Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Sweet As Sugar and Ugly As a Toad

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.

As the saying goes, when the work is hard, the rewards taste that much sweeter.  Such is the case for picking crabs, so plan on staying a while.  We picked for two hours and still had four large crabs leftover for dinner the next night.  

All of your accouterments, including melted butter, Tabasco, Old Bay and, my personal fave, cider vinegar for dipping that precious jumbo lump, come out with your crabs which are gloriously presented on a plastic tray.  Crab picking is messy business, and while there are plenty of paper towels, I recommend bringing your own bib.  Either that, or I dare you to wear white.

If crabs, or heaven forbid, fried sugar toads just ain't your thing, no worries.  You can get most any seafood goody, either fried or steamed at Arnest.  For the fried seafood junkie, Arnest offers up a selection of "Straight-Up" platters, where diners can get a plastic basket full of fried oysters, scallops, jumbo shrimp, fish of the day or frog legs, sold by the pound, and ranging in price from $9.99 .lb (frog legs) to $18.99 .lb (shrimp).  
Steamed options include Rappahannock oysters (also on the half shell), local clams and shrimp. When it comes to fried dinners with sides, crab cakes, scallop cakes, fish of the day, soft shells and various combinations thereof are served with two sides and homemade hush puppies without a single platter costing over $19.00.
Standout sides included Arnest's vinegar braised collard greens, housemade flash-fried crab chips dusted in Old Bay and creamy deviled eggs. If you're looking for fine wine, you're in the wrong place, and same goes for cocktails, since Arnest sells neither, but you can get an ice cold Corona or Budweiser, which to me, suits fried seafood and crab picking just fine.
Who: Arnest Seafood Where: 109 Commerce Park, Manquin, Virginia (804) 769-3315 When: Wed., Thurs. and Sunday 11:30-9pm and Fri. and Sat. 11:30-10pm

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  1. Puffers are not unique to the bay they are quite common from MD south to FL. I am excited about trying this spot, thanks

  2. We were introduced to sugar toads at Acacia and were very pleased. We will have to check out this place, too.

  3. PJ,

    Arnest is about 30 minutes east of Richmond, so not too far. They have a few tables outside, which is nice for a warm afternoon. Let me know what you think!

  4. for two seconds i thought that was a frog....then i saw a fin. then i thought it was a mutant frog. wow. haha. sugar frogs, who'd have thought it. looks like a GREAT meal tho! i'm not too far away in dc so maybe i can check it out next time i drive south.

  5. Wow, I've had fugu many times when I lived in Japan, but had no idea there were domestic puffer fish in the states (goes to show I'm a baker not a cook). I'm so intrigued about finding some for myself! Thanks for the interesting photos and details!

  6. These sugartoads are also avaliable @ faunce seafood in Warsaw,VA for 10.00 a vaccum sealed pack. I just bought some last weekend, and cant wait to fry sum up!! Yvonne

  7. Thanks so much for the tip, Yvonne. Next time we are passing through, I'll be sure to try to pick up a bag or two!

  8. Do you know any fish company carries fresh puffer? Please give me any information. Thank you.

  9. I would reach out to Seafarer's Restaurant and Market in Manquin, VA which used to be Arnest. They *might* have some. If you live in RVA, Yellow Umbrella sometimes has them. Best way to get them is to catch them yourself!


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