THE HERRING BORD at Old Ballard Liquor Co. (from left to right): classic pickle, smokey mushroom with rosemary flowers, tarragon, creme of cardamom and smoked apple, served with a housemade crisp and house-churned butter. Suzi pratt

Food writer Mark Bittman once called mackerel the Rodney Dangerfield of fish—it gets no respect. I stand guilty; my true love of mackerel and other oily fish began only after trying some pickled mackerel (saba) nigiri at Maneki a few years back.

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I remember being surprised at how much I enjoyed the nigiri, how much the acidity of the vinegar balanced out the strong, sweet meatiness of the mackerel. I stared down at what was left of the silvery morsel on my plate as if seeing it for the first time. Why hadn't I noticed you before, angel? Were you hiding under another fucking California roll?

I didn't realize that fish could do more. A youth of Mrs. Paul's frozen breaded cod fillets does not exactly challenge the palate, and even the tougher meat of the catfish I enjoyed as a kid in southeast Texas was still comparatively mild and buried under breading. Because I was accustomed to and expected fish to taste this way, it took me longer to accept the more flavorful oily fish like mackerel, sardines, and herring—fish that some decry as tasting too "fishy." But here's what I've never understood: Does "fishy" mean it tastes like it's rancid or that it just tastes too much like fish? And if it's the latter, what's wrong with that?

Oily fish shouldn't taste like it's gone bad, but it shouldn't taste like cod, either. Accept and love it for the funky bastard that it is.

Some people can maintain an egalitarian approach to fish—love both the cod and the mackerel, appreciate what each of our little aquatic pals brings to the table. But after that saba nigiri, I couldn't. It wasn't even about this kind of fish's relative affordability, lower mercury levels, or boost of omega-3 fatty acids. That saba made me switch sides, man. The more oily fish I ate, the more I started to think of cod and halibut as the reliable but boring date sitting across from you at a bar. Nice, but needs more breading. Maybe a side of tartar. Mackerel, sardines, herring, and anchovies felt adventurous and unpredictable, not like they were relying on a shit-ton of béchamel to make them more interesting. What would they add to the dish? How would they change the night? Danger Mouse, which way are we going? Can I hop on your motorcycle?

It is possible that I need to get out more. But I also feel like Trace Wilson, the chef at WestCity Sardine Kitchen, understands. His West Seattle restaurant always includes a few sardine dishes on the menu to convert the uninitiated and sate the loyalists.

"Sardines are usually overlooked," he tells me over the phone. "Fresh sardines are hard to come by, because they're mostly harvested in the South Pacific and the Mediterranean, the warmer waters, and they're almost always packaged immediately after being harvested." People get turned off by that tin, he says. But while fresh is amazing, don't discount a good tin of canned sardines. "Sardines have the meaty, steaky texture of tuna with the oily umami of mackerel and anchovies."

Suzi pratt

Currently, Wilson serves a warm bruschetta of grilled sardines with a zingy olive-caper tapenade and feta on semolina toast, grilled sardines on arugula and shaved fennel with a spicy Calabrian chile–caper relish, and my favorite, whipped sardine butter with Grand Central's Como bread. Who knew sardines and compound butter were so good together? The umami of the sardines added another savory level of flavor to the butter, and I started imagining what it could bring to a sandwich. I wish they had served it with the bread warmed up. I took it with me, announcing to friends "I have sardine butter in my bag" like I was smuggling black-market caviar. I slathered it on toast. I fried it up with eggs. I debated just sucking it off my knuckles.

I don't think I'm alone. Slowly, surely, we oily-fish lovers are growing in number. There's that one dish that sucks you in, makes you rethink things. Maybe it was the sardine sandwich at Tilikum Place Cafe, or the classic Sicilian pasta with sardines, perciatelli con le sarde, at La Medusa. Most cuisines, from Scandinavian to Korean to Japanese to Spanish to Italian, have some dish that highlights what these fish can do. Maybe you've had Renee Erickson's canned Matiz sardines on toast at the Whale Wins, or Rachel Yang's potato hash with smoked mackerel salad at Joule.

"It's almost like the fish that people love is fish that has very little flavor, and I think they're afraid of jumping into it and getting the stronger flavors of the fish," Yang tells me over the phone. "To be honest, I think mackerel is one of the most readily available, underused fish you can find... I just don't think people know how to cook it." Knowing how to complement the bolder flavor of oily fish is tricky for a lot of people, she says. Acidity, whether it's from lemon or the vinegar of a salad dressing, is key—or serving it with a stronger bitter green like kale. Yang cuts the heaviness of the smoked mackerel in the salad with pickled onions and a sherry vinaigrette, and she also smokes the fish over a rack so some of the oil drips out.

Before that salad, I'd only eaten mackerel pickled with vinegar or broiled with salt at Japanese restaurants, and had been wanting to try godeungeo jorim, Korean spicy braised mackerel with radishes in red chili pepper sauce. Up in Shoreline, Hae-Nam Kalbi & Calamari offers the classic fish dish, as well as a whole flame-broiled mackerel. Served with just half a lemon to squeeze over, the flame-broiled version was a testament that really fresh mackerel doesn't taste fishy at all, just lightly sweet and meaty, while the slightly spicy, soy-based sauce in the godeungeo jorim played nicely against the steaklike heft of the fish. A milder fish would have been swallowed up, but the mackerel held its own.

If you want to give oily fish another shot, you don't necessarily need to start with mackerel, the most strongly flavored of them all. Anchovies are the flavor packets of the fish world; adding just a little to a dish is like opening up that little package of seasoning that comes with ramen noodles—so small and yet so vital to the operation. Sardines are less intense in flavor and, like herring, can taste mellower if some of the fat is rendered out through grilling or smoking.

The right booze accompaniment doesn't hurt, either. At Old Ballard Liquor Co.'s new cafe—and by cafe, I mean one long 12-person table in the store—owner Lexi offers an amazing board of different, rotating selections of Scandinavian-style pickled herring, which beg to be eaten with a shot of her Norwegian-style Riktig Aquavit or dill-flavored Midsommar Aquavit. Oily-fish lovers will like the classic pickled herring because the fresh flavor of the fish really shines through; for pickled-herring haters, there was a local smoked herring in a cream cheese–sour cream mixture that I was dying to spread on a bagel. Amazing, the power of a good fish: The whole experience made me feel like I was blissfully sailing past Norwegian fjords instead of stuffing my face a block from the LA Fitness, with no breading or tartar sauce in sight. recommended