MIAMI – Customers traveling on foot or in a convertible will hear the Plaza Seafood Market shortly after arriving. The rhythmic plop of long, heavy knives that crack fish spines and land hard on a cutting board gets louder when you reach the parking lot, assuming there aren’t any motorbikes nearby to drown out everything else.
The sounds of half-screamed Spanish, car horns, and crushed ice being shoveled over mutton snappers mix with the chopping after entering the compact one-room market. It is on a section of Miami’s Allapattah neighborhood known as Little Santo Domingo, where fish cutters have been slaughtering whole fish for home cooks in Plaza Seafood since the early 1990s.
Today, with so many of the city’s food companies facing closures and restrictions related to the coronavirus, the market is busier than ever seven days a week as it continues to promote the community for fresh seafood. Although housed in a low building, with face masks and social distancing, a breeze blows through the many doors and windows, and much of the business takes place outside.
On the first Saturday of 2021, the scene at the market was a reminder that no matter where you are in Miami, the ocean is never far away. Five fish cutters worked side by side, coring, scaling, and filleting freshly purchased seafood, from 10-inch bream to hefty groupers and pork snappers longer than an adult’s arm.
This included Natalia Solarzano (top right), an eight-year veteran of the market. She accepted fish bowls and cutting instructions from customers through a corner window installed last summer to ease traffic in the market. For much of the day, Ms. Solarzano was stationed next to Alex Lima (below), whose shirts were speckled with fish scales.
One customer, Arnita Pace (above right), drove from her house about half an hour north of Plaza Seafood that morning. “My sisters come here, everyone comes here,” said Ms. Pace, a native of Miami. “Everything is fresh. The eyes of the fish look good. I know I’m guaranteed to get what I want. “That day included yellowtail snapper (second from top), live blue crabs, and gulf shrimp.
Ms. Pace, 57, has been shopping at the market since it opened. Wendy Liu and Yang Zhao (top left), who followed Ms. Pace through the plastic curtain that covers the front door of Plaza, were first-time customers. You were on vacation in Miami and found the market through an internet search.
Ms. Liu and Mr. Zhao, who were both born in China 30 years ago, put on disposable plastic gloves to search the seafood displayed on tables on two walls of the market. They looked forward to dinner that evening at their Orlando home: grilled lobster tails and shrimp and bream steamed in soy sauce and garlic.
Adrian Pitaluga (above), 21, weighed the purchases on a scale next to the cash register, where customers pay for their seafood before taking it to the tailors. He said clam, mainly from Turks and Caicos Islands and the Bahamas, was Plaza’s bestseller. Most of the other seafood comes from the Florida Keys or Mexico. Yellowtail (below) is the most popular finfish. “You just fly out of here,” he said.
Mr Pitaluga’s father, John Pitaluga, bought Plaza from its original owner in 2000 along with his business partner Abel Gault. The shop, which includes a small sidewalk cafe, is a pure version of the Cuban-American fish market and restaurant hybrids found throughout the Miami area. (Garcias on the Miami River and La Camaronera in Little Havana are notable examples.)
The food at Plaza – whole fried fish, clam chowder, seafood empanadas – is similar to what older Mr Pitaluga remembers growing up in Havana before his family moved to Hialeah Gardens north of Miami in the 1980s.
Little Santo Domingo feels a long way from the glass towers of downtown Miami, the jet-setting tourists of Miami Beach, and the closed mansions of Coral Gables. The neighborhood is home to many immigrants from Central America and the Dominican Republic, as well as African Americans, many of whom have been displaced from other parts of Miami, said Robin Bachin, associate professor of history at the University of Miami.
On the streets around Plaza Seafood, parents called for children through open windows. Mechanics cheered on power tools. Tall men gathered around a short table under a carport and played dominoes in the shade.
Mileyka Burgos-Flores said Plaza Seafood is part of the culture disappearing from the Allapattah neighborhood, which has started to beautify in recent years. “The beauty of Allapattah is that it has been a cheap rental starting point for decades to get started in Miami,” said Ms. Burgos-Flores, executive director of the Allapattah Collaborative, CDC, a sustainable community development organization.
Miami’s diversity is still reflected in the market’s clientele and the meals they create with their purchases. Carline Saintilmond (top left) from Haiti bought shellfish for cooking seafood as well as red snapper and grouper. She loaded everything into the trunk of her car with her niece Katheryne Simonis, who was visiting from Orlando.
“Haitians, the way we cook seafood is different,” said Ms. Saintilmond, 47. “We use lemon. We use salt and vinegar, red peppers, garlic, onion, spring onion, parsley, hot peppers, thyme. We. We.” mix all of that in our seafood with sour oranges, let it sit there before we fry it. We like our taste. “
Eccleston Aitcheson (above center) visited the market with his sons Angelo (left) and Michael (right) for the fourth day in a row. Mr. Aitcheson is from Jamaica and raised his family in Miami. His father, Talmon Aitcheson, died on December 30, the day before his 97th birthday.
“We’re celebrating his life,” he said.
The Aitchesons bought King Snapper and Yellowtail for the Jamaican Escovitch, one of Talmon’s favorites. “We’ll probably come back here six or seven more times,” said Angelo, whose grandfather urged his family to eat seafood in his honor. “With all this cooking, our hands will get blisters.”