By Larry Levine
The first time I heard the words “dry aged fish” I asked, “You mean like fish jerky.”
Mark Okuda, owner of The Brothers Sushi in Woodland Hills CA, proceeded to tell me about an astounding new process created by a young man named Liwei (Lee-way) Liao at a seafood store called The Joint. Mark was sourcing a lot of the fish for his Michelin listed restaurant from The Joint and I think the fish Mark serves is unsurpassed at any other sushi restaurant.
Mark explained the dry aging process removes the water from the skin and the meat of the fish. The skin thus can fry to a golden crisp without sticking to the pan. Taking the water from the meat concentrates the fat and enhances the flavor.
I’ve groused for years at the absence of a decent fish market near my home as I’ve struggled to make the best of supermarket seafood. The Joint is about 5.3 miles from our front door. Problem solved.
The day after Mark mentioned The Joint, I made my first visit. What I found were rows of glass-fronted cases containing different kinds of fish, all hanging vertically from the tail. All looking like they had just been pulled from the water.
I bought a piece of striped bass, cooked it for dinner that night and swooned. The skin was perfectly intact and crispy and the meat was moist and full of sweet, heavenly flavor.
On subsequent visits, I brought home branzinos, sword fish steaks cut to order from large sides of a fish, several different types of salmon, shrimp and langostinos, green lip mussels, and house smoked salmon, rich and dripping with fat from right under the skin.
I was hooked. I had to know more. So I phoned Liwei. We met in the café and bakery attached to the fish market. But to call The Joint a fish market is like calling Anna Netrebko a singer. The Joint is a storefront in Sherman Oaks, CA where Liwei has been revolutionizing the quality of fish served at some 100 restaurants and sold to retail consumers since 2017.
If I was taken aback by the concept of dry aging fish the first time I heard it, I was no less curious about why someone would name a seafood store The Joint. Isn’t that a name better suited to a dive bar, a jazz club, a burger place or a state prison?
Liwei explained his original concept was a fish store with an attached coffee shop and bakery in a modestly upscale neighborhood. Locals would walk to the place, adopt it and refer to it as The Joint. This, he said, was before California legalized the sale of marijuana and pot shops started to pop up everywhere.
That may have been the original concept. What happened, instead, is a product of Liwei’s engineering mind, his respect for quality fish, and opportunity created largely by the pandemic.
Liwei was born in Taiwan and moved with his family to Bayside on Long Island in New York City when he was four years old. “My father was in commercial real estate and was an avid fisherman. We fished off jetties, in the ocean, rivers and lakes when I was very young,” Liwei recalls.” I still remember the exhilaration when I caught my first fish.”
He came to Los Angeles in 2000 and earned a degree in civil engineering at UCLA in 2005. He worked at a series of jobs, none of them as a civil engineer. He designed, built and operated a Boba truck; he sold fishing tackle wholesale; for three years he managed the global supply chain for a college friend’s company that manufactured and marketed computer chips.
But fish and fishing were always a part of his consciousness. He describes, with a hint of scorn, “the distinctive smell of most retail fish stores, where the smell smacks you in the face when you enter.”
He knew those stores were not receiving fresh fish every day. “I grew up understanding how fish reacts to time,” he says.
He decided to put his passion for fish to good use and in 2017 he and his brother opened The Joint. “I wanted to provide a different user experience,” Liwei says. The Joint started as a retail fish market, but the fish he was getting from wholesalers wasn’t good enough to satisfy him. While Liwei ran the market, his brother ran the administrative and human resources part of the business.
After just three months, Liwei changed the model for the store. Being just another fish store meant dealing with the waste and spoilage. He wanted to get fish faster, keep it fresh and sell it quicker. So, he bought a dry aging unit and started down an alternative path.
Three months into the pandemic, Liwei hired an employee to add a wholesale to the business. Dry aging was where he saw his future. “In the late 1990s, with my dad, we would catch more fish than we actually needed. We would pack it on ice like everyone else. But the ice would melt. It was detrimental to the fish. We had to get rid of the water from the melted ice. A drain plug didn’t accomplish our purpose and we had to resort to our freezer,” Liwei says.
Liwei saw the damage to the skin and flesh as the weight of the fish lay flat on the hard ice. So, he decided to hang the fish vertically.
The technology to control the environment for the fish didn’t exist 15 years ago, Liwei explains. It was about 10 years ago that digital controls for temperature, humidity and some 50 other environmental factors became available.
In the last five years, the single air drying chamber at The Joint has grown to 34 with a capacity of some 5,000 pounds of fish. Some 3,000 to 4,000 pounds of dry aged fish move through the facility each week, much of it to the 100 restaurants Liwei supplies in addition to his retail trade. That will jump to 25,000 pounds per week once a second facility opens later this year or early next year in Vernon. That doesn’t mean Liwei intends to abandon his storefront retail business. He currently is contemplating other possible locations to add to the Sherman Oaks store.
In addition to stocking the restaurants, Liwei provides inventory control for 35 restaurants. He tracks the daily number of meals served and makes sure the restaurants have sufficient stock to serve fresh fish every day with no waste. To help with this, he has the shipping schedules of various importers stored on his computer.
Dry aging is not new, Liwei explains, only in the past it required some form of preservative such as smoke, salt, or nitrates. No more. Now it’s all accomplished with careful programming to control the environment based on the different types of fish. A branzino may take only a few days to complete the process while a large tuna might need three weeks. Each individual fish in a drying case is marked with the date it was hung.
In addition, Liwei has overseen installation of dry aging chambers on site at some of the restaurants he serves. He monitors the units to be sure they are functioning properly and he keeps them stocked with just the right amount and variety of fish to meet their needs.
The fish are hung whole – heads, tails, fins intact to preserve the integrity of the product. The heads are down so the blood, water and slime won’t become welled in the tail.
The result of all this for consumers who love fish is the availability of fish like no other we’ve ever eaten. It may not be as fresh as what comes straight out of the water, but the air drying process in many ways makes it even better. The skin is crisper. The flavor of the meat is enhanced and the texture is buttery yet firm with the water removed and the fat allowed to come forward.
It’s been some 36 years since that excited little boy pulled his first fish from the water. Millions of other little boys have shared that experience all over the world. But only one is Liwei Liao. And those who are fortunate to have tasted the product he is providing are glad he came along.