Something Refreshingly Fishy in Central Berkeley
By Sarah Henry • Photos by Robin Jolin
Phat Vo, 50, who lives in Berkeley, has been an old-school, rod-and-reel, small-boat fisherman for more than 30 years, selling his local catch to stores like Monterey Fish Market and Berkeley Bowl, where he’s also worked as a fishmonger.
“There’s nowhere I’d rather be than out in the open ocean fishing,” says Vo. “Nobody can bother you out there. It’s peaceful.”
But times are tough financially for small-scale fishermen like Vo, so he decided to diversify his business and sell directly to consumers. In November 2013, he partnered with family friend and fellow fisherman Hung Nguyen, 36, from Oakland, to open Bonita Fish Market in downtown Berkeley. Both men spent their formative years in Vietnam and came to the U.S. as refugees, or so-called boat people. Fishing and eating the protein-packed fruits of the sea are embedded in their DNA, and angling for a living is a way of life for many Vietnamese immigrants like Vo in the U.S.
Downtown dwellers, especially the carless, and those on the south and west sides of town are delighted to have a fishmonger nearby. “It’s conveniently on my way home from work, the quality is good, and I want to support a business that’s trying to source a lot of fish locally,” says one West Berkeley resident as he waits for his cooked crab to be cleaned and cracked. Most of the new customers who come into the unassuming shop pepper the owners with questions about where the fish comes from, how it was caught, who caught it, whether it is wild or farmed, how fresh it is, and whether it contains omega-3s or trace toxins, such as mercury. Vo and Nguyen take on all enquiries in stride. “We try to answer the questions as best we can with the information available,” says Vo. Regulars just come back and buy his fish, few questions asked.
At press time, there was plenty of Dungeness crab available at $7.99 a pound. In the summer months, Vo and Nguyen expect to spend a lot of time out on the water and will alternate manning the store. They will fish for local favorites, such as salmon, halibut, and rock cod. Over the course of the year, Vo expects to catch around 25 to 30 percent of what he sells. He personally selects the rest of the seafood options available at his fish market. “I head down to the wharves in San Francisco every day and hand pick the fish from other boats that we offer in the store,” says Vo. “Not every fish store does that; some just call in their orders.” For the most part, Bonita Fish Market sells wild, line-caught fish sourced as close as possible to home. Think Alaskan salmon ($19.99 a pound), coho salmon ($15.99), petrale sole ($13.99), and rock cod ($10.99). Vo is a little apologetic about the basa (catfish), farmed and imported from Vietnam: Customers ask for it and he wants to support his homeland. Basa earns a “good alternative” rating on the Seafood Watch list, meaning it’s not a “best choice” because there are concerns with how it’s caught or farmed or with the health of the habitat due to human impact. Tilapia is another fish for sale at Bonita that earns a “good alternative” label, depending on where it’s sourced.
But the bulk of the fish in the store is what customers would consider sustainable, he says. Most of their sales are retail, and regulars are keeping this new business afloat through the quieter winter months, when it’s more challenging to source ethical seafood. Bonita is also selling to the barbecue joint Smoke Berkeley and SpoonRocket, the new online meal delivery service.
Some fish fans have speculated that it’s a tricky time to enter the seafood selling business in the East Bay. Berkeley, for instance, already has several established purveyors. And community supported fish businesses, like Siren SeaSA and Sea Forager, have recently begun service here with pick-up locations in Oakland. Vo isn’t fazed. He says he’s not trying to compete with anyone, and that he saw a need in an underserved area for seafood and hopes that he can scratch out enough revenue at the store (open seven days a week) to support his family and his fishing habit.
Vo, who has also run charter boat fishing expeditions to make ends meet, isn’t the only small-boat fisherman struggling to make a living these days. With fish supplies dwindling, health and habitat issues, and large scale commercial boats to contend with, he wouldn’t recommend that any of his children take up the profession, he says. But it’s the only life this longtime immigrant has known, and for now, it’s a satisfying and flavorful one. •
Bonita Fish Market
1941 University Ave (at Bonita), Berkeley
For more on sustainable seafood, read Sarah Henry’s Summer 2012 story, “What’s Cooking With Sustainable Seafood? Getting Hooked on Best Choices Through Fresh Businesses, Cookbooks, and Practices” online at edibleeastbay.com.