|Fried Sugar Toads from Arnest Seafood|
Sugar toads. They're not what you think, so put those images of deep fried frog outta your head. Sugar toads are what we coastal Virginia folk call the Northern Puffer fish, which is a seasonal bottom-dwelling fish unique to the Chesapeake Bay. Sugar toads primarily feed on shellfish, and have earned their nickname due their less than Vogue-worthy appearance. For many years, puffers were considered as nothing more than an annoyance that needed to be thrown back until several well-known (and high-end) restaurants began serving this sweet, flaky fish with the unusual name to rave reviews.
Sugar toads, like all puffer fish, have ability to fill their stomachs with water as a defense and puff up, making them a not-so-easy to digest prey. From a culinary standpoint, it must also be noted that Chesapeake Bay puffers are completely non-poisonous, and unlike their Fugu brethren, pose no threat to those who eat them. As a result, if you can get your hands on a platter of these fried delicacies, it's a prized meal indeed.
So, last weekend when the hubby and I took a jaunt to one of our favorite seafood dives, we were thrilled when the special of the day was fried sugar toads. Sugar toads, when lightly battered and deep-fried maintain just a hint of crunch to offset the soft, sweet meat inside. Most often, they are deep-fried whole (sans head and skin). Also, because the spine of the puffer is still intact once prepared, they're an excellent eat-with-your-hands kinda snack, much like a fried chicken leg. Give your toad a little spritz of fresh lemon juice while dipping it into a plastic tub of homemade tartar and you won't care that you're dining alfresco with a view of a strip mall parking lot.
Arnest is about as no-frills as you can get. Not only is it in a half-vacant strip mall right smack in the middle of nowhere (a.k.a. Manquin, Virginia, about halfway to Tappahannock out Route 360) but it sits right next to a hunting and fishing shop complete with a giant outdoor statue of a galloping seven-point buck for your viewing pleasure. Part seafood store (you can get anything to go) and part dine-in, Arnest is the kinda place you visit to get a taste of the Bay without the waterfront price.
A specialty of the house are their steamed local blue crabs, and Arnest sells nothing but number one males, otherwise known as "jimmies", for a mere $24 a dozen. Jimmies are well-known to be the largest and meatiest of blue crabs and can command upwards of $65 a dozen at a tourist-ridden waterfront seafood establishment. When I asked about females, which some folks prefer due the substantial price difference, our server replied, "Here, it's males only." My kinda place.
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