Yuri Rabayev is the purveyor of pescado at Rincon Market in the heart of Sam Hughes neighborhood. It’s there that he has been filleting and displaying some of Tucson’s best and freshest fish available to the public for over 20 years.
As resident fishmonger, Rabayev is the catch-master who selects, purchases, prepares, displays, and sells a range of products from both stream and sea.
Every species displays the sign: This fish is fresh – Yuri guarantees it. To ensure that quality, he works a six day week and frequently places fresh fish orders on his one day off.
“It’s kind of like an addiction,” says Rabayev.
Historically, a fishwife was one who sold raw fish and seafood. In many countries, the term fishwife was proverbial for a sharp tongue and outspoken speech, such as being able to speak frankly and candidly to even the king himself. And that’s the way Rabayev plays it when it comes to advising customers about what would be best cooked for supper, be it Alaskan halibut or Chilean sea bass.
Rabayev’s Yelp reviews are many:
“Nice guy who is a master at selecting the best cuts.”
“He stocks the freshest, tastiest fish you’ll find anywhere in the Old Pueblo.”
“Yuri the fish guy is Old Skool and keeps true to the tradition of high quality fish.”
“Faithful customers come back just for Yuri’s chats and the choice selection of seafood…he says he sells the best in the country and he’ll give you step-by-step instructions on how to prepare it.”
An extensive fan base all cheering, rah rah, Rabayev. It’s no secret why. He knows his product and he buys only a little at a time so it can be sold daily at peak freshness.
“We receive two to three deliveries per day from all over the world,” he says, pointing to the availability of items like grouper, wild Mexican shrimp, barramundi, ahi tuna, and several varieties of salmon.
In fact, wild salmon is his number one best seller, followed by salmon from Scotland and New Zealand, which easily beats other favorites like Alaskan halibut, sole, sea bass, and ocean trout.
“Last year,” Rabayev says, “we ordered more than a quarter of a million dollars worth of fish to sell, probably a 500% increase since I arrived 23 years ago.”
How he got here and became a guru of things with gills is a story in itself. When the Soviet Union broke apart in the early 1990s, Rabayev had a wife and two small children. As the government became less effective, his work decreased while crime increased.
“You leave your house, you’re not sure you’ll be coming home,” was how he put it.
He sold everything he owned and fled. And despite family in New York who extended an invitation, he decided the Big Apple was not the place he wanted to be, gambling instead on a new life in Tucson.
The culture shock was a guarantee, but he lived by the mantra that if you were willing to work, you’d be fine anywhere.
“I’m probably a workaholic, but I believe in working for a paycheck to support your family.”
Initially that work was as a maintenance mechanic in the now-defunct Crispy’s Potato Chip Company while holding a second part-time job preparing dough for Pizza Hut.
Between jobs, he would visit the 17th Street Farmers Market fish counter to take home carp for his family.
“Even though I didn’t have good English, didn’t even know the names of the fish, I had enthusiasm and was offered employment,” Rabayev said. “Within a year, I was manager and sales had doubled.”
Then came the Rincon Market opportunity. Since 1998, he’s built the fish department into something special, ordering fish from around the world, including Alaska, Mexico, Iceland, New Zealand, and Fiji, and serves customers from Green Valley to Oro Valley as well as some out-of-state fish fans who buy frozen, in bulk, and ship their purchases home. Many of his customers are regulars.
“I have one lady who buys $200 worth of fish every week,” he says.
Not only is Rabayev an experienced fishmonger, he’s also a psychiatrist who has a feeling for peoples’ needs and a willingness to make suggestions to fill those needs.
“Buy a half pound of something new,” Rabayev says. “I suggest how-to-cook advice and if you like it, then come back and get more.”