The fish have rows of sharp teeth and the ability to slither short distances on land. Thanks to a primitive lung and prolific slime production, they can survive out of the water for several days. All of which have helped snakeheads earn the name Frankenfish — and none of which makes it an obvious choice for dinner.
Two things piqued local chefs' interest in the fish recently. When Seaver ordered snakeheads for his invasive species dinner, his fish wholesaler had a few extra. He gave them to Isabella and Drewno to try out. And they liked what they tasted.
"We tried it out in the kitchen," said Drewno. "The staff loved it. … I would like to play around with them for sure. I thought it was really clean tasting. I thought it was mostly like a sturgeon, pretty meaty, and the fat content is pretty high."
Around the same time in Baltimore, Wells got interested in snakehead. An avid fisherman since youth, he set out last month to catch some himself on several outings with Steve Vilnit, a friend and fisheries official with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. Wells has yet to catch a snakehead, but he's been tweeting about his snakehead quest, and that caught the interest of several chefs and restaurateurs who follow his Twitter feed, including Tori Marriner of Victoria Gastro Pub in Columbia. Those chefs have, in turn, started pestering their suppliers for snakeheads.
"I've gotten more calls about snakeheads in the last two weeks than anything else," said John Rorapaugh of ProFish, a Washington wholesaler. "There is a definite buzz about it."
It doesn't hurt that snakehead will be an affordable fish, wholesaling for about $3 a pound, Rorapaugh said. Sturgeon, by comparison, fetches $7 to $8 a pound wholesale.
Despite the fish's abundance, chefs have had trouble getting their hands on it. It has been spawning recently in shallow waters, making it hard to catch, Rorapaugh said.
ProFish did manage to snag two snakeheads last week and took them to Wells. The fish were about 6 pounds apiece, and after washing considerable slime of the surface, the chef set out to see how they'd taste.
"All I want to do is prove this fish is versatile and useable," Wells said as he cut into them.
He tried some raw, sauteed small pieces for a fish taco, grilled filets and deep-fried more for po' boys. He had a small group of friends and associates try the results.
"Ooh, that's nice," Wells declared on his first bite of the raw fish. "It's, like, meaty, super clean actually."
The group declared that snakehead tasted — wait for it — just like chicken, at least in terms of its dense texture. The flavor was not like the bird's, except in the sense that it was mild enough to work with lots of different seasonings, from the chimichurri sauce in the taco to the remoulade on the po' boy.
The texture was noticeably flakier when the fish was deep-fried for the po' boy, which Wells and most of the tasters declared their favorite preparation. Wells had enough scraps of the fish left over to make 10 servings of ceviche, which he offered to his Twitter followers.
"They were all sold within 10 minutes of my Twitter posting," he said. "We are working hard to get more in from local commercial fishermen."
Wells called the appetizer snakehead ceviche, casting aside advice to try selling the fish as channa, a shortening of its official Latin name, Channa argus. Customers are going to ask what channa is anyway, he reasoned, and promoting it as an invasive could tap into the eco-friendly-dining zeitgeist.
He might even go with Frankenfish for lower-priced items, such as a tacos offered as a late-night option in the bar. There is a bit of macho appeal that way.
"If it sounds like a monster," he said, "people will eat it."