works here. That’s Adam Schubert. Cutting whole fish to reveal entire tuna loins is Schubert’s second job. His first job is as a sushi chef at Kru restaurant on J Street, the sushi bar where other chefs go on a night off.

At either of these Asian-centric spots, you can’t miss him.

“If you see a big tall white guy, that’s me, Adam,” Schubert says.

On a recent Friday, the counter in front of him is taken over by a whole 60-pound tuna so big it took two men to carry it through the Sunh Fish back door. It’s a bluefin tuna, which sushi lovers know as maguro. To get through the thick bones, Schubert pounds a mallet on the handle of a cleaver to get the blade to break the bones of the bluefin. Bluefin is a higher grade tuna than yellowfin ahi. It could sell for nearly $25 a pound.

As Schubert succeeds in opening up the first of three bluefins, chef Damon Lee comes through a back door – a secret sushi chef entrance. Lee owns Sushi Café. It has two locations, one on Alhambra and another on Freeport Blvd. Lee is impressed by the pink-red color of the bluefin’s meat. He looks around the store, even slipping behind the retail case to check out some sea urchin, also expensive at about $30 for a portion the side of a wallet.

“They know me,” Lee says. “I pick up fish by myself. I look at it. I inspect it by myself. I have more comfort in selling my food.”

Lee is looking for the ultimate in fish meat. That means fat.

Pham explains: “Fat content is huge. In sushi bars, that’s all people care about is fat content. When you’re eating something raw, the fat gives it its flavor. If you get hamachi toro, which is the belly part of the hamachi, it’s just pure fat. You’re basically just eating oil, but it’s a tasty oil, so everybody keeps ordering it.”

So exactly what is the definition of fresh? Pham’s answer is self-assured.

“When somebody asks what’s fresh, to me it translates to ‘what can I eat raw.’ “

Pham says fresh doesn’t necessarily mean “today.” It takes awhile to get here.

“A lot of the tunas are caught in the Philippines, Vietnam,” he says. “Hamachi’s farmed in Japan.”

No matter what your menu has promised, “you can’t get dayboat fish here in Sacramento,” Pham says. “Some stuff takes about a week to get here, and it’s fresh enough to eat raw.” 

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