by Steve Wilson • Photography by Alison Narro
Roberto San Miguel, co-owner of Mongers Market + Kitchen, can cuss like a sailor when he wants to, but mostly when he’s quoting sailors. Thing is, he knows a lot of sailors.
He repeats an especially long and pungent blue streak that he heard from the mouth of a sea dog back in 2007, when Texas started making commercial anglers pay for the right to catch a set quota of red snapper. A former Corpus Christi fisherman himself, San Miguel thought the quotas were a good idea, but he listened respectfully until he could work in a question: “Who’s got the most quotas and are they willing to part with some snapper?”
San Miguel has always been enterprising like that. When he tired of working for newspapers in the 1970s, he started one of his own. At the start of the 1980s, he left journalism altogether to fish for profit in his native Corpus Christi. After Texas banned commercial trout and redfish in 1981, he and some friends started selling amberjack and other Gulf fish instead. Finding himself stranded on an oil rig in a storm that “pretty much sank” his boat, he switched from fish-catching to fish-buying (more money, less wet).
He returned to fishmongering years later as a sideline while he worked as a research specialist in the state attorney general’s office. He needed a way to pay off his student debts, and the Gulf (or at least what was in the Gulf) called to him. “I’d go skulking around Austin looking for the same quality of fish you get in Corpus Christi, but couldn’t find it,” he says. “So I figured I could do better.”
That’s when San Miguel found the person with all the red snapper: Mark Friudenberg of Captain Mark’s Seafood in Freeport. After striking a deal with Friudenberg and a few other suppliers, San Miguel became one of Austin’s only sources of Gulf seafood straight off the boat. Ever since, he’s set off for Freeport once a week and returned the same day with 1,000 pounds of snapper, grouper, flounder, tuna, swordfish and other delights that Austin would otherwise have to get frozen. “The fact of the matter is, I just have to have my fresh seafood,” he says. “So to be honest with you, this is a pretty selfish endeavor.”
Getting a steady supply of fish was the easy part. After initial talks with Austin chefs went practically nowhere, San Miguel figured he could ride the “buy local” craze and set up shop at the downtown farmers market in 2008. He became one of the market’s most popular sellers, but he was after a bigger catch: Jeffrey’s, Four Seasons and another 80 restaurants who became wholesale customers because of the booth. “Being at the market was a marketing ploy,” he says.
Four years later, San Miguel quit the farmers market to pursue an idea he’d always talked about with Shane Stark, executive chef of Kenichi: expand the booth into a permanent location and attach a restaurant to it. “You’ve got to admit, I’ve got balls like church bells to make the attempt,” he says.
Planning to retire from his government job, San Miguel hoped to open Mongers within the year, but Austin real estate had other plans. Every space was either too expensive or unavailable. Finally, in 2013, one of the many real estate agents San Miguel regularly pestered called with the perfect spot. Someone had taken out the permits on an East Cesar Chavez space to start a fish-and-chips shop but never followed through. Even then, San Miguel and Stark had plenty of red tape to slash. “It took six months just to get the lights on,” he says.
Mongers finally opened last March. Stark creates the menu every day from a boutique selection of whatever weighty specimen the staff hauls in from the refrigerated truck. San Miguel sells a sampling behind his case by the door. “Look at these shrimp!” he brags about a particularly tasty looking selection under the glass. “You need sunglasses!”
For San Miguel, no fish tastes like Gulf fish, and he defends the oft-ridiculed waters in which they splash. He says snapper populations are healthy, and the 2010 oil spill did no lasting damage. As for the stink, he says that’s just the Sargasso Sea rolling in—a necessary part of life in the Gulf. (Named for the seaweed Sargassum, the sea originates from the North Atlantic and is made up of a floating mass of seaweed.) “It builds habitats for sea life, and when it washes away in September, you can see sailfish a hundred yards off the beach,” he says. “Go far enough out there, and you can see straight down to the bottom. It’s so beautiful.”
Mongers Market + Kitchen
2401 E. Cesar Chavez St.