To a lot of middle-of-the-continent seafood lovers, Monte Conrad is Lincoln's fishmonger.
Explain, you say? That means wild-caught salmon — in season — fresh seafood and lots of variety for grilling or indoor cooking, and even steaks for the turf fans.
And education, lots of education about the fish that customers are thinking about taking home.
On a Friday afternoon in June, Conrad had stocked Surf and Turf shop cases at 5740 Old Cheney Road with Alaskan sockeye salmon, net-caught king salmon from Alaska, yellow-fin tuna, striped bass, halibut cheeks, salmon and white fish cakes.
And giant shrimp. Yes, a seafood oxymoron. Quarter-pounders.
"I could sell them all day long," Conrad said. "They're really fun. You can butterfly stuff them. You can do things that you can't do (to regular shrimp)."
And the regular shrimp? Some customers praise them as the best in the land.
A steady stream of Surf and Turf customers has found they not only like the fish selection, but also Conrad's friendly banter, and his expertise, from decades in the fish business.
Before Conrad had a retail store, he did seafood route delivery for Land and Sea Food Company, covering nine states in the plains and western states. The price of fuel put them out of business in 2008, he said. And so he opened his first store at 5560 S. 48th St., and two years later on Old Cheney.
Many of the Surf and Turf customers are foodies, he said. And there's an ongoing healthy exchange of recipes, and cooking and cuisine talk.
A customer enters, says she's looking for salmon, a nice-sized piece for grilling.
He's got wild sockeye salmon in the case today, he points out, the salmon that's just joined the party this month. It's a deeper red than most salmon and a somewhat different texture. That's because, he explains, these fish have a different diet than the rest of wild salmon; they're redder because they eat crustaceans. They're the most flavorful — but not fishy — of the salmon.
"They're awesome," Conrad says. But they'll only be available a couple of months.
Salmon is one of the big draws for the shop.
Scott Johnson has been coming three to four years, mostly for the salmon. It's healthy for a guy his age to eat salmon, he says, so he'll buy a year's worth, about 35 pounds, of Copper River salmon, the filet mignon of salmon. It's in season only a certain time of the year.
"And this guy knows what he is talking about," he said, looking at Conrad.
Then Johnson hears the bad news: This summer is the second worst start of the Copper River salmon in 50 years, Conrad tells him. The price at the world famous Pike Place Fish Market in Seattle the week before was $67 a pound. But he can get trolled king, still.
You pay for the river the salmon is fished from, Conrad says. Some rivers produce salmon that are just as good, but not as well marketed.
Mitchell Martin is in this day because he's having just short of a dozen friends over for a seafood boil. Oysters, mussels, crab legs, clams, crawdads. He planned to boil them up with potatoes, corn and sausage.
It's cheaper to buy it this way than go to a restaurant, Martin says. "And I know it's fresh."
Mary Belka buys salmon, shrimp and olive oil, and filet steaks for her husband's work group gathering. After she picks out what she wants, she takes a minute to chat, about her East Campus neighborhood, an upcoming garden party to celebrate the 100-year birthday of her house, and her favorite new Mexican restaurants.
Some customers love the friendly conversations that take place in the small fish shop. Others, Conrad said, are more comfortable with the quick in-and-out they can do in the more focused shopping space.
Stephen Meuret, who's worked at Surf and Turf for more than a year and a half, helps customers, cuts fish, puts together parchment packs for 30-minute oven dinners, and does whatever is needed. He takes a few minutes that day to promote the hard-to-get, sweet-flavored halibut cheeks in the case, a delicacy.
Darrell Wilson, the meat cutter since 2011, is in the back of the store preparing fish and meat. When he came seven years ago, he had never cut fish, cooked fish and had no interest in eating it.
He learned quickly to do all three, Conrad said.
Conrad's dad, Jack, who was director of the state Department of Motor Vehicles in the early ’90s, also works at the store, making deliveries and picking up fish that's flown in, sometimes doing an airport run around midnight.
Conrad bought the inventory of a Lincoln olive oil shop when it closed not too long ago, so he's got a wide selection of oils and balsamics.
"It's a really good foodie fit, because people are into specialty foods, specialty products. And they cook at home," Conrad said.
The fishmonger sends out a weekly email to customers, and this July Fourth week he was promoting the Red, White and Blue: red king salmon, white king salmon and bluefin tuna. Prince William Sound sockeye. And recipes for monkfish kabobs, crab-stuffed mushrooms, and grilled onion butter fish.
And here's one of the best parts about the business. While there are regular hours, Conrad has been known to stretch those hours or accommodate emergencies, even on the day he's usually closed: Mondays.
On Friday nights, for example, he closes at 6. But if it's a good night for grilling, he might stay open an hour or two longer, until everyone has what they need, he said.