Roberto San Miguel takes his fish seriously. A research specialist for the state attorney general by day, he moonlights as a fishmonger, taking weekly trips to the coast in order to provide some of the freshest seafood in Austin. Well known for his San Miguel Seafood stand at the downtown farmers' market, he also supplies some of the city’s best restaurants with swordfish, yellowfin tuna, mako shark, wahoo, mahi and more.
However, his service comes with a warning: “I’m like the soup Nazi from Seinfeld — no fuckin’ fish for you! I don't take shit from anybody.”
One particular point of contention for San Miguel nowadays is the marketing initiatives implemented by Monterey Bay State Aquarium that, thank to its “sustainable" Seafood Watch program, has convinced earth-conscious shoppers that red snapper is overfished.
“We’re not plundering our resources,” stresses San Miguel. “The National Fisheries Service has clear data and Monterey Bay State Aquarium consistently ignores it. If we were overfishing, they wouldn’t let us fish — they wouldn’t give us a quota!”
The quota he refers to is the 7.8 million pounds of fish deemed fishable along the entire Gulf coast, from Florida to Brownsville, Texas. San Miguel describes the previous state of fishing along the Third Coast as much like the Wild West, until the federal government took over the regulation of state fisheries five years ago.
Licensed commercial fisherman now receive quotas, which they buy and sell like stock. Federal government agents are present at the docks, guns on their hips as they count the fish coming off the boats. “They count every goddamn fish!” exclaims San Miguel. “It’s gotta be perfect. If there’s any variance, anything at all, they will confiscate your load, they will take your boat. They’re very serious about it.”
If anyone is an advocate for the Gulf of Mexico, its fish and its coast, it’s San Miguel. He was introduced to Gulf waters when he began fishing with his father as a child.
“If you are going to open a seafood restaurant, why wouldn’t you go contract with some fisherman down on the coast before you open it?” - Roberto San Miguel
“I’ll never forget. It was called Indian Point Pier in Corpus Christi, Texas,” he recalls. “As we’re driving out there, the tide had come up and receded, so there were puddles of water and the moon and the stars were reflecting. I thought we were falling off the earth! I was just a kid. And we caught so many fish, it was just unreal. After that, it just became a passion.”
Now, San Miguel has over 25 years experience on the coast. “I’m a waterman. I’m a blue water sailor,” he says. He worked in seafood restaurants as well as a commercial fisherman in Corpus Christi for some time before moving out to Austin and identifying the city's need for the jewels of the sea.
“If you are going to open a seafood restaurant, why wouldn’t you go contract with some fisherman down on the coast before you open it?” wonders San Miguel. “You wouldn’t believe some of the stuff (local restaurants are) serving.”
As for the retail seafood available here in Austin, most of it is not even from this country, let alone the state. “Go to HEB and look at the country of origin. Very little of it, I would say 1 percent of what they’re bringing in, is from Texas. Same thing with Quality [Seafood], same thing with Whole Foods.”
So when San Miguel began selling fresh Gulf seafood at the farmers' market, he quickly developed a loyal fan base. He says, “I had two people come back to me in tears, going, ‘My God, I never knew fish could be so fresh. You’ve changed my life. I understand now.’"
After the oil spill, San Miguel says everything changed. Prices rose and less people bought fish. He decided to shut down his farmers' market business and continue wholesaling to chefs around town, but even began to question how long he wanted to do that in lieu of a brick-and-mortar business.
“I was gonna shut it down this year," he reveals, "but I put on my Apache thinking dream-cap, sat there and thought, ‘You know, this is going to be the year.’ And sure enough, I got that phone call.”
That phone call came thanks to one of San Miguel’s loyal farmers' market fans who happened to be a real estate broker involved in planning a new open air market on the East Side seeking a fishmonger. San Miguel couldn’t be more pleased. “I just want to retail, and I want to be able to sell a plate of fish for a reasonable price. . .make it affordable for your average Joe six-pack person.”
This fall, construction will begin on the artisanal market, which is modeled after the likes of Napa’s Oxbow Public Market and San Francisco’s Ferry Building.
”I think this has the potential to be the crown jewel of the Austin food scene,” San Miguel predicts. There, he and Kenichi’s Shane Stark will bring reasonably priced Gulf fresh seafood to the masses.
“[Stark] really knows seafood,” assures San Miguel. “I’m a Texas Gulf specialist. I know the Texas Gulf. He has knowledge far more than I do — East Coast fish, West Coast fish — he’s very knowledgeable. So I’m really excited about it.”
At this point in development, San Miguel speaks of plans for an oyster bar and fresh fish for purchase, as well as a restaurant.
Affordable access to the treasures of the Gulf coast in our very own backyard? It couldn't come fast enough.