Portland cook Sara Hauman is still hiding, but the spotlight finds her anyway. The San Diego native aspired to be a cook like her Oregon grandmother, whipping up weird pickles and mayos. But one day, during an unpaid internship at Napa Valley’s famed French Laundry, visions of glamorous restaurant life crumbled. As she says, “When someone shouts housework! and everyone hitting the mat, I knew fine dining was not in my future.
Still, the hotspots kept calling. At one of them, Mister Jiu’s in San Francisco, she landed a semi-finalist nomination for James Beard’s rising star, a rarity for a sous chef. In 2018, she sought a new life in Portland, her current home, running a little-noticed wine bar in the Pearl District. No Michelin stars here, no worries. Grand Chief: Portland found it anyway, and in 2021, Hauman, the best chef Portland has never heard of, was the pride of the city — the charming, yogurt-obsessed dark horse who nearly stole the show.
His real dream? To be bold and personal… inside a seafood box. Hauman’s new Tiny Fish Co. is the latest entry into the chic canned fish movement led by stylish, small-batch, sustainably-sourced brands around the world. Literally and figuratively, they are miles away from Bumblebee. Hauman, who bought a small cannery in Bay Center, Wash., brings his own voice and chef vibe via lesser-known and more sustainable Pacific fish like geoduck and rockfish. Call it canned seafood for cooks, boldly spiced and lightly sauced, something you can snack on, experiment with, or “throw over rice,” as she puts it, for an easy dinner.
The boxes are designed inside and out with a Spongebob-meets-anime aesthetic, inspired by Hauman’s love for Asian snack aisles, dating back to childhood. Look closely at this box of smoked geoducks to spot a painter clam with Bob Ross hair, a seal getting a tattoo, and a clam graffiti artist pulling a Banksy on a piece of coral. I’m a sucker for great packaging.
“It’s the whole experience, like eating in a restaurant,” says Hauman. “I never wanted to own a restaurant. I just cared about cooking. I wanted to make a difference in the world, but realized that I was just cooking for people who had money and could barely make ends meet. It’s fulfilling.
Look for the first four Tiny Fish Co flavors at Portland’s Wellspent Market (which also serves as a distributor) and other grocers. I put them to the test with Noah Cable of Hauman and Wellspent. Here’s how they stack up.
Tasting notes and grading from Tiny Fish Co.
4. Smoked Mussels in Escabèche First impression: super meaty mussels with a powerful Moorish vibe – lots of toasted cumin and fennel against the olive oil and sherry vinegar. “It’s not a typical Spanish escabeche, but a bolder, spicier flavor,” says Hauman, who likes them cooked over hummus or whipped into dips.
3. Redfish in sweet soy sauce Sweet white Pacific fish with a tuna-like flake in a dark, sweet-salty pool accented with mirin, cane sugar, mustard and wasabi. It could be the line’s signature, with enough liquid for an instant meal over rice to which Hauman adds pickles, herbs, an egg and scribbled Kewpie mayonnaise.
2. Smoked Geoduck with Black Pepper We should name a state fish after Hauman. She transformed a creature from the Northwest that looks like a demented sweet potato into something akin to bacon from canned Northwest clams – all chewy, smoky, cracked peppercorns and brown sugar. On another bite, notes of paprika appear and the mind drifts towards the barbecue. Hauman’s latest eureka: the GLT.
1. Octopus with lemon and dill If I could only eat one small fish from here to eternity, this is it. How many times can you find tender, wild-caught octopus from Alaskan waters sitting in a can of clarified butter? It tastes luxurious and chews delicate, at room temperature or reheated. Cable just dips the bread straight into the sauce, in the box, while chirping, “It’s dill butter, yum yum, so good.” Who can argue?