Late last week I was lucky enough to be driving down some of the most dramatic and scenic coastline in all of the US (that I have seen – and I’ve seen most of it) on a west coast road trip from the San Juan Islands in Washington to San Francisco, California. This trip produced plenty of delicious stops and gorgeous vistas, but the one bite (that I had over and over again) was the Willapa Bay Oyster. My husband and I were not far from the Oregon state line when we saw a few signs indicating that we were in the “Oyster Capital of the World”. Needless to say, I was on the lookout for a spot to sample the local delicacy. We passed through downtown Willapa so quickly – for it’s a sleepy concentration of houses, important town buildings, a convenience store and just one seafood shop along a stretch of highway bordered by a narrow bay – that we had to turn around in an empty church parking lot when we realized we missed our best chance at oysters.
Inside the small East Point Seafood Market in South Bend, Washington I approached the woman behind the counter in shop with a few shelves lined with canned oysters, spice blends and cookbooks.
“So, can I get some oysters? To eat now?” I ventured. This was certainly a store, but there were a few empty picnic tables in the parking lot and I thought I smelled chowder cooking in the back room. She said she would make us two “shooters” (or about 5 large oysters in a plastic cup served with a side of cocktail sauce) and volunteered the bit of trivia that one out of every five oysters eaten in the world came from Willapa Bay. These treats cost us $2.50 a cup.
Out back, overlooking the not-too scenic Willapa Bay, I dipped into my shooter and drew out a large, briny oyster, smelling faintly of the sea. I could see why these are so popular – they are huge – and as I took my first bite I was expecting the same mass produced taste that I’ve had in various stews or soups in a number of non-oyster producing towns across the country.
Not so – these were creamy and only slightly briny and very tender. Their large bodies melt in your mouth, offering mild oyster taste with just a hint of the sea. These are everyman’s oyster (my husband, not a huge oyster fan, was the one who suggested we go back for more), and might not have the complexity of some of the smaller and saltier varieties. But eaten incredibly fresh, with a view of the bay from which they came, I had never had a truer oyster.