Fabian Seafood (Twin Cities, MN)
By Karen Cooper and Bruce Schneier
We're a thousand miles from the ocean. It takes a certain amount of bravery to buy seafood from the back of a truck parked in a gas station, especially when the truck wasn't there yesterday and won't be there tomorrow. But every month, thousands of Twin Cities shoppers do exactly that.
"Their stuff is really, really fresh. It's the freshest shrimp in the Twin Cities," said Edina resident Pat Wrede. "I've been buying shrimp from them for three seasons and have never been disappointed."
It sure doesn't look like that. The side of the truck bears a large banner sign reading, "Fresh Shrimp." Coolers are piled around the tailgate, price lists are taped onto the door, and a large scale hangs off the side. A couple of guys run the operation, scooping shrimp out of ice water, weighing them and stuffing them into plastic bags. But make no mistake, their roadside truck is merely the front for a sophisticated retail operation.
Fabian Seafood, a direct-to-consumer seafood seller, has been in business since 1977. Their six trucks have routes all over the Midwest and Plains States, and theirs is some of the best shrimp and other seafood we've ever tasted.
It's all legal. Company president and shrimp salesman Steve Fabian showed us a sheaf of permits for every state, county, and city where he does business. Being an itinerant merchant is a complicated, and expensive, proposition. Not only is his scale checked by Minnesota's Department of Weights and Measures, Richfield requires his seafood be tested for health problems by a local lab. And he has never had a problem.
Fabian hits the Twin Cities roughly one weekend a month from April through November, parking his truck in gas station and convenience store parking lots in Richfield, Minnetonka, Spring Park, Chanhassan, St. Paul, Apple Valley, White Bear Lake, Mounds View, Hastings, and Maple Grove.
The seafood, though, is just a day or two from the docks in Galveston. Fabian makes daily pickups from the airport, just like top restaurants do. The thought of a truck driving, night-and-day, from the Texas Gulf to Minneapolis might be more romantic, but air freight is fresher.
Their amazing string of repeat customers know how good the shrimp is. "I love the shrimp truck," said Richfield resident Beth Friedman. "A friend turned me on to it last year, and I've bought just about every time it comes through town."
Sometimes the atmosphere in the parking lot seems positively reunion-like. There's lots of "how have you been" and "good to see you again" and "see you in three weeks." During the first stops of the season, many people commented that Fabian had shaved his moustache. It's that small-town connection to the producer that people really enjoy when they stop at the shrimp truck.
Fabian Seafood sells three sizes of fresh, headless, shell-on shrimp. You can expect the largest at 16-20 to the pound, the mid-size is 21-25 pieces to the pound, and the smallest come 31-35 per pound. The largest, weighing as much as an ounce a piece, are outstanding for grilling. The medium size fries up well, and is great served cold with cocktail sauce. The smaller size is perfect for curries and soups.
They also sell fresh shucked oysters in the Spring and again in the Fall and peeled crayfish tails from Louisiana until July. They sell several kinds of crab meat: large lump crab pieces with the sweetest flavor, smaller backfin pieces perfect for sauces, and the strongly flavored claw meat that works well in crab cakes. Red snapper is on offer when the complicated season allows -- it can be fished in the spring only during the first 10 days of the month -- and they'll have flounder once the cold fronts start coming in October.
Their prices rise and fall with the season, and are comparable to Coastal Seafoods in South Minneapolis. We compared in mid-April.
The largest shrimp cost $14/lb from the truck, and $14/lb at Coastal. The smallest size costs $11/lb from the truck, and $9/lb at Coastal. The largest shrimp cost $14/lb in both places. Lump crabmeat is $23/lb off the truck, and $27/lb at Coastal. Oysters were cheaper off the truck. Coastal sold crayfish tails at the same price as the truck, but at Coastal they were frozen.
"Prices are down about $2 a pound over the last two years because of imports," said Fabian. Prices will be cheaper in the summer, because more shrimp are caught.
Fabian doesn't announce their exact schedule in advance, because they're worried about competition from other merchants and supermarkets. You can wait for them to appear, Brigadoon like, or you can go to their web site at http://www.fabianseafood.com and sign up for their mailing list. They'll send you a reminder post card about a week before the truck shows up in your area. Bring that postcard to the next stop and you'll get a 30-cents-a-pound discount off your purchase.
"We send about 7500 post cards to Twin Cities residents," says Fabian.
After all these years, Steve still likes to eat shrimp. "I don't cook when I'm on the road selling, so I don't eat that much shrimp," he says. Steve's favorite recipe is also the easiest. Make the shrimp the star by sautéing them in a little butter and garlic, and eating them as is. "Simple is best," says Steve.
Schneier.com is a personal website. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of Co3 Systems, Inc.