Born in Puerto Rico and raised in Southern California, Mel Toledo enjoyed tinned fish regularly for dinner. “My mother would heat up a tin of sardines in tomato sauce and we’d eat it with rice,” says Toledo, who today is a co-owner of Foundation Social Eatery and Petite FSE in Alpharetta—and one of a growing number of chefs in the metro area celebrating the sophisticated joys of preserved seafood in small packages.
No bigger than a deck of cards, the metal cans come in boxes often colorfully illustrated with whatever’s within: sardines, anchovies, mussels, squid. At Petite FSE, Toledo offers a “Lunch in Europe” special with tinned seafood (lemon pepper smoked oysters, scallops in Galician sauce, and more), baguette, and condiments that include garlic aioli, grilled lemon, and Dijon mustard. Toledo says the tins are the “new charcuterie.”
“I underestimated Atlanta’s palate,” says Jordan Chambers, owner of Larakin, a Midtown coffee and wine bar that stocks more than a dozen varieties of tinned fish, serving them with guindilla peppers, cornichons, lemon, and housemade focaccia. “We’ve sold up to 120 cans in a weekend.” Paired with a natty wine, the meal is perfect before a walk to Piedmont Park.
From pickling, salting, curing, and canning, preserved foods have long aided people through times of war and endless winters. Tinned fish was an invention of necessity by the Frenchman Nicolas Appert in 1795, when it was used to get nutrition to troops during the French Revolutionary Wars. Soon after, much of Europe began refining the art of preserved seafood.
“You’re basically taking a perfect product, tinning it at its prime freshness,”
Toledo says. “These are cooked, they’re not raw, and they’re great for you.” Canned seafood is loaded with protein, omega-3 and omega- 6 fatty acids, vitamins, calcium, and iron. It’s often packed in oil or water—less sodium than other preserved foods—and has a shelf life of five years or more.
Another reason for the recent uptick in popularity may be that American diners are spending more time in places like France, Portugal, and Spain, where these products are served in cafes all over. Since 2019, travel from the U.S. to Europe has surged 20 percent, according to the travel company Hopper, and last year became the summer of “revenge travel” to make up for trips canceled due to the pandemic.
Elsewhere in Atlanta, the Euro-inspired Inman Park cafe Bread & Butterfly offers tinned products like grilled branzino, habanero smoked oysters, and smoked mussels alongside baguette, aioli, and greens. Star Provisions stocks a vast variety on its shelves (and fresh breads and pickles to go with); Fishmonger may carry seasonal items, and East Fork Pottery and Floral Park Market sell cans year-round.
Canned seafood was what inspired chef Humberto Bermudez to open the breezy Spanish-American restaurant Boho115 last year in Decatur. “We like to spice it up, do it like in Spain,” says Bermudez, who favors sustainable seafoods from small craft producers. Most of Boho115’s tins are by Barcelona-based Espinaler. They’re available to go, at a 10 percent discount, but those dining in can order single cans or build a board with them, or get them slightly dressed up with red onion, cilantro, serrano peppers, olive oil, and lemon.
To wash it down, Bermudez suggests cava or vermouth. “We are building an atmosphere. You can relax at the bar, order some mussels, some olives, vermouth, and just hang out,” he says. “Come, have your cans, and enjoy the experience.”
Other new seafood spots to try
This sunny Gulf-style fish shack—with frozen cocktails and unmatched BeltLine views—opened in August; chef Maximilian Hines’s menu features faves like smoked-fish dip, blackened-grouper sandwiches, and fried platters. Reynoldstown
The Seafood Menu
Backed by Atlanta rapper Lil Baby, this AUC-adjacent restaurant offers an extensive menu of combos (with shrimp, snow crab, catfish, and the like), as well as seven sauces—garlic butter, lemon zest butter, etc.—for dipping. Atlanta University Center
Fishmonger’s march across Atlanta continues apace: This superpopular seafood shack/raw bar/retail market from Nhan Le and Skip Engelbrecht recently added a third location in the Star Metals building on Howell Mill Road. Westside
This article appears in our October 2023 issue.