The native oyster of the Eastern Seaboard is reasonably common in Washington, grown mostly by Taylor Shellfish farms, the biggest oyster operation in the state. Virginicas are big, briny, and full of nectar. Robert Spaulding, chef of Elliott’s Oyster House, particularly likes the distinctive texture: “They’re a little bit crunchy, snappy.”
The gentle flavor—sweet and buttery, not briny—makes fluted Kumamotos the top seller at most local oyster bars and a good starting point for oyster novices. They’re originally from Japan, and on the pricier side. Superfans refer to them simply as Kumas.
The West Coast has exactly one native oyster species, primarily known for two things: being tiny and tasting coppery. “They’re so tiny, but have three times the flavor of any other oyster,” says Blair King, chef of the Brooklyn oyster bar downtown. If you’re iffy on oysters, this isn’t your jam.
Ruffled, sweeter Pacifics arrived on U.S. shores from Japan a century ago to become Washington’s dominant oyster species. King calls them “the best stepchild the Pacific Northwest has ever seen—they just take to the water really well here.” Because they’re so ubiquitous, Pacific oysters generally assume the name—and particular flavors—of the farms that raised them. Here are but a few examples:
Tumbled oysters grow in bags attached to buoys; shells knock against one another, moving up and down with the tide. The result, says Spaulding of Elliott’s Oyster House, is “the cup gets deeper and thicker and fill up with meat; the meat’s more condensed than a regular Pacific oyster.”
Down by Olympia, the southern fingertips of Puget Sound form a major oyster region. Each inlet—Hammersley, Little Skookum, Totten, Case, Eld—imparts its own flavor characteristics, and the oysters are generally fatter, thanks to water with lots of algae (aka oyster food).
The Hood Canal is another important oyster region; farms occupy small deltas where high winds coax growing oysters into longer, wavier shapes.