The first time I spoke with Tom Kehoe, the owner of seafood distributor K&B Seafood, it was 7:55 a.m. on a Monday and I’d just been jolted awake by his phone call.
"We oyster people are early risers,” he apologized a few hours later at Grand Central Oyster Bar, New York City’s hallowed hall of clamorous oyster worship. Kehoe had lured me to Grand Central with a new oyster he was peddling: the Baja Kumamoto, the world’s first Kumamoto oyster grown in Mexico.
The deep-cupped Kumamoto, famed for its diminutive size, sweet flavor and cucumber finish, is among the most popular oysters on America’s rapidly expanding oyster scene. But a Kumamoto grown for American consumption anywhere but the cold waters of northern California and Washington State—which together have a monopoly on Kumamoto production—might strike some as strange, and potentially even dangerous: The thought of slurping down a raw oyster grown in Mexican waters sends shivers down some spines. “I think [these oysters’] biggest problem is perception,” Kehoe conceded, before launching into an explanatory spiel.
Most Americans assume that oysters originating from south of the border are grown in the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico, he said, and are therefore more susceptible to disease. They’re also wary of Mexican standards of quality and sanitation. But Baja Kumamotos, or Kumos, are produced exclusively by the aquaculture company Maxmar, a 15-year-old company founded by a pair of Brits named Mark—Mark Reynolds and Mark Venus—both with masters degrees in aquaculture.
Photo credit: Timothy Davis
The Marks grow their oysters in the chilly waters off the Western shores of Mexico’s Baja Peninsula, where water temperatures range from 52 to 68 degrees. This is thanks to the California Current, which coaxes frigid waters down from Alaska and along the coasts of California and Baja, producing an ideal environment for Kumos. The water is cooler in summer than the Gulf of Mexico, but not so frigid in winter that oysters’ growth is slowed, which happens in California and Washington State.
Moreover, to meet criteria for export to the United States, all foreign seafood producers, including Maxmar, must submit to regular testing from FDA officers, who hold it to the same standards as any American facility.
An ice-packed platter arrived at our red-and-white checkered table holding half a dozen shucked Baja Kumos. Petite and bowl-shaped, the oysters have all the physical hallmarks of their more famous American cousins. I tilted my head and tossed one back.
The flavor of the Baja Kumos is intensely briny, a drastic departure from the sweetness of their Northern counterparts. After a moment, the saline quality gives way to the Kumo’s signature creamy, cucumber notes. It’s faintly metallic on the finish.
A few days later, I talked taste with Mark Reynolds. “Kumamotos have become known as a beginner oyster,” he said. “These are not. I wouldn’t call them a beginner’s oyster at all.”
People accustomed to mild and sweet American Kumos—a crowd pleasing oyster if ever there was one—might balk at the more powerfully-flavored Baja Kumos. But Reynolds believes those who enjoy briny oysters that smack of the sea, like Glidden Points, Wiannos, and Wellfleets, will take to it quickly.
"They’re bloody tasty,” Reynolds swooned. “You get [several] tastes with this oyster. You get the brininess to start, then the sweetness happening … the lasting finish that I get is a sort of mouthwatering savory experience, and that’s the Japanese umami.”
Photo credit: Timothy Davis
Maxmar sells its oysters through distributors on both coasts and its brick-and-mortar shop in Ventura, California, The Jolly Oyster. Tom Kehoe alone has arranged the delivery of Baja Kumos to restaurants from Hong Kong to Philadelphia to Las Vegas. But Kehoe is especially proud of the recent placement of Baja Kumos in Grand Central Oyster Bar.
They’ve been on Grand Central’s menu before, though. “In the past I’ve had a hard time selling Mexican oysters,” explained executive chef Sandy Ingber. “I nicknamed them ‘Meximotos.’” But when strung together, the words “Mexican” and “oyster” failed to resonate with patrons. They didn’t last on the menu.
But Ingber chanced again on the oysters, now rebranded “Baja Kumamotos,” and added them back into the rotation in late March. The gamble seems to be paying off; on the day of my meeting with Kehoe, the Baja Kumos were selling quite nicely. “They’re really very good,” Ingber said.
Perhaps it helped that the Baja Kumos were featured side-by-side with Washington State Kumos, only for 10 cents less. Baja Kumos are less expensive because they’re more plentiful, a product of those warmer-but-still-cold waters that promote a relatively faster growth rate. With fewer American Kumamotos to go around, they cost $3.65 a piece at Grand Central. A ten cent difference may not seem like much, but it could be enough to tip the scale in the Baja Kumo’s favor.
"This is the moment of the Baja Kumamoto," Kehoe proclaimed. "I think finally they’ve turned the corner … it’s going to be a big couple of years for them."