Oysters on the half shell are served at Kingfisher Bar & Grill, along with fresh shucked Fanny Bay and Kusshi oysters from the Pacific Northwest and garnishes.

I love oysters.

I love the big metal platter covered in ice. I love the garnishes and the tiny utensils I barely use. I don’t really get the terroir of wine, but with oysters, for a second, I’m transported to Prince Edward Island in Canada, or coastal Washington state. It pours down my throat, and then it disappears, turned into a memory.

In Tucson, oysters can feel like a miracle: taste the brine of distant oceans in a desert city in a landlocked state.

The proposition might seem dubious. Raw seafood in a landlocked state sounds like a punchline. The joke is outdated, though: diners are increasingly aware that flash-freezing occurs on boats and delivers pristine seafood to restaurants across the country, including sushi-grade fish. Fancy restaurants like The Coronet are capitalizing on the trend of canned seafood.

But the experience of oysters, eaten fresh off the half-shell, eludes both of these strategies.

So, how does Tucson get its oysters? To find out, I consulted experts from oyster bars across town, as well as the FAQ pages for prominent oyster wholesalers.

Agustin Kitchen sells weekly between 650 to 800 oysters sourced from Washington State, Maine or Canada depending on the season.

The seafood guy at Flora’s Market Run told me the trick: oysters are not killed until the moment they are shucked. Typically, oysters don’t die right away, meaning the fresh oysters we enjoy in restaurants are usually eaten alive. Oysters are harvested, then overnight shipped to restaurants in insulated coolers, where they are stored in fridges for, potentially, weeks. Island Creek Oysters recommends keeping them cool and dry.

This is where the timeline is essential: When looking at FAQs for prominent seafood wholesalers like Hog Island Oyster Company or Island Creek Oysters, most oyster companies will tell home chefs to enjoy the oysters within three to seven days of delivery, depending on how soon after harvest they ship. Oysters are best within the first two weeks after harvest, and their delicate taste can start to take on fridge smells quickly.

Pangea Shellfish Company conducted an experiment to see how long oysters, if stored correctly, will stay alive after harvest, and it seems like, while the sweet spot is ASAP within the first 14 days post-harvest (not delivery), the max is around four to five weeks.

If you’re trying out a new oyster bar, and want to evaluate the oysters’ freshness yourself, experts like Pangea will tell you to pay attention to the condition of the shell, the oyster’s smell, and whether the oyster is dry or wet.

In order to remain alive, the shell must be tightly closed and intact. A cracked shell means a dead, rotting oyster. The oyster should retain the smell it has at harvest: mild, briny and fresh. Trust your gut: if it smells off, don’t eat it. Finally, if the oyster is dry, it’s a clear sign that it’s weak, injured or dying.

“It has to be from a trusted distributor. That’s the primary key,” said Danny Cordova, the owner of Cruda Mariscos & Oyster Bar. “Other than that, it’s building a good relationship with the distributor. Understanding the sourcing and scheduling, ordering ahead.”

He, along with other seafood restaurants in Tucson, trusts Santa Monica Seafood.

So, if your server tells you that they receive fresh shipments of oysters daily, they’re most likely fibbing to give you some comfort. What they’re trying to say is: “Don’t worry, we know this is fresh.” It’s more likely that they receive shipments from wholesalers less often: hopefully once or twice a week, but maybe once every two weeks. TL;DR that’s probably okay.


For this article, I consulted the following local oyster bars:

Cruda Mariscos & Oyster Bar

Location: 31 N. Scott Ave.

Hours: 10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday and Thursday | 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday-Saturday | 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday | Closed Tuesday-Wednesday

For more information, check out their website.

Flora's Market Run

Location: 2513 E. Sixth St.

Hours: 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday-Thursday | 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday-Saturday | 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday

For more information, check out their website.

Kingfisher

Location: 2564 E. Grant Road

Hours: Kingfisher is closed for summer break and will reopen on July 19. Lunch is served from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Reservations are recommended for dinner service, which runs 4-9 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday.

For more information, check out their website.


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