This is the Seafood review: Maryland carryout specializes in fried fish and more
Peel, dip, devour. Peel, dip, devour. The routine is so familiar, and so is the sauce, providing a sweet, smoky, slightly spicy counterpoint to the crispy chicken. I’m sitting in my car, alone, in the vast parking lot of a strip club in Clinton, Maryland. If I looked up from my container, I’d be looking straight into the entrance to a tattoo parlor. I couldn’t be happier. Something about these flavors softens my mood and breaks down the walls I put up to get through the day. Wings and mumbo sauce, I get it, are my weighted blanket.
Like many takeout restaurants around the corner that specialize in the famous DC combo, This is Seafood is owned and operated by Chinese Americans. Unlike many take-out stores around the corner, these owners are unwilling to share their full names for fear of the Chinese government. It’s a long and complicated story, which I only grasp at the margins, in these troubled spaces where people from different backgrounds, and who speak different languages, try to understand each other. But the story begins in China, in the 1980s, when Karen was a young girl.
Karen is the owner of This is Seafood. You’ll find her behind the counter virtually every day of the week, taking orders from hungry customers waiting inside the small display case for their containers of fried whiting, loaded fries, shrimp po’ boys, wings and dozens of other dishes, most of which are pulled crispy and golden from the deep fryer. Karen is a pro at it: friendly, attentive, quick with apologies when things go wrong. Regulars call her Miss Karen. It is a sign of respect.
Karen has worked in restaurants since the late 1980s, when she and a relative opened a Chinese take-out restaurant in Decatur, Georgia, following a path blazed by countless immigrants before them. How Karen, her sister and her parents landed in Georgia – more than 8,000 miles from their hometown in China’s Fujian province – is a story grounded in fear and state control.
She still remembers the day the local authorities came to her school. The principal removed Karen, then 7, from the classroom so she could face her adult interrogators. “They were asking me questions, saying, ‘Where is your mother?’ ‘When did you last see your mother?’ ‘Where is your mother hiding?’ Karen tells me.
“It was a very, very unpleasant experience.”
Her mother had committed the crime of becoming pregnant. It was in the early 1980s, shortly after China launched its one child policy to control the country’s burgeoning population, which was nearly a billion at the time. Karen’s mother was eight months pregnant with her third child. She was also hiding.
When authorities finally caught up with Karen’s mother – without her daughter’s help – they forced her to have an abortion. They also stripped Karen’s parents of their jobs. With no income and little future ahead of him, Karen’s father fled to Hong Kong and then, at the request of a relative, flew to New York, where he was granted political asylum. After paying a lot of money to the Chinese government, Karen and her family joined their father.
They eventually traveled to Georgia, where a relative lived, and then to Alabama. When Karen’s parents returned to New York, she decided she wanted to be closer to them. So she uprooted her life to Maryland. No matter where Karen has lived, however, restaurants are part of her world. She opened them with relatives, friends and with her husband, who is a chef at This is Seafood.
But she also calls herself an activist, railing against the government that once tore her life apart. She worries about Chinese spies intruding on her personal life, even in the United States, which is why she and her husband want to hide their names. I have few ways to verify his story, especially with the fast-moving waters of a weekly deadline, but I can read the look on his face as we speak: I see the fear that sometimes lurks behind his eyes. I can also feel her outrage when she talks. It’s palpable, a life force of its own.
She channels the same passion into running a restaurant. This is Seafood is one of those restaurants that understands its place in the restaurant ecosystem. He’s not aiming for the stars. It feeds a community, and it feeds it well. Karen and her husband replicated many of the dishes they served in Alabama, but they also slowly expanded the menu based on customer requests and their own research of competitors in the area. That’s why they added po’ boy sandwiches, croaker, wings and mumbo sauce.
“My husband tasted it and he got it,” Karen says of her husband’s version of mumbo sauce, a version that leans toward the barbecue sauce end of the condiment’s flavor spectrum. “My husband, he has some kind of talent.”
Hard to agree. I’ve become a fan of many dishes at This is Seafood: the fried whiting, with its irresistible curls at the tip of the fillets, perfect for dipping in a hot sauce; the shrimp fried rice mixed with peas and carrots and irregular wok-fried egg deposits; boneless chicken nuggets sprinkled with salt, pepper and garlic; the turbocharged fried catfish po’boy with hot pepper relish; the “grilled” tilapia which looks more like pan-fried fillets with a generous spoonful of good butter; and the shop’s true hit, a Lowcountry porridge of shrimp, potatoes, sausage, corn, and snow crab legs so clean and sweet you’d swear you were eating at Joe’s Seafood, Prime Steak, and Stone Crab.
One of This is Seafood’s grace notes is the way your food is presented: an employee will open each container for your inspection – and for you to customize with the various sauces and seasoning blends available in shakers on the counter. . Karen began this process in Alabama, where people traveled many miles to buy her food. She never wanted them to be surprised or disappointed when they finally opened their containers.
I thought about this interaction. It’s so contrary to Karen’s early experiences in China, where many have no autonomy. At This is Seafood, you are in control of everything that crosses the counter and into your hands. Each order has its own representative, and that’s you.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday to Thursday; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday; noon to 9 p.m. Sunday.
Prices: $1.89 to $62.99 for all menu items.