Ernie Soto’s first encounter with fish in the workplace was at the drive-thru window of his neighborhood McDonald’s where he worked as a teenager.
It was his first day on the job at the Golden Arches, and one restaurant customer, who was agitated about something, hurled her unwrapped Filet-O-Fish sandwich through the window where it landed squarely on Soto’s face.
While the perpetrator’s motive remains unknown three decades later, this episode thankfully didn’t deter Soto from pursuing a career in the fish business. And today, this celebrated fishmonger is at the height of that career as executive sushi chef at OBON Sushi + Bar + Ramen, 350 E. Congress St.
Soto grew up on Tucson’s south side doing what kids did, playing baseball, skateboarding around the neighborhood, and listening to music. Punk was his jam, and tunes from bands like the Dead Kennedys and Malignus Youth provided the soundtrack for his journey through Sunnyside High School from which he graduated in 1993.
As a complement to this kid stuff that he said helped define him, food was always a “running theme” in his house.
“I’m the youngest of five children and was always too young to hang out with my brothers and sisters, so I spent a lot of time in the kitchen with my mom,” he remembered. “That’s where I learned about cooking, and mom is definitely one of the greatest cooks I’ve ever been around.”
With his Sunnyside diploma in hand, together with some of mom’s mentorship, Soto arrived at City Meats, a wholesale meat market where he worked the graveyard shift packing fish and cleaning up after the cutters’ busy, and messy, day.
“Once the fish cutters were done for the day, they dropped their knives, walked out of the building, and left the guts and slime for me,” he said. “These were 50-pound buckets of fish parts and I couldn’t see myself doing that job for a long time.”
That’s before one of the company’s cutters showed up for a shift spirituously overserved, so to speak, which prompted his immediate dismissal. Soto saw an opportunity, dropped the slime buckets, picked up a knife, and stepped up to serve, cutting as best he knew how.
“I mangled fish so bad that first night but there were no complaints, and I grew in this new role over the next three years and fell in love with fish cutting,” he said.
After a few years as head cutter at City Meats, Soto was offered an opportunity to start a fresh fish program at the 17th Street Market. He jumped at the chance to start a program from scratch and ended up growing it to the point where they were processing more than 6,000 pounds of fish every week.
“We were killing ourselves there on both the retail and wholesale sides, working with tons of salmon, swordfish, tuna, grouper, cabrilla, snapper, you name it.”
That intensity, along with some other workplace drama, took its toll after five years and Soto decided to return to City Meats. His journey then led him to other landmark positions in the fish biz, including a seafood sales consultant at U.S. Foods, a fish cutter at Blessing Seafood, and a staffer in the seafood department at AJ’s Fine Foods at La Encantada. It was at AJ’s when he was asked by the manager to step out of the seafood department and step into a new opportunity at the store’s sushi bar.
“I thought to myself ‘I don’t really know anything about sushi,’ but I’d been in the fish business for so many years, I knew how to cut, I just didn’t know how to roll,” he said. But roll he did, “learning it and loving it from that moment.”
While Soto’s resume boasts decades of fish experience and expertise, this was the beginning of his sushi story which included subsequent chapters at RA Sushi and, ultimately, OBON.
What makes OBON the perfect match for Soto is what he calls the freedom to be creative in a culture of creativity.
“Our menu truly showcases our creative side, made up of dishes you’re not likely to find anywhere else, and you can see that across both our sushi dishes and the rest of the menu,” he said. One example on the sushi side is his yuzu yellowtail, with yuzu kosho, orange zest, crispy ginger, cilantro, and a house soy sauce, a manifestation of this workplace freedom of which Soto so passionately speaks.
His guests will also find a conventional line-up of sushi standards like cut rolls, hand rolls, nigiri, and sashimi. But with a decorated fishmonger at the helm, they’re expressed in ways that decidedly exceed the standard.
Soto takes his fishmonger designation quite seriously, noting the many mandatories that attend such status.
“It’s far more than selling fish from a case or a counter,” he affirmed. “It’s knowing how to break down a fish, knowing what yields you get on a salmon as opposed to a grouper, knowing what you can sell from what you cut, knowing and having relationships with your fish purveyors, these are all very important.”
Before wrapping up my private audience with this pride of the south side, lest I leave sadly uneducated about a proper fish breakdown, I asked Soto to school me on the fine art of cutting. OBON regularly receives salmon, seabass, and halibut in whole-fish formats, and Soto went with the halibut for our cutting class.
He claims that halibut is one of the easiest fish to cut, but while I’m grateful for his tutelage, and standing by for the continuing education credits that should be offered, for reals, for food writers, I’ll leave the head-snapping and gut-removing tasks to trained professionals.
Soto tells his story like the high seas adventure that it is with twists and turns along the way that represent milestone moments in his life and work. From those special times cooking with mom as a kid, to processing buckets of fish innards, to confidently jumping into new positions, to coping with setbacks and dealing with discouragement, to reaching the summit as an executive sushi chef.
So, what life advice would he give to little Ernie Soto if he could turn back time by a few decades?
“We hear that a door opens for people whenever a door closes, but I’ve learned an important lesson that the doors don’t always open for us when we want or expect them to,” he said. “But that’s okay, it’s for a reason, just believe, just look at everything for what it is, and don’t be discouraged by things that come at you, even if it’s a Filet-O-Fish sandwich.”
OBON Sushi + Bar + Ramen is located at 350 E. Congress St. For more information, visit obonsushi.com. For more information on OBON's new lunch menu, read our September 2022 article "Sneak peek into OBON Sushi + Bar + Ramen's new lunch menu."
Matt Russell has been a food and beverage writer/broadcaster covering stories in Arizona and beyond since 2009. He's been the...